Telluride Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park opens this Saturday with “The Tempest.” Theatre lovers and company officials agree it is one of the Bard of Avon’s greatest plays. It was also his last.
“‘The Tempest’ is one of best things he ever wrote and he knew it. It was the last thing he wrote. He came out of retirement, effectively, to write it,” said Colin Sullivan, executive director for Telluride Theatre and director for the Tempest.
Sullivan explained how “The Tempest” stands out against Shakespeare’s other works.
“Surrounding ‘The Tempest’ are these other plays that deal with magic and mysticism and mania, and people turning into statues and spirits. He’s mixing song and all this kind of stuff in there. And in ‘The Tempest,’ he gets it right,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan noted that Shakespeare died five years after writing the play, as if he saved the best for last.
“There’s another sort of quality to ‘The Tempest,’ which is really this beautiful quality that he has in a lot of his plays, but it’s very direct in ‘The Tempest,’ which is this idea that he’s clearly saying ‘thank you’ through this character of this wizard Prospero, who has been imprisoned on an island by people for political reasons,” Sullivan explained.
In addition to offering classics like “The Tempest,” Shakespeare in the Park provides theatre-goers with a unique experience in that the audience sits on the stage with the actors.
“It’s like a sporting event,” Sullivan said. “Our aesthetic is such that we want people to be close to what’s going on and close to the action.”
With mountains as the backdrop and very little stage design, Shakespeare in the Park allows the audience to focus on the story and connect with the actors.
“There’s no fourth wall, so you have to connect with the audience, it’s important that you connect with the audience, in fact, it is dictated in there,” Sullivan explained. “We generally keep it low tech. We generally keep it engaging with the audience.”
Cat Lee Covert, managing director for Telluride Theatre, who also plays Caliban in the show, said that the atmosphere in the park makes for a mystical experience. “We begin the show every night pretty much just as the alpenglow is hitting the mountains, so that sort of creates a magical energy on top of everything else,” Covert noted. “Bringing in the nature of Telluride and where we live, and also just the magic of Shakespeare and his writing and the magic of the show, in general, is a really powerful experience.”
This year marks the 29th year for Shakespeare in the Park. The series originated in 1990 with Telluride’s Repertory Theatre. In 2011, SquidShow Theatre, founded by Sasha Sullivan, merged with the Rep to form Telluride Theatre, where the company continued to breathe life into Shakespeare in the Park.
“Shakespeare in the Park was a definite, particularly for me, because I had had a whole slew of Shakespeare training, and I had gone to London and whatnot, so I really loved Shakespeare,” Sullivan said.
Anyone who has taken a Shakespeare class, attempted to read any of his many plays or even seen a show can agree that it’s not always the easiest to follow given the evolution of the English language. However, understanding Shakespeare’s writing seems to come naturally to Sullivan. “The language is not hard for me,” he said. “I like it because directing from an actor’s perspective, Shakespeare was like the Bible in acting.”
Sullivan studied Shakespeare extensively in college and even spent time at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, focusing mainly on acting throughout his theatre career. Five years ago, however, he found himself in a unique position. “We didn’t have a director for this for ‘Midsummer’ in 2015 and Sasha said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ and so that was the first time that I directed.”
“The Tempest” differs from many other classic works in that it’s fairly easy to understand, said Suzanne Cheavens, president of the board of directors for Telluride Theatre, who also plays Stephano in the show.
“I think the Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s more lyrically brilliant plays and super understandable,” Cheavens said. “It’s magic, but it’s really a very straightforward kind of show. People won’t get confused about who’s who.”
Cheavens has been involved with Shakespeare in the Park since its conception. As with many theatre-goers and members, she has a great love and appreciation for the Shakespeare in the Park tradition.
“It definitely adds to all the cultural sparkle that happens in this town,” she said. “It’s just another crown jewel in a crown filled with jewels.”
Covert, Cheavens and Sullivan all commented on the cast selected for this year’s performance, a mix of seasoned veterans and new blood.
“We have a really tight cast and I think everyone’s working really, really hard and is really excited,” Covert said.
“It’s a family. It’s a real healthy, supportive community. We just have a lot of fun together. And we work hard because we want to put on a kick-ass show,” Cheavens said.
Sullivan noted that this year’s show packs a lot of punch in a shorter amount of time. “It’s got monsters, it’s got mariners, it’s got shipwrecks, it’s got a wizard, it’s got spirits, and it’s got song, it’s got dance. It’s pretty much got everything. And it’s packed into about an hour and 40 minutes,” he said.
The show runs July 20 through July 28 at 8 p.m. with July 24 (Wednesday) dark. There is a matinee July 21 at 2 p.m. Tickets and more information are available at telluridetheatre.org