In the 21st century, live theater vies for audience eyes and ears with a never-ending array of digital entertainment options. Back in Shakespeare’s time — at the turn of the 17th century — his plays competed for audiences with altogether different forms of entertainment.
“Shakespeare’s plays were competing with bear baiting and brothels,” said Kate Kissingford, cofounder of UpstART Theater that Moves in Ouray, describing the Elizabethan pastime of bear baiting as a cruel show, where trapped bears were attacked by dogs to see which one would survive.
When London’s famous Globe Theatre was built for Shakespeare’s productions in 1599, the theater company figured the round space could easily be converted into a bear-baiting arena if the plays didn’t sell enough tickets, explained John Kissingford, Kate’s husband and UpstART cofounder.
Shakespeare’s plays have stood the test of time. Bear baiting hasn’t. Yet, John points out enthusiastically that a “bear” — the only one featured in a Shakespeare play — does appear (without being harmed) in UpstART’s upcoming presentation of “The Winter’s Tale” at Ouray’s Wright Opera House Aug. 2-5.
On Aug. 2-4, the play will be performed at 7:30 p.m., and 4 p.m. Aug. 5. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. Student tickets are $10. For more information and tickets, visit thewrightoperahouse.org/events.
The play is a production of No Holds Bard, the Kissingfords’ first theater company, established in 2005 to showcase first-folio performances of Shakespeare plays “with the energy, intensity and delight” that he intended. For these unique productions, the playwright’s original 1624 script (First Folio) is used and the actors rehearse only their individual parts, just as the theater troupes of Shakespeare’s time would have.
“With this particular method, John has to create each of the actor’s cue scripts and work with every individual for hours to help them understand their parts. The amount of work John puts in is unreal,” Kate explained. “We all willingly fall into his hands. He’s got such a solid background, passion and knowledge.”
Added John, “It’s interesting to dive that deep into a play and not know where it’s going to take you,”
John studied theater at Princeton, Harvard and the Bread Loaf School of English (in Vermont and Oxford), and performed for several years with various companies, including the New England Shakespeare Festival.
He brings together the whole cast — 16 for this production — only two days before the first performance, to rehearse only the trickier staging moments.
“The rehearsals are not conventional rehearsals. We don’t rehearse the lines. We practice only the music, dance, magical moments and children’s scenes, to make them safe,” he said.
The result is a performance with improvised fun and playful interactions between the characters. An on-stage referee helps get scenes back on track when they go astray, and the audience is invited to participate with cheers, jeers and suggestions.
Kate, who performed as Prospero in last year’s production of “The Tempest,” appears as Paulina in “The Winter’s Tale.” She is “the truth teller who challenges the hero the most,” and puts her life on the line to save the kingdom, John said.
“The throughline of all UpstART’s productions is theater that moves: emotional, fast-paced and exciting,” Kate added. “This play is all three of those. It’s moving and exhilarating. And in this format, we don’t know where it’s going to head, but we’re going to discover it along with everyone else.”
Excited to share the rollercoaster theatrical experience with audiences, the couple is just as enthusiastic to introduce them to one of Shakespeare’s less-seen plays, which they call a wild romantic comedy of redemption.
“Shakespeare wrote ‘The Winter’s Tale’ at the end of his career, when he was looking at all the rules, and decided, ‘They don’t apply to me.’ He jams a tragic plot into a comic format. It’s both a tragedy and a comedy at once,” John said. “It has a tragic hero who makes a terrible, terrible error, but then learns and changes.”
Noting how the play is relatable with ageless themes that contemporary audiences can connect with, John pondered aloud, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if a misogynistic leader who had made many mistakes actually apologized, changed his ways and became more compassionate? What a wonderful story that would be.”
Beyond the “mashup” of comic and tragic elements, as well as the bear, the play has a number of other delightful surprises, from a magical resurrection to a group of satyrs (half-goat-half men) and a clown. The cast members come from Boston, Chicago, Nashville, Indianapolis, Denver, Ridgway and Norwood, as well as Ouray, including Natasha and Ariel Hessler, 8-year-old twins who played fairies in “The Tempest” last year and share the role of a young prince this year.