Shakespeare in the Park is a popular global festival featuring productions of William Shakespeare’s plays. The original event was founded in 1954 by American Producer and Director Joseph Papp, as the “New York Shakespeare Festival”. Its beginning was a series of free workshops in New York, which eventually led to free public performances in Central Park. In 1961, an outdoor amphitheater was built to accommodate these productions, and to this day, the festival is performed at the park’s outdoor stage. Over the years, many celebrity actors have worked for the franchise, and the event has gained incredible popularity. A greater portion of highly sought-after tickets are made free to the public, who line up as early as 6 a.m. to ensure they reserve tickets for the evening performance. The concept has been adopted by many theatre companies and. over time, this name has expanded to encompass outdoor theatre productions of the playwright’s legendary works performed all over the world.
“Shakespeare in the Park” by the Workshop Players began as an idea to make theatre available to people from all walks of life, as readily available as library books.
The performances are more often than not free admission to the general public, usually presented outdoors as a summer event. These types of performances can be seen by audiences around the world, with most festivals adapting the name for their productions, such as Vancouver’s “Bard on the Beach”. Many festivals incorporate workshops, food and other additions to the performances making this type of theatre experience an interactive community event.
Motivated by the tradition of outdoor theatre performance and the desire for an accessible and innovative approach to Shakespeare, the festivals attract thousands of people, whilst some are also responsible for helping to initiate government policies and send “Shakespeare Packs” to school children of all ages and backgrounds, to introduce Shakespeare at a young age.
Around the world, the festival has now grown into a magnificent summer attraction and is a hotbed for journalists and photographers, which is indicative of the huge popularity of this event.
Shakespeare in Sri Lanka
The Bard enjoys an immense appreciation in Sri Lanka, with Shakespeare’s works being included in the local GCE Ordinary and Advanced level curriculums, as well as being studied extensively at universities. As of 2014, statistics obtained from the Ministry of Education indicate that nearly 400,000 A/L students were registered under the Arts stream and were exposed to Shakespeare. Additionally, the increasingly popular Annual Inter-School Shakespeare Drama Competition organized by the YMCA draws participation and patronage from across the Island every year.
Over the years, many amateur theatre groups and schools have produced Shakespeare’s plays for public viewing, with some of the more popular works even having been translated into Sinhala for mass appeal. The Workshop Players embarked on the first ever Shakespeare in the Park Festival in 2016, staging “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “The Merchant of Venice”, and “Othello”. This was followed up by a second Festival in 2017, which was broken into two segments: “Shakespeare in the Village: Macbeth”, and “Shakespeare in the Park: The Tempest”.
The Workshop Players
“The Workshop Players” (WSP) is one of Sri Lanka’s foremost English theatre groups, and is famed for bringing some of the best of Broadway musicals such as “Cats”, “The Lion King”, “Oliver!”, “The Sound of Music”, “Evita”, “The Phantom of the Opera”, “Les Misérables”, and, most recently, the highly acclaimed “My Fair Lady” to the local stage.
WSP is a non-profit organisation made up of theatre lovers, with the aim of promoting talent in all aspects of theatre, while also using it as a vehicle for promoting peace.
Founded on 7 March 1992, over the past 23 years, hundreds of children, adolescents and adults from different theatre and personal backgrounds have become a part of the WSP family. There are also dedicated groups within the organisation for Sinhala theatre productions and junior theatre productions.
The troupe is made up of directors, actors, singers, dancers, musicians, choreographers, writers, composers, artists, designers, sound engineers, lighting designers and engineers, stage managers, and backstage and front of house (FoH) crew. Several ‘Workshoppers’ have gone on to successfully establish their own theatre companies, while many of the troupe are also frequently found handling lights, sound and stage management for other companies.
The group functions under the philosophy of ‘theatre with a purpose’, and has tried to share our learning with young people from less privileged backgrounds, for example, by running workshops for theatre students in Colombo, Wadduwa, Alawwa, Batticaloa, Jaffna and Trincomalee.
Since its maiden production in January 1993, the Workshop Players have staged 13 plays in English and 2 in Sinhala, from musicals to straight plays, from foreign to local plays, and from historical epics to contemporary fiction.
Shakespeare in the Park 2018 (Colombo)
This year’s Festival, which will be the 3rd Shakespeare in the Park event for the WSP, will feature just one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated works – “Antony and Cleopatra”, directed by Ms. Tracy Holsinger. Staying true to the objective of SITP to educate, the selected play is currently studied as part of the local A/L and university curriculum. The play is scheduled to be staged on the 7th and 8th April 2018.
Tracy is an award-winning director and teacher, and a founding member and Artistic Director of the theatre troupe, “Mind Adventures”. She is a graduate in Drama and Theatre Arts, Goldsmiths College, University of London and a Licentiate in teaching Drama from Trinity Guildhall, UK. She is also the Vice Principal of the Wendy Whatmore Academy in Sri Lanka.
Tracy is the recipient of the “BUNKA Award for Special Achievement in Theatre”, and her work often focuses on socio-political issues of relevance to Sri Lanka, and has been supported over the years by the Sunethra Bandaranaike Trust, the British Council, the Goethe Institute, GIZ and the governments of Switzerland and Japan. She has worked in several capacities both in the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka for companies and organisations such as Stoll Moss Theatres (UK), Adventures In Motion Pictures (UK), BBC Radio 4 (UK), Stages Theatre Group (Sri Lanka), Joint Effort (Sri Lanka), StageLight & Magic Inc. (Sri Lanka), the Workshop Players (Sri Lanka), the Performing Arts Company (Sri Lanka), the Jana Karaliya Troupe (Sri Lanka), the Open University of Sri Lanka and the British School in Colombo.
Cast: The cast will comprise of members of the Workshop Players – both male and female actors with extensive experience in English theatre, as well as newcomers to the stage.
Venue: WSP has identified Colombo’s recently beautified and popular outdoor location, Vihara Maha Devi Park and its amphitheatre as an ideal location to host Colombo’s third annual Shakespeare in the Park festival, owing to the location’s expanse to be able to accommodate large numbers of audiences, as well as its suitability for a theatrical production of this nature.