The Ithaca Shakespeare company has been performing outdoor summer theater for 20 years, and I’ve been fortunate to be a part of it for many of them. First, through friends (and students) of mine who choreographed their fights beginning around 2006, and more recently, choreographing, training their actors, and occasionally performing since 2016.
Community theater always faces the challenges of budget constraints, a relatively fixed pool of local talent, and the fact that everyone involved has to balance rehearsals (and all of the prep time required before the rehearsals themselves) with their day jobs/schooling/other projects. At the same time, I take great pride in how this organization has handled itself in all of my dealings with them, for the following reasons.
- They never compromise safety. We’ve had some extremely ambitious choreography over the years, and the directors have always ensured that we got ample time to work with the actors so that by the time performances rolled around, the actors could do what they needed to even in the event of swarms of mosquitoes, a slippery stage, or any of the other hazards of outdoor theater. The directors have also sought input on elements that many directors don’t think of as “fights” but still have the potential for injury, from “simple” carrying a body off-stage to swooning to prat-falls.
- They treat their people well. Okay, this is subject to the aforementioned budget constraints: no one’s getting paid much, performances and rehearsals will be outdoors in the heat/damp, and costumes are a mix of what’s available in the costume closet, what our costumer can reasonably create, and what actors already have. But everyone does get paid a little, which is more than many community theaters can say, and the leadership actively tries to run efficient rehearsals that only call the performers required for that scene to minimize dead time.
- They prioritize quality. They try to adhere to a high level of professionalism, even when working with first-time or student actors. The directors have consistently tried to ensure that whatever they put on works, even when that is challenging.
- It is truly a community effort. Some actors are Ithaca College or Cornell students who do it for a single summer, while others have been in the shows for over a decade, but the cast (and the audience) are actively contributing to and buoyed by the local arts scene. I hear so much about “side hustles” and emphasis on professionalizing/commercializing all of one’s interests, that it’s wonderful to be with people who want to do great work on a hobby, simply because it’s fun and a way to enrich our lived experience on this planet. It’s also a delight to hear my toddler say “Dad Teach Hord Pay” (i.e., Dad teaches sword-play).
With all of that said, we’re trying to raise money for a new set of speakers, so that our actors are more audible over the noise of the stream near our performance space. If you can contribute, whether you’re local or not, it would help ensure that this group continues to function for another 20 years: http://GoFundMe
Additionally, if you’re in the area, come see Antony & Cleopatra and Two Gentlemen of Verona! Two Gentlemen has limited fighting, but the actors are handling some really challenging physicality (at the climax of the play) beautifully, both in terms of conveying the threat of the scene as well as looking after each other as performers. Antony & Cleopatra, on the other hand, has one of the more challenging mass battle scenes I’ve ever choreographed, and the actors have completely risen to the occasion. You might need to see it at least twice to follow everything going on in it.