On February 27, 1998, Chicspeare opened its first production, Julius Caesar, at a small theater on Chicago's North Side. Displaying "a talent for thematic parallels" and a "command of the Bard's words" which kept the "pace sharp and smooth, allowing the actors to speak their lens with great clarity and passion" (Chicago Sun-Times), we drew on images from the election of Harold Washington and the subsequent "Council Wars" to make clear the play's treatment of partisan politics and warnings on how rhetoric can breed violence.
While the cast was diverse and reflected all of Chicago, the audience was not. It was mostly middle-aged, mostly white, mostly middle-classthe kind of audience that traditionally shows up for performances of Shakespeare, not the kind of audience we'd come to relish performing for in our educational programs, nor the kind of audience for whom the works were originally created.
Shakespeare wrote for a diverse audience. As Richard III limped, Bottom strutted, or the servants of Verona fought across the stage, members of Court in the box seats, merchants in the stalls, and those who could afford no more than a penny-ticket to stand at the edge of the stage saw characters like themselves, speaking in their own accents. The diverse audiences we'd worked with in schools and community sites helped us find richer relationships in the plays, and we'd come to understand that the best performances of Shakespeare happen when the audience reflects and reacts to everyone on stage, and the actors reflect and play off the different personalities in the audience. Since it's hard to draw a diverse audience to one site in the city, we decided we would follow in the footsteps of Shakespeare's Company when it wasn't at its home theater, and go to the audience we sought for our next production.
In the summer of 2002, we developed Bottome's Dream, an abridgement of A Midsummer Night's Dream which followed the storyline of Bottome, his neighbors and the obstacles they faced preparing a play for performance. We toured the show to city neighborhoods... and we got the audience we'd hoped for! It ranged in age from 2 to 92, and was of African-American, Hispanic, Eastern European, and Northern European heritage, from households with incomes over $100,000 as well as those below the poverty line.
We returned to three of those neighborhoods with a full production of Hamlet in the winter of 2002. This time we drew on images from the turn of the (last) century Chicago to illuminate the play. Like the young adults in Elsinore, upperclass Chicagoans in the late 1800s often left home for extended periods, sometimes for study, sometimes to escape the constraints of homelife. We cast our Players as a travelling troupe of blacks, a phenomenon common at the time as blacks migrated North. We were pleased that audiences, again almost as diverse as Shakespeare's own, found the production "a good introduction for those new to Shakespeare and an interesting take for weary veterans of the Bard." (Chicago Free Press)
Chicspeare Production Company