Shaking it up: In Portsmouth, Shakespeare lives

Events celebrating Shakespeare's 400th death-iversary present his work in new ways

For those who love the works of William Shakespeare, it’s going to be a very exciting year. April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, and scholars, performers, and casual fans will be honoring the Bard with a series of events throughout the Seacoast this spring and summer.

Each event will highlight a different way of looking at Shakespeare, whether it’s an examination of how his plays appeared on the printed page, or shaking up the context by performing these plays in unorthodox settings. Have you ever seen Shakespeare accompanied by a jazz combo, or with a beer in your hand, or performed by teenagers? There are events where you can experience these things. They all share the collective goal of showing you exactly why Shakespeare still is worth paying attention to, 400 years after his death.

“It’s a nice rallying point for the Shakespeare community around the world,” said Daniel Beaulieu, co-founder and artistic director of Portsmouth’s 7 Stages Shakespeare Company (7SSC). Celebrations have been in the works since the beginning of 2015, as scholars and theater companies began discussing the magnitude of the date. “This is the biggest year of Shakespeare any of us will live through. We said we have to do something.”

And they did. The company has its hands in more than half a dozen Shakespeare-related events in the coming months, including a proclamation by the city of Portsmouth that April 23 will be known as Shakespeare Day. While the final time and location of the announcement is still in the works, Christine Penney, co-founder and producing director of 7SSC, said the public will be encouraged to attend.

Beaulieu and 7SSC managing director Kevin Condardo will also mark the day with a special installment of their “No Holds Bard” podcast, which was recently recommended by National Public Radio’s podcast aggregator, The light-hearted show has fun with students hopelessly searching for help with their Shakespeare papers, investigates listener questions no matter how absurd, and brings to light wonderful passages that are not often quoted but carry great meaning.

This summer, 7SSC will bring the magical shipwreck tale “The Tempest” to the shores of the Piscataqua River as part of the company’s new summer intensive theater program for high-school students. Two weeks of master classes will culminate in a six-week stint of performances as part of the Prescott Park Arts Festival’s slate of summer events. The program will be open to high-school juniors and seniors who hope to pursue theater as a college major or profession. It’s rare for students to have experience performing Shakespeare in high school, but it’s an important skill when it comes time for auditions, said Beaulieu. “It’s also a celebration of all the young talent in the greater community,” he said.

If you’d rather hang out with the groundlings, there’s plenty for you as well. The Press Room in Portsmouth hosts Shakespeare Beat Night on Thursday, April 21 at 7 p.m., bringing English professors, poets, and musicians together to read works from or inspired by the Sweet Swan of Avon. The second hour will be an open mic, open to anyone who wishes to pay tribute.

“What we love about this night is that as a company, we spend 364 days a year celebrating Shakespeare as a dramatist first,” said Beaulieu. “He also happened to be one of the greatest poets of all time. At Beat Night, we can say, forget his plays. Let’s talk about the poetry.”

This won’t be the first time 7SSC has brought Shakespeare to the bar. The company’s ongoing ShakesBEERience series takes live performances to unconventional venues, most recently on April 12 at Libby’s in Durham, part of the University of New Hampshire’s Shakespeare celebration. Performers deliver lines with a drink in hand, and the audience is welcome to imbibe as well. Beaulieu said the event gives people a different perspective on the plays, which, during Elizabethan times, were performed in small venues on the fly.

“Shakespeare’s plays are written to travel. It’s really not radical or new. It’s just honoring what Shakespeare himself and his company were doing,” he said.

On June 12, 7SSC will take this style to Throwback Brewery in North Hampton for a full day. Starting at 7:30 a.m., Messenger Day features back-to-back performances of eight of Shakespeare’s historical plays. The common thread weaving all of them together will be the role of the messenger, played by Press Room manager Bruce Pingree.

The words

Audiences can digest Shakespeare in more traditional ways as well, including a glimpse at some of the earliest publications of his work, known as the First Folio. After his death, Shakespeare’s friends collected almost all of his plays in a folio edition. According to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., researchers believe that 750 or fewer copies of the First Folio were printed and that only 233 survive today, of which 82 are in the Folger’s collection. The museum is lending First Folios to venues in all 50 states as part of its “First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare” tour, and one is currently on display at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester.

Doug Lanier, professor of English and director of the UNH London Program, sat on the committee that brought the First Folio to New Hampshire. He said there are 18 plays that would have been lost to modern audiences if it weren’t for this publication.

“We’d have no ‘Julius Caesar,’ no ‘Macbeth,’ we’d have no ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ no ‘As You Like It,’ no ‘The Tempest,’” said Lanier. “In some senses, this is the most important contribution the First Folio makes. It gives us a record of his texts of the Shakespeare we know now.”

A scene from 7 Stages Shakespeare Company’s 2015 production of “What You Will (or Twelfth Night).” photo by M.Lavigne Photography

A scene from 7 Stages Shakespeare Company’s 2015 production of “What You Will (or Twelfth Night).” photo by M.Lavigne Photography

How we see Shakespeare now was shaped by the First Folio in many ways, said Lanier, including the image our minds conjure of the writer. Think of the portrait that was hanging in your high-school English class, or when you first open “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.” That, too, is from the First Folio.

Another significant contribution the First Folio makes is the insight it gives us into the revision process, both Shakespeare’s and that of early publishers.

“Because of printing practices, paper is very expensive, so you never throw out pages you printed,” said Lanier. “Every Folio is unique and literally has a different Shakespeare in it.”

Even the pages on display now at the Currier — Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy — do not match earlier versions of the play. This is common in the Folios, but in some cases a difference of one word can drastically alter meaning and interpretation.

“It’s that tension that makes the Folio so interesting,” said Lanier.

With all the attention that’s being paid to Shakespeare this year, one might wonder why his works have endured over other writers of his time.

“We feel familiar with him because he’s taught a lot (in schools),” said Lanier. “But that raises the question, why do we teach Shakespeare instead of some of the alternatives? All of my work in academia has been dedicated to answering that question.”

Lanier attributes much of the allure of Shakespeare to the way he wrote his characters, his examination of their psychology and motives, while being careful not to judge them. There is an open-endedness to his plays that allows for diverse interpretations, which sets him apart from his contemporaries.

Character is also a major force behind Penney’s love of the Bard.

“I can see myself in Shakespeare no matter what’s going on in my life,” said Penney. “That’s why I feel so connected to him … knowing those experiences have been going on for 400-plus years reminds me of how connected we are and shines a light on our humanity.”

While rich characters may be what modern audiences are drawn to, Lanier said, you cannot deny his mastery of language.

“He is an extraordinary stylist,” said Lanier. “He is managing to do things with language that his contemporaries are not interested in or capable of doing.”

Beaulieu agreed.

“It’s the words,” he said. “They’re so beautiful.”