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NC Shakes still on shaky ground

by Lenise Willis

| lenise@yesweekly.com

When I first heard this past summer that NC Shakespeare Festival would be canceling its season due to insufficient funds, I was both heartbroken and surprised that after 35 years one of our longest-standing theaters was facing demise.

You see, long before I wrote my first theater piece for YES! Weekly (about four years ago), and before going off to earn my journalism degree, and even before my interest in performing arts caught fire in high school, I saw my first play at High Point’s North Carolina Shakespeare Festival.

It was a spring production of The Taming of the Shrew, and my mother and I were accompanying my brother so that he could earn some extra credit in his AP English class. I was in the sixth grade. It went over my head, but I was still enthralled.

Back then my brother wore dress pants and a collared shirt, and I a dress — things we were instructed to do by our teachers to show respect to theater. I continue that same practice today.

Back then, I think theater was truly respected, and even more so admired not just as an entertainment but as a source of education, a historical record and a reservoir of talent. Maybe now it’s simply not viewed that way anymore. But it should be.

For those who have been confused about NC Shakes’ standing, whether thinking it has already gone bankrupt, or maybe not even knowing of its struggle, here is a brief rundown. It hasn’t gone under yet, but it did cancel its professional performances due to insufficient funds. The company continues to fight the good fundraising fight… one it’s actually, apparently, been fighting for a few years now.

Unfortunately, with the national economy declining and the state’s budget dwindling, in 2011 the NC Department of Cultural Resources was forced to cut its grants, which meant that the theater would no longer be receiving its annual $225,000 allotment, which made up about 20 percent of its budget.

“That was the offsetting event,” said Pedro Silva, managing director at NC Shakes.

And even though 2011 was the hardhitting year, the year that sunk the theater’s heart and pockets, Silva argues that the theater has struggled with sustainability since its inception in 1977.

“We’ve grappled with sustainability since our first year,” he said, “because we’re dealing with Shakespeare…. His works are magnificent and yet not for the average person.”

But that doesn’t mean that the theater is planning on changing its mission statement or playbill. After all, it’s called NC Shakespeare Festival. Instead, they’ll continue to do what they do best — target students, teachers and those who appreciate the educational and historical value of Shakespeare.

“Over time, NC Shakes will follow the trend of an educational source that still entertains the general audience,” Silva said. “We want to hone our services and appeal to teachers, the community and the state.”

For now, the theater is not producing shows, but they are still running their Shakespeare To Go program, smaller-scale and traveling condensed productions performed for schools. Silva said the company will also be focusing more on state-wide workshops and teaching Shakespeare in the classroom.

The theater’s student classes, workshops and summer camps are also still in operation.

“Our priority is to get through the fiscal year in the black,” Silva said. In order to accomplish that goal the theater needs to raise $100,00 this year.

“I feel fairly optimistic that we’re gong to be able to achieve that,” Silva said. So far, through pleading letters and e-mails, grant proposal writing and creative YouTube campaigns, the company has raised $85,000 of that goal. But the $100,000 will only get the company through the fiscal year; it won’t ease any future instability. !

WANNA go?

Performances may have been halted, but there are still plenty of NC Shakes programs in the works, including a Tea and Fashion Show in March, Camp Shakespeare in June and other workshops and classes. Visit ncshakes.org for more information.

Next up for the theater is its Shakespeare To Go performances of The Comedy of Errors and Hamlet for home-school groups on Feb. 17 at the Spirit Center, located at 807 W. Ward Ave. in High Point. Tickets are $12 with limited seating. Call 336.819.6325 or visit ncshakes.org/shakespearetogo.cfm for more details.

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