In The Magazine: Backstage Pass—Take 5

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When the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival began in Jupiter’s Carlin Park 26 years ago, founder Kermit Christman repeated a particular buzzword so many times it became a mantra among the staff: accessible.

This is understandable. As masterly as Shakespeare is, he can be anathema to some modern audiences. His nonplussed Danes and tempestuous kings are the stuff of five centuries past, and Elizabethan English in iambic pentameter can easily flummox today’s Tweeters.

So Christman, a veteran actor and writer who trained with Maggie Smith at England’s Royal Shakespeare Company, decided to mostly eschew doublets and jerkins for his Jupiter productions. In its second year, in 1991, the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival produced a “Richard III” inspired by the urban look and feel of “Miami Vice.” Christman would later produce an underground version of “Hamlet” with characters clad in black leather; launch “Coriolanus” into outer space, with the stage bare except for a glowing monolith a la “2001: A Space Odyssey;” and mount “Hamlet,” once again, in contemporary plainclothes. “In the end Hamlet killed everybody with a handgun,” Christman recalls. “It was like ‘Scarface!’”

Along the way, the festival has evolved from a makeshift stage on Jupiter scrubland to the biggest summer draw in the touristy North County region. An average of $100,000 goes into each large-scale production, with county grants and benefactors ensuring that it is always free to the public.

In 2013, the festival suffered an artistic blow when Kevin Crawford, a founding member and Shakespeare scholar who participated every year as an actor and eventually director, died at 43. His absence is still felt, but Christman’s company soldiers on, with its 2016 selection, “The Taming of the Shrew,” running in July (see box on opposite page for details).

As Christman reveals, he is still innovating in his ongoing quest to “accessorize” the Bard.

Q1 What’s the inspiration for your “Taming of the Shrew?”

We’re doing it at the Kentucky Derby. It’ll be the wildness of the derby, the horse race itself and the costumes—the ladies must have hats, as they wear at the Derby so famously. I announced that idea to the press, and they went, “that’s the best idea I ever heard.” Why? Because it’s accessible. Everybody knows the Derby. It’s always about rethinking the show—newer, fresher, better.

Q2 Do you still find new things in the text?

Always. And you know how you find it? Experience. What you read when you’re 10 is different than when you’re 70, and that is the brilliance of Shakespeare—that, as Ben Johnson said, he wasn’t for an age, he was for all-time. And if you take that statement and twist it around, you see how it is always speaking to you. It’s almost, if you like, a spiritual experience.

Read the full article in the July/August issue of Boca Magazine.