BWW Interview: Director John Fagan on the 25TH ANNIVERSARY season of the Warehouse Theatre's Upstate Shakespeare Festival
2019 marks the 25th anniversary season of a Greenville institution, the Upstate Shakespeare Festival.
We asked artistic director John Fagan to talk about the olden, golden days and tell us what audiences can expect to see this summer.
BWW: 25 years! Wow!
JF: I know. It seems just yesterday when we were all young and fresh-faced, with optimism glowing in our eyes. Actually, it really does boggle the mind that we've reached this plateau. I think we've all just been humming along, having fun doing crazy things with these plays. I think we're even more amazed that our audiences have stuck with us and let us do such productions.
So what kind of fun things do you have planned to celebrate the anniversary?
A couple of things: if you've been following along on our Facebook Group page (The Warehouse Theatre's Upstate Shakespeare Festival) (mouthful), you've been seeing that we're trying to do a daily posting of some person, production, backstage, prop, program, etc., from the past 25 years. It's been remarkable that there have been so many people participating in this project and sending me things from past seasons. In fact, I just got photos of programs from the 1996 season and a bunch of photos from the first production of Romeo and Juliet.
Also, we're trying out something new this year, too. There are some shows that we probably couldn't do in the park for the family audiences that we attract. So we're going to do one of these, Measure for Measure, as a very-rehearsed staged reading at the Greenville Public Library Main Branch. We're hoping that the turnout is popular and we may do more of these in the future. I'm hoping it is. This will be one additional way for us to stage all of the canon.
Then, of course, we're going to do two big productions in the park.
Which shows are you doing this year?
We are revisiting two of our most successful productions from the past this season:
Romeo and Juliet (May 23-June 16)
This show has always been one of our most attended plays. Its popularity never ceases. I'm certain we could mount this play annually and the park would be filled up. That said, it truly is a very well-written play and so accessible. The last time we did it was in 2010.
The Tempest (July 11-August 4)
The only time we've staged this show was in 2002. It was the last show in the old Falls Park before the 2003 renovation. It was one of our more extravagant productions with puppetry, dancing, live music and a killer cast that was headed up by BJ Koonce. I always look back on this one as one of our most artistically successful productions. We'll be revisiting some of the listed aspects of the show, but with 17 years' more experience.
Measure for Measure (June 25-June 27 & July 23-July 24)
If Shakespeare had an "alternative/emo" period in his career, this play would be the crowning achievement for it.
Will the anniversary figure into the staging of these productions - any easter eggs for long time fans?
I hadn't really thought of these productions with easter eggs involved. But now that you've given me the impulse, you can now bet there will be. I'm sure many of our returning audience members will find some things in the productions that will be satisfyingly familiar to them. You're a trouble-making instigator, Mr. Shurley.
How has USF evolved in 25 years?The Festival was started as Shakin' Up Shakespeare back in 1994 by three Warehouse Theatre Journeymen (David Daniel, Tiger Reel and Steve Young) who were looking for something to do over the summer. The first three seasons under their watch were performed at the Roper Mountain Amphitheatre. After the three left town to bigger things, three women (Jennifer Dersin, Allison Henderson and Demetria Thomas) brought the Festival to Falls Park and changed the name to the Upstate Shakespeare Festival. I assumed the helm in 1999.
The biggest evolution has been the sizes of the audiences. That first season we did Two Gents and Macbeth. Each had 7 performances, including a matinee (ugh, never again). For those shows we averaged right around 100 people a night and we thought we were hot stuff. Now we schedule 16 performances for each show and average around 350-400 people a night. We've become a staple of the Greenville summer arts attraction. We get regular audience members coming in from out of state who make a weekend of seeing our show and taking in the culinary delights of the town. Plus, we've watched families bring their kids and their kids grow up and bring their kids. I wonder if there are grandchildren involved in attendance now? I'm old.
I think the quality of the productions has grown over the years also. We've continued to add to the technical aspects annually. The production teams certainly continue to grow (I'm not doing EVERYTHING anymore). For this year's production of Romeo and Juliet we currently have 8 people heading up the various technical aspects of the show.
I still think we have maintained the most important aspect of our productions: telling the story. That is our main job, first and foremost. I think the newbies in the casts learn from the veterans and then turn around and share this with next season's newcomers. More than anything, the company has always taken care of each other and I certainly hope that aspect continues.
What keeps you coming back summer after summer?
Curiosity. I'm always excited to see what is going to be different about this new season and I have yet to be disappointed. I'm curious to see which veteran actor steps up and gives the performance of his/her life. I'm curious to see who the exciting newcomers are going to be. I'm curious to see if we can get away with some different way of telling a sometimes familiar story that will excite the audiences. I'm curious to revisit our regular audience members who continue to attend year after year. I love to hear how they have been since we last saw each other. But mostly, I'm curious to see and work with this wonderful group of people that have become the USF family. Not everyone can do every season, but we do see each other at some point in the summer and it's like no time has passed since we were all laughing and putting on something we could point to with great pride.
The Warehouse Theatre's Upstate Shakespeare Festival's 2019 season
Romeo and Juliet (May 23-June 16)
The Tempest (July 11-August 4)
Performances begin at 7:00pm in downtown Greenville's Falls Park, Thursday thru Sunday each week during the run of shows. All performances are free.
Check the USF Facebook Group later in the season for details about performances of Measure for Measure.