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Biggest-Ever Shakespeare in the Parks Season Brings Theater to the Masses

The rollicking production of Twelfth Night comes alongside community-engagement programs run by Chicago Shakes.

A Shakespeare in the Parks cast member in As You Like It high-fives an audience member in Loyola Park   Photo: Liz Lauren

As parties go, not even Billy Dec outshines William Shakespeare this summer. Shakespeare in the Parks’ raucous, 75-minute staging of Twelfth Night will be the seasonal centerpiece to the city’s year-long celebration marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. Some 40,000 people are expected to attend 25 free performances in 19 parks throughout the city. (Scroll down for the full schedule and map.)

This year’s al fresco offering is the biggest ever—it’s the fifth year of the program, hosted by Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Chicago Park District. As producer of Shakespeare 400 Fest, Doreen Sayegh is charged with revving people up about a man who died when Chicago was still an onion swamp. Shakespeare in the Parks is at the populist heart of the festivities: It’s free, it’s geared toward all ages, and it’s pretty much everywhere.

“It’s not just us showing up, putting on a show, and leaving. Our mission is about making lasting relationships inside that community,” Sayegh says. Her advance team has been working in the neighborhoods for months, drumming up interest with community leaders and organizing pre-play performances by local dance groups and musicians. Each performance of Twelfth Night is preceded by a hyperlocal “green show” that highlights the culture and history of the neighborhood.

If the numbers are any indication, those relationships are taking root: In 2012, about 150 people showed up in Pilsen’s Dvorak Park for a free version of The Taming of the Shrew. Last year the Pilsen audience numbered more than 1,500. The numbers are climbing from Rogers Park to the far south side. All told, Sayegh estimates more than 80,000 people have attended Shakespeare in the Parks since the project launched in 2012.

“Sometimes it’s challenging. I think once we had an audience that was maybe 12 or 13,” says Sayegh, “But more often, it’s in the hundreds. Last year, we hit 2,000 in one of the parks. It was amazing.”

This summer, Chicago Shakes is partnering with local group Viola Project to offer free workshops for girls age 10-16. Named for the smart, resourceful, funny, romantically challenged teenage heroine of Twelfth Night, the Viola Project uses Shakespeare to drive discussions about the issues facing young women. The two-hour workshops will be at Thurgood Marshall Branch Library, 7606 S. Racine, July 16 at 11 a.m.; Portage-Cragin Branch Library, 5108 W. Belmont, July 23 at 10 a.m.; and Chinatown Branch Library, 2100 S. Wentworth, August 6 at 2 p.m.

“Viola deals with so many of the issues girls have in real life: identity, self-esteem, relationships,” Sayegh says. “Shakespeare is the entry point in the discussion. Our goal is to have the participants leave the project more confident and more self-aware than when we started.”

Still, Shakespeare can be a hard sell. Even with a story as rollicking as Twelfth Night—the plot involves drunken shenanigans, shipwrecks, cross-dressers, romances, and TV-worthy pranks—there will always be those who think of Shakespeare as algebra on stage.

Twelfth Night director Kirsten Kelly understands: “In high school, I remember very well feeling like there was some secret to getting Shakespeare, a secret I’d never understand. You’ve got to let people know that there’s no secret. But there’s joy in figuring it out together, joy in the discovery.”

She sadds, “You’ve got to invite people in. That’s my job as a director.”

RELATED: Shakespeare at 400: Why Is This Dead White Man Still Relevant?

Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks 2016

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