Judging from her fond recollections, Avra Sullivan, executive director and co-founder of the Shore Shakespeare Company, comes by her passion for the Bard genetically. “My parents read me Shakespeare as bedtime stories,” she said with a laugh, “but they may have thought Hamlet is a little rough for a 7-year-old.”
Opening on Labor Day weekend at Adkins Arboretum – where Shore Shakespeare got its start a decade ago – Sullivan directs Much Ado About Nothing, which moves on to Oxford Community Center’s backyard the following weekend and Chestertown’s Wilmer Park, Sept. 15-17.
After being introduced to Shakespeare at such a young age and subsequently earning her high-school diploma, Sullivan met Chris Rogers, a fellow Shakespeare devotee, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where she was a Wilkes University theater/dance major. Post-college, they joined a Shakespearean troupe near Atlantic City. But after moving back home to her native Chestertown, Sullivan missed the experience of performing Shakespeare live and, together with Rogers, pursued their shared ambition to offer Shakespeare in the “way it was performed in his time,” Sullivan said – excluding the Elizabethan ban on women performing on stage. Their goal was and remains to present free open-air shows (with pay-what-you-wish or suggested-donation options) played on austere sets framing players in character costumes but not especially elaborate.
Their vision was realized in 2013 at Adkins Arboretum near Ridgely, where the inaugural Shore Shakespeare production, Twelfth Night, drew an audience of 300 who brought their own lawn chairs or beach blankets seating. A second performance in Chestertown followed.
The new company returned the following year with the ultimate romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Successive summers featured Comedy of Errors, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and As You Like It. In 2019, Shore Shakespeare moved indoors to Chestertown’s Garfield Center for a February staging of Don Nigro’s spoof, The Curate’s ‘As You Like It’ (lawn chairs unnecessary).
Two tragic events – COVID-19 and the sudden and unexpected death by heart attack of co-founder Chris Rogers – wiped out plans for any performances. In 2021, though COVID still prevented most indoor performing arts – Shore Shakespeare recovered by presenting A Little Touch of Shakespeare on the Theme of Love, a collage of seven snippets put together by Rogers and performed as a tribute to him in Centreville’s Wharf Park. A full production of Measure for Measure, directed by company choreographer and actor Greg Miniahan, was last summer’s Shore Shakespeare offering.
Much Ado About Nothing ostensibly centers on the courtship of Hero and her suitor Claudio. But they are upstaged by the witty repartee of Hero’s cousin Beatrice (played by Christine Kinlock) and Claudio’s friend Benedick (played by Howard Messick, a Shore Shakespearean from the company’s inception).
But besides live summer performances, while the most public face of Shore Shakespeare, there’s much more to its mission. “We do a ton of educational outreach,” Sullivan says, citing her team’s status as artists-in-residence for Caroline County schools – principally North Caroline High in Denton and Colonel Richardson near Federalsburg. “We do workshop classes on acting and stagecraft,” Sullivan says, adding that five students from the spring semester are in the cast of Much Ado.
When asked about the biggest challenge for Shore Shakespeare, Sullivan has a quick answer. “Weather. It’s not just performances that get rained out. So do our rehearsals. We’re an outdoor company, all right.”
As for Shore Shakespeare’s repertoire of plays over its 10-year history, only two have been tragedies. Hamlet was not one of them. After all, “to be or not to be” was out of the question as a young child’s bedtime story.
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts writer and editor now living in Easton.
Shore Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing
Adkins Arboretum: Sept. 2 at 2 p.m. and Sept. 3 at 3 p.m.
Oxford Community Center: Sept. 8 at 7 p.m., Sept. 9 at 6 p.m. & Sept. 10 at 3 p.m.
Wilmer Park: Sept.15 at 7 p.m., Sept. 16 at 6 p.m. & Sept. 17 at 3 p.m.