Shakespeare in the Streets: A Conversation With Rick Dildine
St. Louis’ expansive theater community is home to theater companies of all different sizes, performing a wide variety of genres and productions, in a number of innovative ways. One of the most unexpected and exciting annual productions is “Shakespeare in the Streets,” a free, family-friendly outdoor theatrical show based on Shakespeare’s plays, put on by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis.
Rick Dildine, the Artistic and Executive Director of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, founded “Shakespeare in the Streets” in 2012. Inspired by his move to St. Louis in 2009, when he first noticed the surprising number of dead-end streets and cement block barriers all over the city, Dildine decided to create a production that counteracted those manufactured separations by organizing the production, an entertaining theater experience that builds community by embodying the unique neighborhoods hosting the performance.
With the hope of showcasing the wealth of theater talent thriving in St. Louis while demystifying Shakespeare for audiences across the city, Dildine has birthed a one-of-a-kind series that’s in its fifth year and still building momentum. This year’s production, based in Maplewood, is the first “mash-up” the company has done, pulling inspiration from “Hamlet,” “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” “Macbeth” and “Romeo Juliet,” and featuring a cast of St. Louis locals who—for the first time—all have some direct connection to the neighborhood itself. As Dildine explains, “It’s not theater as you would expect it. We’ve definitely characterized ourselves as an unexpected theater company.”
Where did the idea for Shakespeare in the Streets come from?
I challenged our staff and our board, and I said, what if we shut down the street in the name of community, not crime control? And that began the process of creating “Shakespeare in the Streets.” I wanted to embed artists in a community, and ask them to get to know the kids, businesses, churches, schools, parents—find out what’s important to them. What are their hopes and dreams for their community? Where has it been? Where do they think it’s going? And through that year-long investigation, we would ask the playwright, the director and the designer for a year, to begin to identify any recurring themes they were hearing and then to match those themes to a Shakespeare play that had similar themes. And then to re-write that play to fit the community, to tell its story, and then to put it into rehearsals with professional actors alongside residents, and then shut down a street and perform the play for free.
What’s specific about this year’s production, “Remember Me,” that makes it perfect for a neighborhood like Maplewood?
For all the previous years we’ve only picked one play and adapted it. “Remember Me” is what we call a mash-up. We’ve talked about doing a mash-up for a couple of years, but it wasn’t until we hit Maplewood that we said, okay, this is different, this is very unique—it makes sense to do something a little Maple-weird. I’m not gonna lie, it’s a little weird.
So why Shakespeare? What’s the value in using Shakespeare for these productions and how do you use that to facilitate and reflect a community?
We don’t show up to watch a day at the mall on stage. We show up to watch extraordinary moments, and extraordinary moments call for extraordinary language. For me, Shakespeare is the most in-depth language, I think, that exists on the planet. I think Shakespeare gets a bad rap because everyone has to read it, and he wasn’t sitting there 450 years ago going, I can’t wait for kids to read this play. He writes them to be performed from a living, breathing human being. And I think any time that we can focus on the performance of it, it’s better for everybody. So I don’t push an academic approach to it at all, I push a much for visceral, human connection to the work.
What is your relationship to the theater community in St. Louis? Can you speak to where it is now?
It’s pretty amazing the number of theaters and the number of smaller new theaters that keep popping up—I love it. I think it’s really impressive. When I travel the country I get to tell people, you know, there’s several dozen theater companies here that are making work in all different size spaces, in all different niches—and people are amazed. Absolutely amazed. I wish more artists went to the regions. I wish more artists left New York and LA and went to towns and made art. It’s a very rich life. I moved to St. Louis because I loved what Shakespeare Festival St. Louis stood for, which is accessibility, and the idea of all are welcome, “come one come all.”
Any last thoughts?
I think what I want people to also know is that all this work here is [created by] St. Louis artists. There is a vibrant artistic community here. We didn’t bring these people in.
Photo by J. David Levy and courtesy of Shakespeare