Seeking common ground through Shakespeare in Clark Park

Now in its eleventh season, Shakespeare in Clark Park (SCP) staged five free nights of The Two Gentlemen of Verona for its loyal audiences in West Philly from July 27 through July 31. The productions have become a summer staple for many who live in the neighborhood, as well as those who trek out from other parts of the city to watch.

The event is more than a play—it’s an experience allowing neighbors to spend a relatively long time (the play ran for nearly 2.5 hours without an intermission) in close proximity to one another. Audience members squeeze their blankets and lawn chairs together on the western slope of the bowl, finding an opportunity to connect with those around them.

Clark Park has long been lively focal point of the surrounding neighborhood, or what SCP Artistic Director Kittson O’Neill calls a “wildly public space.” There are weekly farmers’ markets and frequent flea markets; daily chess players, basketball players, and slackliners; occasional youth soccer leagues and yoga classes, role-playing games and drum circles; leisurely dog walking, sunbathing and reading. Even with Clark Park’s daily rhythms, Shakespeare in Clark Park provides a shared, collective purpose for people to gather in the park’s bowl, a sloping former mill pond with geography perfect for theater-style seating.

“It’s a nice social experience,” said Caitlyn Locey, a West Philly resident who had attended two previous Shakespeare in Clark Park performances. “You get to have a picnic and enjoy the evening with a whole bunch of other people in the neighborhood.”

The delineation between space for the public and those in the play is porous. There are no boundaries, no stage. People wander by and sit down, others leave mid-play. The park affects the audience’s behavior: they picnic, lounge, chat, chase after roaming dogs, send their kids to play, and hoot in response to the show. At one point during Sunday’s show, an actor ran all the way across the bowl to an area where families were playing Frisbee. Farther on, kids shrieked and played on the playground. Beats from nearby drummers mingled with the sounds of the performance.

“I love that there’s just a park going on behind this,” said Sharon Leshner, who came to the play after visiting the Parks on Tap beer garden, located in Clark Park during this year’s run. The park isn’t just behind the play, though—it’s a significant player. The set design embraces the natural features of the park and transforms a familiar place. The play activates the space of Clark Park’s bowl in a specific way, different than the usual use. The sounds of the play—the brassy notes of the jazz band and the actors voices booming over the speakers—bleed into other parts of the park. Purple spotlights illuminate trees from which chandeliers twinkle lights, and window frames hang. As the sun sets, the spotlights become brighter and there is a more intense focus on the show.

“It’s a marvel! You’re being reminded that you’re outside at the same time you’re being reminded that you’re in a play,” said Jerene Good, a volunteer with SCP. Shakespeare becomes an accessible spectacle here, produced outside the confines of a traditional theater, guaranteeing unlimited entry and a laid-back atmosphere. Clark Park is so welcoming a venue that some audience members say that they wouldn’t bother coming to the show if it weren’t held there. Still others felt ambivalent about the Shakespeare, drawn instead by the promise of a different experience in the park.

“When you think about Shakespeare, you don’t necessarily think that everyone’s interested in that,” said Candy Cason, “but when you look around, everyone’s here: little kids, older people, middle-aged people, college students.” Now that her kids are older and don’t need chaperones at the park, Cason and her husband use the Shakespeare performances (and movie nights) as an excuse to spend time in Clark Park.

A core tenet of SCP is radical community engagement. “What’s radical about what we do is not just inviting audience to come to show, but to be part of it, to be involved in the making of play and the pageantry and largeness of piece,” O’Neill said. As a West Philly resident and former audience member herself, she prioritizes getting community members to participate in the show. Two Gents featured the Suburban Jazz Quartet, a jazz band consisting of young professionals and high school students from the area. There was also a group of swing dancers who were not professionals but interested community members who learned the choreography from Lindy and Blues, an all-volunteer, Philly-based dance organization. When audience members recognize their neighbors in the show, they often come back to watch multiple times. And the hope is through that level of engagement, bonds to the park and the neighborhood can be strengthened.

“I truly believe that theater can be a force for changing communities and the way that we interact with one another. The communal act of coming together with your neighbors to listen to story is magical,” O’Neill said. “The neighborhood is not place, it’s people, and Shakespeare in the Park has become an event that lets people express who they are, which is a community.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal