Organizers ‘astounded’ by Shakespeare festival’s success

With an estimated 1,300 visitors, smooth-running performances and good weather, the first annual South Dakota Shakespeare Festival held June 8-10 was a triumph, organizers said.

Visitors to Prentis Park were treated to lessons in Elizabethan folk dancing before the Sunday, June 10 performance of "As You Like It." Elaine Peacock and Grace Freeman offered instructions on the proper moves to make. Music was provided by Cindy and Rebecca Gehm and Bruce Gray. (Photo by David Lias)

"From a production standpoint, I was astounded with our success," said artistic director Chaya Gordon-Bland. "In every way, shape and form for our first year out of the gate, it exceeded my expectations."

It was a success in terms of numbers, as well.

Festival executive director Gregory Huckabee said first-night attendance of "As You Like It" was 325 people, followed by 435 and 323 on the next consecutive nights.

The numbers were tallied by volunteers at the entrance gates, and a second survey was taken about an hour into the production, Huckabee said.

An additional 100 people were attracted by the various workshops held throughout the weekend, bringing the total up to about 1,300, he said.

It was estimated through a license plate check within a five-block radius of Prentis Park that 15-20 percent of the attendees came from outside Clay County, Huckabee added.

Even the weather cooperated, said Scott Mollman, production manager/technical director.

"We got a little nervous on Sunday when we saw rainclouds forming, and thought for sure we were going to have to move (the performance)," he said. "But by the end of the day they cleared up."

The festival was organized by Coyoteopoly, a University of South Dakota student-run corporation that provides charitable work to the area.

Coyoteopoly students worked 18 months securing the financing for the festival, but the actual theatre company worked together only four weeks designing and rehearsing the production.

"I'm an actor by trade and have worked for a lot of different companies and had a lot of different kinds of experiences," Gordon-Bland said. "And we were just blessed to have a really healthy, professional, talented and creatively productive company, where all of our artists walked away with having a really positive experience."

Audience members "walked away" with the same kind of experience, with many remarking on the response to the production by the children who saw it.

"I'm not talking about 9- or 10-year-olds – I'm talking about little, little kids," Gordon-Bland said. "On Friday night the small kids were all sitting near the front, which I think is the best place to see a play in the park. That gets you the most engaged.

"They were just eating it up, and it's surprising because so many grown-ups think they're going to struggle with Shakespeare or Shakespeare's language … and there's something for kids that it seems to operate for them on a different level, on a more intuitive level. Maybe they don't let their brains get in the way yet," she said.

While the festival went off without a hitch, in the months and weeks leading up to it, organizers had no idea what to expect.

"There was no real way we could guesstimate (attendance) reasonably accurately," Huckabee said. "It would have been nothing more than a wild guess. So, I cautioned everybody, 'Don't throw out numbers when you don't have a basis for them, because people are going to rely on them. Just tell them the truth – we don't know.' Now we know. That's what's different."

"For me, as artistic director, the metric is much more qualitative than quantitative, so I didn't have a picture in mind, where we would have to get so many people," Gordon-Bland added. "What was important to me was that we impact the community, and that might have meant having 50 people there, quite frankly."

The extent to which that impact was felt will become clearer as a series of after-action reports is completed.

"It's probably a pretty safe conclusion to say everybody bought something," Huckabee said. "If they didn't buy a T-shirt, they certainly did business with the vendors or bought something in town. …

"So, for 1,300 people, I think we can honestly say there was an economic impact that was favorable to the community," he said.

In terms of the production itself, the organizers are looking to things that can be improved upon, and other changes that can be made.

In fact, some changes were even made between the Friday and Saturday performances.

"The first change was, we inserted an intermission, which was really needed," Huckabee said. "Second, we moved the whole audience up 50 feet closer to the stage. …

"We're all learning, being our first (festival), and one of the things that we learned that was really key was, until you physically get people in the (performance) space, you don't know how many people it really can accommodate," he said.

Gordon-Bland said that what the audience of next year's festival will see won't be that different from this year.

However, there are some areas on which organizers will focus, such as the workshops.

"We need to continue to strategize about how to reach high school students, because we really only had a smattering of high school students who were involved," Gordon-Bland said. "We had some wonderful workshops being taught on a high school level, for a combination of artists in the community, artists in the company and faculty, and there were some really great topics."

Mollman said the festival may see a change in how sound is projected, using large speakers on stands.

"Any time you're amplifying sound you're losing some of the natural sound of the actor's voice," he said. "Also, when you're using speakers, you've got some people sitting 10 feet from the speaker, and some people sitting 150 feet away."

Both Huckabee and Gordon-Bland said more vendors may be added to the park, as well.

"The benefit of doing these after-action reports is, the students will pick up literally where we left off, as opposed to starting over," Huckabee said. "That's the business learning piece: Even though you change personnel, you don't want to have to re-learn lessons that it took you so long to try and learn."

This will be especially helpful due to the fact that the second festival will have a much shorter planning period than the first.

"We're going to be working under a highly-accelerated timeframe," Gordon-Bland said.

"We had almost two years to put this together, and now we're going to go from 18 months to nine months to fundraise."

All of the organizers expressed their thanks to the community administrators and residents for their support.

"It's really inspiring, and completely essential to what we're doing," Gordon-Bland said. "Vermillion is the kind of community that's ready to support this type of endeavor, and that's very, very exciting."

"The business model that I hope to sustain is that this all remains free for all parties concerned," Huckabee added. "I think it's giving back to the community, and that's something students need to learn, is successful businesses give back to the customers. They don't just take.

"And we're grateful to the community for showing up and supporting the entire production," he said.

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