When Bird-on-a-Cliff’s Woodstock Shakespeare Festival first started playing shows on its own stage 20 years ago, outside Woodstock’s handsome office building on the Comeau Property, everything from the Elizabethan stage’s front to the balcony used for that summer’s productions of Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew was screwed in – because the idea was that they would be there for just that summer. “Eventually that first stage withered away, and we replaced it with funding help from the Catskill Watershed Corporation,” says Bird-on-a-Cliff’s co-founder, Elli Michaels. “This summer we’re doing Much Ado about Nothing, since that was the very first play we did at the old outdoor Playhouse stage the year before we moved to the Comeau Property.”
The new “Wild West” production of one of the Bard’s most popular comedies – in which Beatrice and Benedick, while sparring wits, fall in love – will be playing every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from July 17 through August 9 at 5 p.m., with free admission (but donations accepted). All attendees are asked to bring folding chairs or blankets. Later this summer, the Bird-on-a-Cliff Theater Company will present Jerry James and David Aston-Reese’s adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz at similar times from August 14 through September 6.
When asked about highlights of the theater troupe’s long run doing outdoor Shakespeare for free each summer, Michaels’ co-founder, co-producer and co-director Aston-Reese commented how he had played Benedick twice, but was now casting himself as the lover’s father. He also noted the number of young people who were introduced to theater by their productions and now acting with Bird-on-a -Cliff, as well as the time “an English lord came in to play Hamlet.”
Asked about the big lessons learned over two decades, Michaels and Aston-Reese spoke at length about the vagaries of working outdoors with fickle Catskills weather patterns. “We learned early on to simply gather all our cast and crew no matter the weather, and then see what happened,” he said about their way of dealing with the rain. If the weather broke, or an audience showed up anyway, the show would usually go on. “I recall one performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream early on where it started pouring and we kept on, the audience under umbrellas and everyone having a grand old time. Of course, that was before body microphones!”
Michaels added how all her wishes have come down to one thing: a tent. Dreaming big, she’d love a retractable A-frame that she has plotted out; but she would also love just to meet a creative tentmaker – and a patron ready to cover for such an improvement. “We’re looking forward to our next 20 years,” she adds.
“There’s just something magical about Shakespeare’s language,” Aston-Reese chimed in. “It gets in your blood; it speaks to the heart.”
Woodstock Shakespeare Festival’s Much Ado about Nothing, Friday-Sunday, July 17-August 9, 5 p.m., free, Comeau Property, 45 Comeau Drive, Woodstock; (845) 247-4007, https://www.birdonacliff.org.