The Play's the ThingJul 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Jan Bridgeford-Smith
Fortune. Fate. Kismet. Who or what directs our choices? Is it cosmic magic propelling us into situations that seem as if they were always meant to be? Long ago and far away, a character named Cassius gave a succinct answer to these questions: “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”
The year Cassius first spoke that line on a stage was 1599. The play was Julius Caesar. The words were William Shakespeare’s. According to Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, editors for the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions, England’s most famous playwright likely crafted this work to be the first production staged at his acting company’s new Globe Theatre.
For Stephen Ponton, artistic director for Ithaca Shakespeare Company and one of its founding members, directing a Shakespeare festival was not a boyhood passion. In fact, when he was first introduced to the Bard in high school, it was not love at first reading. Like so many young people before and since, he found the dramatist’s work riddled with words that required deciphering, which made the playwright a tedious, boring read.
“Shakespeare,” he says, “didn’t come alive for me until I was in college and saw a performance of Richard II at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. The action, the sword fights, the plot, it all came alive. The best introduction to Shakespeare is to see it. Reading it first is a much bigger challenge.” Whether Stephen’s fate was directed by the stars or resident within him, it was sealed at Stratford.
To see for yourself how Shakespeare comes alive, “... let’s go hand in hand, not one before another” to Robert H. Treman State Park, Ithaca, near the Upper Entrance, for ISC’s production of The Comedy of Errors, July 20 to 23, and July 26 to 30. It’s the Bard’s shortest work, written between 1589 and 1595. It’s often characterized as farcical, and is known for its physical comedy, a slew of mistaken identities, and word play.
The Ithaca Shakespeare Company traces its roots to a Cornell troupe, the Red Bull Players, a student theater organization whose members were mostly drawn from the university’s English Department. If you’re wondering, as did Juliet, “what’s in a name,” Red Bull refers to a London theater popular in Shakespeare’s time. It was known to be wild and boisterous, which perhaps explains why it was chosen as the name for the modern-day, uber-caffeinated drink in a can.
Stephen got involved with the players soon after he arrived in Ithaca to do a PhD program in Cornell’s Performing and Media Arts Department. His post-grad plan was to be a full-time faculty member in a college theater arts program. It didn’t quite work out that way. Once again, something changed his direction. In 2001, he assumed leadership of the Red Bull Players; in 2002 he expanded the group’s membership by recruiting community members who were involved in local theater. The Tempest, staged at an indoor location that same year, was the first play performed by the blended troupe. The production was a hit. Enthusiasm was high. But it was the 2003 season that marked the start of an intentional agenda by Stephen and others to develop an actual festival. Before the season got underway that year, Melanie Uhlir, also a founding member of the expanded town/gown company, suggested moving to an open air setting—Nearing Summerhouse on Comstock Knoll in the renowned Cornell Plantations.
By 2010, members of the expanded but loose-knit Red Bull Players decided to form a new, nonprofit organization—the Ithaca Shakespeare Company. Stephen took on the role of artistic director, and every year since, thanks to a dedicated group of board, staff, and volunteers, the company has made progress in establishing the Ithaca Shakespeare Festival as a must-see summer destination for anyone, of any age, interested in live stage.
Today the ensemble casts are a combination of professional, card-carrying equity actors, local community members, and students from Ithaca College and Cornell. The goals of every production are to present theater which sparks that change-of-heart, ah-ha moment Stephen experienced at Richard II, to bring Shakespeare’s timeless and enduring genius to life, and to accomplish it with historical accuracy in the staging.
Over the years, ISC added indoor productions in collaboration with Ithaca’s Hangar Theater, found a long-term home for itself at Fall Creek Studio, and, then in 2016, when the annual July festival had grown beyond the capacity of Cornell’s Botanical Gardens, they developed a partnership with New York’s Parks Department. First they moved to Allan H. Treman State Marine Park, and then in 2019 began performing at the Robert H. Treman State Park near the Upper Entrance, their current venue.
One of the major accomplishments for the company, in Stephen’s estimation, was staging the complete cycle of Shakespeare’s English history plays over a three-season period. These are the ten epic works, with lots of action, lots of characters that cut across the notorious British class system, a host of technical details to work out, and equal measures of tragic drama and witty comedy—all creating an emotional roller coaster for actors and audience.
As for the low points, Stephen says he’s never had a total fiasco, although some productions have seemed cursed.
“Those are the plays,” he says, “where you lose your leading actor just as rehearsals are starting, or prices have changed on needed materials throwing the entire production budget into turmoil.”
As the Bard says, “Every why hath a wherefore.”
Now in its twenty-first year, the Ithaca Shakespeare Festival has given thousands of individuals the opportunity to “see” what Shakespeare saw and understood about the human condition. For Stephen, the audience take-away he hopes for is that “each person sees something in a character or the dynamics of a relationship that they can identify with.”
“That was Shakespeare’s genius,” he says. “He was masterful when it came to writing about human behavior.”
For tickets and show times, visit ithacashakespeare.org or Facebook. It’s meant to be.