Teaching an audience to embrace the Bard

Give it more time and space, and the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival is confident that it can draw even more people into the universal bond of the Bard. Once exposed, there's no resisting, says artistic director Jim Helsinger. "If we can get them one time for one show, they'll come back. ... And it only helps that Shakespeare is plugged full of sex and violence."

In the eight years since its debut, the numbers at the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival support that claim: They are coming back -- the monthlong spring repertory season at Lake Eola amphitheater has seen attendance grow 10 percent in the past two years. And the box-office was bustling for the just-completed, two-show fall season at a 125-seat performing space in the Orange County Historical Museum. It seems that quality sells, even in a town that must be badgered to support local theater.

Not that the festival isn't working through the hang-ups that plague local theater as a whole, especially lack of marquee space downtown. The OSF's long-term plans are hitched to Mayor Hood's proposed downtown performing arts center, which envisions a 500- to 600-seat theater plus room enough to bring together all of the festival's working parts under one roof. Currently its offices are downtown, the set-building shop is on Orange Blossom Trail, and rehearsal space for the upcoming spring productions ("A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Henry IV, the First Play") is still up in the air. But the mayor's dream is by no means a certainty, so OSF isn't waiting for a "home" to continue on its mission to serve quality theater.

To that end, much energy flowed this year through the festival's Training Wing, following the addition a year ago of Richard Width as education director. (That brings the full-time staff to five.) Those lucky enough to see the held-over fall comedy, "The Compleat Works of Willm Shakspr (Abridged)," have a working picture of Width's classroom potential; he played the surfer-dudish blond with an obsession for wigs and a queasy stomach in the comedy that condensed 37 Shakespeare plays into two hours of witty vignettes.

Passion explodes from Width, who, like Helsinger, is a hands-on actor, teacher and director. Teaching the unreachable via Shakespeare is one of his specialties. There's a personal vengeance in the way he approaches his demanding schedule of performances and teaching assignments. He certainly believes in his message.

"The beauty of Shakespeare is that there is not one human experience that Shakespeare does not address in his work. He's full of role models, full of problem-solving -- from a very human perspective," says Width.

The Training Wing includes several school-age programs, and there are acting classes for both professionals and beginners. In addition, there's the "Unplugged" play-reading series staged at Sak Theater. Most of these programs are free to the public, so the not-for-profit's fund-raising wheels are always turning. (OSF taps into United Arts, as well as local and state grants, corporate and individual sponsorships, and box-office gains.)

But OSF knows that the money spent on education is a long-term investment in its future audience.

Just one of the projects that benefits from the festival's high-minded spending is The Young Company. This past summer, Width directed two dozen students from Orange County middle and high schools in an six-week program that produced a respectable production of "Hamlet." With no fear and lots of fun, Width decodes Shakespeare for his students, integrating many language-arts disciplines into his Shakespeare/self-explorations.

"The program isn't about the product," says Width. "It's about the process" -- one that leaves his students with incalculable leaps in self-understanding, self-esteem and, not coincidentally, hooked on Shakespeare.

Certainly passion alone can't fill the seats and the coffers of local theaters, but if it could, the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival would be home already.

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