Grassroots Shakespeare Arizona is bringing classical Shakespeare back with a twist. As a pop-up show that performs in various places throughout the Valley, they pride themselves on bringing an interactive and intimate theater experience to audiences that focuses on the performance.
They are bringing that experience to audiences through their current performance of “Richard III” on Nov. 4 and 5 at Dobson Ranch Park in Mesa.
“Richard III” tells the story of Richard of Gloucester, a physically deformed royal in the shadow of his older brother, King Edward IV, who hatches a plot to ascend the throne and become king—and killing is his method of choice.
Since three women founded Grassroots Shakespeare Arizona in 2014, it has developed into well-rounded theater company with four shows a season and a six-member board of directors who take care of managerial aspects in addition to acting in the productions.
One of three founding members, actress and member on the board of directors, Hayla Stewart, said they perform Shakespeare in an original practice way. This means no director, they build their own sets, bring their own costumes, have two weeks of rehearsal time, and no tech.
Grassroots Shakespeare Arizona differs from other theater companies in that the cast members interact with the audience by asking questions, prompting them for a response or bringing them up on stage.
“We direct our lines to them, we ask them questions…we love it when they’re booing, they’re hissing, and they’re coming at us with sassy quips, it keeps us on our toes,” Stewart said. “The whole point is to just make it more understandable, because Shakespeare was meant to be seen.”
A stand-up show that puts on an engaging performance, Grassroots Shakespeare Arizona’s simplistic set gives them the freedom to perform in an organic way and interact with the audience.
“The tech doesn’t hold us back,” Stewart said, who plays multiple roles including Lady Anne in the production. “This way we focus on telling the story and getting that across, making it fun and that’s the most important part. Every time we go through a show, we always come back to ‘What is it in this scene that we need to tell in order to get the story across?'”
Part of those questions arise from the interactions of the seven cast members of “Richard III,” who discuss their characters and the best way to portray them to the audience—and when to add a prompt for audience interaction or response.
“Richard III” cast member Amy Palmer, who plays Queen Margaret and others, said “Richard III” was the first time she performed multiple roles in a play.
“It definitely gives you a variety and you get to explore your talent a lot more because each character is so different from the other one,” Palmer said.
“I feel my Queen Margaret character is the one I have the most fun with,” she said “She’s crazy, she curses everyone, I think she has nothing to lose.”
In addition to her acting roles, Palmer and the rest of the cast helps to create the set, which she said helps the cast mates bond.
“It makes you appreciate everything that goes into the play,” Palmer said. “It’s been really fun…you get to have your input and there’s no director, so that makes it really interesting to have everyone give their opinion” about various aspects of the play from character development, script, play organization, etc.
“At the end of the last show, you’re kind of like a little family,” Palmer said. “I would recommend it to anyone who is wanting to do Shakespeare or dip into acting, it’s definitely a great way to explore your talent and have fun.”
Palmer said in Grassroots Shakespeare, the atmosphere helps audience members to feel like they’re a part of the show. While some members may tense up, others are active participants in prompts given by the cast. Palmer said she feels the audience warms up to the darker play, “Richard III,” as each performance goes on.
Though “Richard III” will be the last show of 2016, Grassroots Shakespeare Arizona will continue its 2016-2017 season with performances of “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in spring 2017.
“With Grassroots Shakespeare, we get an audience member pretty much every show, who comes up to us and says, ‘Wow, thank you so much for doing this, this was so great to see and it was heartwarming,’” Stewart said.
“It has this sense of community that it offers and I think people latch onto that. We’ve had a lot of people come up to us and say, ‘This really spoke to my soul and it made me happy inside.’ I love that.”
The group’s performance of “Richard III” will be at 7:30 p.m. both Friday and Saturday at Dobson Ranch Park, 2359 S. Dobson Road. Admission is free.
– Mesa resident Alyssa Tufts is a freelance reporter for MyNewsMesa.com.