HART's Shakespeare on the Canal hits snag

Artistic Director Michael Shelton has continued plans for HART, despite the setback. Photo by Mark Lee.

You could call the actor/director Michael Shelton the

Indianapolis equivalent of a child star. He's a local showbiz lifer who began

his career in the theater at the age of six, when his parents took him downtown

to audition for a role in the Indiana Repertory Theatre's production of A

Christmas Carol in 1980. He didn't have to

be persuaded to participate. Shelton knew almost immediately that this was the

life for him. He's been on local stages ever since.


2006, Shelton was part of a group of local professional actors who founded the

Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre. The group's intention has been to create

additional opportunities for local theater artists by offering staged readings

and full productions of contemporary and classic plays. HART shows have

included Death and the Maiden, In a Dark, Dark House and Happy Birthday, Wanda



has also made a name for itself by with its outdoor productions of Shakespeare

plays in the White River State Park amphitheater. Originally booked as the

theater component for the Park's summer Family Arts series in 2008, HART's

production of The Merchant of Venice was so well received that the company was invited

back last summer, where they drew crowds of over 1,000 people for Much Ado

About Nothing.


returns to the park August 6, 7 and 8 with The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Shelton, who now serves as HART's Artistic Director, is

also the director of the company's latest outing. He took a break from

rehearsals last week to talk about HART and his hopes for an outdoor

Shakespeare festival.

Shelton: It was a dream of mine, personally, to get summer

Shakespeare on the Canal downtown going because I think the city needs it.

Given the turnout [the last two years], I may have been right. It's been

incredibly well received. But HART is only about four years-old. This is our

third year in White River State Park doing summer Shakespeare. There are

growing pains and some changes have happened in terms of people that are with

us and people that aren't – like with any organization in the early

years. But [summer Shakespeare] has turned into a flagship event.


It's great to see a group made by actors for actors. What's it like to create

your own venue?


Any time we go anywhere, it's always treading new ground. There's something

exciting – not only for us, but for the audience – abut going into

a space where they're not used to seeing things. Don't get me wrong: It would

be lovely to have a permanent home. There's something wonderful about people

knowing where to find you. But there are interesting challenges and

opportunities to being a nomadic troupe, as we are.


You can be nimble.


And you can find spaces that fit whatever show you're trying to do. Midwestern


was perfect for the Artsgarden because it's about living in a big dome.

Something very intimate, like In a Dark, Dark House, the Neil LaBute play at the

Fringe space, where it's tight, puts you in there with the characters. Then

there's Shakespeare, where it's huge and vast and turned into this festival

atmosphere out there in the park, where we use up every inch of green space we

possibly can.


What's it like working out there?


Any time you're working outside, you have certain obstacles and challenges to

deal with. Weather is one of them. Noise. But, in general, it's lovely being

outside. It's a really cool environment from both sides of the stage. From a

performance standpoint, it's crazy, the scope of the audience – it's like

you're playing a rock show. It's wonderfully bizarre, when you're doing

Shakespeare, to look out and see a crowd of a thousand-plus people. It's a phenomenal

experience. Being on the bank of the river and having that as a backdrop

creates all kinds of opportunities. Shakespeare fits perfectly because so much

of it is happening outdoors anyway.


You say you felt the city needed Shakespeare. Why is that?

Shelton: There are certainly organizations that do

Shakespeare – most notably the IRT (Indiana Repertory Theatre). But their

take is always to take things and put them in a contemporary environment, which

is not a bad thing. I don't mean to knock it. I love the idea of doing

Shakespeare traditionally, as an introduction for people, to show them what it

can be. I don't personally feel that you have to cater down to an audience. I

don't think you have to set it in a contemporary environment to get them to understand

it. You just have to do it well. You just have to be clear. You have to tell

the story. You also have to get the right people to do it, and that's where

I've been very fortunate in having the connections, knowing the actors I knew

as an actor before any of this started. I guess that's where it came from.

There wasn't anybody putting it out there in the way, at least I believe, it

was originally intended.


There seems to be something about performing Shakespeare outdoors that makes it

especially accessible to people.


I think so. The whole environment down there turns into a festive thing. Not

that I'm encouraging this, but if you get bored with one scene, you can get a

drink and come back. It's very different than if you're in a dark theater and

you can't think about anything else.


How did you come to choose The Two Gentlemen of Verona?


Each year I probably read half the canon over again to try to figure out what

we're going to do. The hope was – and still is for next year – to

expand this into a larger festival. The park is behind that. But, like

everything else, it's a matter of finding the financing. We were hoping to do

two shows, including one of the tragedies. But when we came to realize we could

only afford to produce one show again this year, we decided we better keep it

light and entertaining and not try to do anything too heavy. We also wanted to

do something different from Much Ado About Nothing, which we did last year.


Gentlemen is

so fun. It's start-to-finish entertainment that keeps you laughing through the

whole piece. It maybe doesn't have the substance that Much Ado has, though there are things

going on. It's really just a good time. I would say it's one of Shakespeare's

funniest plays.


This year you're also offering a pre-show where different musicians (Bobbie

Lancaster, Tim Brickley, and Dan Holmes, respectively) will play a set before

each performance. Isn't the idea of a pre-show Elizabethan?


Yes, but I'll be honest, I didn't come up with it for that reason. I was amazed

people were coming so early the first year and camping to get their spots. So

we realized we better do something because everybody showed up two hours ahead

of time. But it's the same basic principle as in Shakespeare's time: Come out

for the entertainment – and see what we've got.


production of Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona


by Michael Shelton


River State Park


6 & 7 at 8 p.m.


8 at 2 p.m.


early for musical entertainment


is free


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