Casting Shakespeare in the park with an army of regulars

Sarah Gladwyn Camp helps choreograph a scene from this year's Shakespeare in Clark Park play, "Henry IV."
Sarah Gladwyn Camp helps choreograph a scene from this year's Shakespeare in Clark Park play, "Henry IV." (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 27, 2014

When Bonnie Paul asked her daughter, Ilena, if she wanted to join the army in a production of Shakespeare's Henry IV at Clark Park, the preteen hesitated.

Their conversation went something like this:

"Would I get to kill you?" asked Ilena, 12.

"Maybe," replied Bonnie, 41.

That sold the girl on the idea, although she and her mother did end up being cast on the same side, fighting rebels rather than each other.

The thespian combatants are two of 88 volunteers from around Philadelphia appearing in the epic Battle of Shrewsbury scene of H enry IV, this year's production of Shakespeare in Clark Park, which debuts Wednesday.

Stage combat has been a bonding experience for the mother-daughter duo for the last several weeks, as they have made the commute from their home in Huntingdon Valley to West Philadelphia for rehearsals.

"She's a preteen and she's getting complicated, so the more time I can spend with her doing something creative, away from a screen, the better," Bonnie Paul said.

There are just a handful of children in the army, as participants had to be 12 or older. Actually, Ilena Paul says, it's "pretty cool."

Nine years into presenting Shakespeare in Clark Park, the troupe's leaders felt it was time to try something different, said Marla Burkholder, one of the founders and the artistic director.

They'd done all of the "obvious shows," Burkholder said - primarily the comedies. Although they did put on a production of Romeo and Juliet, or, as Burkholder calls it, "the tragedy everyone can stand."

Her friend Alex Torra, director of this year's production, suggested Henry IV. This version incorporates scenes from Parts 1 and 2 of the story of the 15th century English king.

But Torra didn't just want to do a production of Henry IV. He wanted to do it big - with a sprawling battle scene between rebel and royalist armies.

So Shakespeare in Clark Park teamed up with Torra's Team Sunshine Performance Corp. - a company that looks to use art as a catalyst for community-building that Torra founded with Benjamin Camp and Makoto Hirano - and submitted an application to the Knight Arts Challenge of Philadelphia.

Knight Arts, which was looking to support large-scale community-oriented art, awarded the players $35,000, and then the real work began.

Giving nonactors - many of them longtime Shakespeare in Clark Park audience members - the opportunity to be in the play is another way to make Shakespeare more accessible.

"How do we get an audience that's sitting in a park in 2014 to connect to characters - historical figures - that were alive in 1400?" Torra asked. "The army is one way to do it."

Planning for up to 100 volunteers was one thing; finding them was another. Liz Green, who specializes in audience engagement and has worked with Team Sunshine before, became head recruiter for the project.

To get the word out, she partnered with large organizations, like the Free Library, and niche organizations, like Fringe Arts and the West Park Cultural Center. She used CultureBlocks, an online database that maps out the "creative and cultural assets" of the city, to find other groups.

In December and January, she asked community members who were invited to choreography workshops to reach out to their networks and serve as ambassadors.

The results of Green's recruiting efforts? A very diverse army.

"I think that they are going to look and feel like the city of Philadelphia," she said.

That means teachers, students, retirees, scientists, writers, and musicians. The youngest warrior is 12 and others were elderly enough that they were not willing to disclose their ages. They come from more than 30 neighborhoods around Philadelphia.

Camp, who was largely responsible for the army's choreography, serves as a general, leading the army in rehearsals with the help of his lieutenants.

Also one of the play's producers, he describes the choreography as a mix of marching band, martial arts, rugby, and a little bit of Braveheart.

The choreography is abstract; there are no weapons, Camp said. To indicate formations and movements, he has littered pages and pages of graph paper with x's and o's.

The formations are complicated, even though the army is made up of relative amateurs. Volunteers have had about 15 rehearsals, first twice a week for 21/2 hours and then more frequently as opening night neared.

Camp is adamant: "It's not a flash mob."

He likes to compare the process to summer camp, with the army as campers, the lieutenants as counselors, and himself as the camp director.

The analogy comes alive at rehearsals. One recent evening, Camp clapped to get the troupers' attention, and they clapped back. He opened the session by shouting "Rehearsal number five" and was met by whooping and hollering from his campers.

They weren't afraid to ask questions: Should I look to the right or to the left? What am I supposed to do with my hand? Eyes open or closed?

"They're not children, but a lot of them are taking a real risk for themselves," Camp said. "This is what we do every day and this is not what they do every day, so it's a risk to put themselves on stage, to take this much time to do something that is a little hard to explain."

Frank Innes, 62, has only been retired for a few months, but was already looking for something to do besides spending time with his wife and fixing up the house. So when he got an e-mail seeking volunteers for a massive battle scene, he was intrigued.

Innes hasn't taken the stage since 1970, when he sang "Flesh Failures," the intro to "Let the Sunshine In," during a high school production of Hair.

Though dancing is not his strong suit, it forces Innes to use his brain in a different way, which, he said, when you get to his age, is a good thing.

It reminds him of summer.

"If you were ever in summer camp as a child," he said, "you remember it's a special group that only exists for a short time and place, and the rest of the year it doesn't exist."

And that, Innes said, is what this year's Shakespeare in Clark Park is for him.


"Henry IV" in Clark Park, 43d Street and Baltimore Avenue, will be performed from Wednesday through Aug. 3 at 7 p.m. The event is free. For more information, visit shakespeareinclarkpark.org.

CFabris@phillynews.com

215-854-5607 @CaseyFabris

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