Shakespeare-in-the-Arb 2023: Much Ado About Nothing

As the upcoming season approaches, organizers of this year’s Shakespeare-in-the-Arb shared how grateful they were to have the wider Ann Arbor community come to their plays in the woods and watch little kids grow up as they accompany their parents to the U of M-run play.

Some of the kids who are brought there by their parents fall in love with acting and Shakespeare, and even end up being part of the plays.

Brittany Batell, a Michigan Medicine graduate who will play Beatrice in this year’s version of “Much Ado About Nothing,” knows this because she is one of them.

“This is my twelfth year doing it. The primary reason I keep coming back to it is community,” Batell said, as well as the magic of the Bard’s writing. “And to do it in this space, because the Arboretum is beautiful, and celebrate the natural elements by having a play within them and really learning about this space opens up these opportunities for how we do entrances, and stage things and how can we bring in things that already exist to highlight it in a new way.”

Shakespeare-in-the-Arb is a play hosted every year by University of Michigan students and community members in the Arboretum – an urban woodland adjacent to the University of Michigan Hospital which was allowed to remain wooded as the city developed because its sharp ravines leading down to the Huron River made it too difficult to develop. It was eventually made part of the U of M’s LSA, and for the last 21 years it has been the stage of this play.

It’s similar to Vancouver’s Bard-on-the-Beach or New York City’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park. But the difference, according to Shakespeare-in-the-Arb Co-Director Graham Atkin, is that unlike its New York’s cousin production, there is no stage in the Arb.

Instead, you gather at one of the entrances of the park where the first scene is performed. The audience then stands up and walks a few hundred yards from one vast opening of manicured grass to another every time a scene ends, keeping an eye out for actors darting in and out of the audience as they move with you, staying in character the whole time.

Every single stage performance is different of course, but it is hard to find another play where the stage itself changes over the course of the run.

Atkin described the Arb as “the most beautiful stage in the world.”

And it is different every time. Sometimes it’s windless and sunny. The next performance might be done in a light drizzle. There have even been times when a deer randomly wanders into a scene mid-performance, Atkin said.

Christa Ventresca, a genetics student pursing a PhD and actress playing Conrade this year, said she enjoys having fun while in the production.

“A lot of times when you’re doing a show as a student, you work on a show for month or two and then you put it on for a single weekend. Whereas with this you have a much more prolonged relationship for the show where we rehearse it for a whole month and then we put it on for a whole month,” Ventresca said. “It lets you get a little more into the characters.”

This year, the shows will be on June 1-4, June 8-11, June 15-18, and Jun 22-25. Each performance start at 6:30 p.m.

Unfortunately, this will be the first time the play will not be done under the supervision of Kate Mendeloff, the U of M professor who founded it. Mendeloff passed away on April 15, of cancer at the age of 69.

Tickets can be found on their website, or at the Michigan Union Ticket Office. General admission is $25, members of the Matthaei-Michols Botanical Gardens can get in for $20. Children aged 5 to 18 and current students with ID can get in for $15.

Refunds are not available for any cancellations. Cancellations are generally done for health reasons or extreme weather – such as unusually extreme heat or thunderstorms. People with mobility disabilities can be accommodated with a complementary golf card ride.

“It’s just a magical, fun, funny time,” Atkin said. “Bring a picnic, wear comfortable shoes [and] bug spray and just come escape into the woods with us for an evening and get transported. It is really a show that takes you out of your workday life and puts you in this other space for a couple of hours. It is so fun. …People sometimes ask us how we compete with stuff like Netflix. It is so immersive. You are surrounded by this gorgeous stage, all this action going on around, you and it is just so fun, charming, and captivating.”

 

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