Originally conceived as a one-time event, Shakespeare in the Arb will kick off its 11th season this month. SITA’s artistic director, Kate Mendeloff, Lecturer at the UM’s Residential College, was first asked to stage a play in the Arb in June 2001. “I did this once, turned out to be really fun, did it again, and then all of a sudden it’s an institution.” For that production Mendeloff chose A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and there have been three revivals of that play in the past decade, but her ever-changing troupe of UM students, faculty and townies (usually including many young children), has staged six other Shakespeare classics and this year will premiere The Winter’s Tale, including members of Ann Arbor’s English Country Dance group.
The Winter’s Tale? In June? Even given Michigan’s fickle weather that seems a stretch. But over the years Mendeloff, her casts and audiences have seen how the Arb has a magical way of welcoming and hosting Shakespeare’s plays, making it seem as though the Bard had written them for just this one-of-a-kind vast natural stage. SITA productions roam all over the Arb, with the audience following the action and the actors to each locale. The setting itself transforms the plays. “The way we can interact with the environment leads to so much creativity,” says Mendeloff. Not to mention serendipity. In an early production of Midsummer, right after Puck said, “I’ll lead then about, around, sometimes a horse I’ll be, sometimes a hound,” three dogs came running into the Arb’s East Valley, barking madly. One night in As You Like It with the Duke and his Lords hunting deer in the forest of Arden, a whole family of deer walked by. Some of the serendipity Mendeloff anticipates, and prepares for. In one performance of The Tempest, just as one of the King’s men asked, “What is this strange island we’re on?” a plane flew overhead. The actors all ducked, drew their swords, and pointed them at the sky. While Mendeloff has no special pull scheduling the airlines, she did plan the response. “I said to my actors, “We’re on an island, it’s 1610, and you’ve never heard a train or a plane. So whenever any of these sounds happen, react the way you would if there was a wild beast or a huge bird.”
You can only buy tickets for SITA on the night of the shows, no advance sales. Last year, nearly every performance sold out and people were turned away, so plan to arrive early.