What's a nice Jewish boy like Ben Donenberg doing with a crush on William Shakespeare?
"Shakespeare is my obsession," admits the actor-turned-entrepreneur. "I don't care if he really existed or not; I just love his plays." Under Donenberg's artistic directorship, Shakespeare Festival/LA has set out to spread that sentiment throughout Los Angeles; this weekend it launches a fifth season of free performances beginning at Hollywood's John Anson Ford Amphitheater (through July 14), followed by a July 18 to 28 run at Citicorp Plaza downtown.
"It started around eight years ago," recalled Donenberg, 33, who trained as an actor at Juilliard. "I was playing a valet in 'Amadeus' on Broadway, and after about four months of moving furniture, I started needing a creative outlet." The idea of a community theater company was still bubbling in 1983 when he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a master's degree in philosophy at USC.
"I was looking back at the Greeks--2,500 years ago, when Athens was a lot like Los Angeles," he said. "All the fields were just starting to develop--business, commerce, art, mathematics--and I think as people began to individuate themselves in these pursuits, they looked for ways to connect, to create community: 'Although we have different interests, we're still alike.' That's what the original Greek theater festivals must have been like: free, outdoors, and everybody attended."
For Donenberg (whose space-age spoof "Starship Shakespeare" was a 1985 hit at Al's Bar downtown), that sense of community began in his native Skokie, Ill.
"I hung out a lot at the synagogue as a child," he said. "My father died when I was very young, so becoming religious, was, I guess, a way of repairing the damage. I used to sit in the synagogue listening to the rabbi give his sermons and think, 'This is great.' But even though it was a noble thing--to raise people's ethical and moral way of living--there's a whole world out there that isn't Jewish; there should be a way of doing it that cuts across religion."
The step into theater was a short one. "I was in the Hebrew school plays; I played Queen Esther with a wig on," he said with a chuckle, remembering an all-male production. "One time, we were given an extra credit assignment if we watched Olivier's 'Hamlet' on TV and wrote a report about it. I didn't understand much except that Hamlet's father died and came back as a ghost. I said, 'Hey, I can identify with that.' "
Although he pursued acting steadily (including two summers at the National Shakespeare Conservatory in Woodstock, N.Y.), "It gradually became apparent to me that, although I had talent, the world didn't really need another great actor. What it needed was more people to create playgrounds for them to play in." Intuitively, he turned to Ira Gershwin's widow (for whom he'd been editing George and Ira's scrapbooks) and asked for her help in starting a community Shakespeare festival.
"It was like a Cinderella story," he said happily. Recalling that Citicorp had sponsored New York's Shakespeare in the Park, he picked up the phone book and called Citicorp. "I said, 'I have a little bit of help from Mrs. Gershwin, will you help?' and they said, 'Sure.' You know how people scramble around to raise money? Citicorp said, 'Come in right now, we want to talk to you.' They were new in town and wanted something they could be identified with--and they've been a major funder ever since."
Donenberg's first festival site was Pershing Square in the heart of downtown. At his urging, the Community Redevelopment Agency got on board--as did Actors Equity, with whom he negotiated special contracts for his players, "because I don't think anybody should work for free." Shakespeare Festival/LA now also boasts a full-time, 14-member board of directors, additional corporate sponsorship and a new educational program for children.
This year, "Shakespearience!" has traveled to elementary schools with a puppet adaptation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." "We also send out a dance instructor who teaches the kids the Elizabethan Washerwoman's Brawl--expose them to music and dance, costumes, Shakespeare's words. An actor pretends he's Shakespeare and talks about what it was like to live then."
This summer, the main stage fare is "Much Ado About Nothing," a comedy, said the show's director Kevin Kelley, "that's very much about appearances--very appropriate today in Los Angeles.
"Many of the plots in the play have to do with the danger of denying true feelings for appearance's sake," added Kelley, who believes that "Much Ado's" inherent seriousness is often overlooked. "People wear masks of wit, social decorum, egotism. It's also about the privileged segments of society and the quality of language." He has set the play on a tony American island retreat in 1932, and scored it with jazz of the day.