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'Kickstart Shakespeare': Of Sonnets, Beer, And Online Fundraising

Recitations of Shakespearean love poems may come straight to you via mobile app in celebration of his 450th birthday.
Recitations of Shakespearean love poems may come straight to you via mobile app in celebration of his 450th birthday.

The New York Shakespeare Exchange says its goal is "to encourage an enthusiastic appreciation of classical theater and to expand the reach of the art form within new and existing audiences." More specifically, it's interested in the question of "what happens when contemporary culture is infused with Shakespearean poetry and themes in unexpected ways."

What, exactly, does that mean?

The founder and artistic director of the company, Ross Williams, told me that in large part, it means exploring "how we can get Shakespeare to work for a new generation, for new audiences." And they're serious about changing up the setting where necessary: their projects include a Shakespearean pub crawl, where at each location, a scene breaks out. They call it ... Shakesbeer. (C'mon. Wouldn't you?) Here's the video from one of their past events.

At the moment, their mission means the same thing it means for a lot of artists and arts organizations trying to come up with funds for small, medium-sized, and large projects. It means taking their plea to Kickstarter — a plea that ends Thursday night at 11:00 p.m.

The effort resides, logically enough, at KickstartShakespeare.com. It's a drive to raise $45,000, in large part to support a pair of upcoming undertakings. The first, called the Sonnet Project, means to create 154 videos of 154 actors reading 154 of Shakespeare's love poems in 154 locations in New York. The idea is that they'll look a little like this prototype.

That's Vince Gatton, who appeared in the 2011 Shakespeare Exchange (or NYSX) production of The Life And Death Of King John, a Shakespeare play there's a decent chance you don't know much about and an excellent chance you've never seen performed.

For the sonnets to come, while Williams stresses the Sonnet Project is not intended to be a parade of celebrities, they've signed up a few folks more likely to be known outside New York, like Michael Urie (Ugly Betty's delightful Marc St. James), Austin Pendleton (who has been in ... everything), and Patrick Page, currently the Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. The hope is that during the run of the project, if you have the app, you'll get a new minute-long sonnet reading to look at every few days, and sometimes, you might see someone you recognize.

There are ambitious plans for the release of the videos at a rate of two or three per week over a year leading up to Shakespeare's 450th birthday (or thereabouts) in April 2014. There will also be walking tours, special features, and plenty more. (The words "Sonnet Project mobile app" probably sum up what's going on here about as well as anything could.)

The money raised will also help pay for the production of Island, an original comedy written as a riff on Shakespeare's style and most commonly encountered elements. Here's the plot synopsis for Island as the company describes it:

When a ferocious tempest shipwrecks two girls from 21st century America onto an island inhabited entirely by Shakespeare's greatest tropes and archetypes, a hilarious clash of cultures ensues. An enchanted island; an ineffectual king and his usurping younger brother; a band of bumbling constables; a lovelorn, melancholy prince; a shipwrecked, cross-dressing lover in search of her twin; and plenty of other Shakespearean familiars come face-to-face with modern sensibilities as the mayhem of Kevin Brewer's classically-entrenched psyche comes to gut-busting comedic life.

Well, naturally. It's not Shakespeare without cross-dressing and royal power struggles.

Kickstarter fundraising has been a "crash course for everybody," Williams says, in raising money for an organization that's only two years old and isn't as steeped in fundraising experience as other companies might be.

It has a catch, though: you only get the money if you make it to your goal. (As of this writing, they're at a little less than $34,000 out of their $45,000 target with 32 hours to go.) But Williams told me that while they've had lots of internal discussions about the pluses and minuses, that actually turns out to be a positive thing that he sees as an advantage to Kickstarter as a platform over some other funding mechanisms that let you keep whatever amount you raise. There's an urgency at the end of a fund drive with a hard goal you have to make, after all, when pushing past the goal is the only way to access the money that's already been raised.

While there may be some Shakespeare purists who find the NYSX approach too different from the interpretations they're used to, Williams says it's a myth that Shakespeare is for fancy-pantses only. "Shakespeare becomes this grandiose experience," he says, "and in fact, it was written for the masses."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.