Not long after Amanda Cantrell and her husband, Scott, moved to Spokane in August 2019, they surveyed the theater landscape and felt like something was missing.
What it needed was a little more Elizabethan English rendered in iambic pentameter, preferably amid the natural backdrop of the city's parks.
"When we got here," Amanda says, "we found out that there wasn't already an outdoor summer Shakespeare theater. And we were surprised, because Spokane is an arts community and has some established theaters here. But this wasn't something that was really being tapped into. So we saw this, and we were like, "We could do that. Why don't we do that? Let's do that!'"
On the face of it, few people would be better equipped for exactly this sort of venture. The peripatetic couple, most recently transplanted from Anchorage, Alaska, had a combination of skills perfectly suited to launching a troupe dedicated to performing the Bard's works. Amanda was completing her doctorate in nonprofit leadership at the time, and Scott is a longtime Shakespeare actor and scholar.
"He loves Shakespeare. If he could do Shakespeare for the rest of his life, he'd be a happy man," she says. "That's his passion. I tease him that it's a level of dorkdom, because he has lexicons and all sorts of academic papers on interpretations."
Furthermore, both had worked extensively in other theater communities — in Dallas and Atlanta, to name just two — and therefore had valuable firsthand experience on either side of the curtain. They'd even leaped right into Spokane's own theater scene. Scott, who goes by R. Scott Cantrell for his acting gigs, played Hugo Lyppiatt in the Spokane Civic Theatre's early 2020 production of Noël Coward's Present Laughter. Meanwhile, Amanda began helping Stage Left with fundraising initiatives as part of her Ph.D. coursework.
Then came the pandemic lockdowns. All live performances, in- or outdoors, went on indefinite hiatus. But rather than put things on hold, the Cantrells concentrated on solidifying the groundwork.
"We spent the rest of 2020 writing the business stuff, like our bylaws, and researching what we needed to do to become incorporated and get our 501(c)(3) status," she says. That involved things like assembling a board of directors and filing the right forms with the IRS. "And then in January 2021, we pulled the trigger."
The freshly launched organization, appropriately titled the Spokane Shakespeare Society, or S3 for short, was ready to get the show on the road, even if the rest of the world was still a little apprehensive.
"We were originally planning to ask the Friends of Manito if we could perform in the rose garden, and they were understandably concerned about how they would deal with any COVID restrictions. So they forwarded our request to the city parks department. They reached out, and we were able to connect, which led to this partnership with the city's parks and rec department — and Riverfront Park specifically — to bring our performances to the Pavilion and the Lilac Bowl this summer."
S3's inaugural outing is a full-cast production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, one of the most oft-performed plays from one of the world's (still) most oft-performed playwrights.
"We decided to do Midsummer because it's such a well-known show. It's a family-friendly comedy. This will also probably be the 10th time that I've performed in Midsummer, so I'm quite familiar with it, which helps. And that means I can help the rest of the cast that may not be as familiar with it," Scott says.
In this production, under his wife's direction, Scott is reprising the role of Bottom, one of the amateur actors known as the mechanicals, who's transformed into a donkey by the impish fairy Puck (played by Jared McDougall).
"Just bringing humor and entertainment is my goal. [Bottom] is kind of an arrogant, pompous character. It brings a lot of laughs because he's so into himself but is oblivious to the fact that he's not as great as he thinks he is," he says.
"The first couple of times I played the character, I tried to do something different. But now I've played it enough that I can pick and choose from each prior performance. You find out what works the best and get rid of what doesn't work."
Casting the rest of the production took place largely through pandemic-safe Zoom videoconferencing. The principals include Abby Constable and Craig Hirt as fairy rulers Titania and Oberon, Kevin Connell and Deborah Marlowe as the engaged royal couple Theseus and Hippolyta, and Sarah Plumb and Chad Herrmann as the young lovestruck couple Hermia and Lysander.
"I know that we have some younger people that have never done Shakespeare before, and then established, older actors who have done lots of Shakespeare," says Scott. "I think it'll help because the people that have maybe gotten jaded doing Shakespeare are going to get new energy from the people who haven't done it before, and those who haven't done it before are going to learn a lot from those of us who have been doing it for 20 or 30 years."
That intergenerational exchange dovetails nicely with S3's broader mission to bring new actors into the Shakespearean fold. And, like all of S3's shows, Midsummer will be based on a pay-what-you-can model. That means audience members are certainly free to donate as much as they like, but admission fees aren't a requirement, which will help eliminate some of the traditional barriers to Shakespeare's work and theater in general.
In mid-September, directly following Midsummer, S3 plans to move straight into public performances of the Reduced Shakespeare Company's The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), directed by Jessica Loomer and featuring a three-person cast that includes Kaylan Martin, who also appears in Midsummer, Jerry Sciarrio and Robert Tombari. That might seem like an ambitious pace for a brand-new nonprofit, but both Cantrells are excited by the prospect of providing long-absent live entertainment and additional community outreach.
"We as an organization have already talked about potentially doing shows in other parks," Amanda says. "Especially since we're outside and we're going to have a set that goes up and comes down in a single night, we are really portable.
"I know we're also planning to do some of the community events that happen in the fall and the winter," Amanda adds, naming seasonal markets and craft shows as examples. "We would maybe do mini-performances of scenes, some activities with kids. We're really looking to be out in the community that way."
Additionally, and importantly for the theater community in particular, S3 is remunerating its cast and crew in an effort to create more professional opportunities for artists in the region.
"We are establishing ourselves as a theater that pays a stipend to every artist," Amanda says. "All of our actors are receiving one, all of our directors — except me — are receiving one, all of our designers are, too. We can't pay equity rates, but we want to set that standard that we recognize that theater is an art form. It takes education and experience, and it has value." ♦
A Midsummer Night's Dream • Aug. 6, 7, 20, 26, 27 at 6:30 pm, Aug. 8, 22, 29 at 2 pm • Free (pay what you can) • Pavilion at Riverfront Park • 507 N. Howard St • spokaneshakespearesociety.org • 379-8377[Correction: The online version of this story has been updated to include all the actors' names in the troupe's next production]