Fairs and Festivals

Once again, it’s that lovely and amazing time of year: summer. After a terribly long, icy winter and slow-starting spring, the sun is shining — and the region is bursting with events ripe for the picking. Whether you’re looking for quality theater, classical music, family fun, or anything in between (and we do mean anything — classic motorcycles, anyone?), there’s a fair or festival somewhere in the Valley to help you celebrate the season


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Terrence O'BrienPhotograph by Ken Gabrielson

A Q&A with Terrence O’Brien

Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival founding Artistic Director Terrence O’Brien, an American Conservatory Theatre alum, first launched a modest outdoor production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1987 at Manitoga in Garrison. Twenty-two years later, he is still enchanting an ever-growing number of Shakespeare devotees in the Valley with his legendary freewheeling style. Here, he weighs in on his long run and the festival’s education program, which brings the Bard into the lives of approximately 18,000 kids a year.

You’ve been doing the festival for more than two decades. How have you changed in those years?
Well, I’m married and I have two kids, and I think that those kinds of things really affect your understanding of the world as well as the art form that you work in. When I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream the first time, I had an understanding of the play that I think was good for someone 33 years old. Then I did it again 10 years later, and just the fact that I had been around and seen that much more of the world gave me insight into the play that I hadn’t had before. I think I was probably more glib about Shakespeare early on. We started out as a company that was dedicated to making Shakespeare accessible to a broad audience. We held to the rigor of the language and the integrity of the plays, but we made them fun and identifiable. I still believe all those things, but I think in addition to that I’ve been very interested in raising the bar in terms of what it means to be a stage actor, what it means to do Shakespeare. There’s a way to do Shakespeare as if the play was written this year, as a brand-new script. I don’t think I ever thought that.

Do you miss the fact that you used to have a smaller production than you do now?
We used to live together as a company. Things in some ways were much simpler, even though we had no money — we were much younger, and we could live like that. But now, I guess it’s kind of bittersweet; I miss some of that esprit d’ corps. My job has gotten a lot more complicated. At the same time, I think it’s really important that we do what we can to serve our community. In order to do that we have to grow, and we have to raise enough money to support the effort. I guess it’s a metaphor for adulthood.

The whole company actually used to live together throughout the summer?
The season was much shorter, so in the very first years we would all meet in a van on Columbus Circle and take the drive upstate. We’d stay in a very large manor home that belonged to a friend of the festival. We’d stay there Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night and then come back to the city. As the company got larger and the season got longer, the benevolence of the people who were housing us got challenged a little bit. (Laughs.) Then we started housing the actors at a college.

Do you live still in Manhattan, or are you in the Valley?
We live in Manhattan, but a couple of years ago we also bought a house in Garrison. So the Garrison house is our kind of weekend house. My wife and I both have “real” jobs in New York.

Is your real job related to the theater as well?
No — gosh, no. I write software for law firms.

So this is your hobby?
I have two full-time jobs. I wish it were as simple as a hobby, especially in the last two years. Even during rehearsals, I work on my day off in order to keep things going.

In the very beginning did you ever think that the festival would grow as much as it has?
I don’t think I did. When you’re 30, you feel immortal. You don’t think of things in that way. What I wasn’t aware of at the time was the really profound impact that the festival would have on the community. We have a very, very loyal audience of around 30,000 people, many of whom have seen six or seven or eight seasons with us. They’ve developed relationships with actors — even though they’re not personal, they look forward to seeing certain company members. At the time, I don’t think I ever anticipated that it would grow into that.

By the end of the summer, are you completely tired of Shakespeare?
No, I feel very let down in September. When everybody takes off, I feel like ‘Oh, shoot — what do I do now?’ I miss it immediately.

Why do you love Shakespeare?
The writing is just so good — everyone always says the words, the words — but it’s the writing. When I go to another play by another author, the writing is never quite as powerful, never quite as rich as Shakespeare’s. As a theater person it’s far-reaching — you get to play gods, kings; people get to see things happen that they’d never want to see happen to themselves. You see things you’d never want to experience, but yet you can identify with them. He writes it in a way so that you can feel a part of it.

Is there any other particular type of theater you like?
I like all sorts of things. I’m currently working with a group of people I call the American Shakespeare Lab. We’re experimenting with an acting technique which is kind of an evolution of what we’re doing at HVSF. I’m trying to do Shakespeare so it has the spontaneity of a sporting event.

That sounds like a challenge.
It is, but we’re having a lot of fun.

Do you have any sense of where your freewheeling style came from?
It comes from a lot of different places. It comes from inside my head, and by extension from the people who I’ve hired that I find in some ways like-minded; and then partly because it suits the audience who comes up here. Their desire for an experience is very different than a desire for a theater experience in New York City; they haven’t come out of the subway and had to inhale their meal down and all that. They’ve had a chance to relax, and they’re open to it.

Tell me about the education program HVSF runs.
We have a couple of programs in the summer that are suited towards our schedule, one of which is an apprenticeship program that’s part of our acting company. It’s for college students — immediately post-baccalaureate, and last year we had a couple of master’s candidates. We try to do teacher training as well.

In the spring, we also take a production into schools and present it to large groups of students. We’ve toured about 40 schools, mostly in the Hudson Valley. This [past] year we did Macbeth. We do a 90-minute edited version that represents the whole play, and then actors do a Q&A program. We’re trying to make Shakespeare accessible to all ages without sacrificing integrity of material. Sometimes teaching artists will go into the schools in advance of the program to prepare students for the production.

What does the preparation look like?
We try to get the students actively involved, on their feet. We have the most success working with smaller groups of interested students, like those in drama programs. When we do something like Macbeth, the teaching artists will work with the students on two or three scenes, saying ‘You two guys get up and do this.’ Even for an hourlong play, just doing a one-minute scene changes the students’ understanding of the production, it changes the experience completely.


On with the fairs! Up next: Bard SummerScape


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