Above: Del Shakes’ 2017 summer production of Henry V. Photo by Alessandra Nicole

DelShakes brings back community vibe with the return of its Summer Festival

By Michelle Kramer-Fitzgerald

Take a serene outdoor venue, add a New Castle County festival tradition that’s arts-centric and family-friendly, and you’ve got a picture-perfect summertime experience: Delaware Shakespeare’s 2022 Summer Festival.

From July 15 through 31, “DelShakes” presents the Bard’s work, The Tempest, directed by Producing Artistic Director David Stradley. “It’s my favorite Shakespeare play,” Stradley says. It is also Stradley’s first time in the director’s chair since 2016.

This festival also marks Delaware Shakespeare’s 20th anniversary. That’s a significant milestone to celebrate given recent times. 

“After the last two tumultuous years, it’s a joy to return to Rockwood Park in full this summer as DelShakes celebrates 20 years of bringing people together to explore their shared humanity,” says Stradley. “We’re grateful to our visionary founders for establishing a professional Shakespeare company in the First State, and to all the artists, crew, staff, board, volunteers, donors, sponsors, and audience members for helping the company grow to where it is now. Here’s to the next 20!”

A Performance Years in the Making

As in past festival years, the production of The Tempest is presented on the scenic grounds of Rockwood Park, located off Washington Street Extension and just outside Wilmington’s city limits.

The storyline focuses on Prospero, who has been overthrown as the Duke of Milan by his brother Antonio, and now is marooned on an island with his daughter Miranda. Twelve years pass, during which time Prospero learns the art of magic, with which he rules the island. His powers enable him to conjure up a storm that will bring his enemies to the island for a reckoning. As with so many of the Bard’s tales, the lust for revenge as well as burgeoning young love (and also drunken pirate raids) thicken the plot.

Amy Frear and Brett Ashley Robinson in 2019’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Photo by Alessandra Nicole.

This work is one that has been in the DelShakes’ collective conscious for the better part of two years. 

“I wanted to make sure we were in a place to do it justice,” Stradley says. “The Tempest is a complicated play with magic, music, and great roles. I thought we were ready [to produce it] back in 2020 — and then we had to pause for two years. But that time gave us the ability to envision the production in a more expansive way.”

That new vision for the piece was augmented by DelShakes’ work developing their Antiracism, Access & Equity Policy in 2020.

“One of our mutual questions was, ‘how can we foster a conversation between Shakespeare and the diverse world we live in’?” says Stradley. “One answer was our new Beyond Shakespeare program, which aims to feature diverse and creative reflecting on the plays we’re producing.” 

Following this trajectory, DelShakes in spring presented A Tempest, an adaptation by Caribbean author Aimé Césaire. In June, they partnered with Christina Cultural Arts Center, local poets, and spoken word artists to host The Tempest Poetry Slam, sharing new work inspired by Shakespeare’s.

Stradley says these events really expanded his sense of the play; he also hopes they’ve helped to create a staging for multiple points of connection and awareness. 

Setting the Stage

“The play is set on an isolated island,” Stradley describes. “We felt the best way to present The Tempest would be in the round (i.e., a set construct in which the audience essentially surrounds the stage on all sides.). The audience will basically form the ‘ocean’ around our island.”

The actors inhabiting that island include DelShakes’ veterans Eric Mills and Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez. Mills portrays Prospero’s brother Antonio, while O’Hanlon-Rodgriuez portrays Stephano, one of three henchmen who attempt to surmount Prospero’s rule.

Eric Mills, Michael Fuchs, Claris Park, and Jo Vito Ramirez in 2018’s Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Alessandra Nicole

Mills is enthusiastic about this production, his first in working with Stradley as a director. “Working with DelShakes is always such a pleasure,” Mills says. “[The organization] creates a wonderful, safe community in which we all — staff, crew, and cast — can work together and explore. And of course, it’s another chance to speak Shakespeare’s words.”

O’Hanlon-Rodriguez is equally eager for the opportunity. “I’ve always loved Delaware Shakespeare…so I jumped at the opportunity,” she says. “Now, I’m excited the project is finally able to happen.”

She says she loves playing comedic characters who are grounded even though they’re silly. “I’m really looking forward to exploring Stephano in both his depths and drunken antics,” O’Hanlon-Rodriguez says with a laugh.

When asked what they love most about this particular piece, O’Hanlon-Rodriguez says, “The Tempest is a complicated play, but I love the magical exploration of power and how it can transform people for better or worse.”

“I can’t wait to get in the rehearsal room,” adds Mills. “Part of the fun is that we don’t have all the answers to this production and its direction yet, so there’s a lot for us to discover. I’m really looking forward to digging into Antonio and seeing what Shakespeare, David, and I can come up with.”

 A Communal Celebration of Art…and Picnics

For those who may never have experienced Shakespeare’s work, this festival can be a wonderful exploration for them as well.

“The whole ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ experience is just so much fun,” says Mills. “The setting is gorgeous — people picnicking, kids running around, and this wonderful, vibrant show going on in front of it all.”

Mills says the cast finds fun ways to connect with the audience and tries to tell the story in a way that is clear and easy. “Don’t stress out about understanding all of ‘Shakespeare’s language,’ he advises. “Just sit back, relax, and trust our actors to tell you the story.”

“Shakespeare is like poetry; if you allow your ears to find the musicality of the language, you’ll be able to pick up on the moving parts of the story,” adds O’Hanlon-Rodriguez.

And even if you miss some details here and there, O’Hanlon-Rodriguez is confident the journey of The Tempest will be certain to take the audience on a fun ride! “…After these past challenging years, I really hope people simply have fun, enjoy the show, and make connections with fellow audience members in the park.”

Mills wants the same for audiences: Joy. Escape. Maybe a moment of recognition or revelation. “I want them to enjoy the experience so much that they come back for the next one and they bring a friend,” he says.

Ultimately, that’s the thing Stradley is most anticipating, too: reviving the connection between live performance and live audience.

“We’re looking forward to welcoming 3,500 people (or more!) over three weeks with their picnics and friends. The Summer Festival is a big community event; we’ve truly missed that community!”

— Delaware Shakespeare’s 2022 Summer Festival featuring The Tempest, runs July 15-31, in Rockwood Park. Tickets can be reserved at delshakes.org.

Michelle Kramer-Fitzgerald
Michelle Kramer-Fitzgerald is the owner of arts publicity company Arts in Media and manager of the blog Delaware Arts Info. She is a self-described "cheerleader" for the arts and animal rescue, a die-hard Penn Stater and a doting dog mom. She's a big fan of The Beatles, Bon Jovi, strong java and red blends, and in a parallel universe, she's pretty sure she's a writer for Rolling Stone. She and hubby Scott Fitzgerald share their Wilmington home with lovable mutt Eli.