Last year, as the Stone Soup Shakespeare theater troupe performed “Romeo and Juliet” outside Marion library, a young boy came riding by on his skateboard.
The scene unfolding on the lawn caught his attention, and he stopped, sat down and watched the rest of the show. Afterward, he talked to the people involved. It was the boy’s first real exposure to the arts.
“He’d never seen a play before, he’d never heard Shakespeare, and he was excited to hear about the company coming back,” said Jeff Golde, who is directing this year’s tour of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Bringing the works of the Bard to the masses in a way that makes it easily accessible has been the goal of Stone Soup Shakespeare since it started. Last year marked the group’s first touring production, but this year, they’re back in full force with an expanded schedule.
The troupe of nine will be bringing the show to Marion, Paducah, Paris, Herrin and Carbondale, as well as St. Louis and West Lafayette, Ind. A few of the actors are returning from last year, but many of this year’s cast are first-time members of the group. For the actors, this is a special opportunity to perform in a different environment and to really bond as a cast.
For those in the crowd, the experience of this season’s production is even more unique.
“The audience is sitting inside a circle, and the play happens 360 degrees around them,” Golde said. “They’re getting to be in this place where they’re in the middle of the world.”
“Midsummer Night’s Dream” tells the tale of four lovers in an enchanted wood. Unknown to them, they are in the middle of a quarrel between Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the Faeries. The king’s sidekick Puck is enlisted to help teach the queen a lesson in love. Using love potions, disguises and magic, Puck sets about creating mischievous mayhem.
The production will feature singing, dancing and even a little real-life magic. The audience will be invited to participate in the parts of the play and become stars themselves.
“It’s not traditional theater, yet it’s very traditional Shakespeare,” said Julia Stemper, who co-founded Stone Soup Shakespeare with Golde. “It’s very much Shakespeare with music and dancing and magic, as we find ourselves in this fairy world.”
The ability to expand to new communities and broaden the reach of the company has been possible because of support from the communities themselves, Stemper said. Stone Soup Shakespeare has received financial support from the Carbondale Community Arts Southern Arts Fund and the Illinois Humanities Council.
Community members also rallied behind the cause. Last year’s Carbondale show saw 160 people come out, despite cold, rainy weather the evening of the performance. In other towns, local arts leaders attended and have volunteered to help promote this year’s shows to draw a larger crowd.
The outpouring of support is what has spurred Stemper and Golde on to continue the venture and expand its horizons.
“It’s strengthened the idea of ‘Stone Soup’ and combining it with Shakespeare,” Stemper said. “All you have to do is set something out there for people to build on, and they’ll come together.”
All performances are free and open to the public. A series of supplementary events are also scheduled throughout the tour. Non-perishable food items will also be collected at each show to be donated to a local food pantry. For more information and a full schedule, visit stonesoupshakespeare.com.