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A Will and a way: Free Shakespeare is returning to the Common

Canceled last year, ‘The Tempest’ will go forward this summer with attention to audience safety.

Acclaimed Shakespearean actor John Douglas Thompson will portray Prospero in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's production of "The Tempest" on Boston Common.
Acclaimed Shakespearean actor John Douglas Thompson will portray Prospero in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's production of "The Tempest" on Boston Common.Steven G. Smith for The Boston Globe

The Bard will be back on Boston Common this summer.

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and Acting Mayor Kim Janey announced that an outdoor production of “The Tempest,” canceled last summer due to the pandemic, will be presented this summer as part of the Free Shakespeare on the Common series.

It will be a streamlined, intermission-less version of Shakespeare’s play, and there will likely be mask requirements and restrictions on audience size to comply with city and state guidelines on social distancing. But however different the atmosphere may be, “The Tempest” could herald a return to tradition and a symbol of renewal for a city in need of both.

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“Shakespeare on the Common has been a vital part of Boston’s summer arts programming for decades, and I’m thrilled to see this tradition continue to provide free and accessible entertainment to Boston’s residents and visitors,” Janey said in a statement. “As we move forward with the reopening process and work toward building a newer and better Boston, this is a great way to support Boston’s arts sector while also providing safe and equitable opportunities to engage in the arts.”

In a telephone interview, CSC’s founding artistic director, Steve Maler, sounded buoyant. “I can’t even begin to describe how joyful I feel about the prospect of being out on the Boston Common again,” he said. “It has been a really, really treacherous period for the arts. It feels like we’ve been lost in the wilderness for a period of time.”

The increasing vaccination rate in Massachusetts, coupled with findings that outdoor transmission rates of the coronavirus are low, have bolstered confidence that live performance will be possible this summer, according to Maler.

No firm run dates have been established yet for “The Tempest,” but Maler said he’s hoping it can land within the usual late July/early August time window. In past years, CSC’s productions have drawn more than 50,000 spectators over the course of several weeks. The plan for this year is to present “The Tempest” in the usual spot on the Common near the Parkman Bandstand. After mapping out the square footage, Maler said, “It looks like we could have a pretty sizable audience out there, working within the protocols of social distancing.”

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As previously planned, renowned Shakespearean actor John Douglas Thompson will portray Prospero, the island sorcerer who is the main character in “The Tempest.” (Thompson is currently appearing on HBO as the stoic police chief in “Mare of Easttown.”) In keeping with the tradition of Free Shakespeare on the Common productions, “The Tempest” will be free, but attendees will need to sign up beforehand, with registration slated to open the week of June 21.

Steve Maler, founding artistic director of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, directs a rehearsal of the Free Shakespeare on the Common production of "Love's Labour's Lost" in 2016.
Steve Maler, founding artistic director of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, directs a rehearsal of the Free Shakespeare on the Common production of "Love's Labour's Lost" in 2016.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Avoiding intermissions, with their intermingling crowds, has been a priority for a number of theater companies that have announced plans for shows this summer or early fall. That will be the case also with “The Tempest.” Maler, who will direct, is trimming Shakespeare’s script, aiming to condense it to a 90- or 100-minute performance.

“I don’t think most audiences will feel the pinch,” said Maler. “There’s great efficiency in this play, and it allows us to drill down to what is most meaningful and powerful without losing too much along the way.”

He’s approaching the task of streamlining “The Tempest” as if he’s crafting a feature film. In that regard, Maler has some personal experience to draw on, having adapted and directed a one-hour video version of “Hamlet’' a couple of years ago that utilized virtual-reality technology.

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Maler declined to identify other cast members besides Thompson. But he emphasized that going forward with “The Tempest” will mean paychecks for actors and designers who’ve been struggling without them for more than a year, ever since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered theaters and forced cancellations of even those shows scheduled to be staged outdoors, like “The Tempest.”

“For many, many people, this has been devastating financially,” Maler said. “We wanted to employ these artists and artisans. They need the salaries we’re offering them.”

What added to the blow of last year’s cancellation was that “The Tempest” was supposed to have been a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Free Shakespeare on the Common series. “This is the 25th-and-a-half, I guess,” joked Maler.

“We know people want to gather again,” he added. “People are desperately craving communal interactions. I think we all feel we’ve gotten to the end of Netflix.”


Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.