Interview: Todd Lerew Offers Insight into America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West

First Folio

First Folio on display in America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West. Photo courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library

Something may be rotten in the state of Denmark but, in Los Angeles, Shakespeare lovers will find all the joy that they can wish when the Library Foundation of Los Angeles opens its newest exhibit: America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West on November 17 at the Central Library. The show is a partnership between the Library Foundation, the Los Angeles Public Library, and Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC and will not only offer a look at his incredible legacy worldwide but show how Shakespeare’s impact was felt here in California.

The highlight of the exhibit is a First Folio (1623) from the Folger’s collection which will be shown alongside an incredible array of rare documents and artifacts from the Folger and other local organizations. Some may even surprise you.

I was curious what it takes to bring such a monumental exhibition to Los Angeles so I spoke to Foundation Program Manager, Todd Lerew, for a little insight into what goes on behind the scenes.

todd-lerew

Todd Lerew

Back to the Beginning
“Initially it was the Folger who approached the library a couple of years ago about bringing their America’s Shakespeare exhibit out to Los Angeles,” says Lerew. “We really wanted to put more of a California perspective on it becuase we like to approach all of our projects through a Southern California lens and what it means to the people who live here. We also wanted to make the exhibit accessible to everyone. That’s why these programs are free to the public.”

Lerew says one of the biggest overarching goals of the show is to demonstrate that Shakespeare is for everyone. “You may not think you know anything about him but you use phrases he created all the time, like ‘dead as a doornail,’ ‘forever and a day,’ and ‘wild-goose chase.’ He’s everywhere. We wanted people to see that Shakespeare is a bigger part of their life than they may have realized.”

One of the ways the library intends to show how Shakespeare has influenced California is by the interactive digital map they have created. “It not only contains theatres and venues and places where you’d see Shakespeare and groups that are putting it on,” says Lerew, “but also references to Shakespeare found throughout the city. For example, the area around Hermosa Beach was originally called Shakespeare Beach and you can see that on the map.”

Shakespeare Society of America
“I first learned about Shakespeare Beach through the Shakespeare Society of America, which was founded by Thad Taylor in the early ’70s,” says Lerew. “He used to have a little hidden theater in West L.A. called the Globe Playhouse designed as a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.”

Little known fact: SSA’s Globe Theatre was the first to stage all 38 of Shakespeare’s plays in succession from 1976-1979, in 48 months. They repeated the complete Canon again from 1981 – 1984, in 38 months. Thad passed away in 2006 and, the following year, Thad’s nephew, Terry, relocated the society to Moss Landing in Monterey, CA where it still exists today.

“Thad was a really interesting character. We found a lot of fascinating information about Shakespeare in LA through his organization and were able to borrow some great artifacts from them as well. They have a massive collection of rare items that includes museum and visual art pieces, theatre archives, photographs, props, posters, reviews, and many other unique pieces.

Lerew says, in the eighties, Thad tried to get the city to change the name back to Shakespeare Beach but was ultimately unsuccessful. Still, proof exists of the developers’ early intent.

“We have a plat map, which is a kind of blueprint map, from the original plans when the Red Cars opened to the beach. [The Red Cars, run by Pacific Electric, were part of a transit system consisting of electric trolleys, cars, and buses that made up the largest electric railway system in the world at the time.] The developers called it Shakespeare Beach because they wanted to create an artist or writers colony in that area so all of the streets were named after writers – Hawthorne, Tennyson, Ruskin. By the 1920s, the name Shakespeare and almost all of the other authors had disappeared and the streets were renamed with numbers. But, thanks to the Shakespeare Society of America and Hermosa Beach Historical Society, we have the plans from the early days as well as an incredible photograph of the beach that shows a red car and a couple of men in suits by a sign that says, Shakespeare Beach: Plots Now for Sale. It’s a beautiful piece.”

“We’ve been able to make some fascinating connections like these through Shakespeare Society of America. Thad created another unique Shakespeare installation in 1984 when the Olympics came to town. He built a gigantic metal sculpture of Shakespeare holding the torch that hung outside his theater and he designed a beautiful poster with a quote from Romeo and Juliet that said, This is the Place where the Torch Doth Burn.”

mww2According to Lerew, the Folger’s artifacts represent about half of the show but ten additional California-based institutions have contributed materials as well, including the State Library, the Hollywood Bowl Museum, the archives of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the Warner Bros. collection at USC, the San Francisco Public Library, and others.

One of his favorite items is “an incredible gigantic poster from the California-Panama Pacific Exposition that took place in Balboa Park in San Diego a hundred years ago. It’s hard to describe but it is a huge poster with giant orange letters talking about five hundred children in costumes for the Shakespearean Pageant. It’s a really wonderful piece and an interesting bit of California history.”

Shakespeare Goes Hollywood
Because Shakespeare was a big part of California history, the exhibit also focuses heavily on Shakespeare in Hollywood and how he came out west. Costumes from several classic films will be on display. Among them: Alan Bates and Glenn Close’s royal finery from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 Hamlet and an arm cuff that Marlon Brando wore in Julius Caesar.

“The costumes are great because they are so visual. We have a staged set as part of the exhibit where people can do a character activity and read a couple of lines on stage if they want to. We’ve also built huge stage sets behind several of the display cases to illuminate some of the themes of the show. For example, there is a large section about Abraham Lincoln and the Booth family. Of course, John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, is there but his brother Edwin and his whole family were also Shakespearean actors. They came out to California to perform Shakespeare’s plays in the mining camps during the gold rush. Edwin’s granddaughter, Edwina, lived up in Northridge so CSUN has some of the family archives. Through them, we were able to get the recording of Edwin Booth reading a speech from Othello. You can hear that in the Lincoln section where we have a big backdrop of Ford’s Theatre. We also have a Pioneer Theater in another section, and Arden, which was the home of Helena Modjeska, the great Polish actress who settled in Orange County. I could go on and on.”

lisa-wolpe

Lisa Wolpe

ALOUD Authors Series
Two literary programs have been announced on the library’s ALOUD Authors series that takes place in conjunction with the exhibit. The first will feature distinguished theatre director, Peter Sellars, in conversation with Ayanna Thompson, Professor of English at George Washington University on Shakespeare Now: Race, Justice, and the American Dream on January 19, 2017. The second is a discussion between world-renowned Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro and Lisa Wolpe, Producing Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company titled Shakespeare in America on February 16, 2017. Reservations for both can be made in December.

While the main exhibit will take place at the Central Library downtown, Lerew says 23 of the neighborhood library branches will also be presenting their own programs as part of the Shakespeare event. Approximately a hundred such programs will take place across the city presented by groups like the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, and Swordplay LA. A Microsite highlighting the Central Library exhibit currently links to all the branch calendars where you’ll find these companion programs listed as they are confirmed. Click Here to go to the site.

“I’m really happy that we are able to display some of the Public Library’s own Shakespeare collections in the exhibit so people can look through a small sample of the resources we have here,” says Lerew. “Shakespeare is the only writer who has his own Dewey Decimal number. I think that’s so fascinating. You walk through the stacks here and you see why because it goes on for rows and rows. We’ll have books in the show that people can take downstairs to check out to really stress the connection between these fabulous display items you can’t touch and the incredible resources that you can.”

Lerew acknowledges that some serious scholarship has gone into curating the collection for the show. “It’s a pretty serious survey of the different ways that Shakespeare has come to this country, including some of the very earliest objects or records of Shakespeare appearing in the new world and the different ways Shakespeare has been used to lend voice to people talking about war. It’s absolutely something that scholars of Shakespeare will not want to miss.”

The exhibition will also include a Lost & Found at the Movies series with titles to be announced. The Library Foundation is partnering with CAP UCLA for their performances of Forced Entertainment’s Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare which runs December 6-11, 2016 at Royce Hall. For more information about these fascinating performances go to cap.ucla.edu.

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AMERICA’S SHAKESPEARE: THE BARD GOES WEST
November 17, 2016 – February 26, 2017
Library Foundation of Los Angeles
Central Library, Getty Gallery
630 West Fifth Street,
Los Angeles, CA 90071
More Info
Admission to the exhibit is free to the public
Programs are free unless otherwise noted

In addition to the many programs and special events that will be part of America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West, the Library Store will have a number of fun and quirky wares with a Shakespearean twist for sale.

Ellen Dostal
Shakespeare in LA

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