Buffalo Rocket
Thirty five years ago Saul Elkin had an idea to set a Shakespearean play amongst the beautiful foliage of Delaware Park . Though that particular run was successful, he never dreamed that he was about to embark on this artistic journey for over three decades. Today Shakespeare in Delaware Park is the nation’s second largest free outdoor Shakespeare festival, second only to New York City. It attracts over fifty thousand audience members yearly and continues to grow in popularity. “Thirty five years have been a gift,” stated Elkin in a recent interview.

When Elkin first came to Buffalo, he was certainly not a novice in the professional theatre. He already held graduate degrees from Columbia and Carnegie Melon universities, performed on and off Broadway, and was hired as the Theatre Department Chairperson at University of Buffalo. His genius, passion and drive are the qualities that propelled Shakespeare in Delaware Park to the cultural institution it is today.

This year Elkin opened the season with William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which runs until July 11 before it makes way for the second show of the season, Macbeth. About a half hour before the show opened, he graciously spoke with me about his views on theatre, directing and education. His love of the art is clearly a direct reflection for his love of life. “I don’t feel any older,” he laughed. And then he got a twinkle in his eye when he mentioned his talented daughters, both professional artists in their own right (Rebecca is an actor and drama therapist; Emily is an accomplished cellist). “My greatest happiness is that they’re both performing artists,” said Elkin.

In the middle of our conversation he blushed when an audience member wanted to praise him. “My family and I want to thank you,” said the patron. “We were watching you rehearse in the park last week, and we want to tell you that coming to your shows every year has been a big part of our lives.”

This is the very magic that Elkin casts on wide audiences. His uncanny ability to make Shakespeare accessible is second to none. This year, for instance, he took creative liberty and set Much Ado in the post-war 1940’s era. The production is complete with dancing and the live music he loves from that time period. A chorus of four singers and an on-stage accompanist not only captured the attention of the large audiences on the hill, but even the interest of people who weren’t even at the festival. They were walking dogs or jogging along Hoyt Lake, and they stopped in their tracks– spellbound.

But Elkin said the success of the company is not all his. “In brief, however much I prepare, invent, or conceptualize, I try not to see the final product in my mind’s eye. I try to cast [the plays] well and then open the door for the actors and designers to invent and surprise me– and they always do,” he said.

Lisa Ludwig, one of Buffalo’s first-rate actors and Managing Director of the company, is playing the lead female role of Beatrice in Much Ado. As she prepared for her performance back stage, in her 1940’s Katherine Hepburn-like costume, she shared how wonderful it is to work on the production. “What can I say? I love working with Saul,” she said. “And there is nothing like looking out at the audience on a perfect summer night when the sun has just set and the citronella candles are flickering and [I have] this moment of knowing how lucky we are to have Shakespeare in Delaware Park in Buffalo,” she added.

Much Ado About Nothing runs until July 11, 2010. (There will be no show on July 4). Both plays of the season, Much Ado and Macbeth, run Tuesdays through Sundays, and start at 7:30 pm. On Tuesdays the directors will hold discussions with audiences a half hour before curtain. Also, pre-show live music is performed at 7pm on Wednesdays. It is best to get there early, as audiences flock to the hill in order to set up lawn chairs, blankets and picnic baskets. In the wise words of the Bard himself, “Joy’s soul lies in the doing.” Hazzah!