In a year that has been anything but normal, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey will provide a semblance of normalcy this week with their annual production of “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Its a program that mixes classic literature of the macabre and supernatural, eerie ghost stories, and a dash of humor to go along with the chills. This is the 11th straight year for the production, which changes the stories in the show each time.
“It’s become a bit of an annual tradition for many of our patrons,” said Brian B. Crowe, the Director of Education at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, who directs the production. “It’s where we get together to relish and enjoy in the celebration of these great stories. I do think it gives some sense of normalcy, but it’s a different setting this year.”
“It’s not inside of the Kirby Theatre; we’re outside at our Back Yard Stage in Florham Park, which is delightful. It opens up a few new possibilities for us in terms of how to approach the materials. We’ve picked some pieces that are very specific to the outdoor setting. There’s a beautiful forest around us and the audience walks through a wooded path to get to the stage. It’s going to be a really nice experience for everybody.”
Presenting the show outside adds new dimensions to the production. Crowe notes that the audience will be able to see the moon above them, hear the wind in the trees and the rustling of leaves, and revel in the perfect setting for ghost stories. As Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage,” and this production proves it.
“There’s something about when you’re outside that I love so much,” added Crowe who often directs outdoor shows for the company. “It takes on a much grander scale immediately.”
Performances are scheduled for October 29 - 31 at 7:00 p.m. each night at the company’s Back Yard Stage. There will also be a special kid-friendly performance on Halloween at 4:00 p.m. (a slightly shorter show that removes some of the scarier works). This year’s production includes a collection of stories and poems - a mix of short and long pieces. Using the outside as inspiration, they’ve got some stories set in a graveyard. There are great selections from Edgar Allan Poe, some new pieces, and some from Shakespeare himself.
The Shrewd Mechanicals who have been seen in the company’s recent productions of “Crazy Love!” and “Shaw! Shaw! Shaw!” return for “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” They have been with the company for most of the year.
“They came here as part of our Shakespeare LIVE! touring company and then COVID-19 hit, so we had to stop our in-school tour,” explained Crowe. “They stuck around because we kept hoping the virus would go away. It didn’t, but they wound up being part of our family pod or unit. They were all quarantined together during all of this, which allowed us to not only do this production but the others as well. It’s a tremendous cast of actors that are pulling this together. I think it’s going to be fun and unique, especially in this holiday season.”
The Backyard Stage area is designed to provide a wonderful experience for everyone. It includes 56 “pods” that can accommodate up to 212 patrons. Everyone is required to wear a mask unless they are eating or drinking, and the pods are all socially distanced. If the forecast looks like bad weather, the decision whether or not to cancel the show will be made earlier in the day. All patrons will be emailed and called, and the cancellation notice will be noted at ShakespeareNJ.org and across their social media channels.
Audience members are welcome to come in costume and Crowe said they hope to see people in costume for the two performances on Halloween itself. They will have goodie bags for the kids that day and the staff members will be in costume.
“We’re trying to find a way to have people get in the Halloween spirit when they may not be able to go trick-or-treating in their neighborhood,” said Crowe. “We’re hoping to provide that extra outlet for people’s creativity and imagination.”
It’s been a difficult and trying year for all theatre companies, but the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is in a better place than most. They have been able to expand some of their regular programming like their Shakespeare Book Club through virtual means. The club takes place twice a year and involves reading of a couple of plays, talking about them, and doing a deep dive into the work. Crowe says they usually have about a dozen people sign up for it, but the virtual version has over forty. He thinks the virtual format may have made the program stronger in many ways as well. But what has really helped keep the company going through this year is being able to stage shows - something few theatre companies have done.
“I feel very blessed for where we are as an institution right now,” said Crowe. “We’ve been very lucky that we have this outdoor space on our own property that we’ve been able to transform into a performance venue. We’re doing live theatre, which virtually no one is doing. Frankly it feels a bit life affirming that we can do that and continue the work that we do. The number of people who come up to us before they even see the show and say, ‘thank you for doing this, we need this right now’ is really encouraging. And we’re going to continue forward as best as we can as we have been.”
Performances take place October 29, 30, and 31 at 7:00 p.m. for ages 11 and up, with a kid-friendly performance on Saturday, October 31 at 4:00 p.m. for ages 7 and up. Tickets: $20 for kids 15 and under; $30 for adults. The Back Yard Stage is located on the Great Lawn behind their Theatre Factory at 3 Vreeland Road in Florham Park, New Jersey.
For information on their COVID-19 guidelines visit https://www.shakespearenj.org/BackYardStage_COVID19guidelines.html