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Out of the Spotlight, Into the Fire

Bill Gordon stepped offstage to work behind the scenes and into the biggest challenge of his career.

"This is a grand experiment," says Gordon, a darkly attractive man in his middle 30s. "These dozen companies are taking a chance with us; they are the ones willing to be pioneers." Gordon seems naturally exuberant and filled with infectious energy. Start talking about the festival, and he goes into hyperdrive. "We are absolutely thrilled with the lineup. We didn't expect such a great response."

As a certified theater geek, I'm pretty giddy about the festival's lineup, too. The variety is bracing. On one day, you'll be able to see the genteel-sounding "Shakespeare for Two, Please" at 3 p.m.; followed by the funniest play about incest ever written, "How I Learned to Drive," at 7 p.m.; capped off by the raucous musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at 10 p.m. For this new festival to be more than a break-even proposition, tourists will have to show up in significant numbers. So a program with this kind of wide appeal is essential.

In a season where you can hardly walk down the street without tripping over a Shakespeare play, perhaps most surprising about this festival is that only one show was written by the Bard ("Romeo & Juliet"). "We were adamant that this not be another Shakespeare festival," insists Gordon. "We wanted to offer cultural diversity, and not shy away from the controversial. I think we'll truly have something for everyone."

It's remarkable that a festival could attract such a diverse slate in its first year. A good deal of the credit goes to Gordon and his powers of persuasion. "Bill is an impressive salesman - ask anybody," remarks Grant Mudge, artistic director for Richmond's Encore! Theatre Company, which will bring its production of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" to Staunton. "I think he's having a tremendous impact on Shenandoah Shakespeare."

Jim Warren, cofounder of Shenandoah Shakespeare, echoes that sentiment. "Bill is just an incredibly dedicated hard worker," says Warren. "He has his finger in theater hotbeds across the country. When we decided to do this festival, we just said, 'Bill, you go get them.'"

Gordon was there at the birth of Shenandoah Shakespeare, which Warren founded along with James Madison University professor, Ralph Cohen. In fact, while a student at JMU back in 1987, Gordon came up with the company's original name, Shenandoah Shakespeare Express (SSE). But Gordon had dreams of a career in radio, and after he graduated, he landed a job as a helicopter traffic reporter for WRVA in Richmond.

Still, he couldn't shake the pull of a life in theater, an attraction for him since elementary school. "I was always in trouble for being the class clown," recalls Gordon who grew up in Powhatan, Va. "When I started in theater, I think my teachers were happy I had something to channel all that energy into."

In 1993, Gordon hooked up with four friends to establish Richmond's Firehouse Theatre Project and became the organization's first president. He quickly gained attention for his versatile acting ability, always punctuated by an edgy intelligence. He could be disarmingly funny as Jack in "The Importance of Being Earnest" and uncomfortably crazy as Proprishchin in "Diary of a Madman." Gordon also proved to be a savvy promoter, gaining Firehouse the attention and support of Richmond notables like Patricia Cornwell and then-Mayor Tim Kaine.

But making a living while pursuing his passion became grueling. Before long, Gordon was juggling a 9-to-5 desk job, part-time radio work, and near full-time work at the Firehouse. In 1998, he left Richmond and went back to work with Warren at SSE. The timing of his return proved serendipitous because the intrepid company would soon need his energy and promotional talents like never before.

While Gordon had been in Richmond, SSE had grown into an internationally recognized Shakespeare company, sending out as many as three tours a year. Gordon took over as director of tour operations and was soon in charge of sending touring companies all across the world, from Alaska to the Virgin Islands to Europe. "I can't think of a more difficult job on the planet than what Bill does," says Warren. "Organizing our tours can be a logistical nightmare." When you send a busload of Thespians into the Yukon, you need an accomplished planner if you ever want to see them again. Gordon hasn't lost a tour yet.

Then in 1999, SSE made history. The company shortened its name to Shenandoah Shakespeare. But that wasn't the history-making part. With financial support from the cities of Staunton and Waynesboro and from Augusta County, the company broke ground on the $3.7 million Blackfriars Playhouse, a re-creation of the 16th-century London theater in which many of Shakespeare's plays were originally performed. It's an impressive place that has received international attention since its doors opened last September. Hearty oak practically gleams in every door, as part of every bench seat and in every balustrade and balcony. Chandeliers grace the ceilings, handcrafted sconces adorn every wall.

The remarkable Blackfriar's stage cries out for use and, even before construction was complete, Shenandoah Shakespeare's founders were thinking of new and different ways to use their unique creation. When the idea for a festival came up, they knew just who should spearhead the effort. "Bill was just the natural choice," explains Warren. "I told him that actors are a dime a dozen; someone who can do what he does is hard to find."

Speaking of acting, Gordon has started to venture back onstage, as if he doesn't already have enough going on. This past January, he played Uncle Peck in ShenanArt's production of "How I Learned to Drive," his first role since leaving Richmond four years ago. "I'm just getting my toes wet," Gordon insists. Yeah, sure. Judging from his track record, when Gordon sticks his toes into something, feet, legs and torso follow. This is one behind-the-scenes guy who is destined for the spotlight one way or another. S

Shenandoah Shakespeare's Commonwealth Performance Festival 2002 will take place at the Blackfriars Playhouse Aug. 14-25. Call (540)885-5588 or go to for more information.

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