Joe Carlson thinks that the performing arts should be accessible to everyone. A five-year veteran of the Conciliation Project, a social justice organization that communicates ideas through theater, the actor and producer says he is dedicated to healing social chasms through artistic expression. This weekend and next, Carlson and his crew will be producing William Shakespeare's “As You Like It,” for free in Battery Park.
Carlson actualized the idea while dog sitting in the inner city park. He saw an open field and “started to imagine it full of blankets with children running around and how fun it would be to perform in a space like that. … I just started talking about it and people came on board.” The inspiration to perform Elizabethan verse under the stars came from producer Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park and mobile Shakespeare units in New York, which have become world renowned for engaging audiences that might not normally attend a play.
One of the people who joined the project early on was director James Alexander Bond. “I love outdoor theater [and] grass-roots projects,” he says. “We have found this obscure corner in this park.” He's no stranger to alternative spaces — some of the more unusual venues in which Bond has worked include a New York park where he staged “Macbeth” in a giant jungle gym and an arboretum.
Another thing that attracted Bond to the project was the idea of nontraditional casting, “We are making a point of going as cross-cultural as possible. We are working in a multiracial community and so we wanted to present the play with a more multiracial cast”.
Carlson chose “As You Like It” to bust the myth that Shakespeare is too demanding for today's mainstream audiences. “I wanted a play that featured some strong female characters,” he says. “Like Rosalind, she is one of Shakespeare's strongest women characters, and something that is young and light … a comedy. But the biggest reason is that line, ‘All the world's a stage,' because we're putting theater in a public space.” The show will be updated for modern audiences through the background use of contemporary music like zydeco, hip-hop, folk, funk and blues.
Carlson is not the first person to bring “As You Like It” to an unusual outdoor space in Richmond. Grant Mudge, the artistic director of Richmond Shakespeare Festival, produced the play at the Boulders in 1988, reintroducing outdoor productions by the company that now performs at Agecroft Hall during the summer. This is not the first outdoor project for Carlson either. He produced a play with the Conciliation Project that was performed in Monroe Park and specifically geared to Richmond's homeless population.
Keith Martin, the general manager of the Richmond Ballet, has been among those helping Theatre in Battery Park to gain community support. Martin encouraged the group to submit a proposal for an Innovative Projects Grant, among the first arts grants sponsored by the former Arts Council of Richmond, now called Culture Works. The result is that Theatre in Battery Park has been awarded money that allows for Bond and the actors to be paid and the performances to remain free and open to anyone.
“Theater in alternative spaces has always been of interest to me,” Carlson says. “I want to be in spaces where the audience is more engaged by the venue. … Theater is for everyone and we can make theater happen anywhere.”” S
“As You Like It” runs Aug. 6, 7 and 13-15 in Battery Park. Preshow entertainment begins at 6 p.m. and shows start at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free. For information, go to theatreinbatterypark.blogspot.com.