Ben Donenberg says his Shakespeare productions are a lot like Reconstructionist Judaism -- both give the past a vote, but not a veto.
As a Jew, Donenberg feels responsible to wrestle with traditional halacha and reconstruct it in a meaningful way. As the founder and producing artistic director of Shakespeare Festival/L.A., he works to understand the Bard's plays in their original contexts and "reconstructs" them to make them meaningful and accessible to contemporary L.A. audiences.
This summer's production of "The Comedy of Errors" is no different. In this fast-paced farce of mistaken identity involving two sets of twins, the Elizabethan-era mart is converted to its modern equivalent -- the mall. The town of Ephesus, "a spooky, creepy, kind of seedy place that was filled with magicians and sorcerers," according to Donenberg, becomes Los Angeles on el Día de los Muertos (The Day Of The Dead). And a 16th century exorcism is updated with an original soul-stirring gospel medley by the Tim Peterson Singers.
With a commitment to social justice, Shakespeare Festival/L.A. strives to make its productions financially accessible. When Donenberg founded the organization in 1985, his outdoor performances in Pershing Square were free and some of the most enthusiastic audience members were homeless people.
This gave way to the "Food for Thought" policy where many performances are still free with a canned food donation. To date, the group has collected nearly $2 million in food contributions.
Donenberg points to other aspects of his "equal access" philosophy: 25 percent of his audiences earn less than $25,000, no actors are turned away from the audition process, all cast-members are paid and most productions are multicultural.
But there have been surprises. When "As You Like It" opened in 1989, Donenberg peered into the audience and was shocked to see Tom Hanks, Sally Fields and Randy Quaid.
"Rita [Wilson] came to an open call and we hired her. We didn't know who she was," Donenberg said. "We wondered what are all these people doing here, and Rita said, 'I'm married to Tom Hanks.' This was before Tom was huge and Rita had her own acting career."
Since then, Wilson and Hanks have rallied support from Hollywood and organized an annual fundraiser -- a celebrity reading of a Shakespeare play -- to finance the free summer festival.
The group's social justice bent has also inspired a theater-based employment and human relations program for young people living at the poverty line called "Will Power to Youth," which is co-sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice. Likewise, "Will Power to Schools" gives local teachers free training to teach Shakespeare in dynamic ways.
The expansion of both programs, along with Shakespeare Festival/L.A.'s professional productions, fits into Donenberg's vision.
"One of [Mordechai] Kaplan's tenets is that Judaism is an evolving civilization. I think the theater is an evolving art form," he said.
"The Comedy of Errors" will play outdoors July 5 - 22 in Pershing Square, downtown Los Angeles (free with a canned food donation); and July 26-Aug. 5 in The South Coast Botanic Gardens, Palos Verdes Peninsula ($15 in advance. $18 at the door). For reservations, call (213) 481-2273 ext. 20.