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Georgia Shakespeare to make splashy return to Piedmont Park this week

By Howard Pousner
hpousner@ajc.com

In making its performance return to Piedmont Park this week, Georgia Shakespeare sought to make a super-sized splash.

Not only has it been a year since its popular and free Shake at the Lake series was canceled due to lack of funding, it’s also been just a little more than four months since its Save Georgia Shakespeare campaign eclipsed its half-million-dollar goal.

So while staging five performances of “The Tempest” starting Wednesday, the longtime Atlanta troupe wanted to present a show of strength.

“When we went through our big campaign just to save Georgia Shakespeare last fall, one of the things we said is, ‘We don’t just want to do this to survive, we want to come back in a bigger way,’ ” founding artistic director Richard Gardner said. “This, for me, is a big symbol of that.”

Indeed, rather than return to the site of former glories at the edge of funky Lake Clara Meer, Georgia Shakespeare is making a big move to a bigger, dramatically revitalized area in Piedmont’s northern end that boasts the Legacy Fountain. The fountain is the focal point of a circular meadow area, roughly the length of a football field, that is perfect for picnicking and stargazing — of both the celestial and actor varieties.

And while we’re talking big, capacity will double, to 1,800, allowing the theater to give away 900 tickets, as it has done in the past, while selling the same number and creating a new revenue stream. Still, production manager Keith Hinze promises the experience will feel as intimate as before, with “clearer sound that will cover the distance better.”

Shake at the Lake, one of Atlanta’s most popular alfresco arts traditions, is being renamed Shakespeare in the Park, befitting its new, expanded, lake-less site. But water will still play a prominent role in the proceedings.

Framed by a large wooden colonnade that lends the new outdoor space a theatrical flair, Legacy Fountain features 78 jets that shoot H2O up to 20 feet into the air. So when Prospera (Carolyn Cook) magically raises a storm to pull her seafaring enemies ashore at the opening of perhaps Shakespeare’s splashiest drama, the torrent will be quite literal.

During the day, drenched kids frolic through the geysers, much the way they have for years at Centennial Olympic Park. But when the skies and emotions darken during “The Tempest,” the individually illuminated jets, controlled off the production’s light board, will serve a more dramatic purpose.

That’s not the only water feature that will make this year’s return to Piedmont different. The Legacy Fountain area, convenient to the ample SAGE parking facility that serves the Atlanta Botanical Garden as well, also boasts restrooms with indoor plumbing. That means that the Port-O-Lets of yore can be banished like Prospera’s adversaries.

“In re-envisioning Shakespeare in the Park, we’re making it frankly a more practical business model, but also a much better experience” for guests, Garner said. “I think that’s the right direction for us to be going and the right direction for those who’ve supported us to see us going.”

A key supporter is the Atlanta-based Charles Loridans Foundation, which awarded Georgia Shakespeare a $300,000 grant to re-establish itself in the park over three springs. The annual grants should pay for roughly 60 percent of production costs, Garner said, with the balance being raised via corporate support and ticket sales.

“Our belief is that a city like Atlanta has got to have free performances of serious art in a venue like Piedmont Park . . . that is as accessible to as many people as possible,” said attorney Robert Edge, the foundation’s chairman. “People who don’t typically attend live theater, they can go into a friendly setting like the park and, if they like the show, maybe that will make them more likely to go to Actor’s Express or Horizon [Theatre Company].”

Garner felt the best way to reboot was with “The Tempest,” which received strong reviews in a 2011 production mounted indoors at Georgia Shakespeare’s permanent home at Oglethorpe University’s Conant Performing Arts Center. Director Sharon Ott, the former Seattle Repertory Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre artistic chief, is back, as is most of the cast, led by Georgia Shakespeare favorites Cook, Chris Kayser as Ariel and Neal A. Ghant as Caliban.

There is a sentimental aspect to returning to the park for Garner that extends beyond Piedmont’s borders. He was a co-founder of Georgia Shakespeare, which, starting in 1986, performed for 11 summers under tents staked on Oglethorpe fields. When the troupe inaugurated the Conant in summer 1997 (opening it, in fact, with “Tempest,” which it also had performed under a tent in 1982), the preshow picnicking tradition continued, by popular demand, even as the plays moved inside.

So presenting the Bard in the great outdoors just seems natural.

“When we did our first year of Shake in the park in ‘04, by that time having been around for 19 seasons, I felt, ‘Ahh, this is a return to our roots,’ ” Garner said. “It’s a night of theater, yes, but it’s also that feeling of special event that I think the tent had in a very neat way.

“Audiences in Atlanta, they love their outdoor events.”

THEATER PREVIEW

Shakespeare in the Park: “The Tempest”

7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Seating starting at 6 p.m. Piedmont Park’s Legacy Fountain. $10 general admission (available in advance); $20 per person for a reserved chair; $40 (maximum of two people) for a reserved picnic spot; $500 for table of six in prime seating area. Free general admission tickets (up to four per person) available at Piedmont Park (outside the ground floor exit of the SAGE parking lot) or Georgia Shakespeare box office, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. on show days for that night’s performance. Georgia Shakespeare box office, 404-504-1473, www.gashakespeare.org.

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