As Hamlet says, “The play’s the thing…” No, not Hamlet the Pig– the cute, ruff-collared mascot of the Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s (LBSC)– the other Hamlet from William Shakespeare’s play.
And plays have been the thing at the LBSC, a gem in the Long Beach community that has brought relevant classics to life for 15 years this month.
Under the visionary direction of Helen Borgers, the company has made an art form of offering expertly produced Shakespeare and other classic plays, along with “old-time radio” productions of adapted plays and stories circa the 1940s, which rivet audiences now as much as they did then.
“We give great production value to everything we do,” said LBSC’s producer Dana Leach in an interview with the Signal Tribune.
Though Borgers has been hospitalized since July, the company will continue its production schedule into next year.
“Yes, we’re open,” Leach said. “And we’re staying open so she can come back.”
The company is offering three old-time radio performances during this anniversary month, including its annual presentation of Orson Welles’s 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s 1897 novel The War of the Worlds, with live sound effects and music performed by the cast.
“Old-time radio has value just like Shakespeare does,” said Leach. “Great stories are great stories.”
(However, LBSC reminds audiences that the original radio broadcast had created nationwide panic with its all-too-realistic description of Martians invading Earth.)
In addition, LBSC has invited Mat Kaplan, host of Planetary Radio, a radio talk show about space exploration, to present on the “State of the Universe” at the Sunday, Oct. 29 matinee performance of The War of the Worlds, as he has done since 2011.
The company had, in fact, opened its theatre with a radio performance of The War of the Worlds on Halloween night in 2002.
Well before that, the nonprofit company was known as “Bard in the Yard” when it was established in 1990, performing summer Shakespeare plays in local parks. Borgers joined as artistic director in 1997, escalating the number and scope of its performances and locations.
After changing to its current name in 1999, LBSC opened the Black Box Theatre in Bixby Knolls in 2002, which became the Richard Goad Theatre in 2006, named after a generous donor, and which continues to be its home today.
Among its milestones during the past 15 years, LBSC highlights on its website being awarded the only stage-adaptation rights for Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel The Maltese Falcon, in 2008.
Since 2010, LBSC has also formally celebrated Shakespeare’s April birthday month with readings and old-time radio adaptations of his plays. And since the playwright’s 450th birthday anniversary in 2014, the company has invited academic and other speakers to give free lectures on Shakespearean topics.
Such offerings help students who are studying these stories and plays, Leach said, as do question-and-answer sessions with the director and actors.
“I can have students come, and the actors will talk to them,” said Leach. “Our actors are willing to take that time.”
The theatre debuted a lobby makeover at the beginning of 2017, thanks to a slew of volunteers, including a new interior design with chalk wall, plus new woodwork and countertop for the lobby desk.
“[The renovation] was a great little labor of love, working every day with volunteers,” said Leach.
This year’s timely productions have involved the classics and government, Leach said, focusing on people in power, decisions and manipulation, such as Julius Caesar and Measure for Measure.
Before her hospitalization, Borgers had also looked ahead to 2018 and planned a schedule that includes rarely produced Shakespeare plays, including King John, All’s Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida.
“She had decided to do something she’d never done before, ” Leach said. “We’re looking forward to her being back for her to direct her dream season.”
The company will also continue offering other classics. January will start the year with a focus on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in an old-time radio production of A Scandal in Bohemia, and July will feature Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of Treasure Island.
“2018 will be [a season of] unique, daunting, problematic productions that you don’t see in other places,” Leach said.
A plan is in place to continue producing plays even if Borgers should remain unavailable. Theatre veteran Joe Montenari will direct the three October shows, and Brandon Alexander Cutts will direct this year’s Christmas show, The Wakefield Second Shepherds’ Play.
Cutts had co-directed, with Borgers, the recent production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. While Borgers could not be present physically, a camera mounted in the theatre allowed her to view progress of the production and provide input.
“[Cutts] grew up as Helen’s protégé,” Leach explained. “There’s a webcam in the theatre so she can see. He’ll direct any of the Shakespeare that she can’t.”
Thus, while everyone is rooting for Helen’s recovery and return, the shows will indeed go on.
“All of our actors, technicians, volunteers are doing a great job keeping the theatre alive,” Leach said. “And they’re doing it for her.”
Currently, the crew is in the midst of casting the Christmas show and getting programs ready for the October shows. They will also hold a costume sale Friday, Oct. 6, in time for Halloween.
But Leach feels how much the theatre and Borgers need each other.
“She is the captain of the ship. We can’t sail without her, but we can stay afloat,” Leach said. “It takes eight people to do what Helen was doing. I give our volunteers a lot of credit.”
Leach recalled visiting Borgers in the hospital last week, describing her strength in the face of her health crisis.
“She’s making a conscious effort to fight for her life. [But] the first thing she said was, ‘Tell me about the theatre,’” Leach recounted. “The theatre is her baby. I don’t think anyone could take [us] through 15 years besides her. She is the heart and soul of the theatre. She never wants to take credit for all she’s done.”
Despite this trial, Leach encourages the public to continue attending performances at the Richard Goad Theatre, so that the Long Beach Shakespeare Company may see many more years to come.
“We love our community, and I think our community loves us back,” she said. “I hope people come see the shows and support the theatre.”
For performances and other information, visit lbshakespeare.org.