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New Program to Bring Shakespeare to Small, Medium-Sized US Cities

The top U.S. arts agency has unveiled an ambitious new program to bring the theater of William Shakespeare to communities and schools around the country. The project is being organized by the National Endowment for the Arts and the non-profit organization, Arts Midwest.

National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia says "Shakespeare in American Communities" is the largest, most complex project his agency has ever undertaken. He says the program is currently scheduled to tour 100 medium and small cities in all 50 U.S. states.

"This is the sort of thing that the Endowment was created to do, which is to believe that excellence in art and democratic outreach are not incompatible. That we can bring the very best work to the broadest audience," he said.

Another of the plays is A Midsummer Night's Dream, which Mr. Gioia says will be performed by the Artists Repertory Theatre, of Portland, Oregon, with actors from the Central Dramatic Company of Vietnam.

"There's actually a movie that's been made about this collaboration, where they went to Vietnam, where Shakespeare is very popular," he said, "that they had never done in Vietnam a production of Midsummer Night's Dream. They incorporated Vietnamese elements into the production concept, Vietnamese actors, and that will be touring and it will be a bilingual production."

In addition to theater performances, the project will include workshops and educational programs in local schools. Mr. Gioia said the Arts Endowment is putting up $3 million, but that the final costs could be double that amount. In explaining the choice of playwrights, he said although Shakespeare is British, he has had a lasting influence on American literature and history.

"You go back to the 19th century, Shakespeare was the most popular dramatist in all regions of the country, among all classes," he said. "I mean, he was not only put on in the cities of the Northeast, where there would actually be riots between the fans of competing actors, but he was performed in mining camps in the West, military camps in the Southwest. He was even performed by freed slaves in African-American communities in the South. And so, he's part of the fabric of American culture."

Mr. Gioia says foreign writers traveling around a young America made this interesting observation: "They pointed out with some astonishment that no matter where they went in the United States, even to cabins on the frontier, they always found two books in American homes, the Bible and the works of Shakespeare," he said.

Mr. Gioia says the tour is aimed at reacquainting 21st century Americans with Shakespeare, a 16th century playwright whom he describes as one of the greatest writers in the English language. The first performances are scheduled for September.