Kilgore — East Texas has many charming attributes: piney woods, old churches, roses, Texas blues and country music, oil, and downhome hospitality—just to name a few. The tiny town of Kilgore (population around 15,000) occupies this region, and for most Texans it is noteworthy only for its famous dance team, the Kilgore College Rangerettes. And as the boyhood home of pianist Van Cliburn, who became an American legend when he won the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War—inspired the Van Cliburn Foundation in Fort Worth and its quadrennial international competition.
Who would have thought that another quality artistic institution hails from Kilgore, and draws artists and audiences from all over the state and country?
The Texas Shakespeare Festival is that institution and it’s celebrating its 30th anniversary season as East Texas’ only professional theater company. In its history it has become a well-respected regional theater, employing more than 2,100 theater artists, from every state in the U.S., and 12 foreign countries producing 28 of Shakespeare’s plays, 29 non-Bard works (classic and modern), 34 children’s plays, two originals about oilfields, and 19 musicals (one of which was a world premiere).
As a native Texan and self-professed Bardolator of the highest degree, I had to get myself out to this festival. It takes a little more than two hours to travel to Kilgore from Dallas, so an over-nighter or weekend stay is a must for those who want to attend as many plays in their repertory run as possible (which you will).
The TSF is a seasonal boon for local businesses, particularly hotels which gift back a portion of their taxes to the festival. The wider community also embraces TSF and its actors, crew, and interns by sponsoring amenities through guild memberships, cookouts, and other downtime opportunities. TSF recruits actors from all over the country by audition notices soliciting videos and/or invitations to attend traveling tryouts. Most come to Kilgore in mid-May and stay (in college dorms) until the end of the festival which runs the whole month of July.
This year’s festival offers six plays: Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Henry V, Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst, and Spirit of the Sea an original play written and directed by Jason Richards for young audiences. All performances take place in the Van Cliburn Theatre on the Kilgore College campus.
I attended Henry V on a Friday evening, and witnessed the finest live production of the play I’ve ever seen. Every single part was inhabited by a passionate, talented actor (a true repertory bonus), even the accents are accurate to character region. Directed by Stephen Wyman (longtime Days of Our Lives producer and director) and starring Henry Ayres-Brown (Carnegie Mellon) in the titular role, this history is a masterpiece. The audience was polite and—curiously—a bit reserved; however, I left energized and ready for more.
Saturday afternoon’s Carousel was a pleasant surprise of earnest and sweet performances. Stephen Terrell (TSF founding member and Emerson College faculty) directs and choreographs a powerhouse ensemble with Caitlin Cavannaugh (in her third TSF season) as the standout playing Carrie Pipperidge. The afternoon crowd ate this play up and provided thunderous, tear-stained applause at the curtain call.
The Merchant of Venice on Saturday evening closed out my weekend at TSF. Although technically a comedy, Merchant plays more like an uncomfortable anti-Semitic tragedy for most modern audiences. Leslie Reidel (co-artistic director of Philadelphia’s Enchantment Theatre Company) directs an excellent, period version with a spirited and clear Wyman as Shylock. Many in the crowd seemed unfamiliar with the play and gasped and spontaneously applauded at four hundred year-old plot points, making for a fresh viewing of the play.
Every single person I encountered, from directors and festival administrators to gift shop employees and ushers were incredibly friendly, helpful, and seemed happy to be there (not a given in most theaters). The audiences were mostly rapt and ready to be entertained.
The Texas Shakespeare Festival is welcome oasis of culture nestled in a rural countryside that boasts some of its own simple charms, and not just the East Texas Oil Museum or some of the best chicken fried steak you will ever eat.
» The Texas Shakespeare Festival closes Sunday, July 31. The remaining performances are below:
- The Merchant of Venice: 7:30 p.m. July 27; and 2 p.m. July 28 and 30
- Blithe Spirit (not viewed for this report): 7:30 p.m. July 28 and 30
- Henry V: 2 p.m. July 29 and 31
- Carousel: 7:30 p.m. July 29 and 31
You can see a complete calendar here