- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The big, low-to-the-ground, almost bone-white building that takes up all of one side of a block at 201 East Capitol St. looks stolid and not all that inviting. But move in a little closer. See on the north facade nine bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. In the garden see the craggy statues evoking eight of the Bard’s unforgettable characters. On the west side see the impish Puck, the mischief maker of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

No doubt about it: This is the Folger Shakespeare Library, Henry Clay Folger and his devoted wife Emily’s gift to Washington and the country. It’s 75 years old this year, and on Sunday will be the scene of a blowout 443rd birthday party for Will himself that organizers expect will draw 2,500 to 3,000 visitors to explore the solid building and join in Elizabethan-style revelry.

Begun in 1979, the annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Open House is a four-hour occasion: for plays and playing, lessons in stage combat, candle making, jesters and jests and old-style singing and dancing. The maids are merry, the fools both professional and amateur, and the cake by tradition is cut by Queen Elizabeth — a mock Elizabeth I, that is.

Even the reading rooms of the library are thrown open, a once-a-year event that lets everyone visit the brown-hued, stained-glassed, book-rich rooms usually reserved for readers and researchers.

And as it does every year, the celebration will climax at 3 p.m. with the traditional procession from inside the building to the grounds, headed by Queen Bess.

“I think the celebration shows just how modern Shakespeare really is,” says Grace Schiraldi, a Folger docent who is the party’s principal organizer, “and how enduring his works are for everyone.”

The passion for Shakespeare

The Folgers might have been a little startled by all these noises and alarums, but in fact the party has become a kind of annual testament to the library’s status.

Since it opened in 1932 it has become not just a full-service Shakespeare and Elizabethan and European Renaissance library and research institution, but more — a national and city treasure, a place full of vibrant activities and public programs that have exploded over the last three decades.

Certainly the library has been at the root of the passion for Shakespeare that has overtaken America and Washington, to the point where the Bard has become a cultural cottage industry.

Consider the current, six-month-long “Shakespeare in Washington” festival, a cornucopia of plays, exhibitions, performances and special events celebrating the Bard. For it, the Folger showcased the Classic Theatre of Harlem’s production of “King Lear,” will produce its own “The Tempest,” opening in May, and has mounted a major exhibition, “Shakespeare in American Life,” now on show.

Consider the films and TV shows on Shakespeare and his times that feed the popular imagination — Helen Mirren as “Elizabeth” on HBO, “The Tudors” on Showtime and the Oscar-winning “Shakespeare in Love.”

“I think the Folgers would marvel at where we are today — but I also think that much of what has happened over the years are all things that they would be proud of,” says Gail Kerner Paster, who took over as director of the Folger Shakespeare Library five years ago.

“He intended very much for the Folger to be a living institution that was used and visited by Americans and inhabited by the spirit of Shakespeare,” Ms. Paster says of Henry Clay Folger.

“There was a reason, I think, that he insisted that the Folger be here, and not somewhere else. To Folger, this was the heart and soul of America.”

Civic-minded collectors

If you look at photos of the Folgers, they look like members in good standing of the upper crust of the Gilded Age. In truth, the bookish Folger became president and chairman of Standard Oil even as he and his wife Emily Jordan Folger were amassing a valuable and huge collection of Shakespearean books and materials including 79 First Folio copies.

“It wasn’t just a matter of collecting Shakespeare,” Ms. Paster says. “It was that the Folgers firmly believed that the works of Shakespeare had inspired Americans from the country’s beginnings, that his plays embodied American values such as democracy, individualism, creativity, freedom, adventure and tolerance.”

The Folgers wanted that collection to become a library for scholars and the public. When the Folger Shakespeare Library was finally dedicated by President Herbert Hoover, Henry Folger had already passed away — he died in 1930.

The library, with Emily Folger’s forceful support (she gave the trustees of Amherst College, who would run the library, $3 million in Standard Oil securities), would take a long time to become what it is today. But over the years, it would expand its interests into Elizabethan and European Renaissance materials, so the collection became not just a library about Shakespeare but one about the man and his world.

The library also included not only reading rooms, but a Great Hall, with room for exhibitions, and the Elizabethan Theatre, a small theater with two very big pillars, an intimate space.

The public face

While the library evolved into a renowned research center to which scholars, students and academics were drawn, it was not very rich in the kind of non-academic, public activities and programs that turns institutions into human spaces.

That began to change around 1970, beginning with the formation that year of the Folger Theatre Group, a company that — in perhaps a harbinger of the growing “coolness” of Shakespeare — staged as its first production a show called “Dionysus Wants You!” a rock ‘n’ roll musical adaptation of Euripides’ “The Bacchae.” The following year saw performances of “Twelfth Night,” the first production of a Shakespeare play.

“In the 1970s a lot of things began to change here,” says Janet Griffin, the Folger’s director of Education and Public Programs, who started as a Folger staff member 30 years ago.

The Folger Consort, a musical company specializing in Renaissance and Elizabethan music, had its first performance in 1977, and other programs soon followed.

The Emily Jordan Folger Children’s Shakespeare Festival was founded in 1980, the Secondary Shakespeare Festival a year later. The PEN/Faulkner Foundation (and its prize for literature) moved to the Folger in 1983.

In 1989 the Elizabethan Garden opened with regular tours, becoming another draw for visitors. In 1991 the real queen, Elizabeth II, visited the Folger during a state visit.

While the Folger’s ties to the Folger Theatre Company would be severed in 1985 — under Michael Kahn it would become what is now the Shakespeare Theatre Company — the Folger still offers a yearly performance season, including an upcoming performance of “The Tempest.”

The public programs range far and wide.

“Everything we do makes the Folger Shakespeare Library become alive; it’s a living embodiment of Shakespeare,” Ms. Griffin says.

Party time

And nothing quite embodies Shakespeare — and his boisterous times — as the annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Open House.

No one really knows when the English language’s pre-eminent poet and dramatist was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, of course, but the consensus date is April 23, 1564.

But Ms. Griffin remembers the Folger’s first Shakespeare birthday party.

“It was actually a radiothon with WGMS, the old classical music station. I think it was called the ‘Shakespeare Fair on the Air.’ The early years, you’d see about 200 people or so. But every year, it just grew and grew,” she says.

“And the one thing, the most notable group of people that you would always see is families and children.”

You can see that on any given day at the Folger. Not too long ago you could see 10-year-old Raina Wellman following the words from the Folio edition of “Romeo and Juliet” on a screen at a new page-by-page kiosk that allows users to digitally leaf through the pages and enlarge words or sections of the text.

“She’s just really gotten into Shakespeare recently,” said Jerry Wellman, Raina’s father. The Wellmans were visiting from New Mexico.

Youngsters like Raina always make up the bulk of the crowd at the birthday party.

“Children take to the plays, the acting, the activities, the clowns; they have an instinctive feel for what is going on,” Ms. Schiraldi says.

“They may not understand all the words, exactly, but they respond freely to what they’re seeing and feeling. They love the clowns, the young romantic girls and boys, the fights, the battles, they react strongly to movement and facial expressions.”

The celebration will include Renaissance music from Larksong and the Capital Brass Quintet and period dancing from the Rock Creek Morris Women.

Children will learn how to do quill pen writing and make brass rubbings, brooches, pennant masks and ivy garlands, and can listen to real live stories and tales.

Veteran Shakespeare fight instructor Brad Weller will show them how to wield a big sword and a mace and how to use a shield for protection.

On the Elizabethan Theatre stage you’ll see performers from Montgomery Blair High School. The Youth Players from the D.C. Division of Youth Rehabilitation Services will perform a 30-minute version of “Macbeth” set in Africa.

And anyone who knows a bit of the Bard can march right up on stage and show off a winning free-verse form.

There’s more: A maypole dance. Sword-swallowing and fire-eating. Juggling and magic tricks. Trivia contests. On hand too will be the Nicolo Whimsey Show, a variety troupe that specializes in Elizabethan-style juggling, music, mime and clowning.

And of course the birthday cake and the procession, with Queen Bess as grand mistress.

So, by all means, head for the Folger on Sunday.

Watch Shakespeare come alive.

WHAT: Shakespeare’s Birthday Open House

WHERE: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE

WHEN: Noon-4 p.m. April 29

TICKETS: Admission free

INFORMATION: 202/544-4600 or folger.edu

Hours, events at the Folger

The Folger Shakespeare Library at 201 East Capitol St. SE on Capitol Hill, a mecca for scholars in Shakespeare, the Renaissance, and the early modern age in the West, is known as well for its public events — plays, concerts, readings, exhibitions, family activities and student/teacher programs.

The Folger is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It’s closed Sundays and all federal holidays. Admission is free. For complete information see folger.edu or call 202/544-4600.

Exhibition and performance

• Shakespeare in American Life: The current exhibition. This 75th-anniversary show, drawn from the Folger’s collection, looks at Shakespeare as an ingredient in American culture — books, performances, engravings, quilts, puzzles, comic books and ads — from Colonial times to the present. Great Hall. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday through Aug. 18. Free.

• The Tempest: Next scheduled production, directed by Helen Hayes award-winning director Aaron Posner. Elizabethan Theatre. May 9-June 17. $25-$50. Box office 202/544-7077 or buy online at folger.edu; follow the links.

Other events

• PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Ceremony: The 27th annual celebration of literary excellence. This year’s recipient is novelist Philip Roth for “Everyman.” Elizabethan Theatre. 7 p.m. May 12. $100. 202/544-7077 or buy online at folger.edu; follow the links.

• Words on Will — Mercedes Ellington: Performer, choreographer and granddaughter of Duke Ellington will discuss his “Such Sweet Thunder,” in which instruments become Shakespearean characters. Elizabethan Theatre. 7:30 p.m. May 15. $12. 202/544-7077 or buy online at folger.edu; follow the links.

• 28th Annual Children’s Shakespeare Festival: Students in grades 3-6 perform on the stage. Elizabethan Theatre. 9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. May 21-25. Free. 202/675-0395 or e-mail [email protected]

• Eavan Boland: Folger Poetry Board reading by one of Ireland’s most powerful poets. Elizabethan Theatre. 7:30 p.m. May 21. $12. 202/544-7077 or buy online at folger.edu; follow the links.


• The building and the current exhibition: Docent-led tours 11 a.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday. Free. No reservations needed.

• The Elizabethan gardens: Docent-led tours 10 and 11 a.m. on the third Saturday of every month, April through October. Free. No reservations needed.

• Group and school tours: Docent-led tours 10:30 a.m.-noon on selected days. $50 for school groups, $75 for all other groups. Arrange in advance at 202/675-0395.

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