The show must go on: Southern Shakespeare Company bounces back after unprecedented storm

May 17—TALLAHASSEE- As the audience filed into the Adderley Amphitheater in Tallahassee's Cascades Park, high winds swirled around the stage, a foreshadowing of what was to come.

Thursday night, May 9, was opening night of the Southern Shakespeare Company's Shakespeare in the Park festival where they would put on "The Winter's Tale." Unfortunately, it was the only night the theater non-profit was able to use the beautiful and massive Cascades Park stage and their two story set. The Southern Shakespeare Company was monitoring the weather and was in contact with local meteorologists. Though they expected rough weather on Friday morning, no one expected an unprecedented storm in the Florida capitol. Three tornadoes were confirmed to have touched down in Leon County leaving countless members of the Tallahassee community without power, including many of the Southern Shakespeare Company's actors.

The Company's first difficulty was its set. Materials had been gathered since February and the impressive two-story set piece took two months to build and was transported and rebuilt in Cascades Park the week before the festival.

"It truly is a labor of love, so many volunteer hours go into getting it up in the park and so to lose it was just truly heartbreaking," said Bianca Montague, executive director of the Southern Shakespeare Company.

The heartbreak came after Friday morning's storm as the set that had been worked on for three months was suddenly rubble. As the storm subsided and Friday night came and went without a show in Cascades Park, The Southern Shakespeare Company had two jobs: Clean up the stage and find a new venue. The first was daunting, but on Saturday morning the community that the Southern Shakespeare Company has served for nearly ten years came to help.

"The community just really showed up for us on Saturday morning. We had to get all of our stuff out of the park and over to Westminster and on top of that we had to clean up the rubble that was our stage," Montague said. "And we must have had about 30 volunteers, many of them with trucks and trailers that showed up in the park on Saturday morning for us."

The Southern Shakespeare Company's second task was to find a new venue. Normally that wouldn't be an issue, but many of the venues that were contacted were without power or had suffered damage from the storm. Finally, the Company and their festival found a home at Westminster Oaks, a retirement home in Tallahassee where the Southern Shakespeare Company was able to fit 250 seats. Montague gave a lot of credit to the actors for their flexibility.

"I have to hand it to our amazing ensemble of actors," Montague said. "The flexibility that they showed and willingness to move forward despite some of them not having power, some of them had family that were in town in hotels that didn't have power, but they were all willing to show up and put on the production for us."

After finding a venue, the cast and crew of "The Winter's Tale" had to essentially reblock the entire show. Their two story set had been reduced to rubble and now they had a smaller stage and no set to work with. The actors used the floor and the stage in an effort to recreate their blocking and often had to improvise entrances and exits.

"They adapted beautifully. I think in some ways there is a different pleasure in a more intimate space that was really palpable," said Southern Shakespeare Company Communications Director Kelby Siddons. "We're very proud of the pivot that we were able to make. Very proud of the show that crystalized so quickly in this new space and just very grateful. Everyone was very collaborative and adaptive and we found so much joy by doing that together."

Thanks to the help of the community, the swift action of the Southern Shakespeare Company staff and Westminster Oaks and the dedication of "The Winter's Tale" cast and crew, the show went on and the annual Shakespeare in the Park festival was continued with performances being put on Saturday and Sunday as planned.

Though it was a much smaller venue than the Southern Shakespeare Company is used to, both Siddons and Montague described the setting as intimate.

"The Winter's Tale itself is a show that is really about the relationships between the characters," Montague said. "The smaller space really lent a since of gravity to those interactions between the actors. It made the event very special."

Siddons went on to describe the show as a "distraction" from the terrible circumstances left by the unprecedented storm.

"For me, personally, my power was out until 3:30 p.m. on Sunday," Siddons said. "So, to be able to go to this air conditioned space, with power and be distracted by this fantastical tale of miracles and redemption was so wonderful and I think a lot of people that attended must have been feeling the same way as me."

Siddons also described an interaction she had with a Westminster Oaks resident saying, "I also had someone come up to me who is a resident there and she said, 'I always wanted to come see this. I've never made it out to the park and it is such a joy that it is coming to me'."

Though it was nowhere near what they had planned, the 2024 Shakespeare in the Park festival will be remembered for a very long time for its adversity and the effort taken by The Southern Shakespeare Company, its cast and crew for their tremendous efforts to bring Shakespeare to a community in desperate need of inspiration.

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