During the first production of Tidewater Community College’s Shakespeare in the Grove in 1997, a thunderstorm blew down the set. Twenty-five years later, on June 22–26, another storm will grace The Grove stage on the Chesapeake campus with the festival’s production of The Tempest.
“There’s always a twist,” says Shakespeare in the Grove artistic director Matthew Gorris, describing his vision for the event.
Shakespeare in the Grove plays are pared down to roughly two hours and presented in an accessible, engaging format. Past productions have featured twists like a steampunk version of Hamlet or The Taming of the Shrew set in a saloon. Gorris and the play’s director, Trey Clarkson, are currently making final decisions about what this year’s take on Shakespeare’s magical island play will be, but there are bound to be fantastic beings and a love story.
Gorris says that the productions are free and family friendly, and theatergoers should bring picnic baskets, blankets, bug spray and lawn chairs.
“People love the atmosphere of enjoying Shakespeare under the stars,” says Gorris. “It’s summer, it’s a free event. And with a classical type of play, there’s something about being outside and hearing that old, romantic sort of verse and just enjoying a sandwich.”
Shakespeare in the Grove began with the outdoors as a central part of its inspiration. In the late ’90s, its founder, Ed Jacob, was wandering on the TCC Chesapeake campus by a grove of trees and realized the location was the perfect site for a Shakespeare play.
Jacob went to then provost Tim Kerr, pitched the idea, and told him that if they could draw 50 people, he would call the production a success. They started off with a tiny budget, four platforms to perform on, and no scenery, lights or costumes. “A passion and a plank” was the motto for that first Shakespeare in the Grove.
“Ed Jacob said that’s all we needed,” says Gorris of the event’s founder.
The productions may have started small, but they now draw crowds of four to five hundred people a night for the five night run. Shakespeare in the Grove is hosted by TCC and the Chesapeake Fine Arts Commission and was mentioned as a “Best Bet” in Southern Living magazine.
Gorris says he recognizes some theatergoers who come back every year, even driving from out of town for the event. But Gorris thinks it’s time for the production to reach a wider swathe of the local community.
“Over the years the audience has grown, the recognition has grown, but we’re still sort of the best kept secret,” says Gorris. “It’s always been grassroots, small advertising budget. I think it’s about time more of the community sees what we do. I’m hoping people say, ‘Wait, this has been going on for twenty-five years, and it’s in my backyard.’”
As well as the 25th anniversary, this is an exciting moment for TCC theater—in April they celebrated their first indoor show since the pandemic with The Merchant of Venice.
“We’re bringing back theater, but we tried to find ways to keep it going without shutting it down completely,” says Gorris.
Over the last two years the TCC theater community has performed radio shows that they broadcast over Facebook as well as outdoor events like Macbeth in the patio space and last year’s Shakespeare in the Grove production of Twelfth Night.
As the actors, technicians, and local artists ready themselves for the 25th anniversary production, Gorris says that in some ways Shakespeare in the Grove has come full circle.
The cast is drawn from TCC current and former students, area professionals and even Chesapeake high school students. A few of the actors who will be featured in the 25th anniversary performed in the original production of As You Like It, and the production’s director, Clarkson, also acted in that first show.
“There’s a bookend,” says Gorris. “And it’s about the magic. The magic of The Tempest for our twenty fifth.”
The Tempest will run June 22–26 at 8 p.m. on the Grove Stage at the TCC Chesapeake Campus. The event is free and open to the public. For more info, call 757-822-5219 or on Facebook: Search “Tidewater Community College Theatre.”
Photos courtesy of Lauren Ciampoli