Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park celebrates start of 25th summer season

When Kathryn McGill left New York in 1985 for a vacation back to her home state of Oklahoma, she had no idea that her life was about to change forever.

She had earned an undergraduate degree in acting and directing at the University of Oklahoma before moving to New York University, where she earned her master's in acting. There, she fell in love with the free productions of Shakespeare in Central Park.


"It was free, but you still had to stand in line for hours to get tickets because everyone wanted to go, so the house was full every night," she said.

Upon returning to Oklahoma, McGill was dismayed to find that outside of the occasional university production, no local companies were performing Shakespeare. Inspired by her experiences in Central Park and the discovery of an unused stage at Edmond's Hafer Park, McGill "? along with former teacher Jack O'Meara and some actor compatriots "? decided to put on Oklahoma's first-ever season of free outdoor Shakespeare, all on a budget of $500. The first production was of "Twelfth Night."

"After that first summer, I called the guy who was subletting my apartment in New York and said, 'I think I'm staying,'" she said. 

After entertaining more than 6,000 people that first summer, McGill and O'Meara started work on a winter season, and McGill started fulfilling a longtime dream of running her own theater company.

When the next summer came around, the fledgling company faced some scheduling difficulties, as the Edmond Parks and Recreation Department started to use the Hafer Park stage again, booking concerts that conflicted with OSP's performances. A compromise was soon reached when the department provided land in a different part of the park where OSP could construct a new stage.

"It was a beautiful area in Hafer Park that had not been developed. You had to walk through this wooded trail to get there. People loved the atmosphere. It was so laid-back," McGill said.

The next 10 years were a good growth period for OSP, with the company producing consecutive successful summer and winter seasons, building relationships with educational institutions and regularly traveling all over the state to perform.

In December 2001, a fire consumed the stage in Hafer Park. McGill said public support and money poured in, and the Edmond stage was rebuilt by the start of the 2003 season. But in 2005, the replacement stage was destroyed by another fire.

"After that "¦ we didn't really have the heart to build another one," she said. "The second fire forced us to re-evaluate."

McGill said that no one knows for certain what caused the fires, but theories range from teenage vandalism to an out-of-control blaze initially ignited by a homeless person trying to keep warm.

After the second fire, OSP took up summer residence on the University of Central Oklahoma campus for two consecutive years.

"It was not a good space. The acoustics were bad. We knew it was temporary," McGill said.

It was during that time that a Shakespeare fan on the Oklahoma City Council approached OSP about relocating to downtown, at the Myriad Gardens Water Stage.

"The more we thought about it and the more we looked at it, the more we thought 'Why not?'" McGill said.

An added incentive was the city's plan to renovate the stage "? made easier by OSP's interest in relocating.

"It was this very nice marriage. They very easily raised the money "? more money than we had ever raised in our lives. They put in the new sound and light system, seats and an elevator," she said.

At the start of its third season at the water stage, McGill is happy with the decision to move downtown, but she acknowledged issues that still need to be worked out "? specifically, the heat. The company is exploring cooling options for the outdoor stage, such as misting systems.

After 25 years, OSP continues to attract new talent every season. Shae Orrick is playing Celia in "As You Like It," which stages 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday and again July 9-11.

"This has been my first big step outside of doing school shows. Everyone has been so warm and welcoming, especially the people that have done it before "? they're really interested in helping the newer actors," she said.

Orrick said performing in the heat in a costume consisting of a corset, a long-sleeved shirt, three skirts and a bustle has been the biggest challenge she's faced so far as an actress.

Relative newcomer Christopher Curtis has been in six of the last seven OSP productions, and had been attending shows since he was young.

"It was exciting to get to work with people that I had seen onstage so many times," he said, noting that his first season with OSP was "certainly an experience I wouldn't trade for anything."

Despite the perils of dodging bird droppings and rapiers (Curtis was accidentally stabbed in the mouth during one production), he returned this summer with renewed enthusiasm.

"The things that excite me the most about Shakespeare, and I'm not sure which to rate higher, are his use of language and his understanding of people," he said.

McGill said Shakespeare survives because of that insight and his heightened language that reverberates deep within us.

"It's an intellectual stimulation that stirs the soul as well," she said. 

"?Eric Webb

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