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Arts & Culture

Capital Classics Celebrates 30 Years Of Shakespeare Under The Stars

Actors Tonille Watkis and Laura Sheehan perform in The Greater Hartford Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor"
Capital Classics
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Actors Tonille Watkis and Laura Sheehan perform in the Greater Hartford Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor."

After a COVID hiatus last summer, Capital Classics Theatre Company is back with the Greater Hartford Shakespeare Festival. The return to live, outdoor performances on the campus of the University of Saint Joseph happens to coincide with the company’s 30th anniversary season.

It was still fairly early in the rehearsal process on the stormy evening I swung by to meet the company. After some warmups, the cast of Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It wandered the darkened stage of Hoffman Auditorium at the University of Saint Joseph. They were working out the final scene of the play.

Some of the actors were completely off-book, while others held on to their scripts like a security blanket, occasionally peeking at their lines. The scene wasn’t even blocked yet. What director and Capital Classics co-founder Geoffrey Sheehan was looking for at that particular moment was subtext.

“Share with me two things in this scene to celebrate,” Sheehan asked of the cast. “I got the girl!” blurted out one cast member. “My cousin and best friend is now officially my sister,” said another. Sheehan replied, “Oh yeah! I hadn’t thought of that. You are sisters now.”

This is actor Nick Roesler’s second production with Capital Classics. He said you don’t often find this extra level of scrutiny and research with other theater companies.

“It’s very much input-driven. And that’s really a welcome thing, because a lot of shows are just, you know you’ve got a few weeks, wham bam, you put it up, then it’s off to the races,” Roesler said. “And you really don’t get that chance to explore and marinate with your character.”

Laura Sheehan, along with her husband, Geoffrey, founded the company. She says that over the years, they have perfected their method of making Shakespeare relatable to modern audiences.

“We really work on the language, and the meaning and action behind the language,” Sheehan said. “There’s a certain technique and approach to it, which takes a lot of hours alone, really tasting it and embodying it, and making it comfortable in the muscles of your mouth. And then letting the meaning drop down.”

Back in the late ’80s, Laura and Geoffrey Sheehan were living in Los Angeles. Armed with theater degrees from UConn, the couple were trying to make a go of it. Then Laura got pregnant. So, they returned to Connecticut to be near Laura’s family, unsure of what their next steps would be.

“What are we going to do? How are we going to make this life work, as parents and theater artists and what we wanted to do? How? How?” said Geoffrey Sheehan.

Geoffrey took an administrative position at Hartford Stage. He said that while on a lunch hour walk in Bushnell Park inspiration struck.

“And this piece of paper literally came floating in the wind and landed on the sidewalk in front of me,” Sheehan said. “It said, ‘Things going on in Bushnell Park in the summer.’ There were maybe four things on it, and as I’m looking, I noticed that there wasn’t any theater. And I was like, ‘That’s it! That’s what we’ll do!’”

The Sheehans said that at the time, they knew nothing about producing live, outdoor theater. At the beginning, they got a lot of help and advice from Geoffrey’s colleagues at Hartford Stage. What the Sheehans did know was the kind of theater company they hoped to create.

“It’s important for me that theater speaks to us as human beings, that it tells relevant stories and like Shakespeare says, holds that mirror up to nature and is the form and pressure of its own time,” Geoffrey Sheehan said. “And this is something that’s important that we accomplish with this. That we really take away the veils and reveal our humanity.”

The Sheehans also wanted to create a diverse company of actors.

“We always want what’s onstage to mirror what’s in our world,” Laura Sheehan said. “So that means that we want to bring actors of different ethnicities and different cultures and of different ages, and different looks — we want people who can invest deeply in this work. And it doesn’t matter what you look like. If you’re good, we can find a place for you.”

Tonille Watkis, who’s in her third production with Capital Classics, says she loves how the Sheehans cultivate a family atmosphere among the cast.

“I see people from the cast returning year after year to work with them because they just truly love and enjoy working with them and love this process,” Watkis said. “Cast members also become part of the Sheehan family too, so I’m really appreciative of that.”

Now, it goes without saying that live, outdoor theater presents its own unique risks and challenges — especially the weather. After 30 years, Geoffrey and Laura Sheehan have seen it all: lightning that sends the actors and audience members scrambling, sets destroyed by the elements, and actors falling in wet grass and mud. Laura said that oddly enough, the audience isn’t put out when the show has to quickly transition from outdoors to indoors.

“We rehearse the transition and we get in there and we start in the same position where we left off, and the audience loves it,” said Sheehan. “We have to tell them, ‘Don’t try to help the actors,’ because they want to help with things, right? We’re choreographed, just get your stuff and get in. So, it’s an intimate experience. They are going to see us sweat and spit and fall and do things, you know? They are going to see us live it.”

Despite the occasional mishap, longtime company member Deb Walsh said there’s nothing like performing under the stars.

“Every project is, or course, very individual with a different set of purpose,” she said. “But there’s something so romantic, right? In that garden, with the moon on a cool summer night.”

The Greater Hartford Shakespeare Festival’s production of As You Like It runs Thursday through Sunday for three weeks starting July 29, on the campus of the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford. For more information and tickets, go to capitalclassics.org.