By Lynn Venhaus
No Shakespeare snob, Nancy Bell, the resident playwright behind the original community works for Shakespeare in the Streets, wants people to know that the Bard connects with everybody.
“Shakespeare wrote for all people, not just for rich or educated people. You can’t fulfill Shakespeare’s work unless you reach an audience that is diverse in every way,” she said.
That’s why bringing Shakespeare to various St. Louis audiences in city neighborhoods is important. In the latest creation, “Blow, Winds,” it’s the first city-wide event. These inclusive works are produced annually by the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, and this year, the St. Louis Public Library partnered with them.
“During our frequent conversations with residents, we heard many stories about their love for St. Louis and the pride they have in their neighborhoods. But we also heard about their frustration with problems that seem to be ingrained, not only in our city, but throughout the world, including inequality, injustice, and violence. This project sheds light on what there is to celebrate in our city, while still acknowledging the problems we all face. Our fate belongs to one another.” she said.
The play is adapted from William Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which is a tragedy about a king who bequeaths his land to his daughters to prevent problems after his death.
Bell and creative team members met with residents and community leaders from each of the previous five Shakespeare in the Streets neighborhoods, among others.
“We work for a year researching, interviewing, and volunteering in the community,” she said.
The script is a reflection of Shakespeare’s play, those conversations, as well as Bell and Playwrighting Fellow Mariah Richardson’s own impressions.
“’King Lear’ is about a king who loses his way. Many of the folks we interviewed think the city has lost its way, and that our country has, too. It’s also about people who heroically but the kingdom back to rights, and we wanted the showcase the spirit of that that is afoot in St.Louis, too,” she said.
In this version, King Louis (Joneal Joplin), a cruel and foolish old king, forces his righteous daughter Cordelia out of the kingdom and divides his lands between his two ungrateful daughters. He intends to live out his days shuttling back and forth between the two but becomes homeless when they shut their doors to him.
His exiled daughter returns with an army to unite the kingdom under her rule, but it’s too late for him to save himself. The young and the poor and the oppressed of the kingdom must pick up the pieces and build a new world.
Co-Directors are Tom Martin and Jacqueline Thompson, with music director Lamar Harris, who wrote original music for this play.
Featured as part of the production are local step company, The Gentlemen of Vision, the Central Baptist Church Choir, directed by Chris Watkins; and 15 cast members, including five previous Shakespeare in the Streets performers, along with residents and students.
Bell is grateful for these collaborators.
“I have learned so much about playwriting from Mariah Richardson, and her vision for the future of St. Louis really comes through in this rewrite,” she said. “I shudder to think about what this show would be like without the incredible work of Lamar Harris. He is a visionary artist who is also working to make everything more beautiful, more exciting, more brilliant.”
“The Gentlemen of Vision represent the future of city, and I’m in awe of their commitment and talent,” she noted. “But it is Jenny Wintzer (Lead Producer, Director of Community Engagement and Education) who really deserves the credit for her unwavering commitment to this project. She never gave up on ‘Blow Winds,’ and it would been easy to do that.”
Started by previous SFSL Director Rick Dildine, the Festival’s streets initiative has gained international recognition for engaging communities through storytelling and creating vibrant new plays.
Bell’s favorite part is the response.
“The joy that it brings the audience! The audience brings so much good will to this project, like no other thing I’ve ever worked on. It is a powerful reminder that at our core, we want to understand each other, we want to know each other, we want to come together. It’s obvious when you watch the audience. They want to really know people from other neighborhoods, and they are ready to celebrate them,” she said.
The original performances, scheduled for September 2017, coincided with the announcement of the Jason Stockley verdict and were cancelled. The show is being resurrected in its entirety. She is grateful for the second chance.
“It is unbelievably encouraging to have a chance to share all the incredible hard work and heart so many people have put into this show. I have deep gratitude for all the people who came forward with vision and money to make it happen,” she said.
Bell has been responsible for every Shakespeare in the Streets production since 2012, when the Festival shut down its first street, Cherokee, to present a community-based play, “The New World,” based on “The Tempest.”
She won two awards for Best New Play from the St. Louis Theater Circle, one for the 2013 “Old Hearts Fresh,” based on “The Winter’s Tale,” which took place in The Grove, and “The World Begun,” based on “Twelfth Night” and performed in Old North (North 14th Street) in 2015.
Other shows have included “Remember Me” in Maplewood in 2016, a mash-up of “Hamlet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Macbeth” and “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Good in Everything,” which was based on “As You Like It,” and presented in 2014 in Clayton.
Her new play for kids, “A Most Outrageous Fit of Madness,” itoured schools in St. Louis and rural Missouri as part of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ 2018 Education Tour.
Since its inception in 2001, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has surpassed the one million mark in attendance through its work in the schools, in the streets, and in the park, with more than 710,000 people attending the free main stage productions at Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park.
The Georgia-born Bell came to St. Louis eight years ago. Besides being the Playwright-In-Residence for SFSL, she is an actress, director and a professor at Saint Louis University.
She directed “The How and the Why” for New Jewish Theatre in March, and “The Way We Get By” for St. Louis Actors’ Studio in 2017.
For her portrayal of Elvira in “Blithe Spirit” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio, she won a St. Louis Theater Circle Award as Best Actress in a Comedy. She also won Best Actress in a Drama for her dual role as homemaker Bev and lawyer Kathy in Th Rep’s “Clybourne Park.”
In addition to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, the St. Louis Actors’ Studio, New Jewish Theatre and other groups in town, she has also worked with the Manhattan Theatre Club, Old Globe Theatre, South Coast Repertory and Geffen Playhouse and others.
On TV, she has acted in “Law and Order: SUV,” “Newsradio,” “Mad About You,” “Numbers,” “Medium” and “Star Trek Voyager.”
Besides her four St. Louis Theater Circle Awards, she received a 2017 St. Louis Visionary Award as Outstanding Arts Professional from an independent group who honors women in the arts.
This year, she received the 2018 Saint Louis University Scholarly Works Award for Nontraditional Scholarly Work for her original plays and efforts to make theater accessible to people across the St. Louis region.
She thinks the St. Louis theater scene is a vibrant one, with more opportunities for diverse artists than ever before.
“I think it’s the smaller, younger, less lavishly-funded theatre companies in this town that are the real power, now, many of them led by passionate and diverse artistic leadership. Women and people of color have been shut out of these roles in the American theatre, and these young people are not taking it lying down. It’s exciting.,” she said.
The next location for the 2019 Shakespeare in the Streets event will be announced later this year.
Q & A WITH NANCY BELL
- Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?
“I didn’t choose it, it chose me. Stories, music, beauty, emotion — these are the only things I have ever been interested in doing. Ever since I was tiny, I wanted to make stories. I’m really lucky I get to do that for a living.:
- How would your friends describe you?
“People have always used the word “creative” to describe me. Sometimes they mean that in a good way, and sometimes it’s just a way to say I’m weird! One of my best friends just described me as “blunt but loving.” I think I can live with that!”
- How do you like to spend your spare time?
“I love to read, and I love to walk. I always have a book I’m working on, even if I am too busy to read more than five minutes a day. I read at stoplights and when I’m waiting in line. I try to open my book instead of looking at my cell phone.”
- What is your current obsession?
“I am going to Italy for the first time this summer and right now I am really into reading about Ancient Rome. I’m finding out what a deeply brutal world it was, despite its beauty and might.”
- What would people be surprised to find out about you?
“I’m actually quite shy, but I’ve learned to hide it extremely well.”
- Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?
When I was about 12, my sister, Holly, brought home from a garage sale the complete works of William Shakespeare recorded on albums — all the great British actors reading all the plays. That truly did change the course of my life to this day.”
- Who do you admire most?
“I admire my daughter, Ivy and her friends for their committed anti-gun activism. Her generation will save the world.”
- What is at the top of on your bucket list?
“I would like to perform in a musical once in my life. I never have.”
- What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?
Breakfast at Mud House on Cherokee. Picnics in Tower Grove Park. The St. Louis Film Festival.
- What’s next?
Directing “Into the Breeches!” for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ new In the Works Festival. My play for kids, “A Most Outrageous Fit of Madness,” will also be featured in the festival.
More on Nancy Bell
Birthplace: Smyrna, Georgia
Current location: Saint Louis
Family: Daughter, Ivy, 13
Education: BFA in Acting, MFA in Acting and Directing
Day job: Professor at Saint Louis University
First job: Baker
First role: Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (I was 14)
Favorite roles/plays: Stevie in “The Goat or Who is Sylvia?” Rosalind in “As You Like It”
Dream role/play: Lady Macbeth, Emilia in “Othello,” Clytemnestra in “Iphigenia in Aulis”
Awards/Honors/Achievements: Several St. Louis Theatre Circle Awards, Visionary Award, SLU Award for Outstanding Research Achievement
Favorite quote/words to live by: “Words are all we have.” — Samuel Beckett
A song that makes you happy: “Engine Driver” by The Decemberists. (Sad songs make me happy!)