Shakespeare Reconstructed: Pigeon Creek and Rose Theater bring the bard’s work fully to life

If “Shakespeare” brings to mind recollections of high school English, all “thee, thou, thine,” The Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company entices you to give a live performance a try. Thou just might like it more than ye think.

You don’t have to plan a trip to London’s Globe Theater to see Shakespeare performed as it was in his day — on an open-air thrust stage with natural lighting, minimal sets, balcony seating and standing-room space for “groundlings,” plus plenty of audience interaction.

And there’s no time to stare at your phone or sleep because you might be brought into the action.

“We are actually in direct contact with the audience,” said Executive Director Katherine Mayberry, who also acts in many plays. “It’s not stiff and formal. These plays tell great stories. The language, when people are saying it out loud, is pretty easy to understand.”

West Michigan is home to one of a handful of Elizabethan theater replicas around the world, and The Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company performs benefit shows there every summer for Blue Lake Public Radio.

But beyond the company’s Rose Theater productions, Pigeon Creek takes its show on the road, bringing Shakespeare’s 400-year-old plays to life in nontraditional venues throughout the region and exposing schoolchildren to the infamous English playwright.

Pigeon Creek performs regularly at Dog Story Theater in Grand Rapids, where it draws a college crowd and faithful Shakespeare fans, as well as Seven Steps Up in Spring Lake and Jenison Center for the Arts.

“If you think you don’t like Shakespeare, come out and give it a try, because you might see something different than you have before,” Mayberry said. “I think everyone’s first experience with Shakespeare should be seeing it onstage.”

The company is Michigan’s only professional touring Shakespeare company, and its performance philosophy is rooted in the original staging practices of acting companies in Shakespeare’s time: using nontraditional theatrical spaces, universal lighting, minimal sets, cross-gendered casting and actors who play multiple roles and perform musical instruments. These techniques create a sense of playfulness and intimacy that makes Shakespeare’s storylines accessible and engaging, especially since the actors and audience members can see each other.

“Going back to the way they staged at that time makes it seem more modern and unique to people in our time period,” Mayberry said. “There are lines that are written to share with the audience that make it really lively and interactive in a way that people are not expecting.”

Based in Grand Haven, Pigeon Creek has been around since 1998 and started out as a summer theater troupe. Founded by Chicago area actor and director Frank Farrell, he gathered a group of West Michigan actors, and from 1998-2007, the group produced plays outdoors in various Ottawa County Parks.

Now, Pigeon Creek produces five mainstage plays per season and performs year-round at a variety of venues, offering numerous staged readings, performances of Shakespearean scenes, and educational programs in schools.

Housed on the campus of Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, officials built The Rose Theater in 2010 primarily for campers in its summer theater program. The theater’s design, approximately half the size of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London, is based on a synthesis of popular 16th century English theaters and surviving sketches and documents from that era. 

“It’s one of the few Shakespeare programs for young people in the country and one of the very few structures like this in the United States,” said Dave Myers, Blue Lake’s vice president for broadcasting and development. “It’s truly an authentic Shakespearean theater. It’s an amazing space.”

There are only a few concerts and performances open to the public, including those produced by Pigeon Creek, so it’s a unique opportunity for audiences to experience Shakespeare’s plays as they were meant to be staged. The Rose includes a Juliet balcony, seating for nearly 600 people on three sides of the stage in two galleries, plus “the yard” area in front of the stage for groundlings. There’s no indoor plumbing or electricity and the center is exposed to the elements, putting the acting front and center and creating a sense of community.

Pigeon Creek started performing at The Rose in 2012, and it’s such a unique venue that actors and directors travel from across the country to perform there. Mayberry said the closest place to experience a similar Elizabethan replica is Virginia, where she attended graduate school at the American Shakespeare Center.

That’s also where she met Aili Huber, who still lives in Virginia but has worked with Pigeon Creek since 2009. She visited West Michigan in early June to direct Much Ado About Nothing at The Rose, in large part because she wanted to direct in the unique space. There is a different kind of empathy and engagement when actors and audience are not in the dark, she said, and plays are very different when they are performed in the spaces they were designed for.

“One thing I would love for more people to know is what an incredible space they have at The Rose,” Huber said. “I feel like the plays are so much more connected to the audience in these spaces.”

Huber praised Mayberry for building a strong company and the quality of acting happening here.

“There’s a lot about Shakespeare that’s fun and relevant, and this company is amazing at sharing that,” she said. “They have a tremendous amount of training in the kind of theater we do. I know I am going to have a really talented, really committed group of actors to work with.”

Huber also returns in August to direct Antony and Cleopatra. A tragic romance, the play isn’t performed very often, but it includes great fights, great music and “it’s a pretty sexy show as far as Shakespeare goes,” Huber said.

Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company’s upcoming shows:
Henry VI: June 30, Jenison Center for the Arts; July 1, Seven Steps Up
Antony and Cleopatra: Aug. 10-19, Dog Story Theater; Sept. 7, Seven Steps Up; Sept. 15, Jenison Center for the Arts
Henry V: Aug. 25, Shakespeare at The Rose, a benefit for Blue Lake Public Radio., (616) 850-0916