It started out small.
If you’ve seen the shows the past couple of years that might be hard to believe. Short Shakespeareans productions are known for their complexity — glamorous costumes, intricate sets and the flowing Shakespearean language. This year, the troupe will do five performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” beginning Aug. 7 under new director Kelly Atwood. The program is entering its 35th year of performing with its biggest cast in recent history of 29 students.
But they started out small. In the summer of 1978, Sherry Schreck, director of 34 years, put on the very first Short Shakes production.
“It actually started out in my front yard with my daughter and her friends,” Schreck said. The first years of the production, with all of their quirks, travels, and successes, would shape the next 35 years of Short Shakes, a youth theater program that has entertained and involved multiple generations of Wenatchee residents. Many still remember the humble beginnings, including the move on stage to the Benton Street Theater, where the only toilet in the building would drown out the actors if flushed, and the air conditioning had to be turned off while the play was in action. The programs were handmade and the costumes had no patterns to follow.
“I began 34 years ago. You made cookies, you did sets, you did make-up, you made costumes,” said Darlene Spargo, a Short Shakes producer for over five years. “At that time we made up a lot as we went because we really didn’t know what we were doing.”
Or as Schreck put it, “we were pioneering.”
Under Schreck’s leadership, those backyard beginnings grew into the complex, hour-and-a-half shows that have been performed in the valley for more than three decades.
“Sherry is one of those people who takes an idea and runs with it,” said Selina Danko, this year’s producer. “A collection of recipes turns into a cook book, nothing is ever halfway with her.”
In 1979, the troupe took their first trip to Ashland, home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” live. For the next 20 years, the troupe attended the festival in the fall and performed throughout Wenatchee in the summers.
“In years past, Short Shakes was what these kids did,” Danko said. “They didn’t have as many commitments in the off-season as they do now.”
In 1984, they were filmed by Kidsworld, a syndicated television show out of Spokane.
“That was something that was really special for the kids,” said Spargo. “We performed wherever we could. I would take groups of five or six kids and I’d take them to the local schools — they always loved a good sword fight.”
Today, the show takes place in the Riverside Playhouse, where the bathrooms have more than one stall and the programs can be printed by the hundreds. But the costumes remain largely handmade.
“As technology evolved the troupe evolved,” said Danko. “The costumes became known for their glitz. That became the Short Shakes trademark: the beautiful costumes.”
But the biggest change this year is in the change in director. Kelly Atwood has been involved with the troupe since 1999, and agreed to direct after a meeting last spring at Schreck’s house in which Schreck announced that she would no longer be directing. Despite her commitments to her family and their orchard and her lack of background in Shakespeare, Atwood seemed to be the obvious choice.
“I can’t think of a better director in the valley to take it on,” said Danko. “She’s put in her homework. No one has worked harder on this show than Kelly Atwood. And when Sherry was directing, no one worked harder than her.”
“Knowing there was a need, I agreed to direct. It is quite a daunting task to be handed over the reins to a program which has been under the leadership and direction of the group’s founder for 34 years,” said Atwood. “ How do you follow an expert in Shakespeare who has devoted so many years to enriching children in our valley? You don’t. I need to keep Sherry’s traditions, but also attempt to make the production our own.”
The decision for Schreck was a family one.
“I want my summers to be free to be with my granddaughter, and maybe even go to the beach,” she laughed. “I’m just thrilled it’s going on after all that’s been invested in it. Kelly will choose her own style, but the element we have in common is that we’re both creative.”
When Short Shakespeareans began, Schreck said, “I envisioned education, my original goal was just to educate.” This mentality is one Atwood shares.
“My hope is that the kids will have a fun experience performing on stage and develop a love for theater, and if they manage to learn a few theatrical skills along the way, that’s an added benefit,” she said. Atwood found acting her sophomore year in high school when, despite her shyness, she tried out for “Oklahoma.” “This program has produced many fine actors in the valley, many of whom continue their participation in the arts into their adulthood. I hope this experience allows the children to foster a love and appreciation for the performing arts, just as I did performing in my first show.”
For Schreck, the past 34 years have been an ever-evolving show. The five scripts and all of the costumes and sets that go with them have changed every time to fit the cast. Yet, the message and purpose of the program has not faded.
“Sometimes the beauty’s so great I feel like crying,” she said. “For me, I have always felt that my creativity came from a difficult childhood. I had to create my own world, use my own imagination. Shakespeare has just been the joy of my life.”