by Emily J. Weitz
When Josh Perl was first trying to pitch investors on the idea of an outdoor Shakespeare festival, he realized that, outdoors in the summertime, Shakespeare pitches himself. That is possibly most true of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” whose whimsical, magical quality lends itself perfectly to the landscape of a rolling green at dusk.
When Perl started The Naked Stage in 2000, the focus was really on play readings, which it frequently hosts at Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater. He didn’t necessarily have the goal of bringing Shakespeare to the East End.
Back then, it wouldn’t have been necessary, with the annual Hamptons Shakespeare Festival going strong in the hills of Theodore Roosevelt County Park Montauk.
But by the time Perl started planning for this summer’s production, it had been six or seven years since the Hamptons Shakespeare Festival had last performed out in Montauk. And for a man who, as an actor, had set a goal of performing in every known Shakespeare play at some point in his career, to his way of thinking it was high time the father of English Literature came back to town.
“I was at the Bridgehampton School one night,” recalls Perl, “and I was up on the second floor. I looked out the fire exit, and I saw this beautiful green field with a gentle slope, over the balconies [or fire escapes]. I just imagined Romeo and Juliet taking place there.”
A couple years ago, Perl and his business partner, Peter Zablotsky, created HITFest (Hamptons Independent Theatre Festival) as a DBA of the East End Naked Stage Theatre Company.
“The Naked Stage could be thought of as the parent organization,” says Perl.
When he spoke to Zablotsky about the idea of bringing Shakespeare back to the Hamptons at the Bridgehampton School, they decided to go for it.
“The school has been amazing, giving us the space to do this,” says Perl who adds that the cast of professional actors, local and imported, has been responding tremendously to the script.
“Gerard Doyle, who teaches at Ross, [School] rarely does any acting anymore,” says Perl. “He plays Theseus, and has a huge amount of lines. He’s such a professional. The woman who plays Titania and Hippolyta so excellently is Clodagh Bowyer. Here you have this gorgeous raven-haired beauty falling in love with a donkey!”
The cast has been rehearsing in the evenings, and since they’re still on-book, rehearsals have had to take place inside. But Perl is sure that once the process is brought out in the open, it will be transformative.
“There’s something so beautifully whimsical about this play,” says Perl. “When the lovers run away to the woods to escape parental authority, that’s the kind of thing that happens every day here, with kids running away to the beach.”
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was actually the first play Perl ever acted in in his professional career, when he played Demetrius at a festival in Vermont.
“The plays with magic in them always appealed to me most,” he says. “And this, with Puck and Titania and the fairies, it’s just a great time.”
Another aspect of seeing Shakespeare outdoors that Perl believes is integral to his mission is its accessibility to children.
“When I first proposed the idea,” says Perl, “I heard so many stories about people to whom that Shakespeare Festival was a touchstone of the summer. I have small children, and I am constantly thinking about what choices we give our children.”
In a world of iPads and the Internet, he notes, it becomes a real question what stories our kids hear.
“How do we pass on culture to them?” asks Perl. “These rich stories of gods and lovers and funny people putting on a play … How do we share that? It’s this. It’s Shakespeare in the summer. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to bring your kids to theater. This is about giving young people appealing choices that give the best of what culture has to offer. And to me, Shakespeare is the peak.”
Since 2008, Perl and Zablotsky have formed a nonprofit, built a black box theatre in the Bridgehampton Community House, and begun an outdoor Shakespeare Festival.
“Theaters have been having a hard time of it,” says Perl, “but we have been expanding, growing, and paying salaries. And I can say confidently that this is the first performance of an annual Summer Shakespeare Festival.”
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs August 2 to 19, Thursdays to Sundays at 7 p.m. behind Bridgehampton School, 2685 Montauk Highway. Tickets are $20. Call 525-2995 or visit hitfest.org to reserve.
Gerard Doyle (as Theseus) and Licia James Zegar (Hermia) in rehearsals for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” max tabet photo