Traveling theater grinds to a halt Program killed: Lack of funding sticks a dagger in UMBC's Shakespeare on Wheels.

January 09, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The University of Maryland Baltimore County has eliminated Shakespeare on Wheels, its popular, free summer theater touring program that performed for a quarter-million people throughout the mid-Atlantic over its 10-year history.

Closing the program was strictly a budgetary decision, said Sheldon Caplis, UMBC's vice president for institutional advancement. In recent seasons, the university had often contributed more than a third of Shakespeare on Wheels' $150,000 annual budget, Caplis said.

This year, the university hoped to limit its contribution to $25,000. Shakespeare on Wheels went on hiatus last season to focus on raising another $30,000. But fund-raising efforts were unable to attract corporate sponsors and only $7,000 was raised from private sources, according to William T. Brown, the associate professor who founded and produced Shakespeare on Wheels.

Brown said he considered scaling down Shakespeare on Wheels' tour, which had expanded to a high of 56 sites in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington in 1994.

"But the program had gained so much popularity, scaling it down would decrease revenue," Brown said, explaining that the bulk of the budget came from fees paid by sponsor sites. Grants accounted for less than 10 percent of the total budget.

"There had been a suggestion of passing the hat, but my whole theory behind all this was to try to provide this free to the public," Brown said.

A former chairman of the UMBC theater department, Brown based Shakespeare on Wheels on a similar project he created in Nigeria in 1963.

In 1985, Brown revived the idea at UMBC, designing an Elizabethan-style stage mounted on a flatbed trailer.

During its 11 seasons, the troupe produced not only traditional productions of such Shakespearean favorites as "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Hamlet," but also a Kabuki-influenced "Macbeth" and a rock-opera "Tempest."

The unusual traveling troupe attracted widespread attention, including articles in the Christian Science Monitor, Theater Week magazine and even a British Shakespeare periodical.

Shakespeare on Wheels was also featured on CNN and "Nightline."

The program also improved the skills of the students who participated in the tours and attracted students to UMBC's theater department, Brown said.

Wendy Salkind, theater department chairwoman, said Shakespeare on Wheels "was one of the best ways to gain visibility throughout the state."

Salkind stressed the importance of this function: "A lot of people are unaware that this theater department still exists after the University of Maryland Board of Regents had recommended that we be terminated in 1992. One of the things that helped reverse that decision was the popularity of Shakespeare on Wheels."

Last season's hiatus wasn't the only time Shakespeare on Wheels focused on fund-raising. A more unconventional effort was launched in 1994: an Adopt-A-Character campaign, which allowed contributors to receive letters from Shakespearean characters. Adopt-A-Character raised $6,000 from three dozen contributors, but due to its unusual nature a similar campaign could not have gotten under way until after the 1996 tour started in July.

Site sponsors expressed dismay about the closing. Dr. Lehman Spry, former president of the Havre de Grace Arts Commission, said that during the five summers Shakespeare on Wheels came to the small town, it routinely attracted audiences of at least 2,500, some of whom came from Pennsylvania and Delaware.

"I thought a program of this uniqueness would withstand some budget restraints, given the overall quality and the prominence it played nationwide," Dr. Spry said.

Gine Kazimir, who was director of arts management at UMBC before becoming executive director of the Cecil County Arts Council, said she brought Shakespeare on Wheels to Cecil County because "I saw firsthand what [it] could do from the inside and I wanted to see it from the outside."

The results, she continued, "blew the doors off of anything else we've ever done. To this day people still ask me, 'Are they coming back.' . . . I understand the constraints a university operates under, but I cannot believe that Shakespeare on

Wheels is not one of the premiere outreach vehicles for any university. I am appalled."

The decision to close Shakespeare on Wheels will not be appealed, said UMBC's Caplis. Caplis added that the $25,000 earmarked for the program this year has already gone into the university's operating budget.

In summing up his feelings about the termination of the program he founded, Brown said, "I am disappointed in the fact that the university could not find some way to keep this program going. It had been proven to be such a successful program . . . From a

personal standpoint I've put a lot of work into this, a lot of effort; even last year when we did not perform I was working quite hard to resume everything this year."

Department chairwoman Salkind expressed concern over what the discontinuance means in terms of the broader picture of decreasing arts funding. "It worries me that 10 years ago we might have been able to raise money without a lot of difficulty," she said.

"It concerns me how this reflects on the state of art in general, and I wonder how this reflects on the people in government now and what's happening with raising any money for the arts."

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