From working in an improv troupe, he's taken the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival to national recognition, and he's still thinking about the road ahead

Q&a -- James Kinstle

May 06, 2007|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

The year isn't half over, but it's already a banner one for the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival. In January, the small professional theater company received an anonymous $1 million donation. Last month, on Shakespeare's birthday, it chalked up its first National Endowment for the Arts grant.

The $25,000 matching grant from the NEA's Shakespeare for a New Generation Program put the Baltimore festival in good company. Among the 34 other theaters honored with this round of grants were the Tony Award-winning Oregon and Utah Shakespeare festivals as well as Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company.

But though "money is a good soldier," as Falstaff says in The Merry Wives of Windsor, these monetary gifts do not mean that the 13-year-old Hampden-based festival is any less mindful of its overall battle strategy.

Its new season, being announced today, consists of three plays - Macbeth (July 6-22), Sophocles' Antigone (Oct. 19-Nov. 11) and The Winter's Tale (April 4-27): the first production will take place in the Evergreen House meadow; the other two will be at the company's home at St. Mary's Outreach Center, a former Episcopal church.

The lineup has one fewer play than the past two seasons. "We're doing three full productions instead of doing two smaller productions in the middle," explains artistic director James Kinstle. "It's the same size annual budget, right around $600,000."

Or, the festival is heeding the wisdom of Romeo and Juliet's Friar Laurence and moving "wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast."

Like Shakespeare, Kinstle, 39, is an actor. His Baltimore Shakespeare Festival credits have included portraying Shakespeare himself, in a biographical drama called Love for Words, and stepping into the role of Iago midway into rehearsals of Othello when the actor who was originally cast got a role in John Waters' movie Pecker.

Not only has Kinstle played the Bard, but in recent years, he has increasingly come to resemble him. However, the artistic director's choice of footwear - red sneakers - harks back to his early days with a local improv troupe called the Flying Tongues, whose trademark was red Converse hi-tops. Sipping a Coke on the porch of the Rosecroft home he shares with his wife, Joan Weber, and their 8-year-old daughter, Ruby, he spoke about the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's past and future as well as his own. Seven years ago, after working in one of the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's education programs, you were invited, somewhat to your surprise, to apply for the artistic director's position. Has your background in improvisation helped you run the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival?

It has helped me as a manager, in board meetings, in coming up with solutions to problems. The cardinal rule of improvisation is: "Yes," comma, and ellipse; "yes, and ... " Meaning that if we're in a scene together and you say something, I confirm what you said and then I further it. So I will not deny you. I will not say "No" to you. I will not deny your reality. I will build on your reality.

It's great for brainstorming, and I think it's really helped me as a leader. Shakespeare festivals have come and gone over the years in Baltimore, and this one has known some uncertain times. Why has the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival been able to hang on?

We have been very fortunate in that we've had a couple of board members that have been very supportive financially as well as giving guidance. But I really think it was the vision the board had when I came in and they interviewed me. I said one of the things I really wanted to do was put the "Baltimore" back in Baltimore Shakespeare Festival.

The focus has been on the greater Baltimore community. All the artists, all the actors, all the designers that come in are from the community and that, I think, has spawned great support within the community.

Our education program - the other side of that balance - is focused on Baltimore City, though our programs are statewide. And especially with all the cuts that have gone on in city schools in the arts, we tend to be sometimes the only cultural experience these children get. I never thought I was going to be running a Shakespeare company, but I've really put a big emphasis on making it about Baltimore and embracing the community. You've received some wonderful grants this year, but you're doing one less show in your new season. How expensive is Shakespeare?

This year at the annual Shakespeare Theatre Association of America conference, I was made aware that we are one of maybe 20 Equity [the actors' union] Shakespeare companies across the United States because it's cost-prohibitive due to the size of the cast. We're paying Equity actors' wages and pension and health. Doing Equity Shakespeare is an investment. A majority of the companies are on the East Coast and the rest of them are scattered across America. I hadn't realized that. It was shocking to me.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.