Philly celebrates literary birthday

Lesley Berkowitz | Andrew Thayer TTN
Lesley Berkowitz | Andrew Thayer TTN

Carmen Khan, executive director and artistic director of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, has been planning Shakespeare’s 450th birthday for about two years.

“We’ve been thinking about this year since the founding of the company 17 years ago,” Khan said. “A couple of years ago, we started brainstorming ideas about a citywide celebration. We were inspired by the cultural Olympiad in Britain during the 2012 Olympics. All of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, 37 different countries, performed in 37 languages. How could we make something as exciting for Philadelphia?”

Naming the event “Year of the Bard: Shakespeare at 450,” the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre teamed up with the Free Library of Philadelphia along with other local organizations to create a year-long event.

“We were thinking about a key partnership with an organization that was committed to learning that is accessible to all,” Khan said. “Our mission is to make Shakespeare accessible to all. The Free Library was an obvious choice, with their dedication to the uplifting of all citizens for free.”

Alix Gerz, director of communications and brand marketing at The Free Library of Philadelphia and Temple alumnus, wants to do as many Shakespeare-related activities and events as possible.

“We’re lucky we have a whole year,” Gerz said. “We want to showcase Shakespeare through traditional ways, but we also wanted to dust him off and show that he is still totally relevant today. Like, we have Shakespeare and hip-hop, Shakespeare and video games. We wanted to create a variety of entry points so anyone can come.”

A lecture involving both Shakespeare and video games will take place on April 16. The lecture is called “Shakespeare and Violence,” and will talk about the video game “Grand Theft Auto.” The lecture will be drawing together similarities between the two.

Attendees at the event will discuss the similarities and differences between the violence in Shakespeare’s plays, like cannibalism and gouged eyes, and the violence in virtual gaming. The question at large is, what effects does watching violence to this extent do to the viewers and how does it compare to the violent video games that people of all ages spend hours?

“Shakespeare’s plays are incredibly violent, and most people consider them just high art,” Khan said. “But think about ‘Titus Andronicus’ – tongues cut out, hands chopped off, disembowelment, rape, parents eating their children in a pie. And that’s just one play. The lecture explores whether the portrayal of such violence has any artistic purpose.”

Gerz is expecting a large turnout for the event. In 2012, the library celebrated Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday, which he said was a huge success. Last year, it celebrated “Pride and Prejudice’s” birthday for one day and it was another success, showing the library that if a birthday party is thrown, people will respond, Gerz said.

Events will be taking place all over the city for the remainder of the year for “Year of the Bard.” Khan encouraged students to find something they will be interested in.

“Students might be interested in Yards Brewery, who brewed a special ‘Shakesbeer’ just for the 450th celebration,” Khan said. “And what a perfect opportunity – to have a beer for Mr. Shakespeare himself.”

Chelsea Finn can be reached at chelsea.finn@temple.edu.

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