Wednesday, June 24, 2015

William Shakespeare, Arden, and me

Mark and I loved Arden on our first visit in May 2009*, could envision ourselves living here one day, but it may not have gone further than that had it not been for Arden's Shakespeare culture. Of our kids, one is an Anglophile and the other is an actor. Their Venn diagram of commonality doesn't include much, but you will find Shakespeare and Monty Python among their few shared interests.  Because Arden boasts the oldest outdoor Shakespeare theater in this country and has a history of summer Shakespeare productions that spans a century, we were curious about their latest endeavor, The Comedy of Errors. So for our second visit to Arden, in June of 2009, we brought the kids. Anything to foster healthy sibling interaction.

Shakespeare isn't just another quirky pastime for an arts community; it is central to the culture in Arden. This village was founded on the principles of Georgism and the Single Tax. Arden founders, sculptor Frank Stevens and architect William Price, met and honed their ideas of Utopia while members of Philadelphia's Single Tax Society. One facet of this society was the organization of a Shakespeare Club within the group. What does Shakespeare have to do with Georgism and the Single Tax? Performing Shakespeare was the training ground for competent public speakers. As they performed, the members were gaining poise and comfort in front of an audience. Their ultimate goal was to create great orators to spread the message of Henry George to the masses. Shakespeare productions became so central to architect William Price's life that when he built his family home in Overbrook, PA, he made the third floor into a theater to accommodate performances.

When Price and Stevens actualized their dream of a utopian village near Wilmington, Shakespeare was at the heart--literally. They created an outdoor theater for performances off of the center of the main green.  The Field Theater exists today in almost the same form, with its simple boulder backdrop and circular bench seating, that it had when it was created in the early 1900's, though these days, it does boast better lights.

Arden can even trace its name and motto to Shakespeare's writing. I knew about the name. Arden Forest is the setting of the play, As You Like It, which is performed every tenth year in Arden. In the play, the characters exchange notes by tree-mail, posting letters on the trees of the forest. When we came to Arden for the second year (2010) to see the play, we went for a hike in Arden Forest and were thrilled to see life imitating art. All throughout the forest, notes were left for friends. Some were hanging from the trees with baggies protecting the words. Others were in jar or tins. We saw love notes from one dog to another. We were quite enchanted by it all. Even more impressed by this touch than we had been by the towel folding at Disney Resorts.

As for the motto? I hadn't realized that "You are welcome hither" was Shakespearean until I went to see this year's production of King Lear.  I groaned when I heard it spoken. I should have known! I like the fact that Arden is constantly surprising me with little tidbits of its Shakespearean history. The Craft Shop Museum (a building constructed in the Elizabethan style of architecture--another nod to Shakespeare's England) is featuring a historical retrospective of costumes. I have got to get over there to see them. I was awed by this year's costumes, all sewn by volunteers. I was one of the helpers last year and was privy to some of the behind-the-scenes process. The attention to detail is remarkable. With few sets to speak of (the aforementioned boulder), costuming becomes an even more important aspect of storytelling.

These days the shows feature professional actors along side some of my amateur neighbors.  (I really shouldn't discriminate. Some of the professionals are my neighbors as well.) It has been fun to meet some of the Ardenites we had been watching in plays all those years. They were more welcoming than rock stars, but we were still a little star-struck. As evidence,  I offer an example from my Time Hop, a Facebook post from four years ago, "Maren [my actor child] made a friend at the pool; the girl who played Miranda in The Tempest last night. Of course."

I know I have just scratched the surface of the ways the Shakespeare has influenced village life--and by default--me. I hope this blog post opens me up to even more tidbits. I love connection. Speaking of which, our son travelled down from Lancaster County specifically to watch King Lear with us. If Shakespeare can keep our kids tethered to us, I will have another reason to be grateful for the Great Bard.

* Of note--my novel Summers at Blue Lake contains a scene that takes place at an outdoor Shakespeare performance and perhaps influenced Arden resident Cynthia Dewick to tell me that I would love Arden and offer her "Little House" up to us for the weekend. Cynthia read my book because a mutual friend of ours picked it up for their book club to read. In February 2008, I attended the book club in Newark, DE, and met Cynthia for the first time.


  1. Posted on Arden Shakespeare Gild FB page - Thank you Jill!

  2. You were one of the rock stars, Ron. Missed you this year.