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Back to the Bard 

Michael Givens returns to the park-based community Shakespeare game

Shakespearean language is rich, but it's also hard for nonprofessional actors to wrap their mouths around. Yet Shakespeare was a mainstay for the Tucson Parks and Recreation Department's Tucson Community Theatre during the 10 years Michael Givens was in charge of it.

Not surprisingly, Givens has chosen a Shakespeare work to launch a new company also backed by Parks and Rec, the El Rio Theatre Project.

Givens is the recreation coordinator at the El Rio Center, but his group is going to hie itself to a different venue, the amphitheater at Himmel Park, to present Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, a comedy of romance and hidden identity.

"Of the 13 main Shakespeare shows we see, Twelfth Night was the second-to-last comedy he did, right after Hamlet," Givens points out.

Givens says that the point of El Rio Theatre Project is to draw people from all walks of life into its productions, which is clear from the initial cast list. "We've got nurses, doctors, people from Raytheon, a couple of schoolteachers, a student," he says. "We have volunteers helping with lighting and sound, too. What they all share is a common love for the theater, and the willingness to put in a lot of hard work to follow this project through to fruition."

During his time with Tucson Community Theatre, Givens produced 40 shows, including children's and teen theater and modern dance, and directed 17 plays. He learned quickly that free Shakespeare performances could, indeed, draw a crowd.

"The last show I did with them was Othello, and we got a total of 11,000 people," he says. "As You Like It got 14,500 people through its run."

Because El Rio Theatre Project is new, Givens doesn't anticipate luring that many fans of the Bard, but he does anticipate a good audience--an audience he hopes will come with the $5-a-head suggested donation to provide a stipend for the actors and a contribution to the El Rio Neighborhood Association, which gave the troupe some startup funds.

Givens notes that the performance area has a fairly steep incline that won't accommodate many lawn chairs, so he suggests bringing a blanket and picnic basket; a concession stand will also be open.

He promises a traditional staging of Twelfth Night, even though he's reduced the sets to some big wooden blocks and a few benches and stools. "But the costumes are period," he promises, "and we have some nice fencing swords, and the props are period. I'm a purist at heart."

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