This weekend, something extraordinary is happening.
Because about 20 years ago, some people did something pretty extraordinary.
A group of people in York got together and decided “let’s do all of Shakespeare’s plays in 20 years.”
These people were not professional actors or scholars. They were part of York’s thriving community theatre scene after a production of the York Mysteries.
They’ve done it. I’m not sure how many companies could boast this, including Shakespeare companies of global reputation, but the YSP can: they’ve done all of Shakespeare’s plays, sonnets, and poems.
From that small core of people has grown a sprawling family of actors, costume-sewers, promoters, treasurers, audience members, fundraisers and more, all drawn towards being a part of this wonderful project.
It’s a heck of a project. For all its humble origins, the YSP has been far from unambitious, or unimaginative. Yes, there have been the be-togaed productions of Roman plays, but also an all-female Henry V drawing on local history from WWI, a cyberpunk Macbeth (my own), and now an expansion into touring with The Tempest, leaving numerous others unmentioned.
Its experiments are rarely in the radical giddiness of abstracted theatricality, unsurprisingly. Each show is the only time the company will do that play in the cycle. What it does are reinventions, revisitings, and just-doing-its rooted in a love of the stories and text that informs their whole grand experiment.
For that love is what makes the York Shakespeare Project special. I have had the honour of working with them, and nothing’s quite like working where every person in the room, from the title role to the unnamed messenger, is there because they love performing and Shakespeare.
I’ve seen people step onto a stage for the first time to delight an audience in iambs; I’ve seen people who’ve been coming back for over a decade to be a part of the incredible mission again and again; all forming a unique and wonderful relationship with Shakespeare.
What unites them all is that they wanted to be there, maybe just to try it out, maybe because they loved a particular character, verse-craft, or finding a new part of themselves and Shakespeare by making a space to be within Shakespeare. Their work unites people from all sorts of paths and perspectives, with a remarkably comprehensive collective knowledge of and thoughts on obscure Shakespeare plays because they were in them.
I’m writing this because it’s something I want to celebrate; it’s an extraordinary achievement that I’d hope to see praised in broadsheets and broadcasts, or researched by academics gathering the memories of people who’ve been a part of this achievement.
And because they welcomed me into their community when I was an outsider in York. I couldn’t have asked for better company to steer into and out of the lockdowns with.
As they sail their cycle into the harbour, here’s to the YSP and everyone who made this extraordinary dream happen.