University, Scranton Prep once again support Scranton Shakespeare Festival

By Sandra Snyder

Jesuit education has deep, entrenched roots tied closely to the humanistic revival of the Renaissance, and the late, great William Shakespeare has been a central influence on the period, becoming a pioneer in bringing its values to the theater despite having been born toward the Renaissance’s end.

The Bard outright transformed use of the English language into something complex enough to convey the intensities of human emotions and something precise yet expressive enough to deepen the humanity of the characters on a stage.

It’s little wonder, then, that the Society of Jesus has such a robust connection to Shakespeare. Modern-day scholars continue to debate his religious beliefs and argue that his language contains strong Jesuit messages. Some even contend Shakespeare was an undercover Catholic – with close ties to the Jesuits – despite his living as a Protestant in Elizabethan England.

In fact, The Catholic Herald in 2014 referred to Shakespeare as “a man of Catholic tastes.” Writing for the publication out of the United Kingdom, Clare Asquith describes his “distinctively complex, multilayered blueprint” for the 16th-century play and proffers the possibility that this blueprint was conceived “not by Shakespeare himself … but by the acknowledged educators of Europe – the Jesuits.”

“Central to the revolutionary Jesuit system of education was drama,” she wrote, “and that drama had certain qualities,” among those “a high moral purpose.”

Asquith continued, “The Jesuit mission was not simply to entertain. It was to instill a ‘world-friendly spirituality’ into ordinary people as well as emperors, in pursuit of the common good and a better society.”

Fast-forward five centuries, and on modern stages everywhere, including in the Electric City, you’ll find history repeating itself as Jesuit educators continue to applaud the transformative quality of Shakespearean theater.

Case in point is the Scranton Shakespeare Festival, of which the University of Scranton has been a sponsor since its inception six years ago, providing stage space as well as housing for the professional troupe that brings this high-quality free theater to Scranton.

This year, with some of its prized theater space undergoing renovations, the University teamed up with fellow Jesuit institution Scranton Preparatory School to continue its support for the festival.

Colin Holmes, director of drama and musical theater at Prep and venue liaison for the festival this year, described the arrangement as the perfect partnership and a winning arrangement for all involved.

The University, he said, graciously agreed to house the actors in upperclassmen apartments, and the cast was especially grateful for conveniences such as private bedrooms and bathrooms.

Scranton Prep, meanwhile, offered rehearsal space and hosted two performances in its Bellarmine Theater. It also assisted in staging a performance at Scranton’s PNC Field.

“The mission of the Shakespeare Festival is to provide free theater for the community. It’s natural for Prep and the University of Scranton to open their doors to this,” Holmes said.

Holmes noted that the festival is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and relies on loyal support of community and institutional benefactors to offer the gift of professional performances to the community.

Holmes, a 2009 Prep graduate and 2013 University graduate, also noted the effectiveness of the partnership in providing treasured opportunities to theater students.

“This year, with the partnership of Prep, I was able to have a couple of students intern on the sets,” he said. “It was really cool to watch that process come to fruition.”

He noted that several students, many of whom wish to write or direct, made meaningful connections with actors and had the chance to assist the directors.

The Scranton Shakespeare Festival was established by fellow University alumnus Michael Flynn, one of Holmes’ classmates from his Prep days, who now serves as artistic director for the festival.

Holmes said Flynn initially connected him to the festival, and Holmes began acting in it during its third or fourth year.

“He came to me to get the ball rolling on the partnership,” Holmes said of Flynn. Holmes also noted he is transitioning into the role of festival general manager for next year and is looking forward to the continued partnership with the University.

“It just makes sense,” he said. “The missions very much align.”