Around The Town

Hip to Hip – Part 1

Trials and Tribulations of A Traveling Shakespeare Company

By: Alix Cohen

“We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” (The Tempest)

June 22, 2023: At a 1997 production of Twelfth Night at Porthouse Theater in Ohio, nobleman Orsino (Jason Marr) and secretly aristocratic Viola (Joy Schiebel) locked eyes. Jason had first spoken the bard’s words as friar in a 7th grade Romeo and Juliet. “I remember getting laughs where I was supposed to get laughs.” A smattering of community theater followed. “It was fun.” On track for the law, he found himself neglecting studies in favor of theater at The University of Essex, England. It was revelatory.

Alls Well at Gantry Plaza

Trials and Tribulations of A Traveling Shakespeare Company

By: Alix Cohen

“We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” (The Tempest)

June 22, 2023: At a 1997 production of Twelfth Night at Porthouse Theater in Ohio, nobleman Orsino (Jason Marr) and secretly aristocratic Viola (Joy Schiebel) locked eyes. Jason had first spoken the bard’s words as friar in a 7th grade Romeo and Juliet. “I remember getting laughs where I was supposed to get laughs.” A smattering of community theater followed. “It was fun.” On track for the law, he found himself neglecting studies in favor of theater at The University of Essex, England. It was revelatory.

Joy and Jason, back then.

Maryland-born Joy became enamored of Shakespeare’s language working at a library. She never considered another profession. In college, she had an opportunity to play Desdemona to visiting actor Charles Dutton’s Othello. “It was like fire and I thought this is my thing!” The young woman eked out a living in New York as a temp. Here, she was “imported talent.” Joy’s parents felt pacified by an English degree which meant she could always teach.

“Hear my soul speak. Of the very instant that I saw you, Did my heart fly at your service.” (The Tempest)

It was, according to both, love at first sight. After 26 years, they continue to listen, respect, appreciate, and collaborate at work and home – now with a son and daughter, both of whom have shared the stage with their parents. The couple sustained a long distance relationship almost three years while they got MFAs in acting. Joy additionally understudied veterans at Alabama Shakespeare. It was an era when recourse included maxed out phone cards and written letters. Relating history, they metaphorically shrug. Neither had any doubt.

Tyler Moss at Feste in Twelfth Night

Mutual friends founded The Ohio Shakespeare Festival which brought them together every summer. Jason then moved in with Joy at her Queens, New York apartment. Both continued acting, sometimes together offering directors built-in chemistry. They’ve played opposite one another in such as Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and David Hare’s The Blue Room – the latter naked on stage. Jason did paralegal work, Joy temped. He would eventually teach at Marymount Manhattan College.

They married. During early first pregnancy, Jason and Joy were doing a (non-Shakespeare) show at The Hampton Theater on Long Island. Earlier, she’d auditioned for the “dream role” of Rosalind in As You Like It with an outdoor production in the city. Joy got the role and was asked to report in a couple of days. “I wanted to do it, but Jason said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll produce it ourselves.’ Do you remember that?” she asks her husband, raising an eyebrow. “It was always part of the plan,” he responds. They smile as one.

Left: Joris Stuyck as Prospero in The Tempest

Founded in 2007, the company would be called Hip to Hip based on the idea of collaboration and the fact the couple was and admittedly is “joined at the hip.” Hip to Hip Theatre Company is dedicated to stimulating and developing interest in the theatre arts in underserved communities by providing free, family-friendly, professional productions of popular classics, and free theatre workshops for children, in public spaces.

Auditions were held at a midtown studio. “We had maybe two male actors but great female actors,” Joy recalls. A can-do attitude is pervasive. That year, As You Like It was produced with an all female cast. It paid a stipend under the Equity Showcase Code which caps budget and audience size. (Remuneration has improved.) Initial backing came from people Joy and Jason knew.

Henry IV battle sequence

All things are ready if our minds be so.” (Henry V)

“In order to get public funding, you need a track record. It took us about four years to find an avenue through Queens Council on the Arts who do a re-grant program through the city and state,” according to the couple. “We play in under-served communities which makes us perfect for that. Then we were able to go directly to the city and other arts organizations.” Over the years Hip to Hip has grown. Arrangements remain challenging; funding like climbing a glass mountain.

Everywhere the small company plays it needs a partner. Some parks have directors of outreach programming. Some change over every year. “If they’re unenthusiastic, it’s real hard,” Jason remarks. Though there’s an occasional volunteer, responsibilities fall back on him. “It makes sense. It’s our baby.” The word “our” is frequent. Working together is a part of their DNA. Most parks have areas used regularly. Hip to Hip accepts those while any new venues are scouted. Setting up at 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. in high summer makes the founder aware of necessary shade.

Right: Taylor Valentine and Joy Marr as Romeo and Juliet

Two giant posts act as light trees. Hip to Hip now has body microphones which Jason calls “a mixed blessing.” “The audience can hear over an airplane, but because so much is about the language, not having mikes forces an actor to find the size and depth of the words,” he says. The company also bought its own generator. Running extensions to power sources was, to say the least, problematic. Some years ago performing Hamlet in Gantry Plaza State Park, a child tripped over the lengthy cord causing complete blackout. The stage manager met Jason with a flashlight. “You just roll with it. I tried to stay in character. There’s a guerilla aspect that I think the audience likes,” he says bemused.

James Harter in Two Gentlemen of Verona

James Harter, who’s acted in nine seasons, recalls carrying set pieces across the lawn at Gantry when suddenly all the sprinklers went off. First alarmed thoughts jumped to rain. (For the record, they work in light rain and pause or call it at a downpour.) Realizing the truth, a parks employee was contacted. Construction was delayed as components and men alike dried off. “It never happened again, so remains a ‘fond’ memory,’” he quips.   

Right: Tristan Land as Oberon, Katie Fanning as Titania

Actress Katie Fanning began intermittently working with the group in 2019 directly off a tour of Much Ado About Nothing. Asked about mishaps, she tells me: “In the last moments of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I had a quick change from Hippolyta to Titania. One night, the zipper on the back of my heavy dress wouldn’t go up. I went out with a smile doing my very best to keep my shoulders up to hold the dress on and not to turn my back to the audience – which was fine until I had to awkwardly back off stage at the end – tough to do in a regal and magical way. The joys of live theater!”

Men from children nothing differ.” (Much Ado About Nothing)

About seven years before the Pandemic, Hip to Hip instituted Kids & The Classics, a twenty to thirty minute interactive workshop before the performance for kids from 5 to12. There are theater games, an introduction to the story and the opportunity to perhaps speak a couple of lines in iambic pentameter. The company usually entertains 20 to 30 kids this way.  

Kids & The Classics with Caitlin Cassidy

“We had 80 at LeFrak City! They gave the kids inflatable swords. Many were unsupervised.  We were doing King Lear,” Jason recollects furrowing his brow. “There was this reviewer from The Queens Chroniclewho got whacked a few times.” Joel Leffert, who has acted in five shows, directed one and staged fights in almost every production, has similar memories. “The noise from the audience was so loud we could barely hear ourselves on stage and we had to fight off a few who tried to join the action. It was a bit of a mess at first, but after a while we got their attention and the only drama was what Shakespeare had intended.”   

I ask how one tells a youngster that people are going to get assassinated. “We try to set it up as storytelling, make-believe,” Jason responds. “Ghosts in Hamlet and Julius Caesar resonate. The mother of one little boy said he had nightmares. I guess we were that effective.”

Cymbeline – Socrates State Park

“One of the reasons we like to perform in parks is that we bring in people who might not otherwise come to see a show or be exposed to Shakespeare,” Joy comments. In Flushing Meadows a group of teenagers on bikes rode by. Minutes later, they rode back. Slowly the kids got off, then sat on the grass and watched…A  young girl who’d accompanied her parents to Measure to Measure asked mom to hold her birthday party at our second show. She returned with a group of little girls who unexpectedly sat through Henry IV.

Click Here to Read Part 2

Opening: All’s Well That Ends Well
All photos and art courtesy of Hip to Hip