What’s in a name? ‘Official’ Shakespeare festival

By Shelby Mertens
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – For Gov. Bob McDonnell, the proposition for the Virginia Shakespeare Festival at the College of William and Mary is simple: To be or not to be the commonwealth’s official Shakespeare festival.

The General Assembly passed legislation sponsored by Sen. Thomas Norment, R-Williamsburg, to make that formal designation. The issue’s fate now lies in McDonnell’s hands; the governor must decide whether to sign the bill into law.

Robert Ruffin, the interim producing director for the Virginia Shakespeare Festival, is ecstatic about gaining official state recognition.

“The Virginia Shakespeare Festival is thrilled and honored that the State Legislature has passed a bill designating us as the Official Shakespeare Festival of Virginia during our 35th Anniversary Season,” Ruffin said.

“We see this as a sign of support in Richmond for the arts and arts tourism in the commonwealth and a recognition of Williamsburg as a center of cultural tourism.”

However, the festival at William and Mary isn’t the only event celebrating Shakespeare’s work in Virginia. Richmond also holds its Richmond Shakespeare Festival each summer. And the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton operates year-round.

That explains why Norment’s proposal, Senate Bill 1123, drew some opposition during the recently-concluded legislative session. Although it unanimously passed the Senate, the vote in the House was 79-21.

Delegate Riley Ingram, R-Hopewell, voted against SB 1123 because of the Shakespeare Festival in Richmond.

“I got four or five calls from people I represent, that have one up here [in Richmond] and did not want me to vote for it,” Riley said.

Delegate Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, voted against the bill for similar reasons.

“I voted against it because there are a number of Shakespeare companies and festivals in the state, like the ones in Richmond and Staunton. I felt like we should recognize those at well,” McClellan said. “I felt like it wasn’t fair to pick one out of all the great ones in the commonwealth.”

So why designate the Williamsburg Shakespeare Festival as Virginia’s official Shakespeare festival? The legislation notes that:

  1. The Williamsburg event is the oldest Shakespeare festival in Virginia.
  2. Williamsburg is the location of the first performance of Shakespeare in the New World (in 1753).
  3. The College of William and Mary is the second oldest university in America.
  4. The Williamsburg festival “has consistently produced excellent educational programs for youth summer camps in addition to providing quality college internships.”
  5. More than 300,000 people have attended the Williamsburg festival over the years.

However, the Richmond Shakespeare Festival can also stake a claim to history. It is held at Agecroft Hall, a 500-year-old Tudor estate home that was shipped to Richmond from England during the 1920s. This means Agecroft Hall was built in England during Shakespeare’s time.

Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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