CST’s Doreen Sayegh Brings the Bard to the City of Big Shoulders with Shakespeare 400 Chicago


3cr-Sayegh-Doreen (1)Doreen Sayegh has been a skosh busy. Playwright and quote-machine William Shakespeare died 400 years ago this year, and a few folks still like to produce his work, so she is curating the hundreds of Bard-inspired projects presented throughout Chicagoland in 2016.

We’re halfway through Will’s death year–he was likely born and died on the same day, April 23, in 1564 and 1616, respectively–and Shakespeare 400 Chicago festival producer Doreen continues to shepherd over 1,000 artists, 850 events, 120 sites, and 60 cultural institutions offering local and visiting performances, lectures and discussions, classes and exhibitions, and even culinary collaborations.

She’s a self-professed Bardophile, a lover of Shakespeare. “I have a crazy passion for him,” she says. “I’m fascinated by all the cultural interpretations of his work, which are deeply human. His connections are universal.”

“This festival articulates the clear and endless ways he tells stories about human lives.”

Doreen’s been at it for a while. Chicago Shakespeare Theater hired her in summer 2014 following her DePaul Arts Leadership program where she was producing associate by day with classwork at night. She was asked to be the official festival producer in June 2015, although the idea of a citywide juggernaut has been percolating for at least a decade.

The Royal Shakespeare Company and other British organizations had created complete works festivals and cultural Olympiads in recent years, so CST’s artistic director Barbara Gaines and executive director Criss Henderson decided that the next international festival should be held in Chicago, helmed and organized by the internationally recognized Shakespearean entity, “the engine, the machine underneath” the panoply, alongside lead sponsors the Julius Frankel Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Pritzker Military Museum and Library.

Doreen had been asked to articulate what a festival might look like. At first, a three- or four-month stint was considered before a full year was scheduled due to the city’s consistent and considerable wealth of Shakespeare offerings, knowledge base and interest.

She says, “Shakespeare 400 really fits this bold, gritty city in the heart of this country. The power of his stories is relevant to people here.” Tens of thousands of residents already attend CST’s annual free summer performances at 19 city parks.

“At first, we approached specific major partners,” she says. “They got on board quickly as they were already planning anniversary year programming.”

Then, through “kismet and happy accidents,” international ensembles and acts were integrated into the burgeoning schedule.

“We’re keeping tabs on the Shakespeare celebrations in London,” she says. “We might be a bit bigger.”

“But this is a friendly competition, of course,” she adds.

Doreen is now inured to the logistical headaches of wrangling international performances, familiar working with visa consultants and lawyers. She learned the lessons of such challenges when, in a previous touring production, the Belarus Free Theatre found they needed towels to dry their audiences after storm effects, and that the peanut butter they used for blood could cause serious allergies.

The culinary portion of this festival isn’t taking any chances. Doreen and her team of five gave loose parameters to 38 notable local chefs to each take a title from the canon, and interpret as they saw fit. Most are making a specific dish or a full tasting menu, some are exploring creative plating, others are using historic ingredients.

jackson_titusA few are creating pairings that represent themes, quotes or characters–in one, Katherine from Shrew is a game hen being “tamed” by the cooking process. Pleasant House Bakery chef Art Jackson leapt at the opportunity to make a Titus Andronicus dish; however, not comprising insufferable sons Chiron and Demetrius, but a Roman-style braised pork pie with blood pudding, fennel, olives, spelt and spices.

“Some chefs were already Shakespeare fans,” Doreen says. “Some are academic, some emotional, but all are theatrical and artists in every sense of the word.”

Doreen’s personal goal is to see all festival offerings (this writer is trying as well, but probably at about 70%, mainly dreaming in iambic pentameter about disguised twins). She loved the highly trained style of the Russian actors in the “compelling, beautiful” Measure for Measure. She appreciated the “juxtaposition of cultural interpretations, the same reasons with different intentions” in the Belarusian King Lear, and connected with Jeff Award-winning actors Barbara Robertson and Greg Vinkler reading during a Chicago a cappella performance, as well as with the Hamburg Ballet’s Othello.

The teenager with Downs syndrome performing in Twelfth Night brought her to tears.

And “there’s no ending now,” Doreen says. Following this Shakespeare 400 year, really “just an extension of CSTs programming, not something different,” the institution housed on Navy Pier will break ground on their new Yard space, to be opened for the 2017-18 season. The Yard will offer various configurations from 250-850 seats, with the mission “to allow the space to meet the art.”

To document this monumental Shakespeare anniversary undertaking, Doreen has nine complete works books brought to every venue to be autographed by every artist, thereby collecting thousands of signatures by the end of 2016. She plans to give these living reminders of the awesome array to prominent cultural and civic institutions.

Shakespeare 400 Chicago opened up beyond our wildest dreams,” Doreen says. “We have the poetry of story woven throughout our city, and our people have embraced it.”

“Everyone–musicians, dancers, chefs, and, of course, academics and theater-makers–has been eager to shine a light on how important Shakespeare’s work is to Chicago.”

“This festival lets us, in new ways, meet the playwright as well as Chicago itself.”

Shakespeare 400 Chicago runs throughout Chicagoland during 2016. All offerings and details are listed (and continuously updated) at the online catalogue.

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Karin McKie
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.