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Folger Library Fetes Bard’s Birthday With Open House

The streets of Capitol Hill were closed Sunday for a parade of truly royal proportions.

Flanked by the U.S. Army Fife and Drum Corps, an actress playing Queen Elizabeth I led a procession of loyal subjects to the Folger Shakespeare Library in honor of the 444th birthday of one of history’s most legendary bards.

“Indeed, a queen is upstaged by her subject in this instance,” the queen, played by Penelope Rahming, remarked as she cut into a three-tier birthday cake adorned with confectionary flowers and verses from birthday boy William Shakespeare’s most recognizable plays.

The cake-cutting marked the 29th year that the library has celebrated Shakespeare’s birthday with a daylong festival and open house aimed at engaging the public in the study of the English poet and playwright.

The first mission of the library is “to serve the needs of scholars interested in the 16th and 17th century, and the second is to continue the popularization of Shakespeare,” said Larry Plotkin, who has served as a volunteer docent since 2001.

The celebration featured more than 25 performances running on seven stages throughout the day and ranging from short sketches by an improv duo that boils down works such as “King Lear” into one sentence to slapstick-heavy stage-fighting demonstrations.

“For those of us who love Shakespeare’s plays, I was very pleased to see they had live performances going on. For those who enjoy music, there were also performances, and of course there is the combat, well, for everyone,” said attendee Paul Levett, who compared the celebration to Shakespeare festivals he has attended at the Globe Theatre in London.

One of the highlights of the day was also the rare opportunity to tour the library’s reading rooms.

The reading rooms, which house more than 256,000 books, 60,000 manuscripts and 250,000 playbills as well as expansive collections of artwork, musical instruments, costumes and films, are usually reserved for scholarly research and are closed to the public.

“The reason [Folger] started having the birthdays as an open house is so people could come see the reading room,” Folger Audience Services Coordinator Sarah Farmer said. “This is the only time of year that it’s open to the public.”

Organizers said the main goal of the day was to create an entry point for all ages to appreciate and enjoy Shakespeare.

“We really work it so there’s something for all ages,” Folger Education Programs Assistant Nikki Torres said, referring to the many arts and crafts booths and other youth-oriented activities scattered along the library lawn.

Plotkin, who offered tours of the paintings lining one of the reading rooms throughout the afternoon, stressed the importance of exposing younger generations to the riches of the collection.

“What you don’t want is your audience growing old and dying,” Plotkin said. “Every cultural organization has to make an effort in reaching out to new audiences and younger audiences.”

Fourteen-year-old Ben Forde, who eagerly volunteered to perform a scene from “Macbeth” in front of a full house at one of the day’s “Spontaneous Shakespeare” sessions, saw the event as a way to engage in the works of his favorite playwright.

“A lot of his ideas in plays are still relevant today because his stories are more about human nature than anything that was happening at the time,” said Forde, who added that his favorite play is “Hamlet,” “because who doesn’t like ‘Hamlet?’”

Forde’s 11-year-old brother said he enjoyed everything from the stage combat to the rare books exhibited in the library’s collection.

“I love being in the reading room because even though you couldn’t touch anything, it was cool to see all the old books,” Alex Forde said.

For others, the events served as more of an introduction to Shakespeare’s folios.

Heather Jackson and Jade Kline came to the event as part of an extra-credit assignment for their English class, in which they have recently begun reading “Romeo and Juliet,” and they soon found the day’s activities piqued their interest in the literature.

“I didn’t think Shakespeare was that interesting, and this makes it more exciting,” Kline said. “I think it will mean more now when we read [‘Romeo and Juliet’] in class. It will make it more interesting.”

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