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The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s soon-to-end annual run of free performances isn’t, in fact, your only opportunity to see the Bard’s Twelfth Night this week. There’s another free production of the mistaken-identities comedy beginning tomorrow, and it shares the inclusive ethos of STC’s Free for All. But the goals and execution are something entirely different.
“Ours is a one-hour version,” says Becky Peters, the artistic director of Wandering Souls, a theater troupe entering its second season, which this month will stage Twelfth Night for free for some of the District’s least privileged audiences. “It just focuses on the story, the bare bones. We don’t put a lot of extra in it.”
For the most part, the group stages its productions at nonprofits across the city—-for at-risk youth, for the elderly, for the homeless, and others. The list of performance sites includes Sasha Bruce, Central Union Mission, N Street Village, Grace’s Table, and others. These are put together with the organizations and are closed to the public, who shouldn’t feel left out: Wandering Souls is also hosting open performances at Bloombars, Edmund Burke High School, and Church of the Pilgrims. “We felt like theater and most of the arts are directed at those who have funds to go,” Peters says.
The group’s tagline—-“Working to make the luxury of the arts more accessible to everyone”—-probably requires some unpacking: Peters notes that despite the fact that most of the museums in town are free and that most of the theaters offer occasional pay-what-you-can performances, the audiences there largely seem to be pretty comfortable. “People with more money have more time,” Peters says. “We’re trying to take away all the things that make it a luxury and not a necessity.”
Peters founded the group with Executive Director J.J. Area last year, when it staged Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. “We have a love of Shakespeare, mostly because of the acceptability of it,” says Peters, also a marketing and group sales associate at Theater J. “Anybody of any race, religion, financial status, can find something in it.” Its Twelfth Night has a cast of eight.
And while the productions are stripped-down—-the sets are decidedly minimalist; Georgetown University and Theater J donated costumes—-that’s not at the expense of quality. (I’m not just saying that: One of my housemates, whose opinion I trust, works at an organization that hosted a Wandering Souls performance last year. He called it incredible.) The group holds auditions and pays its actors—-not enough yet to afford Equity members, but Peters says that’s a goal for future seasons. Following performances, the actors often conduct a talk-back, or simply hang out—-or if the audience is young, play some theater games. That constituency might be the most important: “If you don’t go when you’re little, you don’t tend to go when you’re older,” Peters says.
Wandering Souls brings in money through fundraising campaigns and the open, pay-what-you-can performances (they suggest you pay $15, though). About 20 percent goes back into the group, and the rest to the performers and a production team. There’s a full schedule of performances, closed and open, at Wandering Souls’ website. Peters says it may restage Twelfth Night in the spring—-the group got more requests for performances than it could squeeze in this fall.
And you can imagine that Peters would be unwilling to turn down any would-be playhouses. “Sometimes theater can be a little bit selfish, because as actors you are out there to promote yourself all the time,” she says. “We wanted to get the arts to people who didn’t have the chance to see something like this.”