When Brett Bernardini and his colleagues dragged their Shakespeare on the Green banners out of storage this year, they discovered the banners were covered in mold.
For Bernardini, the new executive director of Nebraska Shakespeare, the banners were another example of something from the organization’s past that needs to be replaced and changed.
“We had things, and now we don’t,” Bernardini said. “We were something, and now we are not. What we were is not what we are now. We embrace a culture of change.
After a two-year hiatus, Shakespeare on the Green returns to Elmwood Park this summer. The free event at the park encourages people to bring blankets, wine and even their children and dogs to watch live performances of two William Shakespeare plays during the months of June and July.
“The Tempest” opened on Thursday and will run through Sunday, then again on July 8, 10, 13, 14 and 16.
“Othello” will debut on June 30 and run until July 3, then again on July 6, 7, 9, 15, and 17.
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“If ‘The Tempest’ represents what we should all aspire to today, which is to call on our best angels, then ‘Othello’ reminds us of how ugly humanity can be,” said Bernardini said of the shows this summer.
Bernardini said the organization wanted to present two plays that would be recognizable titles for audiences, especially after missing out on the past two years.
Shakespeare on the Green was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic and in 2021 amid ongoing controversy over racial and diversity issues at Nebraska Shakespeare, the organization behind Shakespeare on the Green. Some members of the company have quit because they believe the organization has not made enough progress in improving diversity, equity and inclusion.
Members of the theater community had expressed concern about several company moves. They said his social media posts were racially insensitive and Nebraska Shakespeare’s staff and board of directors did not recognize the Black Lives Matter movement, among others.
In the summer of 2020, a few hundred actors, directors, crew, and others involved in the local theater industry wrote a letter to Nebraska Shakespeare outlining their concerns about its approach to diversity and demanding changes. Among other things, the letter said research indicated that over the past 34 years, only 88 of the 833 actors hired for On the Green and the tour lineup were people of color, or 10.56%. During this same period, no people of color were hired as full-time Nebraska Shakespeare employees.
The board responded by creating new initiatives and seeking new leaders, although many said progress was too slow.
Nebraska Shakespeare now has new leadership.
Tyrone Beasley, director, actor and educator from Omaha, was hired in 2021 as artistic director. Beasley left his longtime position as Associate Artistic Director of Outbound Programming at Omaha’s Rose Theater to join Nebraska Shakespeare.
Bernardini also joined the organization in 2021. In an interview, Bernardini said he was aware of the challenges facing the organization before taking the job.
“I was aware that this organization at its best had been clumsy and at worst had been hurtful in its responses to all things Black Lives Matter and how we were not transparent or fully accountable in how we interacted with the great Omaha community,” Bernardini said.
Bernardini said the new leadership has met and spoken to dozens of people who have criticized the organization to better understand what was wrong and find ways to improve.
“Things weren’t right. People have been injured. People were really hurt. I can’t fix it. I can’t mend their wound. None of us can take that away,” Bernardini said. “I don’t have the super power to heal, but I have the ability to recognize that hurt, I have the ability to understand how they were hurt and I have the responsibility to make sure it doesn’t happen again. more.”
Some in the theater community have healthy skepticism about the changes, while others said progress has been made.
A former employee who spoke on the condition of not being named due to work concerns said he was “deeply grateful” to no longer work for Nebraska Shakespeare. And while they wished the company no ill will, they asked Nebraska Shakespeare to continue to hear from artists speaking out.
Another employee said that while issues and challenges remain, new management has been open and willing to listen to past challenges and this year’s cast is incredibly diverse. Although work has been done to fix things, other issues have surfaced that also need to be addressed, the employee said.
“And while this year isn’t perfect, change takes time,” the employee said. “There has been a lot of work done by this particular group of people and I think their work in the community, over the past two years, is absolutely going to bring about those changes for the industry.”
The employee said the actors worked extremely hard and deserved an audience.
This year, Bernardini said, he hopes audiences will show up, have a good time, and be aware that the new Nebraska Shakespeare exists.
“Are we excited? We are beyond thrilled,” he said.
More information about Shakespeare on the Green can be found at nebraskashakespeare.com.