For some time now, I have wanted to see Shakespeare performed outdoors in San Jose. I have had the opportunity to see outdoor Shakespeare performances as far away as Ashland, Ore., and as close by as Los Gatos, Santa Cruz and Saratoga. In every instance, it was a great time. Each time I thought this type of event would be nice for San Jose, and I pictured a specific location. Willow Street’s Frank Bramhall Park in Willow Glen has an amphitheater that hosted events back in the1970’s, but it has gone largely unutilized in subsequent decades.
Two years ago, I approached the talented group Shady Shakespeare Theatre Company and asked staff to walk through Bramhall Park with me to see if they would consider performing at the venue. At first glance, it was viewed as less desirable, due to the fact that the grass was dead in the summer, and the amphitheater had electrical connections that no longer functioned and sub-optimal lighting. Despite these less than ideal circumstances, we agreed to keep in touch.
In order to improve the venue, the city of San Jose parks department worked to enhance the space by installing a sprinkler system that would allow for healthier grass in the summer. This improvement would not only benefit event-goers by providing a more comfortable “cushion” to enjoy performances, but it would also enhance the space for general everyday recreational activities, such as laying down to read a book or enjoying a picnic lunch. The following year, the electrical connection was repaired, and the amphitheater lighting system was vastly improved.
With these modifications, the need to rent lights and noisy generators that power them was eliminated, and the ability to enjoy a quiet and odor-free outdoor theater experience was born. It is important to note that all of these improvements were made with capital parks funds that are dedicated to such endeavors.
Even with these improvements, there was an inherent risk that no one would show up. Outdoor, evening performances of Shakespeare had not been done before in San Jose, and the concern—shared both by the city of San Jose and the theater group—was that these improvements may have been done all for naught. But lo and behold, hear ye, hear ye, on opening night there was an audience of well over 400 patrons!
People of all ages and demographics, and nearly every breed of well-behaved dog, enjoyed picnics, sipped wine and shared their enthusiasm for Shady Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” against a backdrop of towering redwood trees in San Jose’s only natural grass amphitheater, all of which made for a picture perfect event. The number of attendees far exceeded our expectations, and the final tally of 4,000-plus people was more than twice the pre-performance estimate of around 2,000. With such a fantastic turnout, it is very likely that this event will become a tradition in San Jose, and our hope is that Shady Shakespeare will return to perform in this park for many years to come.
Successful endeavors are almost always characterized by careful and diligent coordination of many groups of people, and this event was no exception. A special thanks goes to the PRNS staff that worked to bring this cultural experience to San Jose. Appreciation is also due to the Public Works department for the infrastructural improvements that were made on the amphitheater. Financial contributions from the following sponsors allowed this series to be free to the public: The Office of Cultural Affairs gave $3,800 from a competitive art grant (funded by the hotel tax), and $5,000 came from semiconductor capital equipment maker Applied Materials. Also, special thanks to the patrons themselves who were willing to donate during and after each performance.
And finally, a big THANK YOU to Shady Shakespeare for taking a chance on San Jose. All in all, the inaugural series of Shakespeare in Bramhall Park turned out to be a magnificent tale, indeed.