The First Folio tour: How American communities celebrated Shakespeare in 2016

he First Folio tour in Hawaii (April 25 – May 25, 2016). Image courtesy of Kapi’olani Community College.
The First Folio tour in Hawaii (April 25 – May 25, 2016). Image courtesy of Kapi’olani Community College.

Shakespeare’s stories have inspired creative works in almost every genre and medium: countless novels, poems, plays, movies, songs, comic books, paintings and drawings, dances, computer games—the list goes on. And we can trace just about all of it back to a book, a book of about 900 pages.

Throughout 2016, the Folger Shakespeare Library has been sending a copy of the First Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, to every state, Puerto Rico, and Washington, DC. The traveling exhibition First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare is part of The Wonder of Will, the Folger’s celebration of 400 years of Shakespeare.

Related: How the First Folio tour came together

Special programming at each host site is engaging the general public, as well as teachers and families, in what for many may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a First Folio.

“Translating the “to be” speech into Hawaiian and Lakota, presenting jazz funerals for Shakespeare, fashion shows, concerts, lectures, and hosting 3-D printing of Shakespeare busts have been extremely popular,” notes Maribeth Cote, public engagement coordinator for the First Folio tour. “Many stops also created companion exhibitions featuring rare books, theatrical costumes and props, musical instruments from the period, and even a look at Elizabethan potions and poisons.”

In addition to the local programs and teacher workshops that enlivened the First Folio’s weeks at each site, Folger Theatre developed a touring, one-man play called Gravedigger’s Tale, in which the Gravedigger from Hamlet tells the story of the Danish prince using a series of “questions” from the audience.

Louis Butelli in Gravedigger’s Tale, 2016. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Here are some of the many ways Shakespeare and the First Folio were celebrated on the national tour:

Astronomy and folklore

The First Folio’s time in Boulder, CO, was full of stars. At the Fiske Planetarium, visitors looked at images of the night sky and learned how the history and folklore of constellations and eclipses influenced Shakespeare and his writings.

Courtroom drama

When the First Folio arrived in Kansas, its hosts went “straight to court” for a mock trial with law students and local judges. Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, battled for custody of the Changeling Boy.

Mascots lay out the red carpet

The First Folio received a true American welcome in South Dakota. Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt all came down from Mount Rushmore to say hello and see it on display at the National Music Museum on the campus of the University of South Dakota.

A true Las Vegas experience

David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, led visitors in an interactive talk called Hazard All He Hath: Shakespeare’s Gambling World. After the talk, visitors learned some friendly games of chance from the 1600s—though they only played for “Shakespeare bucks!”

Shakespeare for the deaf

Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, is the world’s only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students. At the opening reception for the First Folio exhibition, visitors were treated to a sneak preview of Gallaudet University Theater’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in American Sign Language.

Only in New Orleans

New Orleans put on a party for the First Folio as only this city can, holding a jazz funeral for William Shakespeare at Tulane University. Dr. Michael White and the Liberty Brass Band led a procession of hundreds of Shakespeare fans sporting beaded Mardi Gras necklaces and parasols with fringe.

Virtual London

For the First Folio’s visit to Florida International University, students from three different departments collaborated to create a 3D immersive experience, where visitors could explore London virtually in the year 1598.

Fashion show

The Fashion and English students at Puerto Rico’s Universidad del Turabo put on a fashion show of 21 new creations inspired by Shakespeare’s plays. As each model crossed the stage, a student from the English department read aloud the lines that inspired the outfit.

The First Folios are returning home!

First Folio exhibitionYou can see even more photos from the First Folio tour—and the books themselves!—at the Folger in First Folio! Shakespeare’s American Tour. This exhibition, which runs Nov 19, 2016 – Jan 22, 2017, is the largest ever display of First Folios in a single venue.

Forty-three thousand miles later, and safely back in the Folger’s Great Hall, the 18 traveling copies of the First Folio (and one understudy) tell their stories–of the half million people they met, the programming to celebrate their visits, the unique attributes of each book, and the overwhelming relevance of the plays they include.

It’s the perfect conclusion to the First Folio tour.

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