Those who’ve gotten to know Chris Shea in recent years should have guessed from his e-mail address that he’d be leaving us one of these days. It’s “firstname.lastname@example.org”
The free spirit who brought Free Shakespeare to the Miami Valley is moving on. At the same time his final summer tour of “As You Like It” is about to get underway at area outdoor parks, Shea has accepted an acting role with a new professional theater troupe and will be moving to Seattle in August.
During his four years in Dayton, Shea has contributed his talents to a variety of arts organizations including Muse Machine, the Human Race Theatre Company, Stivers School for the Arts, Zoot Theatre Co., CityFolk , WYSO and Rhythm, in Shoes. As the producing director of Free Shakespeare, he’s presented four summer tours, instituted a monthly Shakespeare reading series, welcomed three area premieres and hosted two charitable readings of the complete works of Shakespeare.
After his father’s death, Shea launched “Shakespeare for Life,” an annual week-long marathon reading of the Shakespeare canon to benefit cancer patients at Grandview Hospital. In May, the project raised approximately $5,000 and in four years, Free Shakespeare has donated thousands of dollars to nonprofits.
We chatted with Chris, 30, about his love of theater and his never-boring career.
Q. Where did you grow up and how did you become interested in theater?
A. I grew up in Dayton and Kettering; we moved my 7th grade year. I fell into theater for all the wrong reasons — in eighth grade, I joined choir so I could eat lunch a half hour earlier!
My freshman year I stuck with choir to satisfy the arts requirement of the honors diploma, and then was talked into joining show choir because “it’s fun and we always need guys.” The same logic was used to recruit me to the musical later that year. They were right. And it was all down hill from there.
Q. Was your family interested in the arts?
A. My family has always been interested in the arts, thankfully. My parents made a point to expose my brothers and me to various art forms as we were growing up. We were a middle-class family full of rowdy boys, so the opportunities for such ventures were few and far between. We were lucky. We had a nice mix of life experiences growing up.
My folks took us to see a production of Treasure Island at Cincinnati Playhouse. I was 7 or 8 at the most, and in the first 30 seconds of the show, I think about 8 people died. Sometimes it can be difficult to get three boys to focus, but I seem to recall all of us being riveted from that moment.
Q. Where have you lived beside Dayton and how did you get there?
A. I have lived in Durango, Colo.; Oceano, Calif.; Santa Maria, Calif.; Rohnert Park, Calif.; and Seattle, Wash. I’ve been fortunate to make the majority of my living as an actor in each of those places. Santa Maria was the place I lived the longest because that is where I trained with the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts (PCPA).
Q. Why did you return to Dayton?
A. My father was diagnosed with colon cancer and his health continued to decline, so I chose to come back to spend time with him and help out he and my mom however I could.
Q. How did you become interested in Shakespeare?
A. My first ever Shakespeare play was with Human Race Founding Member, Marsha Hannah, and CCM Voice and Speech teacher, Rocco Dal Vera. It was Romeo & Juliet at Sinclair and I played several roles in the ensemble (spear carrier, messenger — that sort of thing). Between Marsha and Rocco, I essentially had a four-week master class in Shakespeare. As I continued at PCPA, my mentor, Patricia Troxel, helped to deepen my understanding and appreciation for the text.
Q. Why do you think Shakespeare is important/vital/interesting?
A. I absolutely believe his work is all three of those things. It’s important because it is inherent in our culture. You cannot listen to or watch a newscast without someone making a Shakespeare reference. In fact, people quote Shakespeare all the time without even realizing it. Ever had your teeth set on edge? Claimed something was as dead as a doornail? Had breakfast?
And then there are his characters. Some of them have even become bigger than the plays they were written for. Think Hamlet or Falstaff. And a big part of why I, personally, find it interesting is how challenging it is. It’s not something you can just soak in in a single setting. You may be able to get the gist of it, but your understanding and appreciation will deepen with each subsequent reading or viewing.
Q. How did you come to start Free Shakespeare?
A. It started as a fluke, really. I wanted to create more paid opportunities for myself and other actors in town, as well as produce my own work, so I originally set out to do a single project, Hamlet. All I did was copy the GreenStage model I learned in Seattle, and people seemed to really take to it. One gentleman saw that show six times and has been a vital part of the company ever since.
Then after my dad passed I had the crazy idea to read the whole canon as a benefit for cancer patients. Out of Shakespeare for Life was born the monthly reading series, Monday Night Shakespeare, on the first Monday of every month. Those readings will continue after I’m gone. In addition, Free Shakespeare has helped facilitate three area premieres covering subject matter as diverse as student debt, autism, bullying, and the intersection of faith and sexuality.
Q. What are some of your favorite Shakespeare plays?
A. King Lear, hands down. I’m also a huge Othello fan, but that’s mainly because I was fortunate to understudy Iago at PCPA.
Q. Why are your plays performed without intermission and how do you edit them?
A. The plays are performed without intermission to avoid the need for electricity. Since Shakespeare can be tough to digest, I feel a fluidly paced, one-act version satisfies the needs of the widest possible audience range — purists and newbies alike.
My personal philosophy is to cut mercilessly without sacrificing the story. Shakespeare has a tendency to say the same thing eight different ways.
Q. Where would you advise someone to begin if they haven’t had exposure to Shakespeare and find it difficult?
A. Don’t be afraid of it. Don’t feel bad about “cheating” — there are a ton of resources out there to help you understand it better. No Fear Shakespeare is a great start. People will bring their copies to our summer shows and read along. This stuff is dense, so if you find it not making sense, don’t feel bad about it — you’re not alone. Just don’t give up. It’s far better to see it than to read it. And we try to help our audiences keep tracking by listing the characters’ names on their costumes.
Q. Why are you leaving Dayton and what will you be doing in Seattle?
A. I am going back to Seattle to work with a dear friend’s new theater company as well as pursue more professional acting work. In a way, I’ll hopefully end up doing much of what I’ve been doing here — a lot of teaching and creating. The first gig I have lined up is Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July with Theatre22.
Q. What are your long-term career and personal goals?
A. I hope to refine my producing skills, enter the for-profit arena, and transfer a show (or shows) to New York and other regional theaters. I’m also very interested in deepening my Reiki practice and making that a bigger part of my life. Of course, balancing everything is the trick. … I’ve not been very good at that thus far.
Q. What would you do on an ideal day?
A. My ideal day in Dayton would be coffee at Ghostlight followed by a trip to the DAI. Happy hour at Century, dinner at Trolley or Lucky’s. Perhaps a Dragons game. Some live music at Canal Street Tavern, and end it all with a late night Tanks trip.
Q. What would you advise a parent who would like to interest children in the arts, theater?
A. Don’t push them. If they want to to do it, they will. If they’re meant to do it, they definitely will. While exposing kids to the arts, make sure you show them some of the cooler stuff that’s off the beaten path. Not to take anything away from the masters, but there’s a whole big world out there. I know this is ironic coming from a Shakespeare guy, but it’s true.
Soak in other cultures and people. And for a lot of parents, their children’s journey will be just as eye-opening for them. So, parents, go into it with an open mind and learn along with your child. And if your kid does end up becoming an artist, for God’s sake, support them! I’m not talking financially, although don’t be surprised if you get a few phone calls along the way.
Q. What will you miss most about Dayton?
A. I will miss the people, no question. This is such an amazing, generous, kind-hearted, and supportive community. It’s molded me both as a person and an artist. My aesthetic is a direct combination of my twisted sensibilities and my Dayton roots. I’ll leave it you to figure out which part is which.
In our ongoing series of Sunday Chats, arts writer Meredith Moss gets up-close-and-personal with the creative individuals who are making an impact in the arts—dancers, singers, actors, directors, visual artists and more.
HOW TO GO:
What: Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” presented by Free Shakespeare! Produced by Chris Shea and Directed by Travis J. Cook.
When: 7 p.m. on designated evenings from July 18-August 11. Each performance lasts 90 minutes with no intermission.
Admission: Free. Donations accepted following the show.
Bring: A blanket, chair, and a picnic.
Schedule of locations:
July 18 & 25: Rosewood Arts Center, Kettering, 2655 Olson Dr, Kettering ( Near the intersection of Olson Dr. and Braddock St.)
July 19-21: ArtStreet Amphitheater, University of Dayton, 300 College Park ( intersection of Kiefaber and Lawnview)
July 26-28: Newcom Founders Park, 137 Brown St, Oregon District (corner of Green and Brown, Dayton.
Aug 1 & 8: Blommel Park, Corner of Jay and Oak, South Park, Dayton
Aug 2-4: Wegerzyn Gardens MetroPark, 1301 E Siebenthaler Ave, Dayton
Aug 9-11: Antioch College Amphitheater, Corry St, approx. 1/4 mile south of the Glen Helen entrance, Yellow Springs
More information is available at https://www.facebook.com/spreadthewords.
What Others Say About Him:
“Chris is the most fearless performer I’ve ever known. I was his first acting teacher and even in those days his approach to any task was energized and enthusiastic. He will try anything and because of that quality he is a director’s dream.”
Scott Stoney, Founding Resident Artist – The Human Race Theatre Company
“Chris rarely meets a stranger, has masterfully assimilated to the local arts scene and sees potential in other people they didn’t know they had. For the last three seasons I’ve been in Free Shakespeare productions. I’d never acted before, but Chris said, “Jason, you’d be good at this” and with his guidance and patience, turns out he’s right.
Since I found out he was leaving I tell him: “Thanks for following your dream, man, what about the rest of us?” But there’s truth in my sarcasm; Dayton’s going to have a void to fill.”
Jason Antonick, Huffman Historic District
“It has been my pleasure to work with Chris through education and outreach with Cityfolk and as a participant in one of the many wonderful Free Shakespeare activities, Shakespeare for Life.
Chris has a remarkable energy: contagious, affirming and restorative. In other words, he shares his charisma, he affirms those he shares with and in the process offers a little healing for what ails you. For real. On stage, he is strong and engaging. His sensitivity, in role or out, is genuine. I will miss having him close in proximity, but will always know him close in my heart!”
Jean Howat Berry, Cityfolk
“Chris served as an adjunct at Stivers this year and really strengthened our department’s classical theatre skills. Initially he was like spinach to the 8th-12th graders, who were further pushed out of their comfort zones and continually challenged.
By the end of the year EVERY single student was amazed at their huge success with the classical material and Chris made a swift transition from spinach to chocolate cake! We will miss his unique style, humor and sheer passion for theatre.”
Angela Tomaselli, Stivers School for the Arts, Theatre Department.
“In the few years I have known Chris, he has so enriched and shaped my life that I cannot imagine how I could have filled my days with anything else of comparable quality. I initially became aware of him when I attended the first Free Shakespeare production, which he created and directed and in which he played the role of Hamlet. I was so impressed with this contribution to our community that I returned again and again to see subsequent performances.
Then when auditions were held for A Midsummer Night’s Dream the following year, I decided to try for a role and was overjoyed to become part of the cast. The experience was a major turning point for me. In contrast to much of the rest of the cast, who were university theater students and/or seasoned performers, this was the first time I had acted on a stage in fifty years.
I have also seen Chris both act and sing in other works and marveled at his versatility. But what is especially meaningful to me is what a good friend he has become. Whenever we are out together anywhere in the Dayton area, Chris is invariably acquainted with a majority of the people we encounter. Yet he always gives me his genuine attention and makes me feel totally a part of the group. And I have had the pleasure of seeing him treat others in the same very personal way. Chris has also been the catalyst for bringing into my life some of the most amazingly talented young men I have ever known. His leaving will bring to an end one of the richest and happiest chapter of my long life.”
Bill Styles, Kettering, age 80