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Season of renewal for Shakespeare on the Common

Steve Maler is looking forward to a new season this summer of free Shakespeare on the Common. Maler's Commonwealth Shakespeare Company will stage ''The Comedy of Errors.'' Steve Maler is looking forward to a new season this summer of free Shakespeare on the Common. Maler's Commonwealth Shakespeare Company will stage ''The Comedy of Errors.'' (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / March 17, 2009
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Last year, as Steve Maler wondered whether his days directing free Shakespeare on Boston Common were over, he had lunch with a veteran local actor. Will Lyman listened as Maler spoke of the uncertainty. The Citi Performing Arts Center, under whose auspices Maler had worked for five years, was cutting ties with him. Maler was worried about the future of his Commonwealth Shakespeare Company.

Lyman quickly offered to write a personal check to him for $10,000.

"I almost broke down in tears," Maler said last week, recounting the exchange. "I told him, 'That's a beautiful offer. If you can contribute to CSC, I would appreciate that.' "

Maler brought up this moment during an interview at the Boston Center for the Arts, where he rents a small office as he rebuilds his company. This summer, for the first time since 2002, Maler's Commonwealth Shakespeare Company will stage the free performances, which have drawn as many as 100,000 people to the Common in past summers, on its own. As Commonwealth's founding artistic director, Maler has staged the free Shakespeare production since 1996.

His newly independent nonprofit company will present 16 performances of "The Comedy of Errors" July 31 to Aug. 16 at the Parkman Bandstand. Maler said the company will audition cast members later this week, while he works to finish raising the $350,000 needed to put on the production. So far, he said, the company has raised about half that.

Maler, who appeared upbeat during the interview, shied away from looking back at his complicated, ultimately doomed relationship with the Citi Center, formerly the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, which helped grow the Shakespeare program from a budget of $570,414 in 2004 to nearly $1 million in 2006. Dramatic cuts in 2007 to the budget and production run strained the relationship, and eventually Maler, who had been brought on in a salaried management position at the Citi Center, saw his $105,000-a-year job disappear.

Last summer, the Citi Center hired Maler as a freelancer to stage "As You Like It"; it severed ties after the production.

Maler, who confirmed that he had signed a confidentiality agreement with the Citi Center, said he is not angry about the split and is excited to lead the company back to the Common.

"Looking back on decisions and second guessing is not particularly useful," said Maler. "But the one thing I can say about our relationships with [Citi Center] is that it did allow our production scale and scope to grow. I'm at peace."

After reviving Commonwealth Shakespeare as an independent organization, Maler began collecting an annual $45,000 salary. The company also has a general manager, Gali Halpern. But putting on this summer's production won't be easy. At a time when major institutions are struggling to raise money, Maler has had to make personal sacrifices to make sure the show goes on. In February, he stopped taking paychecks to make it easier to balance the budget. He helps pay his own bills by patching together teaching jobs at local colleges and freelance work as a speech coach.

He's also been pleased to find that some of the people who supported him before the tensions with the Citi Center are back.

Local attorney Irwin Heller, who had been on the Citi Center's board during Maler's tenure but is no longer, is now a board member of Commonwealth Shakespeare.

"It's important for young people to be exposed to Shakespeare and to have some artistic events that are free in Boston," said Heller. "And I've always thought that Steve Maler is just a great director. He works with relatively little by way of resources, and it seems like an event like this needs somebody to stand behind it."

The city of Boston is supporting the production by offering the space, security, and everything from trash removal and electricity for free, as well as $15,000.

"It's a terrific sign and it shows leadership," said Boston City Councilor John Tobin, who has agreed to serve on the honorary committee for a gala fund-raising event to benefit Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. "But I'd love to see it be more consistent. I still think there should be a dedicated revenue stream for these types of things."

Meanwhile Maler is trying to make smart choices to revive his organization. "The Comedy of Errors," he said, will offer Bostonians an amusing escape during these cash-strapped times. A farce that tells the story of two sets of identical twins accidentally separated at birth, it will be set in 1930s South Beach to give it a stylish, colorful flair.

"It's a play we haven't done before, and it's fun," says Maler. "It's also a very strategic choice, as it requires just one set and takes place over one day. It's one of the most efficient plays in the canon." The play is also performed by an ensemble and doesn't center on one or two primary characters, like Shakespeare's "Hamlet" or "Othello," he pointed out. That means he doesn't feel as much pressure to hire a big-name star as he might have in the past.

To raise money, Maler is hoping supporters will go to the company's website (www.commshakes.org) where a link offers an opportunity to make a speedy donation. The gala will be held at the Ritz-Carlton on April 25. A silent auction will feature such items as a role as an extra on the USA Network series "Burn Notice," starring Jeffrey Donovan, who played the title role in Commonwealth Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in 2005.

Lyman, now a Commonwealth Shakespeare board member, said he's glad Maler has stayed in Boston and will continue to direct the free Shakespeare production.

"This is his company. This is what he does. I feel confident we'll get what we need this year, maintain our presence, and put up a wonderful show for the Common and continue from there," he said.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

Clarification: A story about Shakespeare on the Common in today's preprinted "g" section misscharacterizes Councilor John Tobin's involvement with the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. He is on the honorary committee for a gala fund-raising event to benefit the company.

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