Crowds get a taste of Elizabethan England at First Folio Festival

MIDDLEBURY — The First Folio Festival on Feb. 18 transformed Middlebury College’s Mahaney Center for the Arts into a portal to the Elizabethan Era.
An estimated 380 people enjoyed an evening of live Renaissance music from The Penny Lane Consort and the Middlebury Mountain Ayres, a theater production from the Middlebury Actors Workshop, and gallery talks by Professors Timothy Billings and James Berg. Yet, despite the lively program, the real star of the show — locked in a dimly lit, climate-controlled, immovable Plexiglas case — was a book.
Not just any book, this rare work is the first comprehensive publication of the works of iconic playwright William Shakespeare.
Assembled seven years after his death, the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare contains 36 of the Bard’s original plays, 18 of which were never published in any other volume during his lifetime. As the exhibit surrounding the folio in the college art museum explains, these 18 plays — which include “Macbeth,” “The Tempest,” “Twelfth Night” and other famous works by the legendary playwright — would have been lost if it were not for this book.
The folio on display belongs to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and is temporarily installed at Middlebury College Museum of Art as part of a month-long exhibit running from Feb. 2 through this Sunday, Feb. 28.
With 82 of the surviving 233 copies of the text, the Folger Library holds the largest First Folio collection in the world. In celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Folger partnered with the Cincinnati Museum Center and the American Library Association to launch a travelling exhibit entitled “First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare.” The tour will use 12 copies of the folio to bring the exhibit to 50 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.
For the musicians and actors who took part in last Thursday’s festival, being able to perform period pieces in such close proximity to one of Shakespeare’s original published texts was especially exciting.
“The folios, for anybody who’s a Shakespeare buff, are like the bible of Shakespeare,” said Jack DesBois, a recent Middlebury College graduate who gave his final concert as musical director of the Mountain Ayres at the festival. “A couple of the songs that we sang — the ‘Twelfth Night’ song, at least — we wouldn’t have without the First Folio, so to have one here is really, really cool.”
The Middlebury Actors Workshop’s performance of their original creation, “Straight Up Shakespeare,” drew such a large crowd that people had to be turned away. The goal of their show, which combines and connects iconic scenes from a variety of Shakespeare’s best known works, is to serve as an introduction to Shakespeare, said Melissa Lourie, the group’s artistic director.
  THE MIDDLEBURY ACTORS Workshop performed their original piece, “Straight Up Shakespeare,” during the First Folio Festival to give audiences a taste of Shakespeare in action. Photo by Todd Balfour
“We wanted to show people that Shakespeare isn’t that abstract or esoteric. He’s also earthy, emotionally intense, relatable, accessible and very human,” she said. “It was really exciting to have that spotlight on his book and the work and the fact that we’re still doing it.”
The idea of Middlebury becoming the host site for Vermont originated with Professors of English and American Literatures Timothy Billings and James Berg and Director of Special Collections and Archives Rebekah Irwin.
“The process began over a year ago with a room full of people from across the college and town of Middlebury, gathered together in our rare book room, each with an interest in bringing a First Folio here,” Irwin said.
“Each state was allowed to have one host location,” Billings added. “In the case of Vermont, it wasn’t as though we had a competitor. In fact, UVM considered it and then decided to allow us to do it.”
Although they applied unopposed, Middlebury had to demonstrate that it could meet the Folger Library’s extensive environmental and security requirements in order to qualify to receive the display.
In addition to increasing the number of security guards, the college was required to use the specially designed, alarmed case supplied by the tour. The case maintains the humidity and temperature ranges of the exhibition space within 45 to 52 percent and 65 to 72 degrees, respectively. To protect the fragile, 400-year-old ink and paper, the Folio needed to be stored in a dimly lit environment, containing no more than 70 lumens of UV light and 50 lumens of visible light, Irwin said.
“In general, the college’s rare book collection and museum collections are treated similarly, so we were well-positioned to meet the exhibition requirements,” she said.
Beyond being able to care for the physical safety of the book, the college had to satisfy the Folger Library’s outreach and programming conditions.
“The exhibition requested that all hosts partner with other institutions in order to reach diverse audiences, and those of us from the college have been fortunate to work, in particular, with the Town Hall Theater, the Ilsley Library, the Vermont Humanities Council, local school districts, and local businesses,” Irwin said. “We could never have created a month-long calendar filled with events for all ages without pulling a village together to make the most of this opportunity.”
   ONLOOKERS EXAMINE THE legendary text the First Folio of William Shakespeare’s works, which is being kept at the Middlebury College Museum of Art in a special alarmed case. Photo by Todd Balfour
With more than 1,000 visitors during the week of the First Folio Festival alone, Irwin is thrilled with the turnout, but noted that the significance of the Folio goes beyond the physical object.
“As a librarian, I’m overjoyed that the Folio drew crowds like this. But, I’ve learned from the talented scholars, performers, and educators who helped to pull-off the Folio’s visit that the book itself is something of a minor character,” she said. “The Folio itself, surrounded by plays, films, music, food and conversation, is permitting thousands of Vermonters to pause for a moment to consider the life and influence of a poet and playwright, the son of a glove-maker, who died 400 years ago.”
This weekend is your last chance to see Shakespeare’s First Folio in Middlebury. The Middlebury College Museum of Art is open Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, noon-5 p.m. More information on the exhibit and its related events can be found at

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