Robert Arleigh White served as Artistic Executive Director of Theatre Jacksonville from 1984 to 2000 where he produced and directed Shakespeare at the Met, outdoor live productions performed at Metropolitan Park. The Division of Cultural Affairs, State of Florida called these performances “the best of its kind for outdoor theatre in the state.” White later served as CEO of Jacksonville’s Cultural Council. He reflects on those glory days and wonders why the City of Jacksonville neglected this popular outdoor venue for public gatherings of all kinds.
Whatever made us at Theatre Jacksonville think Shakespeare at the Met was going to be a good idea?
True, it had been brought forward by Jacksonville Actors’ Theatre (JAT), an important artistic company with a solid and reliable track record for producing consistently good, interesting, relevant work. Even though JAT had closed their doors just over one year previously, they left a solid block of productions to build upon. Still, Shakespeare at the Met – an annual offering of a six-night run over two weekends of a Shakespearian play at Metropolitan Park – was a challenge for our river city.
The whole notion – Shakespeare under the stifling hot tent of Metropolitan Park in the very middle of summertime and hurricane season – seemed off the mark all-together. I spent the whole of that first sleepless summer thinking, Who is going to come to this?!
And yet, here we were: two days out from the opening night of As You Like It. Donations and city support meant that we could offer the production for free, so we didn’t take reservations for general seating, and yet it looked like as many as 1,200 people were planning to attend: buses filled with high schoolers coming from as far away as Brunswick and Daytona along with a glittering crowd of donors, theatre subscribers, VIPs and folks who wanted to pay for special amenities like the beautifully catered thematic picnic created for the event by Biscotti’s.
We had secured donations of over $50,000 to realize a first-rate vision for the production. Our media sponsors, WTLV and WJCT, had assured us of an evening of temperate weather with a light breeze and a perfect sunset that would culminate just at the top of the show.
This felt great!
Then I opened the newspaper. There it was: a full-page add announcing a PRE-SEASON PEP RALLY for the JAGUARS featuring ROCK-N-ROLL MUSIC and FIREWORKS to take place directly across the street at the stadium at the same time as our opening night!
You have to know that, starting in middle school, this is every theatre nerd’s worst nightmare: that the football team will swallow the play whole. In deference to my training and the bend of my personality, I freaked out and gave myself over to all the reckless hallucinations that I felt sure were about to befall our good and earnest work. Everything I had thought might go wrong paled in comparison with knowing what was now certain to happen.
After about an hour or so of working up my nerve, I called the Jaguars administrative offices and in my shakiest, most caffeine glazed voice, I explained my dilemma.
You’ll never guess what happened
Immediately, the Jag’s administration relocated their event to the north side of the stadium. They immediately agreed to aim speakers for the rock-n-roll music away from Met Park. Immediately.
They asked if I knew precisely when intermission would happen. I did not. I explained that if the crowd were with us, and the laughs were coming, it could add as much as ten minutes to the run time of the first act. If the crowd were silent, the performers might gallop to the break. As this was the mid-nineties, long before we all had cell phones, the Jaguars immediately couriered a mobile phone to my office. It was the size of a shoe box, and it came with instructions to call a number and to enter a code when I was certain I was within ten minutes of intermission.
Opening night came, and we were thrilled and nervous and all the things that go with a big opening…only more so because…pep rally. When I saw we were ten minutes out, I called the number I’d been given and entered the code when prompted.
Intermission came in ten minutes on the dot. The house lights under the tent went up and the happy, buzzing audience streamed toward the Northbank riverwalk where we had concessioners and merch trucks set up and ready to go. Just as the first audience members got near the water…fireworks! Bang! Pop! Sizzle! Pow! Right over the river! Beautiful! Dazzling! Spectacular!
And the opening night crowd for Shakespeare at the Met believed that those fireworks were for them! In fact, our major-major donor found me to say, “Wow! Do you know how to stretch a dollar!”
Miracles happen when we all work together
This story is not just important as a cherished memory for me or a piece of cultural history for others, but also as a reminder of the miracles that happen when we all work together: the artists who made the play, the City and sponsors who supported it in so many ways, the football team that immediately understood how this was complementary work, and the people – including all the students from middle and high schools – who came in droves of 1000 to 1500 for every night of the six-night run of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. No one was left out.
I’m sure the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra can share many similar stories of success, collaboration and triumph. And the River City Band which brought us concerts of the great American songbook and summertime swing-dancing. And WJCT which brought us a world class jazz festival. And the City itself which featured patriotic celebrations, the World of Nations and a slew of community events.
The big tent at Metro Park exceeded its 10-year use-by date by a few years, and then it started to leak, and then it became wet and risky. Now it’s just gone.
Today, the park itself is tidy. Landscapers tend to it. But, except from inside the WJCT building, the People’s Park, ironically, is difficult to access. If you manage to find your way in, you are made to feel like an interloper in your own park, as if you’re trespassing.
As the City and the Downtown Investment Authority (DIA) and members of the developer class gather together in disparate configurations to consider what will happen to Metropolitan Park and the adjacent public properties that brought our community together in wonderful and unique ways, I wonder: What’s going on over there? When do we get to weigh-in on what we think should happen to the People’s Park? Why are we still fighting for something that already belongs to us?
A 1982 Times-Union editorial claimed Metropolitan Park “is an example of the best which can be accomplished in Jacksonville. When completed the park will be dedicated top improving the quality of life of our citizens by utilizing this city’s unique resources and environment.”
I remember that those “unique resources” included the input, vision and creativity of people like you and me. I miss that.
What do you think? What is the highest and best use of the property on our river?