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Virginia Shakespeare Festival receives official state designation

As it prepares for its 35th season, the Virginia Shakespeare Festival has something new to celebrate: an official designation as the Shakespeare festival of the Commonwealth.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell signed Senate Bill 1123 on March 22, amending the official emblems and designations listing in the Code of Virginia to include the VSF. The annual festival, which takes place in Phi Beta Kappa Hall each summer with the support of theatre department faculty and staff, will officially receive the designation on July 1.

“We’re pretty thrilled about it,” said Robert Ruffin, instructor of theatre at W&M and interim producing artistic director for the VSF.

Ruffin was a driving force behind the designation. A native of Virginia, he attended the festival as a teenager and auditioned for it when he was only 14 years old. After college, he returned to the festival, first, as an actor and, later, as its artistic director – all experiences that he has relished.

“I thought, well, I need to do something that will have lasting impact for the festival,” he said.

Ruffin approached Sen. Tommy Norment (R-3rd), who, in turn, sponsored the bill in the Virginia General Assembly.

The bill cites the festival’s location at William & Mary as one of the supporting arguments for the designation, along with the fact that the festival is the oldest of its kind in the Commonwealth, has served more than 300,000 Virginians and produces educational opportunities such as summer camps and internships.

Although not funded by the College, the festival is a division of W&M’s Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance. The festival’s governing board is comprised of faculty members from the department, and the festival’s producing artistic director is a member of the faculty. Faculty members are also involved in various aspects of the festival, ranging from directing and design to choreography and acting. William & Mary students also intern for the festival, working in a variety of administrative, technical or acting positions.

“Our students and faculty benefit greatly from having a professional company in residence at the College each summer,” said Joan Gavaler, chair of the Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance. “The festival provides opportunities for advanced studies and practice not feasible during the academic year.”

The new designation makes a lot of sense, given the VSF’s long and prestigious history, said Ruffin. However, it will also help the festival with its marketing efforts and its attempts to reach out-of-town tourists as well as residents throughout the region, he added.

“Beyond that, it gives the Shakespeare Festival more sustainability,” Ruffin said. “We go through some hard economic times here when tourism falls off, and this just gives us a little leverage during those times when we need to appeal to private donors and other funders.”

The Virginia Shakespeare Festival’s 2013 season opens June 20 with a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

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