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BY RANDY MESSICK Contributing writer
The last time I spoke with my good friend Michael Flachmann, I was picking his brain about Shakespeare's play "Love's Labour's Lost." I was preparing to direct a production of it up in Davis this summer, and as Michael would agree, it is not the most accessible of Shakespeare's plays. I needed his professional opinion about certain difficult issues, and as he has done on numerous occasions, he helped me develop strategies for how best to approach the play. We ended the conversation with plans to meet when he came back from running Camp Shakespeare at the Utah Shakespearean Festival, where he was also the resident dramaturge, to start work on this coming season's Kern Shakespeare Festival.
In a way, you could say we had been having that conversation for the last 29 years. It was back then that I started the Kern Shakespeare Festival, at Bakersfield College, and Michael called me to volunteer his services as dramaturge. A dramaturge is an expert on the text, history, context, etc., of a play, who uses that expertise to assist actors and directors in the production of the play.
I had no idea the level of professional skills he was offering me at the time, but it didn't take long before I realized that Michael was not only an amazingly talented scholar, but a fascinating, sweet and wonderful person. During my time in college I had studied with some incredible Shakespearean scholars, including bigwigs from the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. Not only was Michael every bit as knowledgeable as they were, but his enthusiastic, gentle and easy style of teaching made him much more capable of passing on his knowledge.
Every year since then, Michael has volunteered his time and talents to help us be our best. The Kern Shakespeare Festival has always been about putting together casts that range from first-time acting students to professional guest actors.Michael would bring the young actors up to speed quickly on their individual parts, and at the same time blow the minds of the guest actors by casually dropping an idea on them that would show them new and fascinating possibilities for their performances.
What I'm trying to share with those of you who did not know Michael is that, in him, we had, right here in our own community, a true world-class Shakespearean scholar. He was gracious and generous with his time and talents. It was not only with BC that he shared his gifts, but he helped countless other theater groups in town greatly enhance the quality of their Shakespearean productions, including of course, the theater program at CSUB, where he taught several classes in English and Shakespeare.
Others could tell you about his prodigious skills in tennis and Judo, or English grammar, or English literature, or origami (probably), or any number of other topics that he turned his enthusiasm and focus to, but I can tell you from experience that, as gracious as he was, he would not be beaten at pingpong.
It is fitting that an expert of his stature in Shakespearean studies should be a true renaissance man himself. Like Shakespeare, Michael had vast interests and would contribute valuable information on numerous subjects. This was no doubt one of the reasons Michael was so skilled as a Shakespearean dramaturge. In his plays and poetry, Shakespeare references an incredible number of aspects of life: history, literature, science, psychology, metaphysics, mythology, botany, to name but a few. Michael's knowledge of these references and their significance to the work was breathtaking. I've actually called him on my cell phone, during my own class I teach on Shakespeare, to ask him about some obscure reference that none of the written commentaries had an answer to, and Michael would clear things up in between bites of his lunch.
The arts enrich all of our lives, whether we know it or not, and Michael, either through teaching his popular classes in Shakespearean studies, writing books, working individually with actors and directors, or supporting the theater in many other ways, contributed greatly to the quality of the arts here in Bakersfield. He also gave countless students a love for the arts, and Shakespeare in particular, that will enrich the rest of their lives no matter where they go or what they do. We will miss him dearly.
Thanks Michael, and so my friend: "The deep of night has crept upon our talk, and nature must obey necessity."
-- Randy Messick, a professor at Bakersfield College, founded and operates the Kern Shakespeare Festival