President Laurie Patton welcomed participants to the First Folio Festival.

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – More than 350 people, including small children, college students, and townspeople from all walks of life, came together on February 18 at the Mahaney Center for the Arts to celebrate a book published almost 400 years ago.

William Shakespeare’s First Folio, on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., has been on display in the Middlebury Museum of Art for the month of February.

Printed in 1623, the book has generated a remarkable amount interest and conversation at Middlebury and in surrounding communities, said Liza Sacheli, director of the Mahaney Center, gesturing toward the festival crowd.

“The First Folio has opened up many questions about Shakespeare’s ideas and his times, and how they might be relevant to our lives today. And that’s what the liberal arts are supposed to be about, right? You take one idea, like this book of Shakespeare’s collected works, and you can explore it from many different angles.”

A scene from “Straight Up Shakespeare” by Middlebury Actors Workshop (Click on photos to enlarge.)

There were children’s activities, Renaissance music performed by two ensembles, down-to-earth conversations with Shakespearian scholars, and an SRO performance of the Bard’s selected scenes and sonnets in what one person described as “an interactive mash-up of his works.” The festival was free and open to the general public, and, judging from the size and enthusiasm of the crowd, Vermonters weren’t shy about coming up to the College for an afternoon to embrace the spirit of William Shakespeare.

The Penny Lane Consort, a quintet of wind musicians, performed songs like “The Honeysuckle” and “Bravo, Bravo, The Bonny, Bonny Broom” at the height of the day’s event, and the Mountain Ayres, a student a capella group, serenaded participants toward the close of the festival. The Middlebury Actors Workshop, a resident company of Town Hall Theatre, presented a fast-paced romp through Shakespeare’s world.

Scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m., the festival crowd started to swell at 4 o’clock and the refreshments were a big hit from the start. The “sweet and savory treats” included mini chicken quesadillas and spicy beef satay prepared by the College’s dining services, along with cookies decorated to look like Shakespeare created by Otter Creek Bakery.

Visitors enjoy the First Folio exhibition at the Middlebury College Museum of Art.

Rebekah Irwin, director of Special Collections at Middlebury, said the goal of the First Folio Festival was to have a free public reception in honor of the book, and to draw an audience from both the College and the community. “I never dreamed we would attract the size crowd that we did,” she said. “Several hundred Vermonters now know what the First Folio is, and they can say they have actually seen one.” (There are only 233 copies of the First Folio in the world today, and the Folger Library has 82 of them.)

“We wanted to transcend any impression that Shakespeare and a 400-year-old book were of limited interest to a narrow College audience,” Irwin added.

Professors Timothy Billings and James Berg gave four back-to-back gallery talks clustered around the First Folio opened to a page in ‘Hamlet.’ Both enlightening and engaging, the faculty members discussed the significance of the First Folio and took questions from the audience.

“One of the reasons no two folios are exactly the same is because paper was so expensive to produce in the 1600s,” said Berg. “So if they found an error, they would stop the presses and correct it, but they also kept the pages that had errors printed on them.”

One of the youngest festival participants enjoys a Shakespearian classic.

Billings added, “They used rag paper made out of fabric, which was very, very durable. These pages can be handled, and this book was made better than most books you can buy today.” Even so, the First Folio must be treated with utmost care. “Conservators say that one day of bad conservation can shorten the life of a book by a hundred years,” he said.

There were numerous questions about the different versions of Shakespeare’s plays in existence today, including variations in some of the most famous lines in ‘Hamlet.’

“One of the things this monument to Shakespeare proves is that there is no stable, single version of his plays,” Berg said.

The First Folio Festival was sponsored by the Office of the President, Office of the Vice President, Special Collections and College Archives, Museum of Art, and Mahaney Center for the Arts.

– With photos by Todd Balfour and reporting by Robert Keren