A walk in the park
Kate Mendeloff was the brilliant creator and artistic director behind Shakespeare in the Arb. She passed away earlier this month, and I’m feeling the loss, though we’d never met. This veteran of U-M’s Residential College gave Ann Arbor one of the most precious and charming gifts in 2001 when she conceived this outdoor mobile experience in which cast and audience trek through the woods en masse as the play unfolds.
This video from 2015 gives a terrific overview of Kate’s vision and her impact on Shakespeare’s biggest fans.
A comedy of errors
After years of planning and years of forgetting to buy a ticket to the annual production, I finally convinced a friend to join me for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 2022. More than once she asked for clarity: “So you walk around in the Arb during the show?”
As newbies, we over-prepared for every eventuality, packing our purses with snacks and cans of those sparkly spritzers. I grabbed a metal folding chair from the basement of the office (it seemed like a good idea at the time). She had a blanket and an umbrella. I tied my hooded jacket around my waist because it was too humid to wear.
Soon after we arrived and claimed our spot by the Peony Garden, the sky, as predicted, opened up. Secretly pleased with ourselves, we smirked in our seats, sheltered under the umbrella. Our less-prepared comrades, seated on the wet grass, grew increasingly drenched. But no one seemed to mind.
True to form, the Michigan sky cleared within minutes. Undaunted, the cast and crowd picked up where we left off. I shook off my jacket and cracked my first seltzer. Just a few sips in though, a flag appeared in the sky, a member of the company shouted some directions, and the entire soggy crowd stood up and started to walk. It was then our rookie mistake became crystal clear. Each time the group was called upon to move, my friend and I inevitably brought up the rear, laden down as if we were in “Fiddler on the Roof,” trudging through the forest with — of all things — a metal folding chair.
All the while, the actors gamboled like fairies through the breathtaking green meadow, crawling along felled logs as if they were bridges and fleeing into the brush as though darting behind the curtain on stage. The landscape was put to beautiful use and the performers reveled in the natural setting.
It’s striking to consider the lush and creative wonders right here in our own back yard. Nichols Arboretum is so precious — even Arthur Miller waxed poetic about it — and it’s such a kick to see the ways in which such talented people at U-M put it to use. As my colleague noted in her text to me about the news of Kate’s death, “People like Kate make Ann Arbor ‘Ann Arbor.'”
Moments like this make me acutely aware of my tendency to procrastinate. Why hadn’t I ever interviewed her? What could I have learned from a conversation that I’ll never have? Sadly, I’ll never know. I’m so foolish in that regard, taking for granted that time will always be mine to do what I wish.
Luckily I overcame that tendency last summer and witnessed the wacky and wonderful joy of Kate’s vision-come-to-life. How blessed we were to have her and all the talented people who contribute to this classically Ann Arbor program. Get a ticket this year if you can. And don’t bring a metal folding chair.
I’m sure the Bard greeted Kate with a hearty “Huzzah” when she made her debut at the great Globe Theater in the sky. And I’m willing to bet Will thanked her for turning him on to the Arb.
(Lead image of a Midsummer Night’s Dream performance by D. Holdship.)
peter anderson - 1972
So sorry to hear of Kate’s passing. I was privileged to meet her when I was artist-in-residence at the Residential College in 2013. She was a beautiful and vibrant artist. I hope her legacy lives on through Shakespeare in the Arb
DAVID KRAUSE - 1962 BS, 1986 PhD
I never went to an arb presentation, but I made sure I got (and framed) the beautiful poster for the first one (Arbfest 2001). Still have it hanging on our wall in Saline..
Lisa Fetman - 2007
One of the greatest highlights of my U-M experience was playing a fairy in the summer 2005 Shakespeare in the Arb production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I spent early summer afternoons in rehearsals, frolicking around the Arb, building up calluses to withstand the constant impact of stones, rocks, pine needles, sticks, and broken bark beneath my bare feet. Rehearsals and performances were pure play; what a privilege to run and dance around the Arb! Oh, and what fun we had when that Michigan sky opened up and we danced in the rain for our devoted audience! My voice hurt from projecting at each performance (the Arb is not know for its acoustics!) and from the laughter we shared “backstage” (i.e., behind rocks, trees, and peonies), and it was worth every minute. I wish I could do it all again.
Kate was a beloved director and teacher. As an RC student studying performance, I had the privilege to take her classes. She inspired us to explore and take risks with our acting and directing, and exposed us to theatre’s power to transform lives. But she was more than a teacher – she was a friend. She was gracious and welcoming, always inviting students to her home for dinners and lively conversation. She was a surrogate Jewish mom for me – a source of comfort for me since I was an out-of-state student far from home. I am saddened to have lost her, but am comforted that her legacy lives on in her past students, cast members, and past/present/future audiences that enjoy her legacy in Shakespeare in the Arb.
May her memory be a blessing.
What a beautiful tribute. Thank you for posting.
Marie Leginza - 1992
Thank you, Deborah, for your beautifully written article on this event. I share the same procrastination tendencies and over planning traits as you, though my writing skills cannot compare to yours. Although i have heard of this program, i havent made the time to attend, but your arricle has inspired me to do so. Hopefully its not too late to attend this years; if so, i will create several calendar alarms so as to not miss next years performance. Thanks again for a well written article!
Thank you for this lovely account – I worked with Kate one year when we combined a photography class (my arena is art and photography) and drama class – and her students created theatrical events based on well known photographs such as those of Dorothea Lange. She was so open to new ideas – and my students and I were impressed by the huge dedication in time and effort of Kate and her students. I join others in mourning her passing and thinking of her loss to her family, colleagues, students and friends. Joanne Leonard