The Stranger’s Case, and Mountainish Inhumanity

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Last night, we hosted the Kickoff Event of our “35 Famous Speeches in 35 Famous Places” Series at the Presidio Officer’s Club. The event included a look back at the three successful speeches we’ve performed so far, a brief history of the past 35 years of San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, and a sneak peek at upcoming events. It also included our fourth speech in the series.

Speech #4 was a group reading of a speech from Sir Thomas More, written by Shakespeare as part of a never-completed collaboration with his contemporary playwrights.

The speech is a passionate piece of rhetoric encouraging empathy  for immigrants, and our choice of the Presidio as the particular “famous place” for this speech was intentional.

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(Photo credit: history.com)

 

The Presidio is one of our valued artistic partners, and this location has an involved and illustrious history in San Francisco. Sadly, that history also includes acting as headquarters for the Western Defense Command, the military outfit that ordered and oversaw the forced removal of 120,000 citizens of Japanese Americans and people of Japanese ancestry during World War II (the Presidio is creating an in-depth historical exhibition about this period, if you’d like to learn more).

Last night, on the site of that dark moment in our nation’s cultural history, dozens of people stood together and read aloud Shakespeare’s speech, in which Thomas More speaks to a mob of citizens demanding that immigrants be removed from London.

While we loved the match between the content of the speech and the location of its performance, we are especially pleased that yesterday’s event coincided with the nationwide Day Without Immigrants protest. As an artistic organization whose top values are access, diversity, and inclusion, we support the welcoming of immigrants in our community–and we marvel that Shakespeare could so beautifully express that support many hundreds of years ago. We are proud to have called this Sanctuary City home for 35 years, and we are so excited to take part in the The Ghostlight Project and other similar efforts to welcome immigrants.

May we all learn from the text below (the excerpt from Shakespeare’s speech that we read last night), and take it to heart.

 

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Behind the Scenes for “35 Speeches”

It’s finally time…our 35 Famous Speeches in 35 Famous Places series starts tomorrow! But why did we choose this particular project, for this particular year? And what does it look like to manage such an ambitious series? SF Shakes’ Artistic Director, Rebecca Ennals, fills you in.

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1)   What can audiences expect to see in these performances? 

I hope that first, they’ll recognize some familiar words – words like “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” or “To be or not to be” – and that will make them turn around and look for the actors. Then they’ll see and hear actors activating a space with language appropriate to the venue. For example, we wanted to kick off the series with Hamlet’s first soliloquy, and we wanted it to be somewhere iconic and spectacular, so we decided to do it with the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop. Among its many themes, Hamlet deals with the sensitive and tragic topic of suicide. When we started to think about that further, we realized that the particular soliloquy we’ve chosen for this location finds Hamlet at his most suicidal, and the Golden Gate Bridge is not just a symbol of opportunity but a place where many have chosen to end their lives. Hamlet is at a critical place in this speech, a bridge between his life as an innocent college student who understood his place in the world and a young man who has to make a choice about pursuing revenge. We’re interested in those symbolisms and how they play against the text differently than they would on a traditional theatre set.

As with any outdoor, free, live performance, we’ll be at the mercy of the weather and the passersby – the kids who may interact with the performers, the dogs being walked, the occasional person who wants to talk back. We love how these elements can change and challenge the performance of the text, and we feel that’s very Shakespearean – his actors didn’t perform in a quiet, perfect, sanitized space.

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These performances are brief, transient little moments – but we find they have a second life in the digital world. For the first time on Saturday, we’ll be streaming our Hamlet speech with Facebook Live– that will bring a whole new dimension to the audience engagement.

 2)   Why did SF Shakes choose this project as a way to celebrate its 35th Anniversary? 

We really loved performing our 30 Days of Free Shakespeare in the Parklet five years ago. It reminded us why we love to perform live, outdoors, and in non-traditional venues, and how the audience is an incredibly important part of the performance – they’re really our scene partners. I also learned from that series how to identify a good SF Shakes actor: not someone who will just barrel ahead and ignore everything around them, but who will listen and react and shift to fit the moment.

So we wanted to do that again, but we wanted to do it on a scale that wasn’t as exhausting. It was my entire life for two months in 2012, and I wasn’t the Artistic Director yet, so now I have a whole team and we’re spreading it out over 7 months.

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Becky Kemper Goodheart and B. Chico Purdiman play Beatrice and Benedick during a 2012 Free Shakespeare in the Parklet performance. 

3)      How will this series differ from past Free Shakespeare in the Parklet performances, and how will it be similar? 

We will try to keep a similar spirit, but this time we’re getting a lot more permission! Last time we pretty much apologized to locations afterwards rather than asking permission in advance, and that backfired occasionally. We’re also expanding beyond traditional “actor speaks the speech” interpretations and bringing in dance, movement, and visual art… we’re also going to try to do about 25% of the speeches in two languages, which is ambitious but the diversity of our acting company makes it possible.

We’re also going to find more opportunities for the audience to participate. On Thursday, Feb 16, after our kick-off event at the Presidio, we’ll invite the audience to do a community reading with us of a great speech in Sir Thomas More about immigration. It’s not as famous as it should be, but you may have seen Sir Ian McKellan’s performance on YouTube. It’s so timely, related to everything going on with the Executive Order banning immigrants and refugees, and it seems fitting to speak those words on the grounds of the Presidio, where Japanese-Americans were ordered to report for deportation to the camps in 1942.

 4) What’s it like trying to find 35 different locations?

san-francisco-2030794_1280 Oy. It’s easy and it’s hard. There are so many great places in SF but not all of them work for this kind of thing. We have a huge spreadsheet going and we’re going to ask our audience for some of their favorite places as well. We feel strongly that there should be a synergy between the place and the speech and that’s a matter of gut instinct.

5) Why haven’t you announced all of the speeches yet?

A lot of it is about getting permission for the right place on the right day, then finding the right performers – it’s a lot of logistics – so we’re taking it month by month. I like it, though, because this way we can stay flexible and respond to what’s happening in the world, the way we have with the Sir Thomas More speech. Nothing is too set in stone too far in advance, the way it is when you’re planning a full production. But with Free Shakespeare in the Parklet, I planned things just a few days ahead – that was a little crazy, so I’m hoping to find a happy medium!

 6) How does the project relate to the SF Shakes mission?

Our mission is all about access, so it’s really important that every performance be free to the public and as accessible as possible to everyone. We are doing some indoors at museums, but only on the free days. We’re also all about the relevance of the words and themes of Shakespeare – we find that no matter what the news of the day is, Shakespeare wrote something about it. It’s uncanny. We’re reminded that human beings have been grappling with this stuff for centuries, and sometimes we’re able to be our better angels and sometimes we’re in hell and all the devils are here. We want to comment and make you think and make you consider history, but we also want to make you laugh and remember that we’re all human underneath. That’s what Shakespeare does so well.

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Camp Fan of the Month: Cynthia Francis

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Cynthia Francis loves our Bay Area Shakespeare Camps. In fact, she loves them so much that she joined our Board of Directors to help them keep reaching more children every summer! A mother of three daughters (twins, now 22 years old, and a younger daughter, age 19), Cynthia sent all three to our camps as they were growing up. We asked her to reflect on the ways that SF Shakes summer camps have impacted her family.

What drew you to our camps in particular?

I had watched Free Shakespeare in the Park off and on for years, so SF Shakes was already on my radar. I didn’t discover the camps until my youngest daughter became really interested in theatre and musicals, when she was 6 or 7.

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Cynthia Francis, SF Shakes Camp Fan and Board Member

She attended camp the first summer, and then raved about it so much that all three of my daughters went to at least one session every summer after that. When you’re raising three kids in San Francisco, and it’s summer but both parents are working, it’s a miracle to find something that’s interesting and stimulating for all of them but is also affordable!

As a parent, what do you think makes Bay Area Shakespeare Camps special?

One of the things I love about the Shakespeare camps is that there’s a place for everybody. Two of my daughters have always been really into acting, but there was also a place for my kid who didn’t really want to be visible on stage. She loved being involved with all aspects of camp (swordplay, making costumes, all of that), but she wasn’t interested in playing Juliet. She wanted about three lines (which she always delivered beautifully)! She was more introverted, very into math and science, but she loved the structure and precision of Shakespeare’s language. She was welcomed at this camp about performing Shakespeare, and she had a wonderful time each summer. The camp isn’t geared just to just one kind of kid, to young actors, the way some theatre camps are. SF Shakes gives kids exposure to theatre and theatre tech, and allows children to find themselves through new interests in topics they might know nothing about.

How did the camp experience impact your children?

My youngest, who started our family’s relationship with camp, is still a self-proclaimed Shakespeare nerd. She went all the way through SF Shakes camps, from Shakespeare Players through Advanced Shakespeare Workshop in high school. Then she became a summer intern for SF Shakes, working front of house and understudying the Witches in the Free Shakespeare in the Park Macbeth, and was in SF Shakes’ first Green Show production. Then the next year she became an acting intern and performed all summer in the SF Shakes Taming of the Shrew. Things have really come full circle now, because she’s taught SF Shakes camps, first as intern and now as a paid teacher. She’s graduating from the Pacific Conservatory for Performing Arts and is now auditioning for Shakespeare repertory companies all over the country.

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Cynthia’s youngest daughter, Ella (far left), as an intern in the SF Shakes Green Show “Witchipedia.”

Her introverted older sister went on do speech and debate in high school, and we credit Shakespeare camps with so much about her understanding and love of language. She kept going to camp until she was in high school. She went on to study at California Polytechnic State University–she’s not an actress but she definitely appreciates theatre and the arts. Her more outgoing twin enjoyed performing Shakespeare (made it to second place in the ESU Shakespeare Competition, and became an SF Shakes Intern), but she also loves modern theatre and film. She got her degree in acting from the UCLA theatre and film school.

That’s what I mean about camps welcoming everybody. Performing Shakespeare was always my youngest daughter’s thing, and that’s great. But it’s equally great that my introverted daughter developed this love of language and then went on to study science…that’s amazing to me!

What surprised you most about camps?

There were plenty of kids, friends of the family, whom I “corralled” into going to this camp, and none of them were scared of Shakespeare the way that adults can be. As a parent, sometimes we can have our biases blind us. I think it’s easy as an adult to hear Shakespeare’s name, and remember sitting in your high school English class studying language that you maybe didn’t understand. Maybe in high school you were introduced to Shakespeare by a teacher who brought it to life, but many adults I talk to…their eyes glaze over and they say, “that was almost as hard as Moby Dick.” But kids aren’t scared of it yet – in fact, it becomes a source of confidence and power for them, learning to understand and love something that many adults find intimidating!

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Why would you recommend Bay Area Shakespeare Camps to other parents?

When my girls were growing up, I encouraged them to play soccer, even though I was pretty sure they weren’t dreaming of being professional athletes. It was a good experience, they learned a sport, and they made some friends. When I tell people about SF Shakes camps I often hear, “Well, my child’s not an actor.” But with Shakespeare, you never know what they’ll learn or get out of the experience. Give it a chance.

How did your daughters’ camp experience inspire you to join the SF Shakes Board of Directors?

For years I saw the value that SF Shakes brought to my own family through my daughters’ experiences, and I wanted to help the company expand and become better funded…I wanted to “expand the goodness”! There’s so much value in this program, and I would have sent my older daughters to camp earlier if I’d known about it earlier. So I got on this Board to help spread the word.

Thank you, Cynthia, for your dedication to SF Shakes and our Bay Area Shakespeare Camps! We’re honored to have played such a huge role in the life of your family.

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Busy Busy Shakespeare Bees

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Whew! 2017 is barely four weeks old and things are already full speed ahead at SF Shakes (and we’re willing to bet your January has been the same). A mere 20 days ago, we posted some resolutions that our company has made for our 35th Anniversary Season, and we asked you to hold us to those resolutions.

Here’s what we’re been doing so far to fulfill them—in other words, here’s a sample of everything that goes on in our office these days.

  1. Our free “35 Famous Speeches in 35 Famous Places” pop-up performance series is coming together. current posterSo far our actors are scheduled to speak Shakespeare at the Conservatory of Flowers, Yerba Buena Gardens, the Presidio Officer’s Club, and at Chrissy Field with a killer view of the Golden Gate Bridge. We hope you’ll bring the whole family to these performances all year long!
  2. Over in Education Land, the talented home schooled actors in our Seven Ages Troupe and Burgeoning Bards Troupe are meeting every week to explore Shakespeare.
  3. The cast of our Free Shakespeare in the Park Hamlet is coming together to support Davern Wright in the title role…and it’s a fantastic cast. Can’t wait to announce the full list to you soon!
  4. Starting tomorrow, our spring Upstart Crows class will meet each Saturday to put together their production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

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    Last semester’s Upstart Crows production of Henry V.

  5. Shakespeare on Tour began travelling all over the state again this week: since their opening at Mission Blue Center just this past Sunday, they’ve already given six performances of Twelfth Night in schools and public venues across the Bay Area!

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    The cast of Shakespeare on Tour’s Twelfth Night.

  6. We’re co-producing two exciting youth productions across the South Bay: The Little Princess with Los Altos Youth Theatre, which has already started rehearsals, and Ramayana with the City of Cupertino, for which registration is now open (if you’re in or near Cupertino, come join the fun)!
  7. Our Midnight Shakespeare program in Oakland started this week.

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    Midnight Shakespeare production of Measure for Measure, 2015.

  8. Right now we have staff members in Baltimore representing our work at the annual Shakespeare Theatre Association conference.
  9. We’re planning, planning, planning for our fabulous 35th Anniversary Gala in April.
  10. Registration for Bay Area Shakespeare Camps is already taking off (side note: if you’re waiting to register, don’t wait too much longer)!

So…how are we doing so far? Are we holding to our resolutions to celebrate our 35th anniversary season in style, give audiences of all ages and backgrounds access to Shakespeare and the arts, and appreciate our San Francisco home? Stay tuned: the party’s just getting started.

 

 

After all, look at the legacy we’re honoring this year:

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We the People

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Last Friday at 9:00am, members of our community braved the early morning rain to gather with SF Shakes actors and staff at the Bayview Opera House. We then spent the next hour or so reading selections aloud from the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, civil rights speeches, famous modern poems…and, of course, Shakespeare.

We’re so proud that the event was such a success, and we can’t thank everyone enough for coming to read with us. The event meant a lot to our company, and you can hear that in the introduction written by SF Shakes’ Artistic Director Rebecca Ennals:

Welcome, dear friends and community members. I know that today is an emotional day for many reasons, and it was important to us at SF Shakes to provide a forum for us to raise our voices, here, in a beautiful theatre, and remind ourselves of what we love about our country and fellow human beings.

On January 10, 2017, in his farewell address, President Barack Obama said “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make.”

In that spirit, we thought it would be thought-provoking and inspiring to read selected passages from our Constitution, accompanied by scenes and speeches from Shakespeare and great American figures that seemed relevant to us. In no way do we wish to cover up and whitewash the fact that these words mean different things to different people. We welcome that fact, and we present these words without commentary. We will also conclude with an open mic, during which we welcome you to come to the stage and share something that feels relevant to you.

Many people have asked us for copies of the text selections read on Friday. The downloadable document below won’t include the many amazing selections that community members brought in for the open mic portion of the event, but it does include all of the text that we collected in advance to provide a starting point. Enjoy!

Download the text selections here: we-the-people-text-selections-sf-shakes-january-20-2017

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow: A Farewell Interview with Stephen Muterspaugh

mutersp_d71_4203At the start of 2017, we said a fond farewell to SF Shakes Associate Artistic Director Stephen Muterspaugh, congratulating him as he began his new job as Managing Artistic Director forJewel Theatre Company in Santa Cruz. Since joining our company in 2010, Steve founded the Shakespeare For All residency program, creating community-based productions featuring first-time actors working alongside professionals in Salida, Modesto, and other Central Valley communities; he directed four Shakespeare On Tour productions between 2012 and 2015; he appeared in two Free Shakespeare in the Park productions (Banquo in 2013’s Macbeth and Leontes in last season’s acclaimed The Winter’s Tale); and he co-directed the 2014 Free Shakespeare in the Park production of The Taming of the Shrew. During his time at SF Shakes, he passed on his passion for Shakespeare to hundreds of students through Bay Area Shakespeare Camps, Midnight Shakespeare program, and Advanced Shakespeare Workshop.

We’re so excited about Steve’s next step in his career, and we’re also thrilled he’ll remain a Resident Artist with the company and direct our upcoming Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Hamlet this summer. We sat down with Steve earlier this week to talk about his history with SF Shakes, his new job, and what he’ll miss about working with us full-time.

How did you first hear about SF Shakes?

I auditioned for Two Gentlemen of Verona in 2010 and said on my audition form that I was also interested in teaching. I wasn’t cast in the show, but I was called in to teach, and that’s how my journey with SF Shakes started.

What do you remember about that first summer teaching for SF Shakes?

Organized chaos! It was such a whirlwind summer. My main memory of that summer is a student I taught in my first camp who was blind: she was really into Shakespeare’s work, she responded so deeply to it, because of the imagery that his words created in her mind.

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Steve as Banquo and Michael Ray Wisely as Macbeth in our 2013 production of Macbeth.

How did you become Associate Artistic Director in 2013?

I joined the staff in 2012 as the Education Programs Manager. [SF Shakes Executive Director] Toby Leavitt saw the work I was doing with the Midnight Shakespeare program in Oakland and thought that classroom work would translate into working with adult non-actors. So she and I designed Shakespeare for All together, and that was the same year I became Associate Artistic Director.

What’s your favorite memory from your time with SF Shakes?

I directed the Shakespeare on Tour A Midsummer Night’s Dream production a few years ago, and we’d been rehearsing for three weeks when we were asked to be part of the Litquake Festival. We performed in a parklet in the City with full costume and props, doing this one performance of the show as part of the Lit Crawl series. Our show was just along the way in between event venues, and we thought it would be a tiny performance, but as we started we had over 100 people watching us on that sidewalk. It got to the point where the audience started blocking traffic–when a cop came up to us and was going to ask us to disperse, someone told him it was Shakespeare and he changed his mind! It was such a beautiful guerrilla theatre moment—we thought we would lose people after 5 minutes and they stayed for the whole hour-long performance.

Do you have moments you’re most proud of?

My experiences teaching Midnight Shakespeare were both extremely rewarding and intensely challenging. Every one of those performances gave me a chance to watch these young adults shine in a way that I had never seen. They really understood better than anyone that Shakespeare’s words are meant to be performed onstage. There was one moment I particularly loved the year that Midnight Shakespeare produced Romeo and Juliet, involving the actor playing Mercutio: his girlfriend’s son had sat through entire show and had a good time. Later the actor brought the kid on stage, with no one watching, and he recited the Queen Mab speech to this little kid and asked the kid to say the words back to him. It was a great passing of the baton from one generation to the next.

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Steve as Leontes in last summer’s production of The Winter’s Tale.

What are you going to miss most about being Artistic Associate Director for SF Shakes?

The beauty of my SF Shakes job was that I got to just live in Shakespeare’s words every day. There wasn’t a day when I wasn’t reading the text and getting to delve into it and be a student myself. It was my job to study his work, how crazy was that? I’ll miss having Shakespeare be part of my life every day.

What are you most excited about working with Jewel Theatre?

At SF Shakes we worked on 400-year-old plays all year. Now I get to do at least one brand new show a year and every season is eclectic. Bringing new plays to life will be a big change for me. Also, SF Shakes does one or two shows per season, and now I get to produce five.

What will you take with you from your time at SF Shakes?

All of it! The biggest thing is the concern with social relevance—you have to think about relevance every time you produce a play. Every time SF Shakes would produce a Shakespeare show, we would ask, “Why are we doing this particular play?” I’ll also carry the social justice aspect of SF Shakes’ mission with me.

What are you most excited about when it comes to directing this summer’s Hamlet?

I think there’s so much relevance with the Hamlet story being a surrogate for the uncertainty of America right now. It’s not a 1:1 comparison, but there is a lot of similarity. I feel that when Hamlet returns to Denmark from school, he finds himself thinking, “Where am I? What happened?” I feel like no matter what they believe politically, the entire population of America right now is grasping at that thought of, “Where are we as a nation?” That’s where this play starts, and I’m excited about tracing that journey… as well as Hamlet’s own personal journey throughout the play, of course!

Thank you, Steve, for so many amazing seasons at SF Shakes. We are proud of you, we’ll miss you, and we look forward to working with you again this summer!

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Steve (bottom left) poses with the cast of our 2012 Shakespeare for All program in Salida.

Top 3 New Year’s Resolutions for SF Shakes

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Ah, another New Year’s Day come and gone. Time to make some resolutions, right? Even year-round Shakespeare theatre companies make them.

Our company doesn’t have a long list, but the items on it are very important to us. In 2017, we resolve to:

1. Celebrate our 35th Anniversary in style.

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This year we’re celebrating our 35th birthday as the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival! And while 35 might be a respectable, mature age, we’re determined to have some fun. At the very least, we’re going to have lots of fun digging through old photos and sharing them with you (and asking you to share your photos with us)! We’re also excited to produce Hamlet for the first time for Free Shakespeare in the Park and pop up in some unexpected places with some of your favorite scenes from Shakespeare.

2. Use Shakespeare to create a bright spot in the world.

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We believe in the power of the arts to heal: to inspire us, to touch the humanity in all of us, and to bring communities together. Our Free Shakespeare in the Park productions combine the best in the performing arts with beautiful words, beautiful sets, and beautiful costumes, and we present them to thousands of people across the Bay Area every summer. This year, we’re doubly determined to give you the best. We’ll also use our education programs to give students all over California the chance to express and explore their emotions through language and movement. We’re taking that responsibility more seriously than ever.

3. Lose our hearts to San Francisco all over again.

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Sure, our Shakespeare on Tour Program may travel across the state, but we are the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival for a reason. We love our hometown. This year, we resolve to fill the City with poetry and entertainment.

Bonus Resolution:

Somehow, we must find a way to make use of at least something from this hilariously labeled box.

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And we promise you pictures when we do.

So there you have it. 2017 is going to be a big one. We hope you’ll join us for the yearlong celebration!