By Amy Wenk

amywenk@reporternewspapers.net

Georgia Shakespeare is setting the stage for a memorable season despite funding troubles, cuts and cancellations.

The Brookhaven-based theater company has called off its Shake at the Lake production, which has attracted more than 4,000 viewers each spring to Piedmont Park since 2004. The nonprofit organization planned to stage William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” May 7 to 11 but could not come up with the $116,000 needed to underwrite the free-to-the-public shows.

“We had commitments for about half of that this year,” said producing artistic director Richard Garner, who co-founded Georgia Shakespeare in 1985.

He said money for Shake at the Lake comes from a mix of foundations and corporate sponsors. The donations are usually secured by the end of January, so when the theater company didn’t have enough money by mid-February, it pulled the plug.

“We had several irons in the fire, and when they went cold, we realized we weren’t going to be able to raise all the money it took to put it on,” Garner said. “The company can’t afford to take that kind of a loss on it, so we had to cancel it for this year.”

As Juliet said to Romeo on her balcony, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

The good news is “we already have as much committed right now for next year as we did a month ago for this year,” Garner said. “That gives us a much longer timeframe to get the money, so we fully expect it to be back in 2010,” the 25th anniversary of Georgia Shakespeare.

The company also canceled a recent fundraiser called Eleanor’s Oscar Party, an Academy Awards event hosted by former Atlanta Journal-Constitution film critic Eleanor Ringel Carter. Scheduled for Feb. 21, the party was a new benefit for Georgia Shakespeare.

The organization hoped for 100 attendees but needed at least 50 to break even.

“When we came to the deadline to make the commitment to the caterer, we didn’t have our minimum number yet, and it didn’t look like it would come in,” Garner said. “We think it’s a great idea, but we will need to publicize it better in the future.”

He noted supporters “stepped up in a great way” for an event earlier in the month, Fools for Love. The fundraiser Feb. 9 at Woodfire Grill on Cheshire Bridge Road was a sellout, and a $150-a-ticket fundraiser is coming up May 30 at the Conant Performing Arts Center at Oglethorpe University, Bard’s Bash: A Mad Hatter’s Gala.

Still, economic troubles have forced Georgia Shakespeare to make cuts this year, including a reduction in actors for the shows that begin in June. This year, 16 performers will take to the stage, about four fewer than last year.

“Like a lot of other companies, we’ve made cuts in the season … to make sure we are going to be here in three years,” Garner said. “It’s real important to us that we not just survive one year at a time, but that we are here for the long run.”

Despite the financial setbacks and cancellations, Garner said, “everything else will go as planned.”

The company held its second annual High School Acting Competition on Feb. 21. About 70 students from institutions including the Westminster Schools and North Springs Charter High School competed by performing monologues and scenes from Shakespearean works.

“That was a huge success,” Garner said. “We more than doubled the number of students we had from last year.”

He said all of the regular-season plays will go on as scheduled. He expects the five productions to draw a total of about 25,000 people, as in previous years.

The company also booked a special one-man performance called “MacHomer,” which tells the story of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” through 50 voices from “The Simpsons.”

“It’s a great mix of pop culture and classical culture” and should attract people who are not Shakespeare fans, Garner said.

Georgia Shakespeare is continuing its educational programs, which reach about 30,000 students each year.

“We take a version of a Shakespeare play into the school, and then we do workshops in the classroom with them to enhance the study of Shakespeare in English class,” Garner said. “Next year, we’re starting a year-round tour, so we’ll actually double the number of students we reach.”