With five days to go before their deadline on Kickstarter, 10 elated, Shakespeare-loving, Iraqi acting students sailed past their $30,000 fundraising goal, racked up nearly 500 backers and began shaping a potpourri of the Bard's works for presentation on the bricks of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this July.
The troupe from University Iraq Sulaimani — the first to perform Shakespeare publicly in Iraq — "haven't slept for two days and are up all night, talking and talking about what's going to happen in America," said their professor, Peter Friedrich, in a Skype interview from Iraq.
"It's pretty overwhelming, like nothing I've ever seen in my life," he said. "And you can multiply that by 200 for the Iraqi kids."
Midway to their 30-day goal, donations seemed to level off, but with news coverage in the valley and OSF's reminders on its Facebook and website, donors scurried to the "crowd-funding" site, where the students made a charming video pitch in perfect English.
The donations approached $33,000 Monday and will cover flights to the U.S. for the actors and a couple of understudies, said Friedrich.
OSF will foot the bill for all in-country travel, lodging and food, said Claudia Alick, producer of the Green Show, where the troupe will appear July 3-8 (except for the Fourth of July).
The festival is finding appropriate lodging and scheduling events and outings such as a trip to Crater Lake to enhance the students' experience in America, Alick said.
"We made sure to invite them on days that wrap around our Fourth of July celebrations, because what better way to introduce them to this quintessential American experience?" she said.
Friedrich said in addition to more than 300 backers on Kickstarter, the students have received "many messages of love and support" from the Islamic community and U.S. veterans of the Iraq wars.
When the project went over the $30,000 goal Sunday, "between all the hugging and celebrating," said Friedrich, the troupe began scanning about 10 Shakespeare plays they will sample on the Green Show stage, along with nuggets of drama from their own culture.
"We'll boil it down over the next two weeks," said Friedrich, a San Francisco Bay Area professor who has taught English, fine arts and drama in Iraq for four years. "We've got to make a marriage of Iraq culture with the best of Shakespeare."
If all goes well with visas, the group will fly out of Iraq on June 26 and arrive the next day in San Francisco, where they will be mentored in rehearsals by Aldo Billingsly, a professor and former OSF actor. They arrive in Ashland July 1.
"The impact of their visit will be a lot of shock on both sides, I think," Friedrich said. "Most of the Americans these kids have seen are soldiers, contract workers, missionaries and crazy teachers like me. What I want is for them to meet people who run a bakery or a B&B. I would love it if they could stay in people's homes. It's important for both sides that we meet the reality of the other side."
OSF has hosted international groups many times, often using Southern Oregon University or the Ashland Commons. Alick said she hopes "people in the community will step forward ... and also we want to keep them in the same group as much as possible."
"This is special," Alick said. "Those students have never been to the U.S. It's a dream come true for them, a true labor of love. ... We're going to get them to as many Shakespeare plays as possible. We're so excited about this project and the festival is being incredibly generous and providing free arts through the Green Show."
Both the Iraqi troupe and OSF expressed amazement at the gratitude of backers on Kickstarter, with Alick noting, "How incredibly inspired I am by the response to this campaign. This is an industry that really renews your faith in humanity."
According to Kickstarter rules, applicants for funding on creative projects have 30 days to reach their monetary goal or all pledges are null.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.