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Each year since 1990, Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson have partnered up with the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles and its founder Ben Donenberg to put on an event called Simply Shakespeare (which Donenberg typically directs), in which Oscar winners, Tony winners and Grammy winners unite for a night of impromptu Shakespeare and song. All proceeds from the ticket sales, which can cost up to thousands of dollars, are used by the SCLA to put on free Shakespeare performances, which employ military veterans and their families, bring theater into inner-city schools’ curriculums and contribute to many other charitable causes.
This year’s performance, which took place at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse on Monday, was a benefit reading of The Bard’s As You Like It, most notable for originating the quote “All the world’s a stage,” and featured a cast made up of Steve Carell, Sam Waterston, Bill Irwin, Gillian Jacobs, Christopher Lloyd, Glenn Howerton and Kaitlin Olson, as well as Simply Shakespeare veterans William Shatner, Martin Short, Colin Hanks and Wilson. Unfortunately, Tom Hanks was busy working (likely filming 2015’s St. James Place) but took to Twitter to wish the cast good luck.
— Tom Hanks (@tomhanks) September 22, 2014
Each year, Short told THR, the performance is built around the talents of a musical guest in some way. In 2011, country stars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill contributed to a Western-themed performance. Last year, Sir Paul McCartney helped to provide a contemporary twist to 17th century relationships with ballads such as “Let it Be.” This year, everybody involved was excited to welcome the musical talents of 12-time Grammy winner Paul Simon, who took the role of Amiens, a lord and musician in the Forest of Arden, and wove a medley of hits into the readings, such as “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” “The Boxer,” “Still Crazy After All These Years” and “Kodachrome,” which was performed by the entire cast at the show’s finale.
For anyone wondering if celebrities ever feel star-struck, they do. Carell, a self-described newbie to the program, referred to the musician as one of his idols and mentioned that being able to sit 2 feet away from him while he performed his greatest hits was an unimaginable experience. Waterston added, “I sat next to him at dinner.” When asked what that was like he replied, “Well … so what? I was there.” “That’s the entire story,” Carell said with a laugh.
Even Colin Hanks, who grew up around the stardom of his father and has participated in previous Simply Shakespeare performances, expressed excitement with this year’s cast. When asked to describe the event for new audience members he said: “Here’s the best thing I can say: Bill Shatner performs with Paul Simon. If that does not get you excited I can’t do anything for you.”
When it comes to finding celebrity endorsers for a philanthropic event, who better to do the recruitment than other celebrities? Paying for a cast like this would run most studios bankrupt, but apparently, all Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had to do was ask, and volunteers came running. The 24th annual Simply Shakespeare reading exemplifies the power that A-listers have over each other as well as over the general public, participants said. Lisa Paulsen, the CEO of the Entertainment Industry Foundation who was honored for her philanthropic achievements at the event, noted that this power extends toward generating goodwill, and applauded the cast of the night’s performance for volunteering their time to help bring theater to kids through SCLA as well as for being inspirations during their everyday lives. “Celebrities have such a powerful platform and they’re such great communicators. Actors know how to deliver really terrific messages so when they’re making Shakespeare understandable and exciting and cool, it helps kids really learn differently and I think their engagement in an event like tonight is really important, and the work that they do on the ground all year long is even more important,” she said.
No stranger to the concept of giving back to the community, Paulsen has been at the helm of EIF for 24 years, a tenure during which she has expanded the organization’s annual contributions to diverse charitable causes within the sphere of arts and entertainment from about $2 million to over $100 million. She also partnered with Katie Couric and Sherry Lansing, among others, to co-found Stand Up to Cancer. Although she been working with the SCLA for the last 15 years, she has been friends with Tom and Rita for even longer, and was quick to thank them for the recognition she received. “Tom and Rita and I have been friends for a long, long time. We started working on this event with them 15 years ago, so it’s very special that they’re honoring the entertainment industry foundation tonight for our partnership for all these years,” she said about her nod Monday night.
Colin Hanks agreed on the importance of using one’s stardom to give back to the community through benefits such as Simply Shakespeare: “If you’re able to raise awareness or raise funds for something and have a fun time doing it, that helps. It’s a good time. Look, we all wear makeup for a living so this is really all we’re really equipped to do. So let’s do it and have a good time and hopefully people enjoy it.”
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