The Wonder of ‘The Book of Will’ 

By Steven Libowitz   |   September 5, 2023
The Book of Will details the making of the First Folio in fine form (photo by Luis Escobar, Reflections Photography Studio)

Every literate person knows who Shakespeare was, but if a couple of his aging actor friends hadn’t taken it upon themselves to get all of the Bard’s plays published in a single, bound volume after his death in the early 1616, chances are nobody would have ever heard of Romeo or Juliet, or Hamlet, King Lear, or any other of Shakespeare’s characters.

What Henry Condell and John Heminges accomplished might not seem like much in our days of instant “self-publishing” via the Internet, but back in the Elizabethan era, putting together what is known as the First Folio was a monumental feat. That’s because stolen and altered knock-off copies of many of Shakespeare’s masterpieces were already floating around, while several others, such as Antony and Cleopatra and As You Like It, didn’t exist in any complete form at all and had to be pieced together from actors’ partial scripts and their memories. Not to mention getting the capital to publish the work. 

The Book of Will, Lauren Gunderson’s 2017 prize-winning play, shares the tale of how Condell and Heminges’ act of perpetuating the Bard’s legacy took place. And while that might not sound like the making for an entertaining evening, there’s more than enough drama and plot points, said Emily Trask, who is directing The Book of Will, which gets its area premiere via PCPA’s Theaterfest in Solvang August 31 to September 10.

“After a few years, the actors in his troupe who remained weren’t happy that all of these fraudulent versions of the plays were going around and people were trying to make money off of Shakespeare after he died,” she said. “There were no copyright laws, so it was like the Wild West. Paper was really expensive, and half of England was illiterate. Getting the book published was an incredibly challenging, fraught, dramatic task. The playwright herself said that what it took to put together the First Folio collection of Shakespeare’s plays is actually like the plot of a Shakespeare play itself. So she wrote that play.” 

But as with the Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love, The Book of Will earns its accolades as the play is more about the relationships and passion than the task itself, albeit one that proved to be among the crucial cultural acts in the history of Western civilization, said Trask.

“The story is rooted in history, but what makes it good theater is the relationships between the characters,” she said. “It’s actually a love story, a love story of friends who are willing to do the impossible to honor their friend and keep his plays safe. It’s a love story between the two primary actors putting this together and their families and their wives. And it’s a love letter to the theater itself.”

The Book of Will also has plenty of humor and irreverence, staying true to its time but also being relatable to today’s audiences, the director said. 

“It’s got this great contemporary sensibility and sense of humor,” she said. “I mean, it’s really funny. I am lucky enough to get to read a lot of great plays, but with this one I actually laughed out loud.” 

In keeping with the theme of the play itself being a Shakespearean-style work about Shakespeare, Trask was thrilled to cast in the lead roles actors – Andrew Philpot as John Heminges and Don Stewart as Henry Condell, with Kitty Balay and Polly Firestone Walker as their wives – who are not only longtime PCPA company members but also steeped in the Bard’s plays, as actors, directors, and teachers. Adding to the familial fun, Philpot’s real-life daughter, Isabella Lind, plays Heminges’ daughter in the play. 

“Honestly, it’s been a dream to get to work on this play with this team, because it’s a love letter to a group of theater makers, artists, and family who are trying to do the impossible thing, which feels exactly like what we are doing as a company here at PCPA. There’s so much history and heart in the room, I feel privileged to be the director.” 

PCPA’s production premiered last month in Santa Maria, but the Solvang run afforded an extra attraction in that the Festival Theater is outdoor, just like the Globe Theater in England where the plays were first performed, which adds even more authenticity to the experience. 

But Trask said that The Book of Will has plenty of appeal for both Shakespeare lovers and those who are completely bored by the Bard. 

“If you are a Shakespeare fan, you’ll love it because there’s all kinds of great Easter eggs (bonus references) and you’ll get the quotes and the deeper levels,” she said. “But it’s not written in Shakespearean dialogue, so it’s super accessible, and it speaks to something that’s universal and timeless: deep friendship and how you spend your love and your life. I think that that’s really important medicine for everyone right now in the world.” 

The Book of Will performs at 8 pm August 31-September 3 and September 7-10. Visit or call (805) 922-8313.  


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