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LONDON (Reuters) - Director Dominic Dromgoole shadows an actress as she steps gingerly onto the stage, surrounded by the cast of "King Lear" as preparations get under way for the 2008 season of William Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Shakespeare enthusiasts come from around the world to London every year to see the bard's stories brought to life in a replica of the Globe, just 100 meters from its original Elizabethan site on the banks of the River Thames.
"You aim every year to improve your confidence and maturity and style and the intelligence of your plays," Dromgoole, the Globe's Artistic Director, told Reuters this week.
"Every year we learn more about how to present Shakespeare to an audience in an open, honest and direct way."
Shakespeare is 444 years old this year, but his plays are as popular as ever, with the theater attracting audiences of 300,000 each year, and seats for this season's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" already sold out.
"We like nothing more as human beings than to see other human beings suffering in extreme situations," Midsummer director Jonathan Munby said. "It means we can live it vicariously through them."
The Globe has had an increasingly modern bent in recent years and the 2008 season will include traditional Shakespearean favorites like "Timon of Athens" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor" alongside contemporary plays like "Frontline," which is set on the streets of London's Camden town.
"The vast majority are street people and street-wise, not princes and dukes and princesses. They're the disenfranchised of London," said Frontline writer Che Walker.
The Globe is also extending its audience across Britain and plans to perform "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Winter's Tale" in Wales and Scotland for the first time this year, emulating the touring tradition of Shakespeare's time.
Globe tour producer James Erskine said he expects younger audiences to flock to the tour's outdoor urban venues, lured by the informal atmosphere.
"It's a totally different experience to going and seeing it in a theater. It's more like a crowd than an audience," Erskine said. "Young people turn up with cushions off their sofas...(and) sit on the grass with a curry."
Traditional Shakespeare lovers may still prefer to see his plays in the kind of venue that he originally wrote for and in a part of London that boasts attractions like the nearby Tate Museum and St. Paul's Cathedral across the river.
Recorded sound effects or music are strictly forbidden in the Globe, which relies on live music. Natural sunlight beams through an oval opening in its thatched roof, keeping the audience visible to the actors on stage.
"Nothing can describe that moment when you first walk into the Globe...it's an incredible feeling of excitement, of power, of thrill, of anticipation," Munby said.
"There's something unique and perfect about the Globe in terms of the relationship between the actor and the audience...there's a perfect equality in that space," he said.
The Globe is the third replica of Shakespeare's playhouse. The first burned down when a cannon prop misfired during a play in 1613. Its replacement was closed down with all of London's theaters, and demolished in 1644. The Great Fire of London destroyed the third Globe Theatre in 1666.
American actor Sam Wanamaker founded and helped to fund the reconstruction of today's theater to help promote education about Shakespeare. It opened to audiences after he died in 1997.
"I don't think anyone expected when this building opened for it to be the success that it is in terms of audience and the audience's reaction to it," Munby said.
The Globe Theatre's 2008 season will run until October.