When was the last time you saw a Shakespeare play? For me, the answer is “last week.” I have the great good fortune of living just outside the small city of Staunton, Virginia, home of the American Shakespeare Center and its fabulous Blackfriars Playhouse, which means I can see live productions of Shakespeare’s plays almost every week of the year.
Truly, though, it’s not just good fortune. It was good planning. When I was looking to relocate from the Washington DC area in late 2000, I visited Staunton and learned that the playhouse, the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater, was under construction. That was enough to convince me that this was the right place for me to move. I arrived in the spring of 2001 and the theater opened that fall. To say that I have been a loyal patron of the theater from the beginning is probably an understatement. I think I missed a few productions in the early years—I was still doing a lot of travel for the World Bank on top of the reading and writing I was doing for my MFA program—but since about 2006 or so I’ve seen every play the ASC has produced on the Blackfriars stage. That’s 16 shows most years, including a broad selection of Shakespeare (History, Comedy, and Tragedy), plus plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries (Marlowe et al.), a few contemporary plays that in some way speak to or relate to one or more of Shakespeare’s plays (e.g., Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard), and two or three Holiday Season plays including the annual tradition of A Christmas Carol.
That means I have seen the entire Shakespeare Canon of 38 plays, something that few can say (unless, of course, you are another regular at the ASC).
The current Renaissance Season, which runs from mid-January to mid-April, is one of the most exciting times of year at the theater. The company of actors, without a director, will put up five plays with very limited rehearsal time. From an audience member’s perspective, that gives the plays a sort of energy that well-rehearsed plays sometimes lack. I had the privilege of watching a couple of early rehearsals of two of the five plays, and I was thoroughly impressed by the collaborative nature of the decision-making process. These actors are professionals, they know what they’re doing, and when they make suggestions they are taken seriously. It was a pleasure to behold.
Three plays are running currently. Both Hamlet and Richard II opened on January 20 and the third, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, opened last week (I’m seeing it this Thursday night). I love this Stoppard play, having first read it in high school in about 1970, and I still have my copy of the script we read back then. Next up are The Way of the World by William Congreve and Antonio’s Revenge by John Marston. (The theater also operates a touring company that is currently on the road with three productions: Macbeth, Taming of the Shrew, and an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.)
The wonder of this theater is a little hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced it. First, the space is amazing. It’s an intimate theater, where truly there are no bad seats, and it’s gorgeous, made mostly of wood. Enhancing the intimacy, it’s a thrust stage, so the performers are surrounded on three sides by the audience, and they frequently make use of the aisles for entrances and exits, bringing the action even closer to theater-goers. And that’s not to mention the gallant stools, seats that are actually on stage and so close that one is in danger of being used as a prop in the play. Second, the actors are true professionals, many of them members of Actors’ Equity, the union for actors. They are highly trained and experienced and they are a joy to watch. And third, most of the actors are also fabulous musicians, and an ASC performance includes a concert before the show and during the intermission. (The music is so great, the resident and touring companies put together a “greatest hits” concert once a year to help raise money for the theater.)
We are extremely fortunate to have the ASC here in Staunton, and it benefits us in other ways, too. Many theater-goers are from out of town. Their presence means business for hotels and restaurants, and as a result, we have a thriving dining scene, stronger than other cities our size. I, for one, am grateful.
Full disclosure: In November of last year, I was elected to the Board of Trustees of the ASC, largely because I was a fan and cheerleader for the theater. I’m honored to serve!