May 30, 2015

Shedding Light on the American Shakespeare Center: A Few Highlights of a Remarkable Weekend

Blackfriars Playhouse interior. (Photo by Lauren D. Rogers.)

At the American Shakespeare Center’s Saturday matinee performance of The Merchant of Venice, Nerissa (played by Allison Glenzer) strides across the worn floorboards of the stage, her eyes lighting on my husband’s face. Turning back to Portia (played by Tracie Thomason), one hand extended toward my husband, she proclaims, “Then is there the County Palantine.” And suddenly, a mere bystander has been cast in the show, and Glenzer will spend the next few moments coaching my husband to do “nothing but frown.” As for me, I’m caught up in the raucous laughter of the crowd, every bit the delighted playgoer—and yet not surprised in the least by this unique interaction between actor and audience.

I’m not surprised because the American Shakespeare Center has no need to hide tricks up their sleeves. Read the opening letter from Jim Warren, ASC Artistic Director and Co-Founder, in the season’s program, and you’ll realize that, among other things, “the actors in your midst turn you into one of Portia’s suitors.” Take a tour around the company’s website before your visit, and you’ll learn why they do what they do—and why they prefer to do it with the lights on. Drop in for a backstage tour (offered at least ten times each week), and see where the actors dress, rehearse, and train. Or do what I did: immerse yourself in ASC for a weekend, starting with a teacher seminar on Friday, later saturating yourself in the three delightfully different and engaging productions in their summer season. However you choose to discover the American Shakespeare Center, your experience in Staunton is guaranteed to be unique.

Staunton’s inimitable impact on the world of Shakespeare’s plays stems from the imaginations of two men: Jim Warren and Ralph Alan Cohen. In the CliffNotes version, Warren and Cohen founded the company in 1988, and, by 2001, had erected the Blackfriars Playhouse, which is the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor theatre. (If you’re recalling lessons about the Globe from your high school English class, you’re referring to his outdoor theatre, of which there are numerous reproductions both in the United States and abroad.) But the Playhouse alone doesn’t make ASC’s approach to Shakespeare unique; it’s their absolute commitment to, in the words of their own mission statement, “follow the basic principles of Renaissance theatrical production [to] give… audiences some of the pleasures that an Elizabethan playgoer would have enjoyed.” This emphasis on the playgoer’s experience—rather than on the actor’s fame or the director’s ingenuity—is what makes ASC one of a kind.

Gregory Jon Phelps as Bassanio and James Keegan as Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice," with playgoers visible between them. (Photo by Lauren D. Rogers.)

Take, as an example, one of my Friday morning workshops on the topic of asides. Within the confines of the theaters to which most of us are accustomed, an actor speaks to himself or to another actor on the stage—unless, of course, he daringly breaks the imaginary fourth wall, turning to the audience to deliver a particular thought; this practice is called an aside. Shakespeare seemed to appreciate the possibility of an actor’s interaction with the playgoer, so he often created moments when a character has the option of using an aside. If this convention makes sense at the Globe, where the actor could always see his audience thanks to the daylight, it opens a world of possibilities in the Blackfriars Playhouse—a place where a fully lit audience sat in front of, above, beside, and even behind the actors on stage. Suddenly, when Hamlet’s Polonius gets lost in his own thoughts and turns to you, the playgoer in row A, seat 4, to ask, “what was I / about to say? By the mass, I was about to say / something: where did I leave?”, you find yourself thrust into the action, conversing with a character who expectantly awaits your response before continuing.

But the American Shakespeare Center doesn’t wait until act 2 to engage you in the story, and you know that the moment you walk into the theatre thirty minutes before the start of a show. Upon entering the space, many surprising sensory assaults catch one off guard: the smell of beer, the source of which can be found in the hands of many audience members; the sight of playgoers milling around the stage, purchasing a drink or taking a closer look at the wooden columns; and the sound of musicians on the balcony above the stage, playing music that sounds remarkably similar to your own iPod. Remember, though: everything is in support of ASC’s mission, that desire to have the modern playgoer experience the “pleasures” of Shakespeare’s own audience. If hearing “Puppy Love” at the conclusion of The Two Gentlemen of Verona shocks you a bit, consider what the company has to say about it: “ASC sets many… songs in a contemporary style. The result is emblematic of our approach: a commitment to Shakespeare’s text and to the mission of connecting that text to modern audiences.” Are you starting to hear a common theme?

Stage shot from "The Merchant of Venice." (Photo by Lauren D. Rogers.)

When you consider how insightfully engaging those first few moments in the Blackfriars Playhouse can be, it’s no wonder that the American Shakespeare Center has a strong commitment to education, to helping teachers present Shakespeare’s works in a way that allows both them and their students to discover new things through the thrill of performance and the joy of linguistic accessibility. The metaphorical toolkit I gained during Friday’s teacher seminar covered everything from a lesson on rhetorical devices (that’s been known to aid high school juniors in taking their AP English Language exams) to a suggestion about teaching iambic pentameter by lining up ten students across the classroom, allowing each pair to represent a metric foot. The education department at ASC is doing exactly what the actors on stage are; as Sarah Enloe remarks in the introduction to the Romeo and Juliet study guide, she just wants to “bring you and your students from obligatory appreciation to complete enamorment.”

After two full days immersed in and enamored with the programs and productions of the Blackfriars Playhouse, I have to agree that one would be hard pressed to feel “obligatory appreciation” at anything that happens there. All you need as evidence is the clear delight on the face of the little boy who, when asked by a character in The Merchant of Venice, “Master young man, you, I pray you, which is the way?” responds with a pointed finger and a confident, “That way, I think.” There’s certainly no obligation to be found in the joyfully chaotic pre-show dancing of two teens, gleefully present at all three of the weekend’s productions. And while I merrily appreciated Glenzer’s casting of my husband in The Merchant of Venice, I am nothing short of completely enamored with the extraordinary James Keegan, an accomplished and versatile actor, who “robbed” me of my purse during a scene in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, then delightfully discovered and guzzled the tall bottle of mineral water I had stashed inside. They might not hide why they do what they do, but the American Shakespeare Center is sure to surprise and delight you whenever they do it—with the lights on.


Want to learn more about Teacher Seminars, Student Workshops, ASC Theatre Camp (for students ages 13-18) or the No Kidding Shakespeare Camp (for adults)? Can’t wait to see a production in the Blackfriars Playhouse in person? Don’t have the ability to get to Staunton, but would love to see one of the touring company’s productions in a town near you? Visit for more information about these opportunities and many more!

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About Tory Talbot Virchow

Tory Talbot Virchow teaches English at the Potomac School and spends much of her free time exploring the local area with her intrepid and adventurous husband. A perfect Saturday might include a trip to a winery, kayaking on the river, a local town's festival, a walk to the Farmer's Market, taking in some live theatre, tailgating at a country concert, or simply grilling on the back deck with friends.

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