Where the actors “do it with the lights on.”
By Hope S. Philbrick
Full disclosure: I was an English education major. Not only did I study Shakespeare willingly, I taught it to less-than-enthusiastic high school students. I’ve dragged my science-major husband to plays that he’d have preferred to sleep through.
I totally dig Shakespeare. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t.
I am not the sole fan who wanders the earth, of course: Shakespeare is widely considered the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. There are people in Staunton, Virginia, who are so deeply entrenched in his works they go to great lengths to bring it to life. And they have avid fans.
“I moved to this town because of this theatre,” says one grey-haired dude sitting behind me at a pre-show discussion led by a PhD. Now that is enthusiasm.
Blackfriars Playhouse is home of the American Shakespeare Center (ASC), a troupe that celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2014. “When Ralph Cohen and I started the ASC (then Shenandoah Shakespeare Express) as a touring troupe in 1988, the idea was simple,” writes co-founder Jim Warren. “We thought that if we could re-create some of the staging conditions for which Shakespeare wrote, then we might be able to recover some of the magic written into his plays that can get lost when you play with all of the technological tricks we’ve invented in the last 400 years.”
The 300-seat playhouse was opened in 2001 as a permanent home for ASC. Blackfriars Playhouse is a recreation of Shakespeare’s original indoor theatre. Thoroughly researched for accuracy, it has been called “one of the most historically important theatres in the world” (by Andrew Gurr, English Professor at University of Reading, England). It’s an intimate space with a thrust stage; audience members in every seat can make eye contact with the actors on stage.
Here Shakespeare’s works are performed as they would have been during Shakespeare’s life: without elaborate sets and with the lights on (so there’s no spotlight on the actors, no dark corners in the theatre; the audience and the stage share equal light). This is more than a gimmick. Shakespeare acknowledged the audience in many of his plays and the winking meaning of those often hilarious lines can be easily lost if the audience is shrouded in darkness.
“Universal lighting creates a communal theatre-going experience,” says Blackfriars Playhouse tour guide Lia Razak. “Shakespeare wrote for the whole audience and the fact that we can see each other is written into his plays—but this isn’t The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it’s not like we’re all throwing rice or anything. When the lights are on we can feel more involved in the experience.”
All sound effects are created by the actors. “Nothing is pre-recorded,” says Razak. “Shakespeare wrote a lot of storm scenes and we create storms with very limited tech just as actors in his day would have done” such as by rolling bowling balls around above the ceiling. “This is a theatre of the imagination.”
Some modern props are used “to remind you that these plays are not historic artifacts,” she says. “Shakespeare was not writing about life in the 16th Century, he was writing about life. His themes are love, death, betrayals, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters—these things are not going away, they are eternal and timeless. That’s why we love him: He speaks to everyone across the chasm of time.”
Every production has its own design and costuming, so if you happened to see Macbeth in 1992 it won’t look the same this year.
Blackfriars Playhouse has several seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, Holiday and Actors’ Renaissance, which is when the troupe of 12 actors work without a director as acting companies would have done in Shakespeare’s day.
Shows begin with musical performances. There’s also an actor behind a cart on stage selling beer, wine and other tasty things to audience members. Then all of a sudden the cart is wheeled off, some new faces stroll up on stage and the play begins. It can feel a bit abrupt since we modern audiences are conditioned that the lights will dim to signal the show’s start, but adjusting is easy enough.
For a Shakespeare geek like me, it’s hard not to be blown away by the sheer thrill of the experience: Sitting in the authentic, beautiful physical space might take your breath away and the quality of the acting may make your heart skip a few beats. But these plays are the stuff of life, so hold on and enjoy the ride.
On the night of my visit, I happened to see Epicene by Ben Jonson, an unlucky guy who Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen, co-founder and director of mission, says was “the second best playwright” of Shakespeare’s day. I enjoyed the show and hope to return to Blackfriars Playhouse some day, especially for a Shakespearean experience. (I’ll try to bring my husband along so I can share his thoughts about the experience as a ‘normal’ person.)
Bottom Line: Blackfriars Playhouse is the ideal place to see Shakespeare performed. Or any play.
When To Go…
2014 performances include: Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Timon of Athens, Othello, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Macbeth, and Henry IV Part 1, plus The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni, Epicene (or the Silent Woman) by Ben Jonson, and The Maid’s Tragedy by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Holiday shows include Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing as well as A Christmas Carol, The Santaland Diaries and The 12 Dates of Christmas. 2015 will feature Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and many other titles. Check the performance calendar for specific dates and show times.
On Sunday, April 20, 2014, at 4:30 p.m. Blackfriars Playhouse will celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday with free music, door prizes, games and cake.
Odds of Encountering Children: Slim. Most children would equate sitting through a Shakespearean play with homework. Parents are forewarned that some plays contain material unsuitable for youngsters. Children age 7 and older are admitted to performances throughout the year; children 3 and older are welcome to A Christmas Carol.
Where To Stay…
SAVE: Ask about the “Shakespeare Package” when booking your hotel room
10 South Market Street
Staunton VA 24401
— Photos © HSP Media LLC
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