Preview: The Playhouse Insider – Summer 2011

Summer at the American Shakespeare Center is an exciting time, with two troupes in rehearsal, preparing three seasons’ worth of new shows. The Summer issue of The Playhouse Insider will offer readers an exclusive look at the making of the eight plays that comprise these seasons. The issue will be on sale in the Box Office or by mail order in a few weeks, but for now, I thought I would give our blog readers a special preview of what will be in the issue.

In this issue, our Artists section features two directors and two actors. First, Nick Hutchison shares his experiences directing The Importance of Being Earnest for the ASC back in 2004. Producing Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play presents different challenges in an early modern space like the Blackfriars Playhouse, and not all of them stem from Wilde’s expectation of lights and dropped curtains. The text also asks different things of actors and directors: “Where Shakespeare has unfathomable depths, Oscar is all surface, and rejoices in the fact. Start to try and analyse the text as you would in Shakespeare, and it doesn’t work, but when you luxuriate in its brittle elegance, its superficial brilliance, it comes alive, clearly and hilariously.” Hutchison confesses that he was initially skeptical of Earnest‘s playability on the Blackfriars stage, but that he ultimately found that “the play doesn’t just survive the transfer to the Blackfriars but rejoices in it.”

Our second director’s piece comes from our own Ralph Alan Cohen, who will be directing Henry V for the Fall season. Cohen explains his admiration for the play he describes as “an odd work.” He sees Henry V as Shakespeare’s first experiment with deconstruction and as his “great essay on the power of an audience.” After all, the Chorus explicitly instructs the audience on what they will have to do with their imaginations to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” Cohen sees this play as Shakespeare saying to his viewers: “Here are some Lego pieces – a bunch of well-written speeches and a few great, stand-alone scenes. Make a play, Audience, have some fun.”

Rounding out the Artists’ section, touring troupe actors Rick Blunt and Denice Burbach share their experiences of life out on the road. They discuss issues both professional and personal, from the challenges and opportunities for discovery presented by having to adapt to new spaces to the sense of community they build in towns across the country, from the reality of living out of a single suitcase to the great adventure of traveling the United States. The Almost Blasphemy Tour takes off for the first leg of their run in September, returning to the Playhouse for the holiday season in December. Summing up their experiences on tour, both Rick and Denice express that the process is an ongoing one, a continual process of learning and of change. Rick says that he continually strives to discover “how to get better, how to be better,” while Denice states, “It’s unlike any job you will ever have in your life. I forget sometimes how unique a path we’ve chosen.” For ongoing details on where the tour is headed, friend us on Facebook or check out “ASC on Tour” on our website.

Since the ASC focuses so strongly on research and education, we ask leading minds in the field to share their thoughts on our upcoming plays in our Scholars section. Roslyn Knutson, Professor of English, Emerita, at the University of Arkansas and President of the Marlowe Society. Knutson shares what makes Tamburlaine so fascinating for her, from the visually striking stage moments to the challenge of a modern actor who must “negotiate with [Edward] Alleyn’s ghost” in performing this larger-than-life role. Tamburlaine is Knutson’s hero, she says, because “his exceptionalism is not just the testosterone of Marlowe’s mighty line. It is also the charisma of the over-achiever.”

Our second scholar is our own Christina Sayer Grey, who examines the storytelling patterns in Shakespeare’s Romances, two of which the ASC will have in production this year (The Tempest, opening June 24th, and The Winter’s Tale in the Almost Blasphemy tour). As Grey explicates, the thread that links the Romances is “a shared concern with the stories of lapses in historicized time – the space between something being lost and its being found, the time between Before and After.” While The Tempest and Cymbeline dramatize only the gap itself, Pericles provides a triptych of Before, During, and After, and The Winter’s Tale shows a diptych of Before and After. Grey examines how these different structures bend the typical expectations of Comedy and Tragedy, creating the nebulous generic classification of the Romances.

Finally, our Audiences section in this issue focuses on our student audiences. Two teachers, Kerry Kisa of Cape Henry Collegiate School in Virginia Beach, VA, and Linda Nicholson of Highland Springs High School in Henrico, VA discuss how bringing students to see shows at the Blackfriars Playhouse and using the ASC methods of teaching through performance has enriched their learning experience. Kisa describes how her students last year explored the staging of Othello, arguing over the intricacies of bed placement and actor blocking. “As I stood watching my students quarrel over the scene, I couldn’t help but think, ‘I’ve got them.'” Nicholson talks about the “Blackfriars Fever” that has taken over her school, where students scramble to be the first to sign up for field trips to the Playhouse. “One young lady told me she went the first time as a means of missing classes, but after the show, she wanted to hide in the bathroom and live in the playhouse.” While we’re pretty sure the Playhouse staff would have some strong opinions about that, we love the enthusiasm! Both Kisa and Nicholson share their students’ opinions about an active exploration of Shakespeare in their own words, and it’s wonderful to see how much they’re enjoying what they once dismissed as boring or irrelevant. If you’re a teacher who would like to bring your students to the Blackfriars Playhouse, read up about our matinees or contact Group Sales Manager Ben Ratkowski.

Putting this issue together has me excited for what’s coming up at the Playhouse over the next few months, and I hope it will imbue all of you with the same eager anticipation. I’ll be sure to let everyone know when the issue goes on sale — look for the announcement early in July.