“I witness to the times that brought them in”: 2016 Year in Review

If the internet is any judge, a lot of people will be really glad to see 2016 out the door. Political turmoil and celebrity deaths have taken their toll, expressed in hashtag memes like #SayByeto2016inagif and #wtf2016. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been anything to celebrate, and in ASC Education, 2016 had quite a few high notes!

Most excitingly, we officially welcomed Lia Wallace and Adrienne Johnson to the Education team! Both are recent graduates of Mary Baldwin University’s Shakespeare and Performance MLitt/MFA program. Lia began work with us way back in 2012 as an intern, then became an Education Artist, and is now our College Prep Programs Manager, overseeing the ASC Theatre Camp. Adrienne has previously served time (like Director of Education Sarah Enloe also did, back in the day) as personal assistant to Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen, and she is now our Camp Life Coordinator as well as the ASC Company Manager, responsible for the upkeep of the Playhouse and other properties. You can read about their transitions into these positions here on the blog: Lia and Adrienne.

61Big events this year included the No Kidding Shakespeare Camp trip abroad: Shakespeare’s England: A Land of Lords. For ten days, Ralph, Sarah, MBC Professor Mary Hill Cole, and I shepherded a fantastic group of 22 Shakespeare enthusiasts around England and Wales. In the Cotswolds, the moors of York, and the fens of Cambridge, we wandered through history, discovering the world as it would have been familiar to Shakespeare and his audiences. To catch up on those adventures, check out the NKSC16 tag.

05fbdda7-86d4-48d4-9aab-11cac67d650b2016 also saw the publication of two all-new Study Guides, in addition to updates to several volumes. The Tempest and King Lear were on the Student Matinee line-up for the first time in my tenure, giving me the opportunity to dive into two of Shakespeare’s best-beloved works. We’re celebrating with a flash sale on those two guides, so nab yours before 5pm today to save 20% on these shiny new volumes!
Buy King Lear or The Tempest ASC Study Guide.

13087333_10104284381621743_4879776445061724543_nIn April, we commemorated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a block party that spanned downtown Staunton. Hundreds came to enjoy the food and wares offered by over two dozen merchants, and children of all ages got to experience mini-workshops and Shakespeare-themed craft activities, delivered right in front of the Blackfriars Playhouse. You can see pictures from that event here.

We also partnered with UVA’s Special Collections Library as it housed a traveling copy of the First Folio, offering workshops in Charlottesville in April, ahead of the Folio’s arrival, and in October, when the tome was on-site.

In December, we had a Staged Reading in a new format as a special event: rather than having one group perform a 90-minute show, four groups came from across the Shenandoah to put on four shorter shows, all demonstrating how English drama has marked the Christmas holiday throughout the centuries. With a mummery from Shenandoah Governor’s School, a mystery play from Shenandoah University, a vaudevillian masque from Spectacle and Mirth, and a Victorian-style pantomime from Stuart Hall, we filled the Playhouse with mirth and laughter for a festive night at the start of the holiday season.

And, as ever, we had a year’s worth of Student Matinees, Little Academes, and other workshops. In the 2015-2016 school year, we welcomed over 11,000 students from 284 schools, homeschool groups, and other organizations, and we have already had 142 groups join us so far in the 2016-2017 school year. We also welcomed International Paper back for their fifth Leadership Program, and we’re looking forward to seeing them again this spring.

So what’s forthcoming in 2017? More of everything: matinees of The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, and Much Ado about Nothing; all-new study guides on Love’s Labour’s Lost, the Henry VI plays, and Sense and Sensibility (that’s right! I’m taking on Austen for the adaptation that will be on the 2017-2018 tour); Leadership Programs on-site at the Playhouse and at the Federal Executive Institute in Charlottesville; visits from the Road Scholars; the No Kidding Shakespeare Camp back in Staunton to explore the theme of Shakespeare and art; ASC Theatre Camp 2017, featuring 1 Henry IV, Titus Andronicus, and The Sea Voyage in Session 1 (June 18-July 9) and King Lear, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Knight of the Burning Pestle in Session 2 (July 16-August 8); and, of course, since it’s an odd-numbered year, the Blackfriars Conference (Oct 24-29) will welcome hundreds of scholars and students to celebrate Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Happy New Year from all of us at ASC Education! We hope to see you soon, whether at the Playhouse or out on the road.

Cass Morris
Academic Resources Manager

Playing Around

As a theatre professional, one of my great privileges is having friends in the profession.  Friends I watch onstage at the ASC, friends who perform with other companies, and friends who are brave enough to start their own production companies.  This has been a particularly lucky month, as I’ve seen the four shows onstage at the American Shakespeare Center; traveled to see the work of brand-spanking-new company Essential Stages (with talented players) in Institute, West Virginia; and made my way down to Atlanta, Georgia to see (at last) the work of dear friends at the Shakespeare Tavern there.  

In West Virginia, Doug Minnerly and his magicians took a bright and unique approach when producing their Comedy of Errors.  Doug and I met in 2015 when he attended our No Kidding Shakespeare Camp (for Adults).  He mentioned starting to think about getting back to his first academic passion — theatre — sometime soon and he was with us to soak up everything he could, having fallen in love with the ASC’s plays a couple of seasons earlier.  Little did I know then how serious he was.  He went back to West Virginia and began the groundwork (immense in scope) to form a company and give Shakespeare to his community on a regular basis.  

15025568_10207567475921776_2615553657556017896_oAt some point in his work, new avenues presented themselves in the form of a generous donor at West Virginia State University.  This supporter sponsored an artist enrichment series that would do several things for the students at WVSU and the community at large including have a master class with ASC actor Allison Glenzer, produce innovative versions of both Comedy and and Brecht’s Good Woman of Setzuan.  If the show I saw is any indication, Doug’s part of West Virginia harbors a significant collection of talented and eager theatre practitioners. Innovative musical performances, beautifully designed and accompanied by Jeff Haught, opened the show and continued throughout and at the interlude, setting the scene for what Doug described as as an homage to the Marx Brothers — a notion which suited the play to a tee.  Costumes inspired by the forties and a set with ample flexibility (which echoed the Blackfriars Playhouse’s own back drop in structure) invited the audience to transport themselves to another time, a time that worked very well for this “zany” show.  The work the group did on the text in early days of rehearsal created crisp and clear characters who were easy to understand, easy to embrace, and easy to laugh with.

One of the toughest aspects of this show, a crazy comedy by almost all marks, is the opening scene.  Egeus does. go. on.  Because of the pre-show music (performed with great charm by Rob James and Kimberlee Gibson), the delivery of the interminable speech as a musical number was seamless and, believe it or not, fun.  The excellent vocals Will Taylor lent the role of Egeus (and the rousing interlude music) belied his other interest — frontman to a band in the area. Playing against the winning John Campbell as the Duke, the two created a lively and humorous tone which carried through the rest of the production — except whenever the character Adriana appeared onstage.  

Adriana has regularly struck me as a tragic character slotted into a comic play.  Poor woman: her husband is apparently unfaithful, certainly inattentive, and then appears to have gone mad.  Kimberlee Gibson’s work in the role was touching and believable.  She lent gravitas, and she was a terrific spoiler to her sister, played well by Keturah DeWeese; to the excellent Dromios, Abigail Miskowiec and Rob James; and to her husband and his twin, played by Jonathan R. Maynard.  Yes, the Antipholi were played by the same actor.  Sometimes necessity in the mother of excellence, and it was in this case.  Jonathan ably coped with what might have been awkward entrances and exits, which seemed to keep him going 90 miles a minute, but he looked completely in charge and made each second on stage count.  Particularly memorable was his duet with Luciana, a bittersweet exploration of confusion.  It seems he may be the quintessential quadruple threat: singer, dancer, actor, and self-doubler.  Patience DeWeese played Luce and the Courtesan distinctly, as the activity of doubling demands.  I particularly enjoyed her turn as an additional character in the first scene between Luciana and Adriana; her deftness with the props actually helped to clarify some moments and lent another perspective to view the scene through.  She followed that turn up with a corseted courtesan who let the audience in on some of her thoughts, something that Jenna Skeen (in multiple roles) also tackled head on with aplomb.  One of the toughest things about working in community theatre is bringing everyone to the same level, for instance, when Mike Murdock, a professional actor and director appears in many of the same scenes with one of the only students in the production, it is imperative that both raise their game — and they both did.  As the merchant, Mike gave Eric Rogers strength by offering him a character that was committed and Eric gave it right back as the Goldsmith and Gaoler.

Doug Minnerly’s take on the production was refreshing.  Returning the play to many of the staging conditions Shakespeare’s company used — doubling, playing in thrust, sharing light, valuing music — created a team between audience and actors that made each success the more sweet.  If anything, I would say only that more stripping could improve the piece.  Chairs and other set pieces tended to crowd the stage; relying on the actors to convey the feeling without pulling those item in might have saved some valuable rehearsal time.  The cut of the script and musical inclusions kept the show moving at a swift pace.  The talents and skill levels of the cast were well matched to their on-stage responsibilities and the staging was clever, including in-jokes and special effects.  Most of all, I loved that Doug relied on the words of Shakespeare and the talents of his actors to tell the story.  He trusted the audience, and that confidence in their ability to enjoy Shakespeare just as he is paid off dividends.  

The very next week, I had the privilege of seeing many of my colleagues from the Shakespeare Theatre Association in Atlanta.  Atlanta is home to the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern, a company founded and operating under many of the same principles the American Shakespeare Center embraces.  We share a strong belief that the communal theatrical world Shakespeare wrote for can be re-created by sharing the stories with our audience, by playing close to them, speaking to them, and keeping the text paramount in the production.  Their 3 Henry VI was part of an ambitious undertaking to produce all three in the trilogy in rep this fall. I had wanted to see their work for nearly a decade, ever since I’d heard about them, but always managed to be in Atlanta at a time when it wouldn’t be possible.  No more.

 

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“El Presidente”

It’s not every day that the Henry VIes are readily available for audience consumption, but this fall has offered multiple opportunities to me, for which I am grateful.  Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, another STA member, did a brilliant conflation which I got to see in September, ASC just wrapped our own 2 Henry VI,  and I was able to round out my feast with this production.  In addition to finally seeing my opposite number, Laura Cole, in role as Lady Gray — doing a smart, sassy take in a fun part — I also got to see the directing work of the man I gladly called El Presidente when I served as his secretary on the STA Executive Committee, and a former ASC intern, Bridget McCarthy (who stole every scene she was in).  I was also able to see the work of several veteran AST company members, including the excellent Mary Ruth Ralston in the title role and the impressive Amee Vyas as Margaret.  I enjoyed especially another education colleague, Andy Houchins, as Richard III, and I hope he goes on to play the role in the trilogy’s sequel when it comes into season.   This production used doubling (you almost have to with these shows, unless you have a sizable population of talented actors and endless supplies of cash) very well, and some great turns took place in the younger characters, as Hayley Platt used her stature and skill to bring boys to life.  I will admit (and hopefully not be hit by lightening for doing so) that I am just now, after the compressed viewing this fall, finally following all of the relationships in this epic English History retelling.  

 

The mere fact that I had the opportunity to experience three productions of this tale in such a short time — because, believe me, I know that it is no simple thing to keep all of the Plantagenets and Lancasters straight (much less all of the Edwards and Richards) — does reinforce my advocacy for Shakespeare performance as a means to teach English History.  I admire the artistic directors who put these (difficult to sell) plays in their season, as they do a service for students of history–which, honestly, has to be everyone. The populism Jack Cade advances in 2 Henry VI is a reflection of our recent election, and it offers us an opportunity to see (and not see) ourselves, our mistakes, our successes. Such presentations of historical figures force us to engage with tough questions and ask ourselves about the choices we make. By understanding our past, we can more clearly see our way to the future.  Let’s just hope there aren’t as many heads rolling.  So, I am grateful for friends who make that work available, who tell clear stories that bring history to life, and who let us all share in the joy of good theatre.