Our time with the last of our fourteen partners, The American Shakespeare Center at the Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Virginia was totally immersive.
When the co-founder, Ralph Cohen, shows people around for the first time he likes to hear and see their reactions on entering the auditorium. The shock of its beauty, craftsmanship, and attention to detail made us all gasp. Walking into the theatre itself is like opening a secret treasure-chest of gems. It is the only reconstruction in the world of the theatre at the former monastery of the Blackfriars that The King’s Men started to use from 1608.Here’s a photograph of the stage (Paul Prescott, left, and I, on either side of Ralph Cohen).
The company there, the American Shakespeare Center, evoke original performance practices from Shakespeare’s time. There are no varied lighting effects, so in Staunton they like to use the saucy slogan: ‘Here we do it with the lights on.’ They like to say ‘sometimes we use contemporary costumes, sometime Elizabethan, and sometimes a mixture of everything in betweeen.’ The actors perform modern music from the gallery at the beginning and in the interval. We saw three productions: a dress-rehearsal of Edward II, Macbeth, and The Comedy of Errors, for which I was able to take one of the gallants’ seats on the edge of the stage itself. This was an astonishing experience, as if the whole world of the play was happening around me.
The American Shakespeare Center inpsires a great sense of loyalty in its actors, some of whom have worked there for ten years. Like the ensemble of men and boys who Shakespeare knew, worked with, and wrote for, their sense of ensemble deepens year in, year out.
Actor Patrick Midgley spoke with me about what it’s like being an actor there, the use of music in the productions, the sense of ensemble, and I was amazed to hear how many roles he is playing this year….