The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.095  Thursday, 8 March 2012


From:        Steve Urkowitz <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         Wednesday, Mar 7, 2012 10:28 pm

Subject:     Rare Titles—The American Shakespeare Center, Staunton VA


Some fan notes about the American Shakespeare Center.


I love going there!  The brilliant actors make the scripts fly. The company creates an intense array of experiences that add up to memorable dramatic life.  Led by Ralph Alan Cohen and Jim Warren, this gang has cracked the code to make those life-potential scripts blossom into full-blown critters.  As we said in the Bronx, “ya gotta see ‘em to believe ‘em.”


Coming up this month, the “Ren Season” has the company working without a director; these experienced players assemble their productions much as the craftsmen/actors of Shakespeare’s company did it. They learn their lines (often working from actors’ sides only) before group rehearsals, during which they work out the things they can’t do alone, like fights, crowd scenes, music, and special effects.  The performances feel sometimes like sporting events where even the players aren’t quite sure what will happen next but are delighted with what comes along.


These people are fine, funny, intense, beyond belief dedicated.  Skillful. They’ve worked together on scores of plays, some for almost a decade in the company.  Think “world-class string quartet” or a family of flying trapeze artists.


If you haven’t been in the Blackfriars Playhouse you’re missing another treat.  Acoustically it’s like sitting inside a cello; visually it’s a return to the thrilling days of yesteryear but with local “American spare” rather than ornamented surfaces. And the pleasure of sitting on a stool onstage sharing the air with these players . . . . wheeeee!


And you can get to see three or four or five of these masterfully produced plays in a single weekend. On the weekend of March 15th, for example, you can see Philaster on Thursday night, Dido on Friday, It’s a Mad World, My Masters and Richard III on Saturday, and Much Ado on Sunday, and maybe still catch a late plane home on Sunday evening. On a tight time-budget I’ll fly down on Friday 23 March for Mad World, then catch Philaster and Dido on Saturday, Richard III on Sunday, and then take a sunrise flight out of Charlottesville at 5:15 am Monday getting out to the West Coast by noontime.  


Other passionate scholars show up for these weekends at the end of March. And then there’s Tom Berger, and Ralph Alan Cohen, and Paul Menzer, all in residence.  And the town has squadrons of Paul Menzer’s fabulous grad students in the Mary Baldwin College  MFA / M Litt programs throwing themselves into performance-related projects.   


Getting to Staunton VA is pretty easy. Coming down from Maine, I’ve usually flown into Charlottesville VA and had a forty-minute rentacar ride into Staunton, or I’ve flown into Richmond VA and a longer ride through beautiful countryside.  A few times I chose one or another of the DC airports and had a longer drive out to the Shenandoah Valley and Interstate 81.  (And it’s possible to fly into the local Shenandoah Valley airport right near Staunton, but I’ve not been where convenient connections could get me there.)


Staunton has classy hotels and B&Bs within a couple hundred yards of the theater, offering ticket and room packages. And the town boasts a growing assortment of some of the best restaurants I’ve found anywhere.  Instead of the in-town hotels, there are also very inexpensive chain motels out by the Interstate, maybe three miles away, with much lower nightly rates. If you have some extra days, you can try visiting Jefferson’s Monticello, the University of Virginia, the Skyline Drive, the Museum of the Frontier (an assembled collection of early structures with live blacksmiths and farmers attached). Or just sit in the Mary Baldwin College Library looking out its stately Palladian windows over the mountain ranges stretching to the horizon.


My first visit was in 2007, when I retired. Had I known how easy it is to get there and to inhale three or four or five shows in just a few days, I’d have been there much earlier.  


In my experience at other primarily Shakespearean production venues, I’ve had delightful and moving times.  Stratford Ontario in the 1960s, for example, forever shaped what I hope to feel in a playhouse.  But neither Stratford in Canada, nor the RSC in England, nor the National in London, nor the Public Theater in New York, nor the many regional companies I trek to, consistently give out the raw pleasure of dramatic engagement I find at Staunton’s American Shakespeare Center, especially in their Ren Season productions.  



Steve Ur-gush-owitz

Emeritus, English and Theater

City College of New York

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