In historic, hip Staunton Virginia, just a two-hour drive from the Washington, DC area, one of America’s premiere Shakespeare companies has seen a change of leadership. The American Shakespeare Center now boasts one of DC’s own, Ethan McSweeny, as its new Artistic Director. With many accolades under his belt, the choice of the ASC as his new artistic home should make everyone sit up and take notice because it is a departure from the kind of work he is most famous for.
The aesthetic challenges presented by ASC’s Blackfriars Playhouse – whose design is based on Shakespeare’s famous indoor theatre – are subtle, but complex. With the lights up throughout the performance, and with only costumes and a handful of set-pieces to suggest place and time, you have to give up a lot of the design work we associate with the modern stage. It is the actors, and the audience’s imagination, that do all the heavy lifting from a design perspective. And for an artist like McSweeny, who set his Helen Hayes Award-winning production of Twelfth Night in an airport terminal (to give you just one example), the decision to pass over the Sydney Harman’s vast canvas in favor of the spartan setting of the Blackfriars Playhouse might seem surprising.
McSweeny, however, sees this as a blessing: in his recently-published online manifesto, Towards a Slow Theatre, he points out that “almost every design conceit for a classic ultimately puts something in the way of the play.” The aesthetic frills of a modern production may dazzle and engage us, but there is the nagging question of whether we have overwhelmed the original play, and got in the way of its meaning. He acknowledges that for Shakespeare especially, all the high-tech wizardly may well be from the purpose of playing: “by and large, the further we get from the original conditions the harder we make our own job.” Shakespeare wanted the actors, and the language, to tell the story and paint the picture.
McSweeny is now preparing the premiere of his first full production at Blackfriars, premiering in late June – Julius Caesar – which, in the spirit of ASC, will be performed in repertory with its Roman sequel, Antony and Cleopatra, with George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra by August.
I asked him how he felt about working with Shakespeare’s original performance conditions, and as we touched on previous generations’ efforts (the Folger Theatre, the Utah and Oregon Shakespeare Festivals, the Stratford Festival in Ontario, etc.) he sang the praises of the Blackfriars Playhouse’s intimate setting. He also contrasted it with the vast spaces of a typical professional theatre.
“Because of the advances in illumination and amplification, we are not sensitive any more to the human scale of theatres, so we’re more often than not building at a scale that suits the technology, and doesn’t suit the human,” he said.
In his manifesto, McSweeny also contrasted the bare-bones production methods of Shakespeare’s company with the elaborate, Jacobean court masques designed by Italian-schooled Inigo Jones. The masques were fun, to be sure, but it’s not as if Jones’ costumes, or any of the masque’s elaborate scenery, have withstood the test of time. It’s hard not to see a critique of today’s splashy, design-heavy spectacles when McSweeny notes, “the plays and words of Shakespeare and his contemporaries are still with us. And the spectacle is long gone.”
Backstage we have an expression, “there are no small roles, only small actors.” McSweeny, in his new Shakespearian home, might add that when it comes to theatrical design, “small” is a relative term; attention to scale, and to our humanity, is often what proves a play’s greatness. Looking back on his past experiences, he praised the attention to this detail at the ASC:
“The scale of the Blackfriars is human; the curtains are human, the space is human … there’s something about seeing an actor stand up there alone, the room is full. And when 10 actors are on that stage, the room has space; and that’s magic, because I’ve spent a long time trying to figure those things out in rooms so big they dwarf the performer.”
Hand-in-glove with that human scale is the intimate relationship that develops between performer and audience when the lights stay on. We’re so accustomed to the modern, passive conceit of “lights down, shut up, prepare to receive” that direct interaction with the actors seems inconceivable. But having cut his teeth at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre, where he tinkered with a wide variety of audience configurations in their black box space, McSweeny is excited about the way the Blackfriars space foregrounds the actors and makes everyone an active participant. Noting that ASC allows audience members to sit onstage, interacting at an even more intense level, he adds:
“Part of the magic of the lights staying on is that it makes the audience accountable to each other. You are not in a vacuum in the dark watching a play; whether you’re sitting onstage or in the back of the auditorium you are part of the experience and you know it.”
This matters especially with Shakespeare because as we have all experienced (too often) there are productions in which the meaning of the words gets lost in a cloud of what, to our ears, sounds like so much Elizabethan Muzak—when the actors seem to substitute generic emotion or generic musicality to cover for their ignorance of the language. And if you’re passively listening to a poorly-realized character, the meaning is that much harder to create. But because the Blackfriars keeps you fully engaged, and because the actors at the ASC are drilled in the precise meaning of the dialogue, the difference is like night and day:
“It makes you listen better, it makes certain storytelling elements, because you’re listening better, become much clearer. To some extent, it’s the adept versatility of the performers, and to some extent, it’s the environment of the playhouse and to a large extent it’s the concept of shared lighting and shared experience, and ultimately shared experience is what we go to the theater for.”
This isn’t to say that McSweeny is content to rest on the Blackfriars’ architectural laurels. Among his friends in New York City is Wingspace, founded by designer Lee Savage as a forum where stage designers can get together to discuss ideas and compare notes. McSweeny has brought some of Wingspace’s designers down to Staunton already, and fully intends to work within the Blackfriar’s friendly confines to expand its aesthetic potential:
“One of the things we will continue to innovate going forward is recognizing that just because we emphasize actors and we don’t do a lot of scenery, it doesn’t mean we’re not doing design. In fact, the Blackfriars is one big set, and it’s our obligation to work within that existing design to augment and extrapolate.”
The Blackfriars, in other words, is not a museum, it’s a living, breathing space, a laboratory for exploring the early modern stage and its performance conditions in a contemporary context. McSweeny notes that one of the first adjustments the ASC made was to install tapestries, which markedly improved the space’s acoustics. He suspects that Shakespeare’s company were compelled to make their own adjustments to the original Blackfriars – which, as its name implies, was originally intended for pious Dominican monks, not rowdy actors – and achieved their success precisely because of their competitive, innovative edge.
McSweeny’s artistic goals are daunting, and we are about to see him put his first aesthetic stamp on what is rapidly becoming an American institution, the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. It’s a new era at the Blackfriars Playhouse, and a truly exciting opportunity for those who love Shakespeare’s plays.