American Shakespeare Center
|Purpose||Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and related plays|
The American Shakespeare Center (ASC) is a regional theatre company located in Staunton, Virginia, that focuses on the plays of Shakespeare; his contemporaries Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Christopher Marlowe; and works related to Shakespeare, like James Goldman's The Lion in Winter and Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet.
The ASC is notable for its theatre, the Blackfriars Playhouse, the world's only recreation of the original indoor Blackfriars Theatre in London that was demolished in 1655. As a theater company, the ASC hosts performances by two rotating ensembles of 16 different titles in 5 distinct seasons, 52 weeks a year, at its Blackfriars Playhouse, as well as hosting a regional travelling company, ASC on Tour. The ASC also provides a year-round laboratory for students and scholars through education programming in Staunton and on the road.
Shenandoah Shakespeare EXPRESS
The American Shakespeare Center was founded as the Shenandoah Shakespeare EXPRESS in 1988 by Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen and Jim Warren. The first show performed by the newly organized company was Richard III, where actors who made up the locally travelling ensemble troupe came from James Madison University current students and graduates, and the performance was two hours long (compared to a more typical three hour plus run time).
In 1990, the company started performing multiple shows in rotating repertory with a season of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Julius Caesar. Shenandoah Shakespeare Express grew quickly during its first five years, moving from a single touring show in Virginia in 1988 to a three-show tour in 1992 that included the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and an overseas leg in London and Edinburgh. Three years later, the company toured the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, and Scotland as well as starting to build the Education arm of the company with a six-week National Endowment for the Humanities institute.
In 1997, the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express introduced the Young Company Theatre Camp, a three-week intensive summer program for high school students.
American Shakespeare Center
In 2005, Shenandoah Shakespeare changed its name to the American Shakespeare Center to reflect its focus on being a center for performance and research. Also in 2005, the first Actors' Renaissance Season debuted. The Actors' Renaissance Season uses Shakespeare's rehearsal conditions (self-directed, self-designed, short rehearsal period) as well as his staging conditions to delve deeper into the plays. The Actors' Renaissance Season is also an opportunity to explore rarer titles of the early modern period.
In 2005, the Bob Carlton musical, Return to the Forbidden Planet, which was loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest and the science-fiction classic movie from the late 1950s, Forbidden Planet, was produced by the touring company, then called the Blackfriars Stage Company. The performances incorporated acoustic music, a piano, and a three-sided thrust stage, all of which were selected to maximize audience engagement.
The American Shakespeare Center celebrated its 25th Anniversary in 2013.
In Staunton, the ASC constructed the Blackfriars Playhouse, the first modern re-creation of Shakespeare's original indoor theatre, the Blackfriars Theatre. As no reliable plans of that theatre are known, architect Tom McLaughlin based the design on plans for other 17th-century theatres, his own trips to England to view surviving halls of the period, Shakespeare's stage directions and other research and consultation. The chosen dimensions of 50 feet (15 m) by 70 feet (21 m) were derived from the research of theatre historian Irwin Smith.
Construction began on the playhouse in early 2000, as part of a three-building construction plan that would also include a re-creation of the 1614 Globe Theatre and a Center for Research and Education. The theater was built with timber sourced by Dreaming Creek.
The playhouse was completed at a cost of $3.7 million, and opened in September 2001. Built inside a brick shell, it is a wood-pegged, post-and-beam structure, made of Virginia oak, with a hammerbeam roof. The seating capacity is 300. Raked benches in a pit and two levels of galleries place the audience close to the actors, and even seating on the stage is possible. Unlike the original Blackfriars, the theatre has no painted decorations except at the back of the stage, and no windows in the auditorium. Electrical lighting reflected off the ceiling is used to simulate daylight, and lights simulating candles are mounted on sconces, and on wrought-iron chandeliers.
In 2012, the Blackfriars Playhouse appeared in BBC's documentary Shakespeare Uncovered, which aired in the U.S. in early 2013.
Shakespeare's staging conditions
The American Shakespeare Center gives its audiences some of the same experiences that an Elizabethan playgoer would have enjoyed by following the basic principles of Renaissance theatrical production - including Universal Lighting (audience and actors share the same pool of light), Doubling (one actor playing multiple roles in a show), cross-gender casting (men playing female characters and vice versa), and minimal sets.
For resident theatre companies, according to Zelda Fichandler, "repertory is destiny" - a theatre company acquires its audience by the productions it presents. Most of the production at the American Shakespeare Center's are from Shakespeare's canon; however, each year several productions are works by his contemporary playwrights or more modern plays that relate directly to the Shakespeare canon or work well using Shakespeare's staging conditions.
ASC Education offers workshops, performances, staged readings, lectures, a bienniel international conference, teacher training, archival materials for scholarly research, and summer programs for teens and adults.
Mary Baldwin College
The ASC partners with Mary Baldwin College in the one-of-a-kind MLitt/MFA Shakespeare and Performance graduate program for actors, directors, teachers, and dramaturgs. The program's graduates have gone on to doctoral work, tenure-track faculty positions, and professional theatre careers.
- Ralph Alan Cohen, Co-Founder and Director of Mission, Shakespeare Scholar
- Jim Warren, Co-Founder and Artistic Director
- Amy Wratchford, Managing Director
- Miles Anderson, an English actor
- David Bevington, Shakespeare scholar
- Ronald E. Carrier, fourth President and current Chancellor of James Madison University
- Gordon Davies, former Director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia
- Judi Dench, an English actor
- Lesley Duff
- Michael Goldman
- Barbara Mowat, Director of research at Folger Shakespeare Library
- Phoef Sutton, Emmy-Award-winning American television writer and producer of feature films
- Gary Taylor, Professor of English at Florida State University
- Zoë Wanamaker, an American-born, English actor and Honorary President of Shakespeare's Globe in London
- George Walton Williams
- Jerry Zaks, Tony Award-winning American Broadway theatre and television actor and director
On September 12, 2013, the Staunton, Virginia City Council passed a resolution honoring the 25th Anniversary of the American Shakespeare Center, acknowledging its growth from a touring troupe performing Richard III fourteen times in rural Virginia into an international Shakespeare center that has:
- Performed in 47 U.S. states and five other countries
- Built the world's only re-creation of Shakespeare's indoor theatre
- Become the hub of scholarship on early modern performance at the biennial Blackfriars Conference
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- Virchow, Tory Talbot (19 August 2012). "Shedding Light on the American Shakespeare Center: A Few Highlights of a Remarkable Weekend". Shenandoah Press. Archived from the original on 26 July 2013. Retrieved 5 March 2013.
- Wren, Celia (February 2006). "Currents: They Do It Like the King's Men Did-Almost". American Theatre. New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group. 23 (2): 44–47. ISSN 8750-3255. Retrieved 13 May 2015.(subscription required)
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- Fichandler, Zelda (2003). "Whither (or Wither) Art? A Resident Theatre Pioneer Gauges the Artistic Pulse of the Contemporary American Theatre". American Theatre. New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group. 20 (5): 28. ISSN 8750-3255. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
- "Shakespeare and Performance". Mary Baldwin College. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
- MacGregor, Sue (27 April 2012). "The Reunion: Globe Theatre". BBC. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
- "It's Shakespeare Week all over Staunton". Augusta Free Press. Archived from the original on 21 September 2013. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
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- Stern, Tiffany. Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0-198-18681-6 OCLC 43323659
- Lenhardt, Allison K. 2012. "The American Shakespeare Center's 'Actors' Renaissance Season': Appropriating Early Modern Performance Documents and Practices". Shakespeare Bulletin. 30, no. 4: 449-467. ISSN 1931-1427 OCLC 5183429508
- Don Weingust. 2014. "Authentic Performances or Performances of Authenticity? Original Practices and the Repertory Schedule". Shakespeare. 10, no. 4: 402-410. ISSN 1745-0918 OCLC 5689070844
- American Shakespeare Center
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