- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2004

STAUNTON, Va. — “If Shakespeare walked into the lobby of this theater,” Eric Schoen says, “he’d freak out.”

Turning with arms outstretched and a sweep of his knotted ponytail, the young actor directs the gaze of 14 out-of-town visitors to the modern lobby space. The group is taking a Saturday morning guided walking tour of the Blackfriars Playhouse, which opened in September 2001 in this jewel box of a Shenandoah town 160 miles from Washington.

“Inside,” Mr. Schoen says, “Shakespeare would recognize it immediately.”

It is the world’s only re-creation of the Blackfriars, a London theater for which William Shakespeare wrote several plays. Shakespeare also wrote plays for the more famous Globe Theatre, where he was part owner.

A favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare’s group was allowed to carve interior space out of the Parliament Chamber of the Dominican Monastery in 1596 near St. Paul’s Cathedral in central London. (The monks wore black; hence the name of the theater.) It was destroyed by the great fire of 1666.

Since its founding in 1988 by a teacher and a student at James Madison University in nearby Harrisonburg, the Virginia Blackfriars has grown from wannabe actors performing Shakespeare’s plays out of a van at Virginia public schools and colleges — for free or just meals — to an internationally recognized center of scholarship and performance of Shakespeare’s works.

Today, it has two acting troupes (a resident company and a traveling band called the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express), the new theater and an ambitious educational program starting with simple school visits.

The first class of students receiving a dual master of letters/master of fine arts degree in Shakespeare and Renaissance literature graduated in May from Mary Baldwin College in Staunton. The program is offered jointly by the college and theater, coupling theatrical performing arts and literary scholarship on Shakespeare.

Since 2001, the National Endowment for the Humanities has funded the playhouse’s summer institute for university and college professors from all over America and as far away as England and Australia.

Called Shakespeare’s Playhouses: Inside and Out, the residency begins with studying performance practices at the one-of-a-kind theater, then moves to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s theater in the District, and finally to London to the re-created outdoor Globe Theatre, opened in 1997.

“And we’re going to build a new Globe here,” says actress Jessica Dunton, who leads the tour with Mr. Schoen. “In maybe five years, Staunton will have replicas of the only theaters Shakespeare wrote for.”

Inside, the $3.7 million Blackfriars is dazzling, all wood and white plaster. The look is an orderly geometry of rectangles and rising balconies and floor space reminiscent of the Hollywood movie “Shakespeare in Love.” Butterscotch beams and creamy balusters rise on four levels around the three-sided stage. The place shines like a penny.

The only light sources are candelabra, just as in Shakespeare’s time. The light lends a gauzy, velveted texture to the Virginia oak carved by local crafters. There is not a bad seat in the wooden vessel, and acoustics are phenomenally good for all 307 seats.

Practicing onstage as the tour group enters is a group of energetic teen actors enrolled in a summer youth program, a three-week residency for two groups of 36 teenagers from Virginia, Maryland, the District and Delaware. Earnest youngsters dressed all in black, they practice “Pericles Prince of Tyre” for their Sunday “graduation show.”

They are very good, with not a line slurred, and each motion across the stage is harmonic and proportionally understated.

“The problem with learning to act Shakespeare at a traditional theater is that it’s so directed: ‘Take three steps, stop, turn right and sit down,’” says youth program director Amanda McRaven.

At Blackfriars, the approach is a “Renaissance run,” says Miss McRaven, who in September will leave to get her master’s degree in directing at the theatrical program of the University of California at Irvine. The Renaissance teaching device requires actors — no matter what their experience or age — “to create with Shakespeare, rather than receive it from a script,” she says.

Students plan everything that happens onstage — “If they play the harmonica, they play it; if they dance, they include some of it” — Miss McRaven says, “so that Shakespeare isn’t big, scary literature, but something they are physically and practically a part of. Just like it was when actors helped Shakespeare create all this stuff we call art.”

Downstairs, visitors are shown dressing rooms, a small kitchen and eating area, the wardrobe room, and sewing tables where repairs to costumes are made after practically every performance. Hats, swords, dresses and wigs are everywhere.

A locked door is opened to reveal the lift rising to a trapdoor on the stage, from which spooky actors “appear” out of the stage floor — just at the original Blackfriars and Globe for “Macbeth” and “Hamlet.”

Down the hall is a large classroom and rehearsal area, and seated in a circle is this year’s class funded by the NEH.

Patrick Spottiswoode, the education director of the London Globe Theatre, and Ralph Cohen, co-founder of the Virginia group and Blackfriars’ executive director, lead the discussion.

“The problem with most people is that they’re afraid of Shakespeare, seeing it as another word for IQ test,” Mr. Cohen says in a brief hallway talk. “We call it ‘Shakesfear,’” says the Alabama-born college professor, who teaches the master’s program at Mary Baldwin.

It doesn’t help, he says, that most theatrical productions of Shakespeare are ponderous things built around elaborate sets and tricky modern technology of lights and amplified soundtracks — “theater looking more and more like a movie.”

“Shakespeare didn’t write plays that way,” Mr. Cohen says. “Our goal is to use this theater to present his plays as he intended.

“It was all about language, and getting the audience to use its imagination to help create each play,” he says, observing that audiences then were right on top of the actors, in a floor space with no sets or fancy props.

“These plays are where people can come back in touch with their language, with ourselves, our love of language,” Mr. Cohen says with passion. “Finding that love again can be empowering for people to speak, think and consider better what they say and how they say it. That’s not an end but a means to a life with our being not told what to think.”

Blackfriars is important, offers Mr. Spottiswoode of the Globe, “because one doesn’t learn the English language with understanding of Shakespeare through reading or the ‘legitimate’ theater. The way you see it here — and at our Globe in London — is its true expression.

“It’s lusty and a bunch of fun,” he says.

After the tour and lunch at a nearby cafe, there is a 2 p.m. production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” followed by a 7 p.m. “The Merchant of Venice.”

Mr. Schoen and Miss Dunton play in both — he as Demetrius in “Midsummer” and Bassanio in “Merchant,” she as Hermia and Nerissa in the respective plays.

Just as Shakespeare did, the Blackfriars practice “doubling,” or stacking different productions to run in a single day with the same actors.

As promised, there are no elaborate sets or props. Also, as with the original Blackfriars, if patrons want to sit on a cushion, they need to bring it or rent one from the theater lobby. Food and drinks, including beer and wine, are sold there, and the audience members carry sloshing beer cups to their seats within — as they could during Shakespeare’s time.

Most astonishing, upon the stage are a dozen or so stools for audience members willing to pay a little more to be among the actors while they perform. This break with present theatrical decorum is how Shakespeare did it.

Diaries from the time include references complaining about “magistrates of wit” who offered running commentary along with the play and badgered actors when they didn’t like a line. They mention garlic breath, too.

At “Midsummer” in Staunton, things are tamer, but a family decides to sit onstage, with a daughter perhaps 8 years old. She seems electrified by the nymphs rising from the trapdoor and pixies descending from a ceiling hoist. Nodding at times, she crawls into her daddy’s lap when the action slows down.

In comparison with the Washington Shakespeare Theatre’s highly acclaimed “Midsummer” earlier this year, the Blackfriars production is astonishingly well-done, without the stunning special effects of the Washington show.

Moreover, all the actors are quick and clear as rainwater, offering superb performances from king to pixie. Of special note are the breathtaking antics of James Beard (as Bottom), a youngster who worked earlier in improvisational and comic theater in Chicago.

His comic sense, quick feet, raucous musical interludes and flawless timing bring the nearly packed house to near paralysis of laughter. The show, which begins with bluegrass music plucked and sung by cast members, includes an intermission performance led by Mr. Beard riotously spoofing — in a rock ‘n’ roll medium — Bottom’s weakness of character.

The audience cannot breathe for the exertion of their laughter.

“We don’t do crushed-velvet Shakespeare” is how Mr. Cohen puts it.

Stage history, then and now

Shakespeare and friends had to build the Globe Theatre in 1599 in the seedy Southwark neighborhood across the Thames River from central London because the well-to-do denizens living near Blackfriars, created earlier, feared rowdies attracted to his plays would hurt property values, says Paul Menzer, a professor of English at the University of North Texas and a trustee of Shenandoah Shakespeare.

They managed to keep the Globe empty until 1610, when the popularity of Shakespeare’s plays and the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I changed minds.

Ultimately, Blackfriars became London’s finest and most desirable theater. It was indoors, heated and lit by candles, and it ran year-round, producing a tidy income for investors, thanks to a tony clientele willing to pay top prices.

While Hollywood had fun in “Shakespeare in Love” depicting Dame Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I sitting in the back row at a night performance at the nearby Rose Theater, it was the Blackfriars that entertained Henrietta Marie, Charles I’s French wife and the first-ever reigning queen, says Ralph Cohen, co-founder and executive director of Shenandoah Shakespeare.

Queen Henrietta Marie went four times to see plays at Blackfriars, says Andrew Gurr, former director of research at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. Her visit to the Blackfriars was the first recorded visit of a royal to a London theater.

The Globe burned to the ground in 1613 when a stage canon set fire to the thatched roof during a performance of “Henry VIII.” A second Globe was built on the same site in 1614 with a tiled roof. It survived until the Puritans closed all theaters in 1642, and it was demolished to make room for tenements in 1644, according to the Shakespeare Resource Center’s Web site (www.bardweb.net/globe.html).

The nonprofit group Shenandoah Shakespeare is in the planning and fund-raising phase of re-creating the tile-roofed Globe a short walking distance from the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton. The $15 million project expects to open its doors within five years and be identical to the modern London Globe Theatre, opened in 1997, says Jim Warren, Shenandoah Shakespeare’s co-founder and artistic director.

The London Globe was created largely through the efforts of American actor, director and producer Sam Wanamaker, who during a visit to London in 1948 was disappointed to find that the only memorial to Shakespeare at the site of the Globe was a plaque on a brewery wall.

After a 23-year fund-raising and coalition-building effort — including early financial help from American actors Charlton Heston, Kurt Douglas and others — the new Globe and its ancillary education center opened shortly after Mr. Wanamaker’s death.

His widow, Zoe Wanamaker serves on the Blackfriars advisory board, as does Miss Dench, whose late husband, Michael Williams, also was on the board.

When the Staunton Globe opens, the plays Shakespeare wrote for each theater will be produced at both, Mr. Warren says. “We’ll probably switch them from theater to theater, too, the way Shakespeare did almost 400 years ago.”

Rodney Lamkey Jr./The Washington Times

Eric Schoen prepares to go onstage in “The Most Lamentable Comedy of Sir John Falstaff” at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Va.

Rodney Lamkey Jr./The Washington Times

A crowds starts to gather at Blackfriars Playhouse, where a full schedule of tours, matinees and evening performances is offered.

What’s playing at Blackfriars?

The Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Va., runs consecutive plays daily.

Washington-area residents can drive or take the train to Staunton on a Saturday to catch the 11 a.m. guided theater tour, grab a bite of lunch, then see a 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. play and return home the same day.

The current schedule includes “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; “The Most Lamentable Comedy of Sir John Falstaff,” a new work celebrating Shakespeare’s most beloved rogue; “The Merchant of Venice”; and, starting Sept. 4, “Les Liaison Dangereuses,” an adaptation by Christopher Hampton of a novel dealing with revolutionary France.

Guided tours of the playhouse begin daily at the theater box office at 35 S. New St. (530/851-1773) and conclude at the Blackfriars Playhouse, 10 S. Market St. (877/MUCH-ADO). The tour, which lasts about an hour, costs $5.

Visit the Blackfriars Playhouse’s Web site (www.ishakespeare.com) for schedules; directions; ticket prices; and links to area hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants.

Troupe on tour

The Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, the touring company of actors, formed in 1988. The traveling company has performed throughout the state and also at the Kennedy Center and Folger Shakespeare theaters and at London’s Globe Theatre.

Upcoming Shakespeare Express performances:

• Piedmont Community College, Charlottesville, Sept. 3.

• Wintergreen Resort, Wintergreen, Va., Sept. 4.

• Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, Va., Sept. 9.

• Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, Va., Sept. 10.

• Blue Ridge Community College, Weyers Cave, Va., Sept. 11.

• Hood College, Frederick, Md., Sept. 16.

• Wilson College, Chambersburg, Pa., Sept. 17.

• Centenary College, Shreveport, La., Sept. 20-26.

• Belhaven College, Jackson, Miss., Sept. 27

• Loyola College, Baltimore, Nov. 15-17.

• Holton-Arms School, Bethesda, Nov. 22.

• U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Jan. 21-22.

Staunton bound

Staunton (pronounced STAN-ton) is about 160 miles, or a three-hour drive, from downtown Washington. Amtrak offers daily rail service, a memorable but slow four-hour run through Virginia horse country and the scenic Blue Ridge mountains to the old train station in the heart of town, a short walk from Blackfriars Playhouse. (See www.amtrak.com for schedule and tickets beginning at $26.)

The town was settled by Scots-Irish immigrant John Lewis and his family in 1732. Later, the town was named after Lady Rebecca Staunton, the wife of popular Colonial Gov. William Gooch.

Unlike most other small towns in the Shenandoah Valley, it escaped the Civil War largely undamaged. After post-bellum boom years, it filled with a fine concentration of Victorian-era architecture to complement earlier Federal, neoclassical and Queen Anne residences, churches and commercial buildings.

President Wilson was born in Staunton — his birthplace is a short walk from the theater — and Presidents Hayes and McKinley were stationed there briefly while serving in the Union Army.

At Appomattox, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant allowed members of the town’s Mountain Sax Horn Band to keep their instruments after the Confederate surrender. Because several band members had served with Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, they changed the group’s name to the Stonewall Brigade Band and even performed at Grant’s funeral in New York.

The band still plays free concerts in Staunton.

The city is booming once again, filling with galleries, restaurants and new hotel space.

Source: www.staunton.va.us, the city’s Web site.

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