Merely players: Blackfriars founder Cohen to speak at TEDx

Ralph Alan Cohen. Submitted photo Ralph Alan Cohen. Submitted photo

Theater professor and American Shakespeare Center Director of Missions Ralph Alan Cohen is never one to keep audiences in the dark. Instead, he puts them in the spotlight.

Such was his hope 25 years ago when constructing the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton with a group of former students. Today it is the world’s only recreation of the original Blackfriars Theater, one of the performance places for William Shakespeare and his acting troupe, the King’s Men, in 17th century London.

Cohen will be one of 18 presenters at the Charlottesville TEDx Event, a local version of the global TED educational conference, this Friday, November 15 at the Paramount Theater. The theme of the event will be “The Difference that Makes a Difference,” and in Cohen’s experience, one distinction defines and divides the traditional and modern theater experience—leaving the lights on.

“By putting the audiences in the dark, we’re putting the theater in the dark,” he said. “We’re holding the theater hostage to a movie concept of what theater should be. They’re very different. The movie experience is wholly individual. It’s a different experience knowing the actor is being influenced by the audience.”

Cohen hopes to educate his listeners about what makes Shakespearean theater such a distinctively inviting experience. Particularly, he mentioned the necessity of imagination for both audience and actors to contextualize Shakespeare’s writing.

“As an actor,” he said, “[Shakespeare] knew the importance of leaving space for acting partners and he always assumed [the presence of] an audience who, however silently, was in the scene.  In that sense, the language and the moments in Shakespeare need a visible audience for completion.”

In ‘A Midsummer Nights’ Dream,’” he said, “there is a line where Oberon the King of the Fairies says ‘I am invisible.’ Our brains will allow us to believe it.  They will make a man invisible. In a movie, you would have to actually become invisible.”

TEDx manager and Charlottesville filmmaker, Chris Farina, said the Staunton group’s approach has earned a wide following.

“It’s a real incredible experience,” he said. “It would make anyone who’s not a Shakespeare lover reconsider. Theater was the art form of Shakespeare’s time. It was for everyone, not just the upper class.”

“We have top quality theater sitting in our backyard,” he explained, “It really draws international attention.”

In addition to his projects with the ASC, through which he has directed 30 productions of plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Cohen has also published a book on how to teach Shakespeare and is a Gonder Professor of Shakespeare and Performance at Mary Baldwin College, where he established the Shakespeare and Performance Master’s Degree.

In 2008 he was the winner of the Commonwealth Governor’s arts award, and in 2009 he received the Theo Crosby Fellowship at the London Globe Theater, named in memory of an original architect of the Globe Theater reconstruction.

Cohen hopes to teach his audience about their necessity in preserving the theater experience.

“The magic of the theater is the audience itself,” he emphasized. “Why would people stop doing the one thing that makes it the most magical thing in the world?”—Matthew Fay