On a warm Monday morning earlier this month, a dozen twentysomethings gather in a bright, high- ceilinged room on the fifth floor of the Masonic Building on West Beverley Street in Staunton. Barefoot, they sit close together on the red carpet, pairs of shoes scattered among water bottles, backpacks, script packets and pieces of stage lighting equipment.
A hazy skyline and lush green trees beckon beyond, but the group’s eyes are glued to a cube drawn on a small white board. Local theater director, designer and teacher Thadd McQuade—also barefoot—holds a black dry-erase marker in one hand as he asks the actors to consider building a sizable cube, to be filled with water and placed on the stage for a production of Shakespeare’s Pericles.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre, is a guy with some really bad luck. Throughout the course of the play, he angers an incestuous king; is shipwrecked during a tempest; watches his wife die in childbirth, then gives the baby away; becomes king of Tyre; and hears that his daughter has died and then doesn’t speak for three months out of sadness. He never complains or seeks revenge on the gods, and by play’s end, his virtue is rewarded with wealth, happiness and a reunion with his wife and daughter, who are not dead after all.
“Let’s say yes to everything. Let’s play with everything,” McQuade tells the ensemble, who stir with palpable excitement as they discuss the cube full of water, shadow play with flashlights and how Pericles is a man not of action, but reaction.
For the past three weeks, the ensemble has spent 12 hours a day, six days a week in that room, running lines, rehearsing scenes, taking master classes, discovering characters, building sets, choosing costumes and interpreting a 400-year-old play, drawn from an even older legend, in a way that best suits the group.
This ensemble—the Troublemakers—is the more advanced of two groups participating in Make Trouble, a three-week intensive theater training program created and run by artistic directors McQuade, Colleen Sullivan and Amanda McRaven. Another group, the Trouble Ensemble, performed runs of both Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing earlier this month.
Last summer, McQuade, Sullivan and McRaven worked together in a theater training program that Sullivan, a New York-based theater director and teacher, developed for the Shakespeare Academy @ Stratford in Connecticut. But when the academy chose to take the program in a different artistic direction, McQuade, Sullivan and McRaven decided to continue on their own. They asked students from their Stratford production of Henry V to apply to this new program (which has a tuition fee) and reconvene this summer in Staunton to mount another Shakespeare production. Nearly all of them said yes.
Make Trouble’s training method insists that there’s much more to Shakespeare—to any play—than the text; there are countless ways to interpret a script for the stage. “Shakespeare is malleable,” Sullivan says. “We want our students to understand that there is no one way of making Shakespeare. There are no rules.”
“We [often] look at the playwright as some sort of ultimate authority,” says Brian Watko, a member of the Troublemakers who grew up in Maine and creates theater in New York City. “Of course, the text is an element, but so is the body, and the voice, and everything else that goes into [staging] this play.”
Watko says that ensemble training—in which the group acts, produces, builds sets and costumes and learns more about the possibilities of the text—has allowed him to discover his physical acting side. For Pericles, he must embody two very different characters (Gower, the narrator, and Simonides, Pericles’ father-in-law) in the same play. He says he’s getting out of his head and into his body to explore the expressive physicality of theater.
Vic Chen, a Singapore-born and Glasgow, Scotland-based actor, says that in playing the passive lead character so deeply influenced by his surroundings, she’s learning to “just listen.”
These are the sorts of challenges—along with limited time, money and physical resources—that force the company to be more imaginative, more creative, says Chen. During that first ensemble workshop, McQuade encouraged them to strive for simplicity and always think outside of the box: What if, instead of swords, a knight held a sharp cheese-cutting string taught between his two hands?
McQuade also encouraged them to think about how Pericles can resonate with a current audience. After all, theater has been considered a dying art form for thousands of years. “There’s something about theater that calls to humanity,” says Chen. “What excites me is finding what makes theater necessary.”
For the Troublemakers’ production of Pericles, one part of that something is the Syrian refugee crisis. In that first ensemble meeting in the Masonic Building, McQuade pointed out that Pericles takes place in the modern-day Middle East, on various islands and in Tyre, Lebanon, not far from Syria, where millions of people are currently fleeing a brutal civil war. Shipwreck is a reality, not just a Shakespearean device, McQuade told the ensemble. “I think that needs to live in us” during these performances, McQuade said as the actors nodded their bowed heads.
It’s how they’ll move their audience toward a greater understanding of themselves, the world and the steadfast relevance of Shakespeare’s plays.
“Everyone says, ‘You need a degree to understand Shakespeare,’” Watko says, “but that’s just ridiculous.” All you really need is a passionate, creative theater ensemble to show it to you.