For American Shakespeare Center actors, life imitates art

It took John Harrell a few moments of head-scratching to recall the parts he played at the Blackfriars Playhouse last fall, possibly because he’s taken on over 100 roles in 75 productions during his decade or so with the American Shakespeare Center’s resident troupe. “It’s pathetic,” he said with a wry grin. “When you cycle through plays as quickly as we do, it feels like you have to reach far back into memory just to get to the recent ones. Or maybe I’m just getting old, and my brain is getting crusty. It helps to think of what costume I was wearing.”

John Harrell and Miriam Donald as Hamlet and Ophelia in a 2011 production of Hamlet. Harrell is the longest-running member of the American Shakespeare Center’s resident acting troupe, playing 100 roles in 75 productions over the past decade.

The laurel green, floral-patterned frock that Harrell wore as the shrewd and fabulous Lady Augusta Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest last fall comes to mind. When the ASC announced that Harrell and fellow troupe member James Keegan would trade off playing Bracknell in the summer and fall versions of last year’s show, the doting bloggers behind could barely contain themselves. “This is so exciting I just can’t this is beautiful and wonderful everything is perfect and nothing… Hurts,” the post read. “This. Is like Christmas.” It takes a particular kind of regional theater company to inspire an unaffiliated celebratory blog, and the effect that Staunton’s elegant reproduction of one of London’s most famous Rennaissance-era stages has wrought in theatergoers is nothing if not particular.

The sheer number of productions that the ASC has staged in its history is dizzying. Somewhere between the first—Richard III back in 1988, when the company was still known as the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express—and its upcoming retelling of the same rise and fall of the cynical Duke of Gloucester, the company has taken its commitment to preserving Shakespearean staging conditions and grown into an institution with its own time-honored traditions. Focusing on plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, presenting them house lights up, with minimal sets in the world’s only re-creation of the Blackfriars Theatre—these are the obvious traditions that come to mind. But there are others, more subtle, that have to do with spending your life playing Shakespeare’s characters and have been passed along between the troupe members who have called Staunton home over the years. If the Bard himself were telling the story of the American Shakespeare Center, he would do it through the actors.

A sort of homecoming
“It used to be a complicated story,” Harrell said of his life with the ASC. “But now, with time it seems to have grown quite simple.” Memory has a way of flattening things, and sitting with Harrell at Coffee on the Corner, one of the many local business that are younger than the Blackfriars Playhouse, it’s clear that a lot has changed since Harrell and his wife, costumer Jenny McNee, moved to town in 2002, the year after the theater opened.

Harrell attended James Madison University in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and became part of the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express when it was still essentially a college club, a handful of young actors who would pile into sedans and bring their shows to theater festivals and college campuses on the East Coast, sleeping on couches and dorm room floors during tours. After graduating, Harrell acted with Theatre Gael in Atlanta, and later in Charlottesville, where he co-founded Foolery, a physical theater troupe specializing in traditional clowning techniques. While he was away, the Shakespeare Express’s tours grew steadily longer, and its growing success led to sold-out runs at places like the Folgers Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C, and, finally, to support from an array of statewide and national endowments.

Allison Glenzer, shown here in the role of Zabina in Tamburlaine the Great, joined the American Shakespeare Center in 2001 after being inspired by a touring troupe’s production of Richard III, which she saw in the late ‘90s while still a student at Clemson University. (Photo by Tommy Thompson)

Harrell has since become the longest-running member of the ASC’s resident troupe. “We play by the same rules now that we lived by then,” Harrell said, of leaving a young, hand-to-mouth group of players and returning to a capital ‘I’ institution. “And rules are better for art than the untrammeled freedom of the blank page. We’ve got this frame that’s rigorous in some ways and loose in others, which makes for a kind of theater of collision.”

Whatever collisions happen on stage, Blackfriars offers actors like Harrell a kind of stability that is rare for professional players. “You can have a fairly settled domestic life here, if that’s something that interests you, and that’s pretty rare in theater. My wife and I are like any other couple juggling two kids and two jobs.”

Currently, Harrell is preparing to play Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, and by the ides of March, 2012, he will have taken on six more roles when the five plays in the Actor’s Renaissance Season are all cycling through the Blackfriars stage on any given week. “You have to know when to take control of a situation and when to let go, and over the years we’ve accumulated people who are adept at that sort of constant negotiation,” said Harrell, of the Renaissance Season’s demands, which involve putting together a lineup of shows without a director, with only a few days of rehearsal time before each one opens. “Of course, saying that acting here requires advanced social skills is a proposition that’s easily disprovable,” he joked. “If you get 12 actors together, you’d be hard pressed to find a single set of social skills.”

Resident troupe member Allison Glenzer caught one of those early shows in the late ’90s, a performance of Richard III that came to Clemson University while she was studying theater there.

“They had a woman in the role of Richard III, and I was so enthralled by the first night’s performance that on the second, when I was working in the lobby, I spent most of my time looking in through the window.” A man who would later introduce himself as ASC artistic director Jim Warren, told her not to take the house lights being up as a sign that she couldn’t just walk in and take a seat.

In 2001, Glenzer joined one of Shenandoah Shakespeare’s touring troupes, and on the first day of her contract, got to don a hardhat and walk through the unfinished Blackfriars Playhouse, when the Stonewall Jackson Hotel up the street was also still under construction. In each show during her first tour, all but one of Glenzer’s parts in three plays were men’s roles. She and her castmates all wore the same black ensemble, and all of their props were in boxes at the front of the stage. When they weren’t acting, the players would sit onstage as a neutral part of the performance. “What I learned from that first tour was that it was all about the ensemble,” said Glenzer. “You had to really love it.”

René Thornton, Jr. as Richard Plantagenet in a 2010 production of Henry VI, Part II. (Photo by Tommy Thompson)

René Thornton, Jr., who landed an ASC audition in 2004 after a few post-MFA stints at other theaters and regional Shakespeare companies, took to Blackfriars because, in his words, “Your job as an actor in New York is auditioning. My job as an actor in Staunton is acting.

And the actor is primary here in a way that isn’t the same at places where set design or costuming or direction are primary. You’re less of a cog in the machine here. You are the thing, and your co-workers and compatriots are the thing, and that’s exciting and empowering, because as an actor, you want to be acting and you want to be in charge of interesting roles.”

Life imitates art
Ginna Hoben’s one-woman show The Twelve Dates of Christmas, which returned to the Blackfriars stage last winter for a second run, follows the love life of a single Manhattanite actress for a year, from one Christmas to the next. During the audience Q&A following its final 2011 performance, Hoben was asked about the dating scene in Staunton, because she had lived there in ASC resident housing during her three years with the touring troupe. Hoben’s answer wasn’t exciting—she had been in a long-distance relationship with the man who is now her husband during her time in Staunton—but Miriam Burrows, one of her feisty and supportive Twelve Dates backup singers, chimed in to say that she met her husband during her residency. For Burrows, it was an extreme case of life imitating art. Back in 2001, she played Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, and would eventually go on to marry Daniel Burrows, the actor who played Claudio, her love interest in the play.

Hoben said life among Blackfriars players imitates their art in other ways, too. “Occasionally you’ll be talking to someone and a line or an impetus from a show might float into you consciousness, and when you’re among other troupe members this happens almost constantly,” she said. “The interactions and the timing are always there between us, and we find ourselves speaking to each other in the same rhythms as our onstage lines.”

Actor and playwright Ginna Hoben as Mary in The Twelve Dates of Christmas. (Photo by Lauren D. Rogers)

When an audience member asked Hoben about the time frame in which she wrote Twelve Dates, she paused for a moment, wondering aloud whether it was during her first or second tour. “It was your first,” Rick Blunt called from a seat on the upper balcony.

In the late ’90s, Blunt finished his undergraduate in history on a Saturday and went to work for a telephone company the following Monday, climbing telephone polls in Chicago for seven years before deciding to go back to school to become a Shakespearian actor. He had acted in a few plays in college, but up to that point, claims that “all the acting I learned was from football coaches.” He enrolled in the Master of Letters/Master of Fine Arts in Shakespeare and Performance at Staunton’s Mary Baldwin College, and started acting with the ASC after his ninth audition. Blunt has since put in four years with the ASC touring troupe.

Blunt and Hoben played Rosencrantz and Guilderstern in Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead in 2009, but Hoben often feels like the roles are still with them. “It was three years ago, but occasionally Rick will just say two words to me and I’ll give him the response from the show. I may not remember the line consciously, but the rhythm of it lives between us, this invisible thing between two actors,” Hoben said. “You forget about it for a while, but it just takes a flash, maybe a position on stage or a turn of phrase, and it’s alive again. Rick mentioned this last time, he goes, ‘You know that part in Twelve Dates when you lie down on stage, perfectly still? Something about the position and the way you exhaled took me immediately back to R&G, the moment of the play where we did this same thing side by side.’”

The two were performing Rosencrantz and Guilderstern while Hoben was writing Twelve Dates, and to her, the performances of both are connected. “You’ve got to believe that those dramatic moments were part of my process when I was writing this play. If I didn’t have Tom Stoppard floating through my head, or a good punchline from Shakespeare, Twelve Dates might have been a totally different play.”

One role bleeds into another; Shakespeare’s phrases roil in the actors’ heads; and night after night they get their lines straight enough to face audiences with the houselights up. The first time you visit the Blackfriars Playhouse, it’s hard to notice anything else. You can see the actors…and they can see you.

“I had been acting for years, but when I got there, I immediately wondered why it felt so hard to keep up and do it justice,” Hoben said. “It took me a while to realize what a difference the lighting conditions made. New actors there, it takes them a while to figure out what tools are available to them in this particular space, and it takes a while to figure out the right balance between performance and direct address. Some people like the comfort of a fourth wall, darkness on the audience and the privacy that it affords. It’s predominantly the lights. It seems that simple, but the more complex answer is that when I can see an audience member’s face directly, it forces me to tell the truth. You can’t lie as easily when the lights are up.”

Working theater
I once heard it suggested that actors make great interview subjects, because they spend so much of their time as other people that they relish the opportunity to play themselves. But the “Talk Back” session following a performance of A Christmas Carol last month had me worried. René Thornton, Jr., who I was supposed to sit down with after the audience Q&A, looked too exhausted by his second show of the day to play even himself. When an adorable five-year-old raised his hand and asked the actors how they “know what words to say,” it barely drew a chuckle from him, and all of his answers were pithy and to the point. I realized it was wholly possible that Thornton was staring out of a post-show daze at a weekend of twice-daily performances of A Christmas Carol, rueing the interview that was about to rob him of a precious free hour.

Rick Blunt, shown here playing Bottom in a 2011 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, spent seven years working for a telephone company in Chicago before deciding to devote his life to Shakespearean theater. (Photo by Tommy Thompson)

Blunt, who played the blithe, knowing Ghost of Christmas Present to Thornton’s ennervated Scrooge, broke down the feeling as we waited for Thornton.

“René’s working hard,” he explained. “He’s got two shows a day, six days a week, and rehearsals are a gauntlet. It’s tough to play Scrooge. He has a big row to hoe, every time.”
“Tough” coming from an ASC actor is a badge of honor. On more than a few days in the 2011 winter season, Blunt played two Christmas Carols with David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries in between. For the two or so hours that make up Santaland, a recurring holiday favorite at the ASC, the stage was his and his alone, aside from the few audience members who, as in every show at Blackfriars, sat on stools in the wings, close enough to feel the spit fly from an aspirated consonant. You don’t think of actors as intimidating, really, but try interviewing one after you’ve just seen them perform.

My fears were quieted when Thornton walked over. He was, indeed, spent (when I later asked him what he does with his free time, he said “sleep”), but he was patient and gracious. It’s uncanny to sit down with someone after you’ve just spent two hours watching them trace an arc like Scrooge’s. As in last summer and fall seasons’ staging of Earnest, where he played John Worthing, the slightly more proper of the two Earnests, Thornton does stifled and curmudgeonly with such vigor that it’s deeply relieving to watch Scrooge change.
In A Christmas Carol, Thornton’s heated Scrooge and Blunt’s cool, gnomic Christmas Present made an odd pair. Seated together off stage, the effect is the same; they both laugh heartily and often, but Thornton’s diction is as perfect off stage as it is on, whereas Blunt is more of a salt of the earth kind of guy. Though both men have landed a spot in the pin-sized market of stable professional acting jobs, they took very different routes to get there. That’s the secret of the Blackfriars, I guess. There’s no curtain. The lights don’t go out. But the actors transform themselves from people who live in a small town to immortal characters, everyday, the way some people go to work for the telephone company. Like Shakespeare said: “All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women merely players:/They have their exits and their entrances;/And one man in his time plays many parts.”

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