For the American Shakespeare Center, the readiness is everything. When the pandemic closed their repertory theater, the company moved online, streaming shows and offering online classes to all comers. But, unlike theaters like the Metropolitan Opera and the National Theater of London, which have long had a sideline in streaming their shows to movie theaters, the American Shakespeare Center’s performance style is uniquely hard to capture on video. The ASC’s focus on engagement with the audience makes them both the worst and the best company to try to navigate a transition online.
Many theaters use a proscenium stage, which frames the actors and the set as though seen through a picture frame. There is a planar “fourth wall” separating the box of the stage from the audience, and the overall setup is not so different from a movie theater. The Blackfriars Playhouse at the ASC uses a thrust setup, where the stage is surrounded on three sides by the audience. Low walls on the right and left separate the “Lords’ chairs” from the stage, but about a dozen patrons who choose the “gallant stools” are seated right on the stage.
In mid-April, Topher Embry took the stage at the ASC to play Bottom for the last time, in order to tape their 90-minute cut of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It felt like working with proscenium constraints, even as he walked up and down the familiar boards. Embry still tried to take some of his choices out to the audience, but now he was acting to a camera, which is a poor substitute for a scene partner. Lest the actors work in a dead-feeling room, some of the other actors were scattered through the balcony. Their laughter can be heard on the tape, more as discrete individual chortles than the hearty laughter one would expect if the show had been taped in a full house.
It was the disembodied nature of the laughter that was most jarring to me, as someone who has made three trips to Staunton to see shows at the Blackfriars. Promotional emails from the theater end with, “We’ll see you at the Playhouse,” and they mean it literally. The Blackfriars employs universal lighting, which means that unlike in most theaters, the house lights don’t go down when the show begins. The audience is illuminated throughout, preventing you and your fellow theater-goers from evading the notice of either the actors or the people around you.
At Shakespeare’s Globe, universal lighting was a given—the shows were performed in daylight in the roofless theater. The sun, unlike a modern Fresnel light hanging in a conventional theater, can’t have its beam shaped by barn-door flaps. London has the best-known Globe reconstruction, but Staunton has the only rebuilt Blackfriars, an indoor theater that served as a monastery until it was seized by Henry VIII. There, the universal lighting came from candlelight, which, in the present-day reconstruction, is provided by electric candles.
The set-up is surprising enough to newcomers that the ASC explains the history and purpose of universal lighting at the beginning of every show. As they explain on their website, “Shakespeare’s actors could see their audience; our actors can see you. You play the roles that Shakespeare wrote for you—Cleopatra’s court, Henry V’s army, or the butt of many jokes.”
Lia Wallace, the ASC’s College Prep Programs Manager, is explaining this history to the online SHXcademy workshop I am attending. Before the pandemic, SHXcademy was a catchall term for any of the education packages offered by the ASC. But, just after the Ides of March, the company cancelled the spring season of performances, and its education programs as well. Initially, the company had a two-week plan in place, making plans to film each show multiple times. But, as the case counts kept rising nationally, their time for adapting was cut to a week.
Wallace had about twelve core workshops that could be repurposed for virtual audiences, plus the playhouse tour, which the ASC filmed as well. At the SHXcademy I attended, the three classes were rhetoric, embedded stage directions, and direct address. “All of our workshops, but particularly these three, are about making a choice about performance,” she explained. After the three hour-long classes, the attendees get to put what they’ve learned into action in a one-and-a-half hour directing workshop.
The initial registrations came from groups who had been signed up for in-person programs and wanted to continue in the new format. Moving online also made it plausible for the first time for individuals to sign up, instead of attending as part of a group. And the program might be a virtual resource in the fall for school groups who couldn’t have budgeted the time or travel to attend in person in Staunton.
In the first few weekends of classes, nearly all of the attendees were people who had come to the playhouse previously. Several members of the local children’s drama club that Wallace runs signed up, plus all four members of a family that ushers for shows.
After the first round of classes, Wallace couldn’t imagine spending another weekend peering into a laptop screen to interact with students. She hauled out the large desktop that the ASC used for viewing archival performances and set it up in the playhouse.
The programs were priced to turn a profit, even a modest one. With most of the staff furloughed, any programming had to be able to help cover the paychecks of the people who were left. The initial attendees often told Wallace that they signed up as much to support the company as to enjoy the workshops. “Some people are thinking of it like they’re giving me a donation, but they’re getting a tote bag,” said Wallace.
Building the plane as she flew it wasn’t foreign to Wallace—it was part of what made her committed to the ASC. For two thirds of the year, the American Shakespeare Center looks a bit like any repertory theater, but then, in the spring, the Actor’s Renaissance Season launches, and, in Wallace’s words, “We take everything we usually do and turn the whole thing up to 11.” Instead of just embracing Shakespeare’s performance traditions, they take on Elizabethan rehearsal conditions as well. That means less than two weeks of rehearsals, with no director. “The lunatics run the asylum,” Wallace says. “It’s a really vital and electrifying time of the year.”
Wallace first came to Staunton during a “Ren Season,” and she had never seen anything like it. She began as an intern, imagining that her time in Virginia would be a stepping stone to one day working at the Globe in London. Instead, she stayed, first extending her time as an intern, then enrolling at Staunton’s Mary Baldwin University, first for a M.Lit, then a MFA.
My first class, Rhetoric, holds 16 other students, most of them children. Wallace begins by listing R.O.A.D.S. to Rhetoric (Repetition, Omission, Addition, Direction, and Substitution). Then we’re off on a tour of texts from different plays, illustrating everything from assonance to paralipsis. The former is the repetition of vowel sounds (as in Midsummer’s Theseus lamenting “O how slow this old moon wanes”), the latter is a deliberate omission, framed as accidental, to draw attention (as when Mark Antony stirs up the mob at Caesar’s funeral by referencing Caesar’s will: “Let but the commons hear this testament—which, pardon me, I do not mean to read—and they would go and kiss dead Caesar’s wounds”).
During a discussion of alliteration, one smaller girl, attending the class with her big sister, stumbles on Bottom’s tongue-twister of a line, “I trust to take of truest Thisbe sight.” She throws herself into the cushions of her couch in frustration and embarrassment. Wallace is undaunted, having her try again and telling everyone, “If you’re worried you’ll mispronounce a word, please go ahead and mispronounce it with gusto.”
A reader’s error can be fruitful, prompting the group to pause and ask what kind of choice a knotty passage opens for an actor. Should Bottom, an over-the-top actor, overenunciate his lines in Midsummer’s play-within-a-play? Would the rude mechanicals that make up his troupe also get tripped up by the line? Could he be cheating with a crib sheet attached to the actor playing Wall?
The computer-generated snafus throughout the workshop felt less like an invitation. My video feed often had audio lagging video, which was particularly frustrating when Wallace was showing us clips of actors performing short snippets of text several ways. Several other attendees had the same problem, or needed to make an exit and re-entrance in order to unfreeze their feeds. The Zoom software was more of an asset when the class used its tools to annotate a passage by marking different rhetorical devices. Ultimately, using the balky tech left me with a feeling of frustrated longing. The class was a real pleasure to sit in on, but virtual theater has only sharpened the desire to be there live, where nothing can be paused or muted as the other parts of life interrupt.
In the second class, Embedded Stage Directions, Wallace showed us two contrasting sets of stage directions, one from the opening of Hamlet, the other from the beginning of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Stoppard’s riff on Hamlet sets the scene thoroughly with 193 words laying out the set, the characters, their gambling game, its uncanny results, and how each man feels about his winning or losing streak. Shakespeare begins more starkly: “Enter Barnardo and Francisco, two sentinels.”
Shakespeare’s actors worked only with cue scripts—collections of their own lines and the lines that cued them. Stage directions were minimal, and their choices were more likely to be prompted by information embedded in their lines.
In the original performances, the company had Shakespeare to consult with, though he occupied a role quite different from a modern director. Nearly 500 years later, actors still are invited to be collaborators, but as Wallace framed the process, it’s not a matter of divining authorial intent. After all, as she stated bluntly, “I don’t know what Shakespeare intended because he’s super dead and he didn’t tell me.” Instead, the text is a prompt to look at patterns and consider what options they open for your character choices.
We came up with a long list of options for Sampson’s belligerent declaration in Romeo and Juliet, “My naked weapon is out, quarrel, I will back thee.” The most natural interpretation is an unsheathed sword or knife, but we came up with alternatives and discussed what they could imply about the setting or the character. One participant proposed a gun, with another suggesting the actor could cock the hammer to capture the imminent threat implied by “naked.”
Another suggested a less dangerous option: a fist, pulled back for a punch. Another suggested undercutting the threat comically, giving Sampson a harmless butter knife, and we discussed how the mismatch could emphasize the buffoonery of the fight, or the seriousness, depending on whether Sampson himself recognized the strangeness of his weapon choice. And, Wallace reminded us, you can always lean into the sex jokes in Shakespeare, having Sampson gesture at his codpiece to suggest a different sort of competition, although, she cautioned us, “I wouldn’t recommend literally dropping trou.”
The last class, Direct Address, was the most strained by the format. There was no real audience for us to ask the actors to address in the practicum. Instead, Wallace would run between computer and gallant stool to stand in for the missing theater-goers.
In ordinary times, an actor might confide in an attendee, gesture to them to make a comparison, or simply pass them a prop. With audience members on gallant stools outnumbering set pieces in most productions, any audience member near at hand is liable to be turned into a coat-rack, if the opportunity suggests itself to an actor.
“Anything you can do with a scene partner,” Wallace says, “you can do with the general scene partner of the audience.” But the actors have to be prepared for their rhetorical questions to get a response. During an ASC production of the “Bad Quarto” version of Hamlet, the actor playing Hamlet stood over a Claudius at prayer, mulling whether to take his revenge, and asked, “And shall I kill him now, when he is purging of his soul?”
A child in the audience, who lacked the Dane’s diffidence, replied aloud, “Yes, you need to kill him!” There isn’t much room for improvisation in Shakespeare, even for an actor who can speak off the cuff in meter, but the actor didn’t need to worry. Shakespeare had him covered. He simply replied directly to the child with his next line, “Making his way for heaven . . . this is a benefit, and not revenge.” The child considered the argument and replied, “OK.”
It’s moments like that which suggest that Shakespeare wrote ready for interjections. Hamlet’s lines can roll smoothly on whether he is simply thinking to himself, persuading an audience member who spurs him on, or agreeing with someone who counsels restraint. He’s ready, and the ASC actors are expected to be too. After all, Wallace cautions, “If you ask, if you really ask, in this room, you will receive.”
That electric connection is disrupted by the format of our online classes. In our separate rooms, no one can see themselves being seen. When the participants watch the actors, they look away from their webcams, breaking “eye contact.”
Twelve of us logged on for the final session Saturday morning, when we were meant to try out the techniques we had learned by directing real actors. The actors performed a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream as they had done it in the production. We watched Titania (Andrea Bellamore) wake and fall in love with Bottom (Topher Embrey). Then, Wallace split the group into three breakout rooms in Zoom. Each group was assigned a tool to use (Rhetoric, Implicit Stage Directions, or Direct Address) to inspire a change to the scene. The actors would then rerun the scene, incorporating all three notes at once.
It was Embry’s first time being directed over videochat, though, he told me in an interview after the class, it probably won’t be the last. There’s a particular thrill in working with the kids, he said, whether it’s on Zoom or the workshops he did in person with the touring company. “I love seeing the excitement of someone saying, ‘I told them to make that choice!’” he says.
Our group (Implicit Stage Directions) wanted Bottom to wake Titania by tripping over her; Rhetoric wanted him to build to much louder volume when he decides to sing in order to prove “I am not afraid;” and Direct Address wanted to make more use of the only audience available. They asked Bottom to begin next to the laptop, in “kind of a found footage horror thing.” The last was my favorite of the adjustments, and the one that did the most to capitalize on our odd format.
Ultimately, there were a few things Embrey got to try out with us that he would have liked to incorporate into his performance. He loved the suggestion that he wake an invisible Titania by tripping over her. “Unfortunately we’ve closed that show,” he said ruefully, “so I can’t make those choices anymore.”
Instead, he’s hosting a Hot Topics Talkback every Tuesday with fellow ASC actor Constance Swain and covering topics like the future of online theater. He came to the theater for the April 23rd celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, where “it was very weird not to hug anyone.”
Embrey imagines that, when the theaters first reopen, intimate scenes will be blocked differently. Thinking of the season that was scheduled for the summer and fall, he exclaims, “Thank goodness I’m not playing Othello and I don’t have a Desdemona to kiss!” No matter what, as an actor, he expects to take risks, and the challenge will just be finding the right risks to take, that serve the actor, the audience, and the story.
Doing the workshop was his first time back on a stage since the show taped, and it seemed to unstopper his longing to perform again. Following the weekend, he had a pair of intense dreams about being blocked from performing—once due to a missing pair of pants for his Clotten costume, once by a white Dromio that a racist audience demanded to see instead of him. In both dreams, he ultimately found a way to go on with the show.
Back in the socially distanced world, the actors talked about the direction they were given, the students offered some feedback on whether things had gone as they envisioned, and then everyone broke into new groups for new changes. At the end, a small girl gave her concluding thoughts: “I think it’s amazing how many versions you can make without changing the words.”
Every troupe that takes up Shakespeare has had the same moment of revelation. Production by production, even night by night, the shows are always different, even as the words stay the same. The responsiveness that the ASC has cultivated in their brightly lit room will, hopefully, keep them finding ways to make the text come alive, even at a time when everything in the world is changing except the words.