Late in Act II of “Othello,” James Keegan, in the role of Iago, lays out his plan for vengeance against the title character. Having been passed over for a promotion, Iago, full of anger and entitlement, asks “How am I, then, the villain?”
“You’re just so mean,” answered someone in the audience.
In any other setting, it would have been a deeply uncomfortable violation of the fourth wall – the convention separating actors and the audience. But at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse, it’s almost expected.
Beneath Blackfrairs’ bright house lights, the fourth wall vanishes. All the theater’s a stage, and everyone can become a player. King Lear may wipe his hand on you as he notes that “it smells of mortality.” Falstaff might switch places with you while hiding in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” You may be employed as a coat rack on stage.
This is no crushed velvet Shakespeare, as the ASC’s co-founders Ralph A. Cohen and Jim Warren refer to the kind of twee performances that have been synonymous with Shakespeare since Victorian times.
At Blackfriars, you see Shakespeare as the Bard himself would have done it. That means fast-paced dialogue, few props, and a fully lit house. It can feel like sitting courtside at a basketball game. “You are literally part of the show,” Cohen says.
The ASC grew out of the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, a seat-of-the-pants traveling troupe, founded by Cohen and Warren in 1988, that brought Shakespeare to schools, churches, and anywhere audiences craved the classics.
By 2000, the Express had performed in 47 states, as well as at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, and Shakespeare’s Globe in London. Shortly thereafter, the troupe renamed itself Shenandoah Shakespeare and took up residence at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton. In 2005, it changed its name again, this time to the American Shakespeare Center.
Over 35 years, the troupe – regardless of its name – has earned a reputation for producing, in Cohen’s words, “bedrock Shakespeare.”
More than 400 years after his death, William Shakespeare remains a master of the human condition. We find his words on the lips of high school students, prisoners serving life sentences, and some of the greatest actors in history.
The love of language drives every Blackfriars performance. The ASC maintains an extensive archive of Shakespearian research to help actors find just the right tone for their performances. The work starts with immersing them in the text of the plays. Sometimes that means a word-for-word breakdown of their lines, a method Cohen developed to ensure that 21st century actors have a full grasp of the emotional heft embedded in sometimes-perplexing Elizabethan English.
Then there’s the playhouse, which is based on the original Blackfriars Theatre in London, a venue co-owned by Shakespeare. The 300-seat modern replica is smaller than the original and the wrought-iron chandeliers have electric lights rather than dripping candles, but otherwise architect Tom McLaughlin’s $3.7 million theater remains as true as possible to its predecessor, which was demolished in 1655.
“Perhaps more than any theater in America, ASC reminds contemporary American audiences of what a true Shakespearian experience might feel like,” says Nathaniel Shaw, executive artistic director of The New Theatre in Richmond.
Blackfriars’ signature feature is its universal lighting – a fancy term for “we do it with the lights on,” which serves as the theater’s catchphrase. Beneath those bright lights, actors and audience alike have no place to hide.
“You come to the theater to connect. You come to be part of something,” says Brandon Carter, artistic director. “What better way than to have the lights all the way up and someone take a line to you and change your mood or change your day or bring you into the play or call you out? It’s almost like church in that way.”
The best example of the ASC’s approach is found in its actors’ renaissance productions, a process in which a 12- to 15-member acting company performs four plays in a rotating repertory, rehearsing each of them no more than 10 days, without directors. “It is the heart and soul of the place,” Carter says.
Blackfriars also stages directed shows, but the actors’ renaissance productions have been a feature since the beginning, having started as a way to increase attendance during the slow winter months. “The idea was the actors are taking back over,” says Lia Wallace, the ASC’s performance studies manager. “There’s nobody between the actors and the choices you’re seeing them make on stage.”
Like Shakespeare’s company before them, the ASC’s performers bring their own lived experiences to characters. They negotiate the essence of each scene among themselves. Rehearsals are brief and bare-boned. The risk of things going pear-shaped runs high, even with a cast of veteran actors. “They know how to memorize Shakespeare quickly and they have a certain comfort level with screwing up on stage in front of people, because there’s a lot of potential for that,” says actor James Keegan.
Keegan admits these kinds of performances make him uncomfortable, but says that is part of the magic. “The audience is really there with you,” he says. “They’re both waiting for the train wreck and also hoping you make it through.”
The best part of this style is watching a troupe get a performance to a place where it’s good enough to show and then letting it grow with the audience, Wallace says.
“The play that opens is not going to be the play that closes,” she says. “We learn so much based on where people actually laugh or where they actually gasp or where they totally do not think that thing that we found so funny in rehearsal plays at all.”
Carter sees the egalitarian nature of actors’ renaissance productions as crucial to bringing new voices and new experiences into Shakespeare, the ultimate in “dead white guy” literature.
“Speaking as a black man, it’s tough to get into some of those roles because they weren’t written for me,” he says. “My mission is to break the legacy and culture surrounding the classics and try to create a symbiotic relationship between the canon and new voices.”
That means moving away from old-school performances to make room for others, he says.
“When you put a black body, a Latinx body, a woman, a white woman, or a trans person in this, they’re going to bring some flavor to it,” Carter says. “I think us taking the time to investigate that in the room is the most important thing. It’s just everybody having a hand at the table – that’s how you keep this alive.”
Carter, 35, took over as artistic director in 2022 after a period when the ASC found itself tempest-tossed by the COVID-19 pandemic and management issues. “In the midst of COVID and an identity crisis, he provided a port in the storm,” says The New Theatre’s Shaw. “He brings his entire self to his leadership work as well as to his artistic work.”
For Shaw, the future of American theater depends on leaders like Carter. “We have come through a tumultuous time in the American theater,” he says. “And we may just be peeking through the clouds at better times.”
A descendent of generations of Northern Neck fishermen, Carter fell in love with Shakespeare as a teenager in Heathsville and majored in theater at Longwood University. He came to the ASC in 2018 after stints with the National Black Theatre and the Classical Theater of Harlem.
An example of Carter’s philosophy can be found in the casting of Sarah Fallon, a ASC veteran, as Prospero, the (male) lead character of “The Tempest,” a move that in turn inspired actor Tevin Davis to put a new spin on Caliban.
“The Tempest” was paired with a performance of “Une Tempête,” a 1960s-era post-colonial reimagining of Shakespeare’s work focused on the treatment of Ariel and Caliban, two characters who are enslaved by Prospero. Both performances used the same actors, in many cases playing the same parts.
“As a community member, I think the most important thing is making sure we’re a hub to have those important conversations,” Carter says. “I love Staunton. I would do anything I can to make sure people can come here and be themselves and see themselves on the stage.”