Shakespeare touring company returns to UT for annual production

While traditional stage productions usually keep the performers and the audience separated, the American Shakespeare Center’s productions take pride in including audience members in every performance.

The American Shakespeare Center, returning to UT for the fifth time, is collaborating with UT’s Shakespeare at Winedale program to present two Shakespeare plays, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “Henry IV, Part I,” this Monday and Tuesday.

The center, located in Staunton, Va., has constructed an indoor theater, the Blackfriars Playhouse, which resembles Shakespeare’s original indoor theater.

These productions differ from traditional theater productions in the way that the actors interact with their audiences.

“Most of the time you go into a theater and the lights are turned off,” said Stephanie Holladay Earl, an actress at the center. “There’s this imaginary, forced wall between the actors and audience. However, we don’t turn off the lights. We stage our plays in universal lighting because in Shakespeare’s time, the plays were staged in either candlelight or sunlight.” 

These plays often involve a lot of variables and unexpected moments because the actors cannot predict how audience members will react to the dialogues thrown at them during the show.

“Because we interact with the audience and involve them in our stories, a lot of things change in the performance based on how the audience might react in a particular scene,” Earl said. “If I point to a member of the audience and give them a line to speak, that person may laugh or may look embarrassed and turn red.”

Speaking directly to the audience during the show makes for a more engaging experience, center actress Bridget Rue said.

Rue said many of the dialogues in Shakespeare’s plays are in the form of direct speeches, which makes it easier for the actors to enact when they address the audience members directly.

“It causes a lot of comedy oftentimes,” Rue said. “There’s a moment in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ when Lysander is lying asleep and my character, Helena, has to discover him and say, ‘But who lies here?’ In the original play she is in the dark, but here I am on stage with all the lights on, and I have to pretend like I don’t see the body lying there. I realized I could just cross him and ask an audience member, ‘But who lies here?’ When I did that, and they shook their head and pretended like they didn’t know, I could just look at them and ask them, ‘Are you kidding? You haven’t been watching the play?’”

This style of performance creates a more natural conversation with the audience, according to Rue.

The center’s actors often have to write entire dialogues for the plays themselves and rehearse their parts well before the first day of rehearsal without interacting with any of the other actors.

“Lady Mortimer cannot speak English. She only speaks in Welsh,” Rue said. “I got to write the dialogues for her. I had to learn some Welsh, because in the script it just says, ‘Lady speaks in Welsh.’ I had to practice speaking in Welsh and get all of this done before the first day.”

The center’s productions are most often performed on a thrust stage, where the actors are surrounded on three sides by the audience to allow for more interaction.

“We also have what’s called a ‘Renaissance Run,’” Rue said. “On the first day of rehearsal, we all show up with our lines completely memorized. We meet each other for the first time and we rehearse the play without the director. We end up having to become a team from day one, and the principle behind that is that Shakespeare’s actors would have rehearsed plays in a pretty similar way. It’s only us trying to negotiate and communicate with each other.” 

This approach to rehearsing the plays allows rehearsal periods to be shorter and allows actors to put up more shows per year, according to Glenn Schudel, the center’s tour manager and assistant director.

Schudel said the center’s actors do not try to do the exact same thing that Shakespeare’s actors would have done. 

“We want to make audiences understand how modern Shakespeare can be,” Schudel said. “Because the things that he wrote about — power, ambition, jealousy, love, greed — are relevant even today. We want to tap into the beautiful language of Shakespeare and recreate the staging conditions that he wrote for. Audiences should look forward to being involved in the play themselves in a way that they’ve never been before.”