My impromptu evening when the show couldn’t go on at American Shakespeare Center

How a moment of adversity became heartwarming when the audience and actors shared their love for the performing arts.

One by one, our beloved live theaters are reopening, and the level of anticipation cannot possibly be higher. This summer, Staunton, Virginia’s company at the American Shakespeare Center is starting with outdoor, socially distanced performances on the Mary Baldwin University campus, a few blocks (and a healthy uphill climb) from their home at the Blackfriars Playhouse. With one show already on its feet—Macbeth—and with two more shows set to open soon at Blackfriars—Henry V and All’s Well That Ends Well—before long the ASC will be back to its old, robust theatrical self.

Chris Johnston and Zoe Speas, to appear in ‘Macbeth.’ Photo by Lindsey Walters – Miscellaneous Media Photography.

I recently went to Staunton to catch their inaugural live production of Macbeth, and although I didn’t get to see the show itself, what I did see was something more heartwarming: a moment of adversity turned into an intimate evening where the audience and actors could share their love for the performing arts.

The road back to “the before times” will have its share of bumps and potholes, so perhaps it was inevitable that on this particular Saturday night, a family emergency detained the lead actor. And with understudies as yet unavailable (it’s early in the run), the performance had to be postponed.

Audience members were given the usual options (reschedule/refund), but we were also invited, free of charge, to visit with the rest of the cast before we headed out—and it’s a sign of the passionate audience base here that the overwhelming majority chose to stick around, just for an informal evening’s chat about the production, and for a chance to listen to some of the tunes that will be in the show.

(Among other highlights: given the nature of “The Scottish Tragedy,” Steely Dan fans will be pleased to know that “Dirty Work” features prominently.)

The outdoor venue for ‘Macbeth’: the Rose Terrace on the Mary Baldwin University campus. Photo courtesy of American Shakespeare Center.

What’s special about this summer’s outdoor venue, the Rose Terrace at Mary Baldwin University, is its intimacy; surrounded by thick hedges and red brick, with audience members close to the canopied stage action, it is the outdoor equivalent of Blackfriars. And the sweetest thing is to realize that when the cast tunes up to sing, the birds join in enthusiastically; there’s music literally everywhere you turn.

Veteran company member Zoe Speas served as our impromptu MC, and when she wasn’t holding forth on accordion she also gave us a demonstration of the Waterphone—one of the most bizarre-looking acoustic instruments you’ll ever see. Played with a bow, it can evoke some truly eerie sounds, half-moan, half-screech. Perfect for plays with witches and necromancy. The actors also discussed rehearsing some scenes in darkness at the Blackfriars—in broad daylight, it’s important for the actors to know how to use stage movement and vocal inflections to remind audiences when the action is set.

The outdoor venue for ‘Macbeth’: the Rose Terrace on the Mary Baldwin University campus. Photo courtesy of American Shakespeare Center.

We had a chance to talk more at length about the psychological issues with the Dark Scot (as he’s otherwise known), and Ms. Speas noted that there are questions surrounding Mrs. Macbeth, because although she conjures the dark spirits early on in the play, the question is when those spirits abandon or even betray her.

One of the highlights of any production of Macbeth is the stage combat, and although we’re accustomed to broadswords swinging high, the presence of low-hanging tension wires holding up the stage canopy has precluded that option here. In terms of period weaponry, be prepared for fights more focused on the smallsword; associated with the late 18th century, the smallsword was developed for thrusting, and hence should be easier to wield given the reduced height involved.

Brandon Carter, to appear in ‘Henry V.’ Photo by Lindsey Walters – Miscellaneous Media Photography.

Another highlight of our short evening together was an impromptu preview of Henry V, which is still in rehearsal; with Ms. Speas as Chorus, we were treated to nothing less than the Siege of Harfleur, with the English army spread across the width of the stage. Brandon Carter, who gave Prince Hal such a brilliant turn during the webcast of Henry IV this past year, stands tall in more ways than one as King Harry, and his stirring “Once more into the breach!” is more than ready for prime time. Carter is believed to be the first Black man in the U.S. to portray the title character in the three history plays tracing his journey to the throne (Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V), and I’m here to say it’s long past due, especially with a lead actor of Carter’s talents.

The city of Staunton, like the American Shakespeare Center, is bouncing back in a big way. Hit by the double-whammy of COVID and a catastrophic flash flood that left employees in some shops literally swimming from their stores to safety, the downtown is now pedestrian-friendly on weekends, with all your favorite restaurants back in business. Everyone there is primed and ready to get down to business, and a trip there should be in your near, near future.

Macbeth will run through September 5, 2021, at the Rose Terrace on the Mary Baldwin University campus, 203 Market Street, in Staunton Virginia (parking is available near the intersection of Academy and Market Streets). It will be joined by Henry V, premiering June 17, and All’s Well that Ends Well, premiering August 5, at the Blackfriars Playhouse.

For tickets and more information about the Actor’s Renaissance Summer 2021 Season, vislt or call 1-877-Much-Ado (1-877-682-4236).

A summer of live performances coming from American Shakespeare Center


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