Shakespeare with the Experts
Over Spring Break, I and another student, Jacquelyn Loy, had the opportunity to travel to the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. We traveled with two current Catawba College professors, Dr. Aaron Butler and Linda Kesler, as well as two retired Catawba professors, Dr. Bethany Sinnott and James “Parkie” Parker, all of whom (in addition to another friend, Amy McCachren, a Catawba graduate who currently teaches art and theater at the American Renaissance Elementary School in Statesville, NC) call themselves “The Salisbury Shakespeare Quintet.”
Dr. Sinnott retired from the English department two years ago with over 30 years of teaching at Catawba under her belt. A self-proclaimed “Bard Fan,” she taught many classes on William Shakespeare during her tenure. Dr. Butler currently teaches a class on Shakespeare and Stuart Drama, of which I am a student, and recently presented a paper in October 2012 on The American Shakespeare Center at the Mid Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Linda Kesler teaches in the theater department at Catawba and Parkie retired from the theater department at Catawba with over 40 years of experience.
“The Quintet” travels to Staunton 3-4 times a year to take in several performances during their weekend trips. On Sunday mornings, the group gathers to play a Shakespeare board game where players must earn money, actors, and props in order to put on a show while answering Shakespeare trivia to gain their prizes, and here is the really fun part: they seem to know all the answers. During these trips, the group wears wonderful hats made by Parkie out of brocade fabric. To say they stand out is an understatement; everywhere we went admirers would comment on their hats. It was like being in the presence of Shakespeare celebrities.
We were blessed to see three plays, one by William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar), another by his contemporary John Fletcher (The Custom of the Country), and finally, a collaboration between the two playwrights (Henry VIII).
The talented actors put on five plays at one time during their current “Actor’s Renaissance Season” in which there is no formal director nor costume designer. Nine actors, five plays, and as bare bones as you can imagine. It’s just like in Shakespeare’s day. Because they strive to recreate the atmosphere, some attendees are allowed to sit on stage or invited to sit in boxes above the stage. At all times the lights are left on, allowing for interaction between the actors and the audience. As in Shakespeare’s day as well, contemporary music is played prior to the show and during the intermission, again by the same talented actors.
During Julius Caesar and The Custom of the Country, we sat in the front row, a little challenging on the neck at times, but so worth it for the intimacy it created with the actors on stage. I’m proud to report that I did not get any blood on me from Caesar’s death scene during Julius Caesar, but the woman sitting next to me was used as a prop for the actor’s foot during The Custom of the Country.
Although during Henry VIII we sat nine rows back, there was an still interaction with the actors that the audience doesn’t normally receive because the lights were still on. On several instances, the actors were able to make eye contact with me, and I really felt engaged in the performance. These actors are able to perform several plays and portray multiple characters in each performance.
Again, the intimate feeling of the Blackfriars Playhouse and the extreme talent of the actors at American Shakespeare Center made for an enjoyable experience. Witnessing and discussing Shakespeare with Catawba’s own Shakespeare experts was certainly a delight and a memory I will not soon forget.
For more information on the American Shakespeare Center and the Blackfriars Playhouse including information on Shakespeare’s staging conditions, actor biographies, and a list of the ASC’s seasons, visit American Shakespeare Center.