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With six productions available to watch online, Virginia's American Shakespeare Center is expanding its reach
Weeks before Broadway closed, Ethan McSweeny already knew live theatre was in trouble. "Our national touring company was the canary in the coal mine," says McSweeny, who's served as the artistic director of Virginia's American Shakespeare Center since 2018. "All our bookings at universities and clubs started canceling."
Instead of panicking, he began planning. Figuring it was just a matter of time before ASC's 300-seat Blackfriars Playhouse in the Shenandoah Valley would be forced to shutter, he decided to film all current or in-rehearsal productions. While other regional theatres got one, maybe two shows in the can before the pandemic hit, ASC shot seven: four mainstage productions (Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, Much Ado About Nothing, and Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher's A King and No King) as well as three touring shows (a family-friendly one-act version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a stage adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and an adaptation of Cymbeline rechristened Imogen that will be used in conjunction with the theatre's education programs). All, save for the last title, are available to watch online with tickets starting at $10.
McSweeny's extensive theatre directing credits include A Time to Kill and the 2000 revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man on Broadway, yet he'd never hankered to helm a film. But he did so out of necessity, overseeing four-camera shoots of each show. "We filmed all of them in one take, from beginning to end, with an audience of about 10 people," he says. There were no retakes or fancy editing tricks. He wanted the experience to feel as close to being there as possible. "We were looking to capture the raw energy," he says. "The most exciting one is Henry IV, Part I as it was the only full run-through of that show and it was the company's last time onstage together. It's a little bit of lightning in a bottle."
In addition to generating income and keeping the actors employed a bit longer, ASC's streaming platform, BlkFrsTV, spotlights the repertory company's singular attributes: its remarkable Blackfriars playing space, a painstaking recreation of Shakespeare's indoor theatre, and its historical approach to staging classical theatre.
Before taking over the reins at ASC, which was founded in 1988 as Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, McSweeny admits he was a "Shakespeare maximalist" from the "Michael Kahn or Julie Taymor school of directing." But ASC embraces vintage practices such as in-the-round staging, minimal design and perpetual house lights, and the productions in its Actors' Renaissance season don't even have directors.
McSweeny admits he "could not have been more skeptical" when he attended his first ASC production three years ago. "But then I saw the space and fell head over heels in love," he recalls. "Having been in a lot of concrete-and-steel culture palaces in my career, this is all wood, all made by hand, no seat farther from 40 feet downstage center—I thought, this is how we should be doing theatre."
He's hoping people who discover ASC online will feel the same way and that maybe, once theatres reopen, they will be inspired to come check out the company in person. "That's historically our biggest challenge," McSweeny says, referring to the need to attract audiences from beyond ASC's home of Staunton, VA, population 25,000. "Last time I checked, we've sold almost 3,000 streams—that's by household, not individuals. It definitely isn't replacing our business, but it's turned out to be an absolutely vital point of connection and gives us the ability to introduce our unique, director-less work to audiences who might not find their way to our small town."
McSweeny has been getting the word out about ASC's online offerings through interviews as well as TDF, which has sold tickets to most of the shows. It's the first time ASC has partnered with us, though hopefully not the last.
"The theatre industry is going to need TDF more than ever on the other side of this," McSweeny says. "We're going to be faced with the need to essentially reinvent some important aspects of live performance and you better believe TDF is going to play a crucial role."
He does predict that, even after the shutdown ends, online performances will still have value, especially when used to expand arts education. "It's hard to imagine the genie will go back in the bottle fully," McSweeny says. "Right now, student groups can stream a show, then they can have a class with an ASC educator via Zoom in which they direct two of the actors, learning how stage choices change things. Talk about reach and access! That aspect of digital theatre has got real long-term potential."
Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, Much Ado About Nothing and A King and No King are available to watch through May 10. Midsummer 90 and The Grapes of Wrath have no end date as of this writing. Tickets start at $10.
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Jessika Williams and Meg Rodgers, 2020 Actors' Renaissance company members. Photo by Michael Bailey and Lauren Parker.