Tuesday, October 06, 2009


The Blackfriars Theatre in Staunton, Va is gorgeous, a warmly lit, wood paneled auditorium, in which the stage does not feel entirely distinct from the audience area. It's fun to play in. I can say that because, even though I wasn't on stage but only in the audience, the audience feels more like performers than in most theaters I've been in. This is sometimes merely distracting, but more often than not, awareness of fellow audience members blurs the line between stage and onstage in a way that makes the performance feel more intimate. Although the 'house acting style' is dramatic, big, and fast, the performance ends up feeling more like a highly entertaining, animated dinner party, at which we happen to be hanging around people more obviously alive (or revealed) than we're accustomed to meeting in our day-to-day life.

The differences between American Shakespeare Center and Shakespeare & Company are instructive. ASC is technically precise--the diction is Heightened General American, no tapped rs where ts should be, and the u is liquid (except in character dialects)--where Shake & Co. can get slurry. I also think that the ensemble playing at American Shakes is stronger than at Shake & Co. But, Shake & Co. remains (for me) unmatched in its textual clarity. I've heard beats at Shake & Co. I've never heard elsewhere. The textual clarity is due, in part, to the very strong internal work for which Shake & Co. is known, and in part to their stubborn insistence on playing line endings, which can be awkward, but revelatory. Shake & Co. is more contemporary; ASC, closer to 'original practices.' Both styles have their revelations.

Perhaps it would be fair to say that Oregon Shakespeare Festival combines the strengths of both companies--OSF, of course, having the benefit of massive budgets, far-lengthier rehearsal periods, larger casts, and resources such as on-call voice coaches, movement, and other workshops at the actors' disposal.

I would give my eye teeth to work at ASC. The work this weekend was frequently outstanding; e.g., this was the only MERRY WIVES I've seen that had a beating heart, with the only mw Falstaff that didn't alienate me, thanks to the charming, adroit, and protean James Keegan. Also, the atmosphere of the company felt healthy, with a fresh sense of openness to outsiders and would-be additions (e.g., auditioning actors) that can be missing, elsewhere. Of course, this was true of Staunton, generally. People all over were friendly to me in a way I don't always find true in New England and the Berkshires, where denizens can feel more full of themselves--the difference, perhaps, being merely that between New England taciturnity and Southern loquacity. I tend to prefer the later.


waylon wood said...

I am now following your blog. I live in Asheville and am a playwright/actor in that order. Fascinating to hear you talk about Shakespeare and the different approaches. Sometimes I feel not intelligent enough to speak about it. The limited amount of Shakespeare I have done has had little to know technique behind it. Great read.

David Millstone said...

Waylon - thank you for tuning in, but I have to deny flatly that there's any likelihood that you're not intelligent enough for Shakespeare! Hogwash. Intellectually, all you need to know can be learned in an afternoon--well, ok, maybe a week--and then one has a lifetime of letting it sink in.

I'm NO SCHOLAR, nor expert in any way shape or form, brother! I'm an actor and audience member who experiences tremendous pleasure and comes to know himself and the world better by seeing, hearing, and doing Shakespeare. That's it, bro. That's it.

David Millstone said...

(... in fact, I'd go a little further and say I'M a little stupid about Shakespeare, but, it hasn't stopped me yet....)

Jeremy said...

How did the Falstaff compare with the one in Henry IV (or was it the same actor)?

Michael said...


As a student at Mary Baldwin College studying in the MLitt/MFA graduate in partnership with the ASC, I enjoyed your article. I'm not extremely familiar with Shakespeare & Co. so it was informative to read what outsiders have to say about how they perceive the performances at the Blackfriar's. I, too, haven't experience performances the way I have at the Blackfriar's. When I first moved here in August, I had no idea what to expect from the program. I have come to really enjoy the audience experience, something that is very foreign to a background of performing in proscenium arch theaters.

To Waylon - As i study more and more about the language of Shakespeare, you do not have to be a scholar to understand Shakespeare. 98% of the words written in the Early Modern English language are still used.

To Jeremy - Yes, James Keegan plays both the Falstaff of Merry Wives of Windsor and the Falstaff of Henry IV Part 1.

Dennis Baker said...

Been wanting to get down to ASC. Love OSF and have not been able to experience Shakes & Co., as I tried to take a weekend class, but schedule did not work out. Though, it seems Shakes & Co. is having some troubles. http://tinyurl.com/ykncl6l

Let me know when you get to Philly. Only about 90 minutes north and love to finally meet up.