18 November 2009

Blackfriars Playhouse in Virginia

My mother and I took a long weekend trip down to the Shenandoah Shakespeare in Staunton, Virginia, in May 2003 to check out their new theater, a replica of the Blackfriars of Jacobean London. Opened on Friday, 21 September 2001, the Blackfriars Playhouse is the only reconstruction of an indoor Renaissance theater in the world. Named for the theater Shakespeare’s King’s Men used in the winter months when the uncovered Globe was unsuitable, Shenandoah Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse was painstakingly designed and constructed according to the best research available, though there are no known visual representations or construction records of any of the hall theaters popular in the 17th century.

The original Blackfriars Theatres (there were two) were named for the disused Dominican monastery on whose grounds the playhouses were built. The property had become a crown possession after Henry VIII seized church holdings at the beginning of the English reformation. The first Blackfriars Theatre, called a “private” theater, was constructed in 1576 and housed mostly children’s troupes until 1585 when it was shut down. In 1596, James Burbage, impresario of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (and father of Richard Burbage who would become Shakespeare’s favorite actor), purchased another building on the property and converted it into a theater. The second Blackfriars remained host to boys’ companies, then much in vogue among the Elizabethan glitterati, until 1608, when the fashion had shifted, and James Burbage, who still owned the theater, took control of the Blackfriars for his troupe, now known as the King’s Men. There were seven shareholders in the King’s Men at the time, including Richard Burbage and William Shakespeare. After renovations, the King's Men started performing in Blackfriars in 1609, occupying it for the seven cold months of the year and moving to the open-air Globe, a “public” theater, during the summer. Records indicate that Blackfriars, though much smaller than the Globe, earned a little more than twice the income the more-famous outdoor theater did. Blackfriars closed in 1642 when Cromwell and the Roundhead parliament closed all the theaters and, having fallen into disrepair, was demolished on 6 August 1655. (The rest of the former monastery was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. The property now forms part of the Blackfriars district of central London.)

Little is certain about the appearance, either outside or inside, of the private theaters of the 16th and 17th centuries. There are scattered references but no actual records, drawings, or detailed descriptions. Modern renderings of the indoor or hall theaters are based largely on speculation and interpolation. (In contrast, though the original Globe was largely unknown until part of the foundations was uncovered in October 1989, the public, or outdoor, theaters were documented more thoroughly. The many “reproductions” of the Globe before 1989, however, were principally based on combinations of the Theatre and the Swan.) Some things were know, however, or at least commonly accepted, about the design of the hall theaters, enough to devise an approximation of their appearance, some of which beliefs were used in the design of the Staunton Blackfriars Playhouse. For instance, English Renaissance theaters were modeled on period banquet halls where theatrical performances were given. There are also plans for hall theaters, such as one by the great Tudor architect and stage designer Inigo Jones, that were never built. Finally, some assumptions can be made about the configuration of the private theaters from an analysis of Shakespeare’s stage directions.

Let me back up a bit now and summarize the history of the company that built the new Blackfriars Playhouse. In 1988, Dr. Ralph A. Cohen, an English professor and Shakespearean scholar at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and his former student and principal “classroom actor” James Warren (who had just graduated) formed Shenandoah Shakespeare Express (known as SSE), a touring troupe whose mission was to stage the plays of Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries without all the modern accouterments that had been added over the centuries. As Cohen asserts, “It seemed that the more elaborate the setting, the more the [audience’s] interest dropped.” His research revealed, for instance, that the custom of turning down the house lights was only as old as the middle of the 19th century (with the advent of gaslight) and that other modern theatrical conventions, such as “period” costumes and detailed sets, were not part of the Renaissance theater experience. (We have limited knowledge about what English Renaissance theater performances were actually like.) That first season, SSE toured the Old Dominion with Richard III; the next year, the troupe took Taming of the Shrew to Delaware, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. In 1992, SSE performed in the Elizabethan theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and traveled to London and Edinburgh’s Finge Fesitval. So it went until 1999 when the company moved permanently to Staunton, Virginia, and renamed itself Shenandoah Shakespeare (known as S2). That same year, S2 began plans for building its own home theater, a replica of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars, and following that, a Globe reproduction. The concept was modeled on Ashland’s famous and successful Oregon Shakespeare Festival whose draw Staunton hopes to emulate to make the city "a Shakespeare destination." (The company has many programs in addition to its productions, some in collaboration with Mary Baldwin College.) In 2001, as reported, S2 completed the first part of its plan and opened the Blackfriars Playhouse with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream and a season including Hamlet, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. In 2005, S2 became the American Shakespeare Center. The resident company of about a dozen members produces four full “seasons” a year, in the summer, fall, winter, and spring, comprised of three to five plays in rep; the company simultaneously sends two touring troupes around the state, the country, and the world.

The little city of Staunton (population about 24,000), the seat of Augusta County, is itself a historic spot. In the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, it’s the home of Mary Baldwin College and the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, our 28th president. (His home is now the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library.) Founded in 1747, the historic downtown district is architecturally restricted so that it maintains a largely mid-19th- to early 20th-century look and has been used as a location for several period films. (I will add here that Staunton’s also the original home of Augusta Academy, the institution established in 1749 that eventually became Washington and Lee University, my alma mater.) Staunton (which is pronounced ‘STAN-tun,’ despite its spelling) lies just off I-81 and is a drive of about three hours southwest of Washington or two hours northwest of Richmond. It’s about 375 miles southwest of New York City.

The Blackfriars Playhouse is located at 10 South Market Street, in the historic district (which is only about four blocks long and two or three wide), a half block off East Beverly Street, the town’s main drag. It sits on a small lot next to the renovated Stonewall Jackson Hotel, which first opened in 1924. The 14,500 square-foot playhouse took 13 months to complete at a cost of $3.7 million. (Estimates are that ASC’s Globe recreation will cost $20-30 million when it’s built on a nearby site.) The city of Staunton put up $2 million of the price tag. We know that Tom McLaughlin’s blueprint for the Staunton Blackfriars, which he based principally on the 1616 Inigo Jones plans for an unrealized theater, isn’t actually the historical London Blackfriars. Since there’s no actual record of that theater still extant, McLaughlin took his inspiration from Tudor rooms such as Middle Temple Hall, the Hall at Gray’s Inn, and Westminster Hall. The architect did research at the Folger Shakespeare Library, which contains the largest collection of print Shakespeareana in the world, where he consulted legal and archeological records; he also conferred with experts on Elizabethan theatrical design and construction. (For the outer building, McLaughlin saw MIT’s Baker Dormitory and Sever Hall at Harvard as models.) Even if the details are fudged, however, the overall appearance is convincing.

The playhouse is exactly what it's reported to be as far as I could tell. I looks like a very faithful approximation of a 17th-century hall theater though the exterior is only vaguely Tudor. Architect Tom McLaughlin says the building has an “astylistic and vernacular exterior that fits into the historical and architectural context of Staunton.” ArchitectureWeek asserts that it “pretends to be neither as old as the other buildings in Staunton nor jarringly modern,” which is an accurate characterization. The timbered front alludes to Tudor structures (with a touch of the Alpine chalets of both Switzerland and Colorado--the Washington Post compares it to “a fire station in Telluride”). The building “echoes older buildings” in town without replicating them. The peaked-roof exterior gives off “dark earthy tones” of red-brown brick with dark gray mortar. There is a rounded, windowed corner at the south end of the façade that houses the lobby staircase inside.

Through the double doors of the entrance, under a sort of marquee--reminiscent of the gables of the old inns that predated the public theaters--with tall windows on either side and a long window above, is the modern lobby, mostly undecorated (at least when I was there six years ago). The Washington Post describes the space as “austere and forgettable” so that “walking into the theater itself is the moment of drama.” The lobby, indeed, acts as a sort of portal between the 21st century and the 17th century of the playhouse auditorium and stage. "If Shakespeare walked into the lobby of this theater, he'd freak out," says a member of the company. "Inside, Shakespeare would recognize it immediately."

Patrons enter the auditorium either from the ground-floor lobby or by climbing the stairs in the left corner to the upper lobby and the gallery. Inside, the walls are timbered white plaster and the construction is mostly unpainted and undecorated blond wood with a high-gloss finish. The seating accommodates 300 spectators plus standing room for 20 more. (This is in contrast to the 500-1000 spectators of the original Blackfriars, which wasn’t restricted by fire laws and occupancy regulations. ASC artistic director Jim Warren also observes that Shakespeare’s 17th-century patrons “had skinnier butts.”) The auditorium is 66 feet by 54 feet, lit by electric chandeliers and sconces in the galleries, all crafted from hand-forged iron and designed to resemble the candle-lit counterparts of the 17th century. (There are no windows in the auditorium, though in Renaissance halls there usually were. Since performances were traditionally in daylight, the windows would have provided additional natural illumination, but the Staunton Blackfriars occupies the entire building site and city codes don’t permit windows on shared property lines.)

The auditorium is all post-and-beam construction, almost entirely hand-turned from Virginia white oak by local artisans. The Shenandoah Valley has been producing master woodworkers for centuries and the carpenters “considered the interior to be of the quality of fine furniture,” according to architect McLaughlin, a Richmond resident. “This started out as a job,” explained one of the craftsmen, “but it got to be more than just what we do for living.” Almost echoing McLaughlin’s thought, he added, “This was special.” The private Renaissance theaters were generally painted, gilded, and faux-marbled and were probably further decorated with hangings, but the Staunton Shakespeareans were loath to cover up the natural look of the carving. It's all obviously carefully created and lovingly done.

The three-foot-high thrust stage is 22 feet deep and 30 feet across. At the rear of the platform is the traditional Elizabethan tiring house. (The tiring house façade has been painted faux-marbre since my visit.) The upstage discovery space is flanked by two doors for entrances and exits. Above the curtained opening is a gallery of 8 feet by 30 feet with staircases descending to the stage on both sides. The floor of the platform is equipped with a trapdoor, as befits the Elizabethan reproduction; however, the trap has a motorized lift to hoist the spooky characters and ghosts into view. (The backstage area is also less period-accurate. There are dressing rooms, a green room, a kitchen and eating area, a wardrobe room, sewing tables, and other modern theater accommodations, not to mention elevators for handicap access and heating, cooling, and electrical equipment.) Except for occasional stage properties, no more than a throne, a tomb, or a table, the stage is unadorned for performances; the architectural backdrop of the theater is the only set. Hand props and costumes, which at ASC may be vaguely modern, vagely Renaissance, or sometimes a mix of both with carefully selected “period” elements added, are the only other assistance the actors use to supplement the playwright’s words.

From the start in 1988, the company used "original staging practices,” techniques that align with what we know to be Elizabethan, or what we've guessed they did then. "We've invented a lot of tricks in the theater in the last 400 years," says ASC executive director Cohen. "We want to uncover some of the magic that tends to get masked by all those tricks." This includes “natural” lighting (that is, no spotlights or other modern stage instruments); the lights never go out in the Blackfriars Playhouse. ("Shenandoah Shakespeare--We do it with the lights on!" is their slogan.) The audience and the actors can see one another all the time, and the spectators can see and hear each other. The audience is seated on three sides of the thrust stage, and there are even "Gallants' Stools" on stage for those who wish to approximate that Jacobean experience. The actors often interact with the spectators, eschewing any pretense of a “fourth” wall. Spectators who decide to occupy the Gallants’ Stools on stage are even required to agree to serve as extras. The seating, on benches (though there are cushions and seat backs for rent), is at floor level and in a balcony a storey above. (There are actually two levels of galleries, but the lower one is only a step or two above the auditorium floor.) There are a few “Lord’s Chairs” available for those of us too uncomfortable to sit on the benches.

Casting practices include doubling (and even tripling) so that most actors perform several roles. (Plays are performed in rep so actors play roles in most of the productions of a season.) Unlike the Elizabethan and Jacobean practice, the company casts women, but is committed to gender-switching. Just as the King’s Men cast men and boys as women in Shakespeare’s plays, ASC casts women in men’s roles as well. Music, often composed by company members, is an integral part of ASC productions: all performances are prefaced by music and most include musical interludes or intervals, all of it done live and unamplified. They do have an intermission (filled with skits and entertainments--of a decidedly un-Elizabethan timbre--if spectators wish to stay in their seats), but there are no other gaps in the performance; a scene starts as the previous one is ending--or at least as the actors are exiting. Plays are generally performed within Shakespeare’s mandated "Two hours' traffic of our stage." These fundamental practices impelled the construction of the Blackfriars Playhouse.

[I’ve decided it would be interesting to post my report on the visit I made to Staunton in 2003 to see the Shenandoah Shakespeare, as it was then known, in their new Blackfriars home. Look for that column from my archives in a few days on ROT.]

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