Picture the scene. The year is 1599, the place is London-the south bank of the River Thames, to be exact. The venue is the newly-built Globe Theatre. It's midday. Sunlight streams down through the theater's open roof, bathing the stage and spectators in warm, natural light. The Lord Chamberlain's Men (Shakespeare's acting company) take the stage. A hush descends over the playhouse. An actor in regal attire speaks: "Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace." His voice carries to every part of the three-story structure. At the base of the stage, the "groundlings" stand in rapt attention. This is Shakespeare as he was meant to be experienced.
The American Shakespeare Center will attempt to recreate this experience during their performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11 at the Community Arts Center, 220 W. Fourth St.
Glenn Schudel is the assistant director of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and the ASC's tour manager. The Sun-Gazette caught up with Schudel to discuss the on-tour experience, the ASC's unique staging methods, the joys of "Midsummer" and Shakespeare's continuing relevance.
Based in Staunton, Va., the American Shakespeare Center is renowned for its staging practices, which seek to recreate the conditions of an Elizabethan or Jacobean playhouse. Whether it's universal lighting, minimal set design, the use of music, or actors taking on two or more roles in the play, the ASC's stage practices all work to the same end-to put on an authentic Shakespeare production.
"Our staging conditions are engaging in a way that modern theater-with all its technology, props and sets-can't be," Schudel said. Not having to wait for the lights to dim or for stage hands to change the scenery between acts means the plays move at a quicker pace than most modern productions.
"We keep things moving fluidly," Schudel said. "We want to carry you along on an experience in the same way Shakespeare's first audiences were carried along. His plays are intended to move quickly." Fast pacing lends immediacy to the plays, and is one of several methods the ASC uses to transport its audience into Shakespeare's world.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is one of three plays in the ASC's touring repertoire for the 2011-12 season. They will also perform "The Winter's Tale" and John Ford's "'Tis Pity She's a Whore" at select venues.
Schudel spoke about the experience of taking three plays on the road. "It's an interesting rotation," he said. "The three shows are very different both in terms of tone and in terms of what each one demands of the actors."
According to Schudel, having three plays to choose from also has its advantages. "It means that the play we're doing on any given night feels fresh. We're able to break the monotony of doing one play for an extended run. Being on tour also gives the actors a lot of time to live with these characters and find out new things about them. Our performances are always getting richer in that sense, too."
Since 1990, the ASC has performed "Midsummer" a total of nine times. This year's performance will be the tenth. That's a rate of about once every other year-a degree of frequency that begs the question: why is "Midsummer" such a popular play? According to Schudel, it's a matter of the heart.
"It's often thought of as a light and fluffy play, but we want to challenge that notion," Schudel said. "Our production wants to find the story at the heart of the play. We want to show real people dealing with real problems."
Those problems seem mostly to involve love, both the reciprocal and the unrequited kind. "The play is deceptively simple," Schudel said. "But when you really get down to it, it's about people looking for love. You've got this handful of love stories that all end happily. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of trouble along the way. Hermia and Lysander, who are very much in love, can't get married, and it's painful. Helena gets dumped by her fiance, and that hurts. To see these people fight for love and be rewarded for it in the end, that's what makes the play great."
The American Shakespeare Center is one of a handful of organizations whose mission is to bring Shakespeare to the people, to make his plays relevant and accessible to those outside the academy. "Shakespeare is viewed as sacred and precious in the academic realm," Schudel said. "We want to reintroduce his plays as public entertainment. After all, you're there to have fun. We also want to make Shakespeare alive and modern."
To hear Schudel tell it, the latter ambition doesn't require much work on their part. That's because Shakespeare is perpetually alive and modern. "We still study Shakespeare because he wrote about things we still care about," Schudel said. "He captured the universal in human experience-what it's like to be in love, to have power, to age, to grieve. These are things which are still so much a part of our world."
In this sense, Shakespeare has always been our contemporary. His ongoing relevance ensures that his plays will be accessible to everyone. Schudel was keen to emphasize this point. "I would tell anyone attending the play to come in wanting to have a good time," he said. "Don't give up if you don't understand everything in the first three to five minutes. It's easier than you think and a lot of fun."