"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Shakespeare in the Shenandoahs

I have been attending a Shakespeare Conference in Staunton, Virginia – a town the size of Columbus, situated in the foothills of the Shenandoah mountains. Staunton is still on ‘our’ side of the mountains (the yuppie Washington, DC side), but not far from the hillbilly reaches of West Virginia, maybe 50 miles west on I-64. Most of us DC-dwellers get a little nervous if we travel too far west, get the willies when we see the mountains looming in the distance. We have to drive through the hollers, past the double-wides and through the wood-fire smoke of ramshackle cabins and into the dark shadows over narrow creeks, before we get to the mountain resorts that cater to us, and we don’t like the trip..

Staunton is in the lee of the mountains, a mill town with colonial history. Because the town was located at the geographical center of the colony (which then included West Virginia) Staunton served between 1738 and 1771 as regional capital for what was known as the Northwest Territory, with the westernmost courthouse in British North America prior to the Revolution.   By 1760, Staunton was one of the major "remote trading centers in the backcountry" which coordinated the transportation of the vast amounts of grain and tobacco then being produced in response to the change of Britain from a net exporter of produce to an importer. Staunton thus played a crucial role in the mid 18th century expansion of the economies of the American colonies which, in turn, contributed to the success of the American Revolution.

Staunton has remained authentic – that is, it has not gussied its one-street downtown, nor created kitschy Gift Shoppes smelling of scented candles and herb potpourris, with chocolate-on-the pillow B&Bs. Staunton is as it was with tasteful concessions to Washington – the old mills, warehouses, and train depots have been kept intact, with a few restaurants, bistrots and bars unobtrusively built into original industrial brick. Freight trains still run the tracks behind the Mill Street Grill where the bar is local and active, and the ribs and prime ribs are top-of-the line.

There is no particular reason why the American Shakespeare Center was founded here in 1988 except for the vision of a few Shakespeare-lovers and a sense of community engagement. According to the website, “The American Shakespeare Center recovers the joys and accessibility of Shakespeare's theatre, language, and humanity by exploring the English Renaissance stage and its practices through performance and education... The American Shakespeare Center -- through its performances, theatres, exhibitions, and educational programs -- seeks to make Shakespeare, the joys of theatre and language, and the communal experience of the Renaissance stage accessible to all. By re-creating Renaissance conditions of performance, the ASC explores its repertory of plays for a better understanding of these great works and of the human theatrical enterprise past, present, and future”.

The Center was made possible because of the vision of committed scholars (especially Ralph Alan Cohen), the support of a local college (Mary Baldwin) and the community of Staunton. I spoke with the main guru of the Center, Stephen Moore, the elder statesman of the Center, Shakespeare scholar, and committed Shakespeare evangelist, and chatted about my experience in Columbus, where Brenda Caradine has done for Tennessee Williams what he and Cohen have done for Shakespeare in Staunton. Through individual vision and community commitment, both towns have created a national if not international reputation for scholarship and theatrical excellence.

The Blackfriars Shakespeare Conference is held every other year, and this was my first visit since my recent rediscovery of Shakespeare. I studied Shakespeare as an English major at Yale many years ago, but it didn’t take. I left Yale with only a smudge of Elizabethan drama on my personal history; but 45 years later, after travel, adventures and misadventures throughout the world, I had a revelation – history, current events, contemporary politics were increasingly predictable and repetitive. I needed to go to the fundament – the basis for history, human nature. Shakespeare’s Histories provided that needed insight, that foundation, and that anchor. For the last year I have done nothing else but immerse myself in Shakespeare.

This was my first academic conference. I was the outsider, the outlier, the neophyte, the ingénue. I knew that academics could be an arrogant, insufferable lot, but I chanced it – why not? I needed to learn so much. The conference was as I expected, presentations on “Why there are no blowjobs in Shakespeare”, “Meta-theatre as Moral Compass in Lo findingo verdadero”, and “Staging Amorphus’ Face-painting Scene in Cynthia’s Revels”; but there were some revelations – my own epiphany after a brilliant presentation on directing and acting Shakespeare, where, through an application of Stanislavski’s principles, the actress playing Constance in King John made me cry.

I am looking out over Staunton now, at dusk and the yellowing sky, a crescent moon, and the mill buildings over the creek in the fading light. It has been a good week, far from Washington, DC, the insanity and inanity of its politics, and a delightful sojourn in Elizabethan England.

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