“A King and No King has never been professionally staged in the DC metropolitan area before, and it’s our fifth play from the early modern era that we can say that about, in just six years of production. Five of the plays we’ve done are four hundred years old and have never been done in this area. So that’s what we find really exciting: in this community of so much great theatre, we’re still able to introduce new things to an audience.”
There are lots of (to use the preferred term these days) emerging companies in town, but few have a mission as clear and as distinct as does Brave Spirits Theatre. I had the chance recently to speak with Charlene V. Smith, Producing Artistic Director of BST, in advance of its upcoming repertory that will feature two plays from the era to which the company is devoted.
“Brave Spirits is really interested in the other plays of Shakespeare’s era that we don’t get to see so often. That’s actually been an interest in my life for a long time, that started in undergrad. I had a professor in the English Department who taught a class on the drama of the era without a single Shakespeare play.” That professor was James Savage, teaching at William and Mary.
“His philosophy was that, even without Shakespeare, the English early modern stage would have been one of the best periods for drama ever. And I think that’s really true. We sometimes forget it because Shakespeare is such a genius. We forget that the entire era was chockfull of amazing drama that the country could see. It was a theatre-going country.
“We really want to show people these plays that Shakespeare was writing around, because it also will help us understand him better. And they’re good plays in their own right. Sometimes these plays get a bad rap as being very stuffy, being ‘great literature.’ We sort of think of them as up on a pedestal. But the things that happen in these plays are gross and disturbing and violent and awful and shocking, even 400 years later.
“Incest is one of those things that shows up quite a bit in honor plays and their source material, not just these two plays. It’s something that is still shocking to this day and still disturbing and still conjures up a lot of strong feelings.
“’Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford is one of the better-known plays of that era not by Shakespeare. When I tell people that we’re doing ‘The Incest Rep,’ if they’re able to guess one of the titles, it is that one. And it’s had a few productions here in DC.
“But then I was introduced to [Francis] Beaumont and [John] Fletcher’s A King and No King in grad school. When I read it, I just thought it was delightful. I liked the idea of putting the two plays together, not only because I could be cheeky and call it ‘The Incest Rep,’ but because they are so different tonally. The way they deal with brother-and-sister incest goes in completely different directions.
“In ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the very first scene jumps right into the question. In A King and No King, it takes until Act Three before the brother and sister even see each other. They’re royalty, they’ve been separated for a really long time, raised separately. So the two plays have this jumping off point before they go in very different directions.
“’Tis Pity She’s a Whore is a lot more violent and gruesome. It is up-and-up a tragedy. It does not go well. It’s very dark. There’re a lot of characters concerned with revenge. It’s technically a play from the beginning of what they call the Carolean era, but people tend to misidentify it as a Jacobean play because revenge tragedy was huge in the Jacobean era.
“’Tis Pity was probably written right after what’s considered the switch between Jacobean to Carolean, King James to Charles. It takes the Jacobean revenge tragedy genre and doubles down on it. Generally, there’s one revenge plot, and in ’Tis Pity, there’re five of them. There’s all these people out to get revenge. So that ends up with a lot of people dying.
“A King and No King is what’s classified academically as a tragicomedy, but it feels pretty comedic. Tragicomedy means that it seems like it could end in tragedy, and then manages to pull out a happy ending. But it’s quite funny, as it goes along. There’s some really ridiculous characters and situations, so it’s very different. Both plays are very fun, but in very different ways.”
Smith will direct one of the plays in the rep. “Cassie Ash is directing A King and No King and I’m directing ’Tis Pity. It’s all my favorite things about the drama of this era. I really love the revenge tragedy genre and I love the violence in these plays. I’m very interested in the way these plays have such incredible language and poetry and, at the same time, really awful acts of violence. I’m fascinated with that juxtaposition. That tends to be the kind of thing I like to direct.”
A visit to the company’s website revealed that the two rep projects share one cast. “This is our third repertory and, each time, it’s the same cast in both shows.
“I think that the DC area has such incredible talent in its actors. As a company, we are always interested in finding ways to highlight actors, let actors shine, make every actor feel as though they have something to give to a production, that they all matter to it. We do a lot of doubling in all of our shows, but particularly our single shows — there’s a small cast, and people who are in smaller roles end up playing four to six roles, so everybody’s very busy.
“Repertory is another way we highlight the actors because, when casting, we don’t want to give people the same track in both shows. We try to give them something very different to do; also different size, so that, rather than one woman playing the female ingenue in both shows, she’ll play the ingenue in one show and then a small comedic role in the other show, for example. The actors show just how much they can do, and have a lot of fun that way.
“It also allows the plays to speak to each other in an even stronger way, when you’re seeing the same bodies telling different stories. This rep’s a thematic exploration. It lets the actors do very different things, and it also allows the audience to see the connection between the plays.
“There are some moments that resonate between the plays, even though they’re very different plays. In both plays, when the brother and sister couple first approach each other about their love, they have this moment when they’re basically, like, ‘Well, we can hold hands, right? There’s nothing wrong with that. Let’s hold hands.’ That moment happens in both plays.
“And then they have a very similar moment when they finally kiss. The kiss keeps distracting them, so they start to talk about something else. Then they’re, like, ‘No, let’s kiss again. Let’s have another kiss.’ That moment happens in both plays, too.”
Want to go?
A King and No King
April 1 – 23, 2017
Details and tickets
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore
March 30 – April 23, 2017
Details and Tickets
Of course, sharing a cast also presents challenges. “I think, obviously, scheduling is difficult. Cassie and I stay in pretty regular communication about what we need next in terms of rehearsal, what adjustment has to be made to make sure each play is getting what it needs. When we do the rep schedule, we specifically have double days, so that every Saturday and every Sunday, there’s an opportunity for audience to see both plays in one day.
“We definitely see the scheduling, even though it’s a challenge, as an opportunity to learn about what works best. We’re interested in that because all these repertory projects are Brave Spirits laying the groundwork for our major project in 2020 when we’re going to do all eight history plays in repertory. We’re doing mini-experiments so that we feel even more prepared when we try eight plays at once.”
Eight plays at once? Tell me more! “In 2020, we’re going to do Shakespeare’s eight [consecutive] history plays, from Richard II all the way through to Richard III. No American company has ever done it before, so we’re already in the process of planning and figuring that out.”
The casts of Shakespeare’s non-comedies tend to be male-heavy. “Both these plays are a little later than Shakespeare. Female roles tended to start increasing post-Shakespeare’s writing. Our cast is six men, six women. We have, in both shows, one major character re-gender and one minor character re-gender. We definitely look for opportunities to increase women on-stage.
“We’re also interested in changing the characters’ gender, not just cross-gender casting. We feel sometimes cross-gender casting doesn’t go far enough. The characters are still male. We’re still creating a world that is male, where male is privileged. Changing the character to female, we’re widening the scope of what the female experience is in classical theatre, and also showing our audience that women can be as many things as men can be.”
Will the plays be done as period pieces? “Brave Spirits tends not to go with historical settings, particularly in terms of costume and set. We think of these plays as happening in more of a modern aesthetic, but, usually, we’re not nailed down to, like, ‘This play is happening in 1936.’ Usually, our designers create a look, rather than a historical period, and that look tends to skew towards modern.”
Is having women direct both plays an accident, a preference, or officially part of the mission? “It’s not written out as such as part of the mission, but increasing opportunities for women is essentially part of the mission, applying to our directors as well.
“I’ve just been doing grant applications, so I have some statistics. At this point, including our upcoming season and the directors we have scheduled for that, 75% of our productions have been directed by women. You compare that to the last time [local playwright who works with the National New Play Network] Gwydion Suilebhan did his DC theatre demographics, for the 2015-16 season: only 33% of directors across the area were women.
“We are very conscious of that. We feel we have an extra duty, because we’re never going to have gender parity in our playwrights. We are focused on an era that is largely written by men. We feel as though we have even more of a responsibility to give women opportunities, on stage and off, since so many of our playwright voices are, by necessity, male, because of the era we’re focused on.”
I asked Smith to talk about how the distinct perspective of a woman director influences the productions.
“I think perspective is important. We’re trying to look at these plays from a feminist perspective. One of the most difficult aspects of doing plays from this era, as a feminist, is that so many involve violence against women: physical, verbal, sexual violence. I think that is a very difficult thing to grapple with in terms of our responsibility as artists when we present these stories. I think the perspective of a female director is therefore helpful in terms of grappling with the way we use violence against women in our art.
“I’ve certainly seen productions, in this area and elsewhere, where, as an audience member, I felt let-down, even upset, with the way a production handled the treatment of women. I think that’s a big reason why I’m looking for female directors, because a necessity of dealing with these plays is looking at those moments of violence.”
Casey Kaleba is Fight Director for both shows. “He’s one of the busiest artists in DC. He’s been working with Brave Spirits since we were founded. We are looking for ways to increase how much we get to work with Casey, because the company is very interested in violence in these plays: how to stage it, and how to provide more opportunities in combat for women.
“That’s something we’ve been talking a lot about. There are a lot of female actors in this town who love stage combat. They take classes, and get certified, and then they never get to use those skills on stage. We’re very interested in looking at that problem and seeing what can we do as a company to make sure women are getting to fight more.”
The Incest Rep will be performed at The Lab at Convergence in Alexandria. “We are fortunate to be in residence there. They’re very excited about the work we’re doing. It feels nice to know we have a home. I’m sure you can understand how hard it is when you don’t!
“When we first started working there, they had a much wider vision: they were trying to get as many different groups as possible. Since then, instead of going wider, they’ve decided to go deeper, and create relationships with fewer companies. We’re fortunately one of those companies.”
Now that BST has settled at Convergence, how has that affected the audience? “Because we’re so young, it’s hard to make determinations. We are getting larger audiences than we did when we were at Anacostia Arts Center, but we’ve also been around a little longer. Certainly it’s easier to grow an audience when you’re in the same place and people know where to find you.”
This led Smith to reflect on the uniqueness of the DC scene. “This is a bizarre location in that there are three states in driveable distance and there are performers who work in all three areas, audience members who go where the art they want to see is, but there’re also artists and audience members who prefer to stay closer to where their home actually is. I’m not sure any other theatre community is put together quite the same way. We are laying roots in the Alexandria community while at the same time being very much a part of the DC metropolitan area community.
“We still have audience members that, it’s there first time at Convergence. It’s a weird space to find the first time you go. Once you know where it is, it’s super easy, but the first time, it can be a little confusing, because it doesn’t look like a theatre. We have patrons who have been in the area for a long time and have been, like, ‘I never knew this was here.’”
Does Smith have any final thoughts about the appeal of this particular emerging theatre in the very crowded DC scene?
“The things that really draw our audience are the way we put more women on stage, and the fact that we’re doing plays that don’t get put on elsewhere. I think those are the big things.
“There’s a lot of great Shakespeare happening in this DC area, and a lot of great companies, but a lot of the titles we put on have never been done here before.
“And you may never get a chance to see them again.”