– Ethan McSweeny’s been handed the keys to the American Shakespeare Center. Here’s what he plans to do with them. –
How the Job Found the Man
He knew of the place, but he didn’t know much about it. It had a good reputation, but he wasn’t sure of what he understood about the concept. “I had concerns that this was some kind of Ren-fair historical recreation…you know, here’s your Shakespeare and your mutton! And while I think there is a great place for Renaissance Fairs, I spent a long time not serving mutton with my Shakespeare.” When there was a vacancy in the Artistic Director position, he recommended other people.
Then Ethan McSweeny visited the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, and fell in love.
It wasn’t love at first sight. It was love upon consideration. McSweeny and his wife, the actor Nancy Anderson, were on their way to visit his sister and brother-in-law in West Virginia. They were travelling with a dog, so they decided to stop in Staunton, get out, take a walk around and get a sense of the place
He had been making recommendations to Steve Richard, the Management Consultant for the Arts expert who headed up the Committee searching for a new AD, and asked if someone could get him into the Blackfriars, where ASC performs. Richard gave him a contact.
“We met up with this incredible woman, Amy Wratchford, who’s the Managing Director…we walked into the Blackfriar’s Playhouse. And it was transformational to walk into the space…there was a sense of possibility inherent in it. And a sense of scale, and the warmth of the wood, and the attention to detail, and this kind of made by hand quality just jumped out at Nancy and me, enormously. It was a space that could be at once intimate in scale and epic in imagination”
But it wasn’t just the quality of the wood. Wratchford herself had made an impression.
“Amy was very knowledgeable about the place, and committed and passionate about the art and the creativity, and the theater that they were making. You know, there are many people in that theater administrative, executive job who — I don’t know, It’s not that they’re not committed, but their measure of what is a success is almost always financially driven. Sometimes they aren’t as plugged in to what’s an artistic success. But Amy seemed very much the opposite of that.”
McSweeny and Anderson had both recently finished working in what McSweeny calls “really beautiful but really large glass-and-steel kinds of houses.” Suddenly the American Shakespeare Center was looking very good. As they pulled away, “Nancy literally turned to me and said ‘are you really sure you shouldn’t put your name in the hat for this?’ And I said, ‘you know, I’m really not.'” His next call was to Richard.
He came back later, in the winter, to be sure. “ASC… produces fifty out of fifty-two weeks a year,: he explains. “In winter, the company is doing this thing they invented called the Actor’s Renaissance.” The concept intrigued him. It was: “let’s go as far as we can into these Shakespearean performance conditions, and add what we know of early modern theater rehearsal conditions…we’re going to only hand you your cue scripts, and there’s no directors, and there’s very little rehearsal time. Because there’s some scholarship that suggests that the rehearsals in Elizabethan theater was, you know, a week, or something like that. There’s also some that says, maybe that’s not true. So I think that this is that interesting place where you learn by practicing.”
The puzzle became more and more interesting. “I don’t think we’ve changed at all. It’s not as though it took less time to learn a script four hundred years ago than it does now, I mean, it’s the same brain, so maybe they had the scripts in advance, and maybe the rehearsals were more folded in, because that troupe was performing every day, rehearsals were during the day, because of lighting conditions and also curfews and things. We know that means that you only had the mornings to rehearse. And anyway, the actor’s Renaissance still followed — it’s kind of meant for ASC’s explorations in this sphere. The procedure is twelve actors, no directors, one to one-and-a-half weeks of rehearsal per project, and it’s up and it’s in the repertoire.”
McSweeny was sold.
The Business of Staunton has become his Business
Now, of course, Ethan McSweeny is the Artistic Director of the American Shakespeare Center. A member of a first-rung American political family — his father was a Special Assistant to Lyndon Johnson (and a most informative seat-mate of mine when I saw The Great Society at Arena) and his mother worked for USAID and was the longtime Chair of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities; he counts a judge and an advisor to Joe Biden among his siblings — McSweeny has carved a name for himself as a freelance director on two continents. He has directed on Broadway, at the Stratford Festival in Canada, the Gate in Ireland, the Guthrie in Minneapolis, the Goodman in Chicago. He has directed many plays at the Shakespeare Theatre Company — most recently an astonishing (and Helen Hayes-winning) Twelfth Night in which everything — mistaken gender identity; drunk uncle; ridiculous suitor; yellow cross-garters — is explained as the dying dream of a young woman in a plane crash.
And now: Staunton.
“I’m going to try and get a house. I actually put an offer on a house yesterday. Which is making me incredibly nervous. Because as a freelance artist, based in New York City, the concept of home ownership wasn’t anything I ever thought I was going to do.”
He laughs, but he’s serious. He’s living in an apartment in the town’s iconic clock tower. “That clock is absolutely on time,” he adds, “but it chimes twenty-four hours a day.”
We are in Reunion, the coffeeshop where McSweeny first met Wratchford. It is on South New Street, across from the Blackfriars. McSweeny’s offices are directly overhead, and he offers to conduct the interview there, where it would be less noisy. That would diminish my access to the pastries, though, which are not the near occasion of sin but sin itself. I decline the offer.
He is dressed casually, but he wears a cravat-like scarf, which gives him a look of rumpled elegance. He is a director, not an actor, but his diction is exceptionally clear, and he reinforces his words with gestures, meaningful pauses, and subtle word emphasis. He picks his words carefully, using examples, metaphors, analogies. He is clearly a man who is not often misunderstood.
He is now fully apprised of the tools in his new toolbox, and he recounts them like a kid describing what he got for Christmas. “I thought, I could easily put these actors up against the finest Shakespearean actors I’ve ever worked with on two continents, and, you know, all of North America including the Stratford Festival.”
He talks about one company member in particular: Jessika Williams. “Her Jaques [who gives the famed “Seven Ages of Man” speech] in As You Like It is one of the best Jaques I’ve ever seen in my life. And she plays it really straight. I’m not sure that she’s playing it as a man, but it’s unquestioning as a character.”
This reminds him of another virtue of the American Shakespeare Center — its cross-gender casting. Sometimes companies use male actors exclusively in Shakespeare plays, to show how it might have been done in the Bard’s day — as STC recently did in productions of Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew. Some companies will use cross-gender casting to allow women to play roles not usually available to them, as the current Lear on Broadway with Glenda Jackson. But the American Shakespeare Center has long made a virtue of necessity.
“We have the ability to create a first-rate adept company of actors… because performance conditions here prioritize a Shakespearian-sized company of twelve playing multiple roles. Playing multiple roles within the repertory of the season, and…within a single play, playing across gender boundaries, playing with gender boundaries, in ways I find really theatrical and exciting…the fact is that ASC has been doing it by dint of necessity.”
So, having been given the keys to the Mercedes, is McSweeny going to soup it up any? The answer is, yes, a little, in a while.
“Having just started in this position in the summer, I’m not here to arrest our momentum. I’m here to watch and learn, and where you need me to I will step in and advise, go through a few run-throughs, and say we can do this and this here and there. Right now, ASC produces theater fifty weeks a year, so it is a company in near constant motion, both at home at the Blackfriars Playhouse and on tour from Maine to Texas.” Still, the theater is in the planning stages for the set of productions which begin next June, and McSweeny is intimately involved. And…” this theater is at a really good juncture to revisit the practices that has got it to this place, and evaluate the extent to which those were succeeding in what they wanted to do.”
No big-picture changes, mind you. “I think it’s more like renovations. Like, I’m renovating the schedule to create more rehearsal time, to create more opportunities once the show has gotten in front of an audience, for the creative people involved in it, actors, directors, and so forth, to respond to what they’ve learned from the audience…I’m revising the schedule to emphasize the concept of coming for a weekend, and if you come for a three-day weekend you can see all the shows, if you come for a two-day weekend you can see most of them.”
He wants to make Staunton, and the American Shakespeare Center, a destination, the way that Stratford, Ontario or the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is. “I want to create some destination weekends, and maybe provide the transportation. You could take the bus down on Friday, take the bus back on Sunday, you don’t have to worry about the driving, we could even incorporate…somebody who would…do a conversation about the plays on the way down, a primer.” He thinks for a minute, and then begins to paint an even more ambitious picture. “What I really, really want to do — we have a train station, and the Amtrak train really does stop here. Three times a week….Three times a week going west, and three times a week going east. It comes down on Friday, and leaves on Sunday”
But what would they see, these weekend Stauntonistas? The weekend we went, there were two Shakespeares, a Restoration comedy, and a contemporary adaptation of a Jane Austin novel — all well done, but not materially different from what you might see in an intense weekend of Washington theater. McSweeny has some variations in mind, though.
The first is already under way– has been for some time. Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries is an ambitious competition for present-day playwrights to create a play which in some way speaks to one of the plays in the canon. For the winners: a $25,000 prize, and a production. We’ll see the results of the first competition this winter.
“The concept is that ASC will host a competition annually using a set group of Shakespeare titles, looking for two plays per year, that will be in some kind of …conversation with any one of those titles…It’s a $25,000 award to the writer…it’s a competition, it’s a blind competition, so anyone can enter, and there’s more information on the website about it.
“The commitment is not just an award but also that we will produce the play, in tandem with its Shakespearian inspiration, in our season. So we have our two world premieres coming up in this year…We’ll do a new play called Ann Page Hates Fun, which is a companion piece to The Merry Wives of Windsor, that takes an underdeveloped character in Merry Wives, Ann Page, blows her up, puts her in her mid-thirties and she’s now a schoolteacher in contemporary Windsor, New Hampshire. And seeks to tell a new story — I would say the conversation with Merry Wives is loose. It’s in no way an attempt to retell the story of Merry Wives, and that’s not what this initiative is about. It was more about rewarding inspiration from these plays, and then asking writers to think about what it means to write for these Shakespearian performance conditions.”
Ann Page Hates Fun, by Amy E. Witting, begins in February. And Mary Elizabeth Hamilton’s Sixteen Winters, or the Bear’s Tale, a companion for The Winter’s Tale, begins in the spring — on May 1, specifically. McSweeny says that the “play basically imagines a version of what might happen once Paulina has taken Hermione away and hidden her in a cabin. And then has some contemporary elements as well. So it’s really freewheeling — I’m not even sure of where it’s set. In a way it’s set in a Shakespearian Universe where there’s a little bit of everything.”
As McSweeny visualizes it, the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries program is not limited to creating modern versions of the canon. “Look, the thing is that there’s no limit on it. It could also include a story along the lines of Lauren Gunderson’s Book of Will or something about the creation of the play, or the circumstances prevailing in that time. It could be about a celebrated actress in the 19th century doing a production of Hamlet.” Not that he’s necessarily looking for something about Hamlet, or the other big plays. “It’s one thing to come up with a Hamlet one, but what about Timon?” He laughs; Timon of Athens is generally acknowledged to be one of Shakespeare’s worst plays. “Are those distant ones, those less popular ones, are those going to be easier to come up with? Or harder? I mean, yeah, what are you going to do? The histories present some really interesting challenges as well. Because the tragedies and the imagined plays permit you a lot of latitude for invention, but the histories — you have to know your history, I think.”
The American Shakespeare Center is currently deciding among submitted plays for its year 2 (produced in 2020); next June it will take a look at offerings “in conversation with” six well-known Shakespeare plays.
Year 3’s application period is June 3 – July 13, 2019.
McSweeny’s still thinking of ways to turn a visit to the ASC into a Staunton-centric excursion. “We’re in a position to curate their experience of Staunton. And people are expecting us to do that. We’re an entry point, and the fact that the town has great coffee shops and art galleries and stores, Woodrow Wilson House, and several really top-notch restaurants,” he says. He has more ideas: “the Heifetz Music Institute is now in residence here, which hosts string musicians the world over for six weeks in the summer, the Staunton Music Festival is highly popular, all those are here in part because of the success of the Blackfriars. And it doesn’t stop there. The Frontier Culture Museum is a thriving outdoor experience driven venue akin to Williamsburg. There are three new hotels coming online by the end of 2018 including the beautifully renovated Blackburn Inn on the site of a former hospital designed by Thomas Jefferson’s architect. The list goes on and on.” It’s clear that the business of Staunton has become his business.
III. The Lion and the Lamb Formulate Plans Together
The war between labor and capital is not just a familiar trope of Western history. It also has its grip on the Western imagination. Even in the world of theater labor and management hold an uneasy peace; some smaller companies can’t hire Equity actors; and theatreWashington has of late found it necessary to dole out separate Helen Hayes Awards to productions based on their Equity participation.
So is it unusual that in hiring McSweeny the American Shakespeare Center has selected an Artistic Director with a long history as a union leader? For twelve years McSweeny served on the Board of Directors of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), a union, and has served as its Treasurer. He now occupies the same position on the SDC’s foundation. Is that a conflict?
He doesn’t think so. “Artistic Directors, because we might more often come from the artist world…probably have the ability to recognize that unions are not antithetical to our work. They support it. And if you ever work in an environment where there isn’t a very rigorous union, and I have, you appreciate even more what the union means to protect the artists. There’s a reason why we rehearse under the Equity rules even with a non-Equity company. They’re damn good rules. I mean, they’re there for a reason. Taking a ten-minute break every hour-and-a-half is a really good idea.” He laughs. “And if you don’t have rules to insist on it, it’s really easy to decide there’s so much to do that we better never take a break. I mean, that seems mundane but it’s really present.”
In fact, ASC’s approach to its artists is one of the reasons this longtime Union leader was drawn to it in the first place. “One of the values of ASC that I really responded to…is to support the people who work here at all levels. And to encourage good work-life balance. This is a workplace where we try to live by the humanist values which we find in Shakespeare. And I don’t want to walk one walk when I’m presenting to audiences what I think is appropriate and moral and valuable and then be a totally different person in the office. Right?”
ASC, McSweeny says, is prepared to put its money where its mouth is — by providing an opportunity not usually bestowed in the modern theater, at least away from Broadway. “We are creating two permanent 52-week contracts for members of the company. I’m going to gradually expand that to include more of them. It’s for two people whose work over the last decade has transcended their work as actors — so we’re treating them as actor-managers, they are going to have roles on-stage and off, and their salaries are guaranteed.” The two immediate beneficiaries will be John Harrell, a veteran actor known for his versatility (on the weekend we attended, he played a grandmother, a sex hound, and a dour vicar), and Chris Johnston, who in addition to being a fine actor has the responsibility of finding music fitted to the Shakespearean action.
But as much as McSweeny means to make ASC comfortable for actors who wish to ply their trade there 365 days a year, he also welcomes actors who will appear on stages elsewhere. After all, he is stepping out as well. “The ASC Board was very generous, and I said I think you want me to be able to continue my freelance life as well as direct here, because it’s important to get the word out about the mission of this place and part of that is leveraging it off of my work in theater. So I’m coming to Washington to do Tosca at the Washington National Opera this spring. I’m going up to New York to do an off-Broadway show in the spring as well.”
What’s sauce for the Artistic Director is also sauce for the artists, McSweeny avers. “One of the things I’m proposing to change, is to encourage mobility for these actors, encourage them to go away, and have other experiences elsewhere,…for a while it had been just this one troupe, that stayed closed. And I want to open it up and make it easier for new people to come in and so that people who are here to go other places and come back.”
So in McSweeny the American Shakespeare Center has gotten itself an Artistic Director who looks at his talent not as rivals or obstacles but as colleagues — collaborators bent on making ASC not only a first-rate theater center but an economic wellspring for Staunton and environs. He thinks that what the company has done so far calls for an economic impact study.
“Staunton is an amazing case study. There was no theater here, and in the late 90s, the town elders got together, invited Shenandoah Shakespeare Express to come here. They were worried about the fate of their town, the downtown was shuttered, it was not in good shape…But they got together with Shenandoah Shakespeare Express and said, if we’re going to build a permanent home, it needs to be…something consistent with our work. They came up with the money, the space, they fund-raised, they built it and in 2001 this theater opened. It’s now been 17 years, the community is thriving.” He ticks off some of the cultural events, the restaurants, the art galleries which have sprung up in Staunton since the company moved in. “There is an estimate I have heard that I have no proof of, that the eighteen-year economic impact of the Blackfriar’s Playhouse is seventy million dollars. And what I want is to keep telling that story. I can tell you that beats the shit out of a football stadium.”
So if you wanted to explain why a Shakespearean director with an international reputation — a good one — would want to move to Staunton, Virginia (population 23,746 as of the 2010 census) to be the AD of this remarkable rep company, in a single phrase, you could say this: it beats being Dan Snyder.