By following the basic principles of Renaissance theatrical production, the American Shakespeare Center gives its audiences some of the pleasures that an Elizabethan playgoer would have enjoyed.
Shakespeare’s actors could see their audience; ASC actors can see you. When actors can see an audience, they can engage with an audience. And audience members can play the roles that Shakespeare wrote for them — Cleopatra’s court, Henry V’s army, or simply the butt of innumerable jokes. Leaving an audience in the dark can literally obscure a vital part of the drama as Shakespeare designed it.
Shakespeare's Macbeth has more than forty parts; Shakespeare's traveling troupe may have had fewer than fifteen actors. Like the Renaissance acting companies, the ASC doubles parts, with one actor playing as many as seven roles in a single show. Watching actors play more than one role, an audience can experience another aspect of Elizabethan playgoing - the delight of watching a favorite actor assume multiple roles.
Because women didn't take to the English stage until after the Restoration (1660), all the women in Shakespeare's plays were originally played by young boys or men. Shakespeare had a great deal of fun with this convention. In a production of As You Like It in 1600, a boy would have played Rosalind, who disguises herself as a boy, then pretends to be a woman. Let's review: that's a boy playing a woman disguised as a boy pretending to be a woman. Because we are committed to the idea that Shakespeare is about everyone -- male and female -- the ASC is not an all-male company, but we try to re-create some of the fun of gender confusions by casting women as men and men as women.
We cannot know the precise running time of a Shakespeare play in the Renaissance, but the Chorus in Romeo and Juliet promises "two hours' traffic of our stage." The ASC tries to fulfill this promise through brisk pacing and a continuous flow of dramatic action, often without an intermission.
Shakespeare's company performed on a large wooden platform unadorned by fixed sets or scenery. A few large pieces - thrones, tombs, tables - were occasionally used to ornament a scene. The ASC will sometimes use set pieces (and/or boxes) to indicate location and, like Shakespeare's company, we use these items to spark the audience's imagination to "piece out our imperfections with [their] minds."
Costuming was important to the theatre companies of Shakespeare's day for three reasons. First, the frequently lavish costumes provided fresh color and designs for the theatres, which otherwise did not change from show to show. Second, costumes made it easy to use one actor in a variety of roles. Third, as they do now, costumes helped an audience "read" the play quickly by showing them at a glance who was rich or poor, royalty or peasantry, priest or cobbler, ready for bed or ready to party, "in" or "out." Costumes are important to the ASC in the same way. But costumes were NOT important to Shakespeare and his fellows as a way of showing what life used to be like in a particular historical period. They performed Julius Caesar, for example, in primarily Elizabethan (not ancient Roman) garb. For them, as for us, the play always spoke to the present. That's why we use costumes that speak to our audiences in the most familiar language possible while staying consistent with the words in the play.
Shakespeare had a soundtrack. Above the stage, musicians played an assortment of string, wind, and percussion instruments before, during, and after the play. The plays are sprinkled with songs for which lyrics, but not much of the music, survive. The ASC sets many of these songs in contemporary style. The result is emblematic of our approach-a commitment to Shakespeare's text and to the mission of connecting that text to modern audiences.