ethan mcsweeny artistic director american shakespeare center
Ethan McSweeny shares His Vision for the American Shakespeare Center

Adapted from remarks made to the company, Spring 2018

There was a celebrated Romanian director named Liviu Ciulei who ran the Guthrie and was a feature for a generation of artists at Arena Stage and NYU. I never actually worked with Liviu, but I have worked with so many people who did that I think I can even do a pretty good impression of him. English being only one of his several languages, Liviu was sort of the Yogi Berra of theatre directors, inventing malapropisms that often revealed deeper truths. One of my favorites is: “We have a lot to do, and very little time, so we must work slowly.”

I invariably start rehearsals with that reminder. “We have a lot to do, and very little time, so we must work slowly.” I take it to be a caution that no matter how rushed you may feel, it is vital to take all the steps, and that the step you skip may be the one that will cost you far more in the long run.

I was thinking about that phrase and this magnificent theatre when it occurred to me that this is actually one of the things we as audiences come to the theatre for: to slow down. Theatre, more than any medium, is temporal: I’ve long conceived that, as a director, what I do is sculpt in time.

We are faced with a world and a planet that seems to be spinning faster and faster and faster, and many of us wonder how long the center can hold against these widening gyres. But when we sit in a theatre, we give over to the experience our most precious commodity, time, and we allow ourselves to bear witness together. Real-time never stops on stage. Like the biological reality that after 90 minutes a healthy percentage of the audience will need to use the restroom, for example. But pretend time can take us anywhere. We can speed it up and slow it down, calling attention to a micro-moment or to the great sweep of history, “turning the accomplishments of many years into an hourglass” as it were.

Shakespeare knew this of course. Because not only was he the greatest writer ever to write for the stage (if not the greatest writer ever) but also he was a student of theatre. We are so lucky that by chance in his time theatre culture flourished, and because of that, we have these plays. Had it been a different literary or entertainment culture that could reach the most people and make a fellow enough money to keep a family in a house in the suburbs with a first and “second-best bed” then I have little doubt that Shakespeare would have done that.

In my understanding, Shakespeare was imminently practical. He was very, very real. He made his living as a working artist in a trade that has not greatly changed in the intervening 400 years. He lived in a world of actors with large personalities, of financial demands from producers, of nefarious business partners, of fickle audiences, of political instability and change, of fires, plagues, and other random acts of god. He lived in a world that is, with a few technological exceptions, identical to ours. To me, it is because he was so real and so practical that continued research and exploration into his practices is so essential.

What I think is so important and so vital about the mission of the ASC is that it gives us a window into the performance conditions that predominated in Shakespeare’s time, and in so doing reminds us that he is not at all distant, but very present, immediate, and alive.

It’s a trick of two-way time travel, really.

So, with apologies for borrowing part of this phrase from Jerzy Grotowski, I’d like to point us towards a slow theatre. A place where audiences congregate to look at life through the prisms offered by Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and classics old and new. Not a place to go back in time so much as a place to take the time to breathe and laugh and cry and sing and be together.

One horrible reality that a contemporary director must confront is that almost every design conceit for a classic ultimately puts something in the way of the play. I am not saying we shouldn’t be allowed artistic freedom to reinvent, and I will champion new and exciting interpretations of classic work to my last breath. But it is important to understand that by and large the further we get from the original conditions the harder we make our own job.

Technology is now all around us, and it is changing so many things simultaneously that it even threatens to alter the chemistry of our brains. The theatre has not been immune to the lure of ever more extravagant technological innovation. Advances in lighting, in sound, in video, and in automation now make almost anything possible. But when anything is possible, little matters. When stage and screen can simulate almost any effect, it invites us as audiences to turn off our most powerful tool: our imagination. In practice, the more we connect technologically, the easier it becomes to disconnect from each other. The ASC is a place to reassert the human, to put our need to connect at the forefront of the live theatre experience.

It’s not like Shakespeare didn’t have experience of this phenomenon, by the way. At the same time as the King’s Men were performing King Lear on a bare stage lit only by the sun, Inigo Jones was staging elaborate court masques that cost a fortune and necessitated the engineering of stage technologies that neither the Globe nor the Blackfriars could ever accommodate. And yes, I am sure back then that spectacle was initially more popular, probably for the same exact reasons it is today: it asked for less from the audience, required less participation, less thought, less imagination.

But I note that the plays and the words of Shakespeare and his contemporaries are still with us. And the spectacle is long gone.

On the ASC

My observation is that this is an actor-driven company (thank goodness). So what the hell is a director like me doing here? This community and this organization are awash in amazing assets from the performance space to the town to the people who make this art. It’s such an embarrassment of riches you might be forgiven for not always knowing which one to harness first. And I want to complement Ralph and Amy and Jim and everyone here. The hard work has been done. Thirty years of effort and so much has been excavated, so much earth has been moved, such incredible foundations have been laid and beautiful structures have been built. So much art has been made and shared. Really all that remains is to marshal the resources to further decorate the castle, maybe adding a turret here or there.

Of all these remarkable assets, the greatest natural resource present is the actors.

I believe this can be the most versatile, facile, and adept company of Shakespeareans the world has seen since the King’s Men.

To some extent, how we get there is a matter partly of tactics and strategy; partly of measured, deliberate growth; and largely of the cultivation of our many talents, but let me lay out some broad strokes.

I want to throw open the doors, and while preserving the concept of company, make it possible to invite as many new artists into this experience as we can. I want no trained American classical actor to feel like their career is complete unless they have at some point performed on the Blackfriars stage. I want to see important and diverse artists get excited about what they can learn from coming here to create in the playhouse playground you have built in Shakespeare’s image.

I want to challenge the best directors in America and say if you think you are artist enough, come match wits with the finest plays ever written and give yourself no more tools than Shakespeare had to create vibrant, compelling, immediate, and vital works of theatre. And what I want to offer them is an ensemble of actors and artisans who are the finest interpreters of this material in the country, with an experience and an intuition about Shakespeare that they’ve been cultivating through years of practice, training, and ongoing study.

I want to cultivate our own skills. If we sustain the artists, then we will sustain the audiences. Audiences, by the way, don’t come to see plays. They come to see actors perform the plays. Loyalty to the home team is one of the greatest marketing and fundraising tools in the arsenal of any theatre company.

So while we need to be ready to embrace new artists and new blood who can, in turn, become ambassadors throughout the land, we need to do it in a way that preserves and honors the home team, the core company of those who have put down serious roots in this community.

In Shakespeare’s time, those people were called Shareholders. The ASC has currently adapted that to be a funder distinction, which is great, but I would propose creating a core company, starting with 6 or 8 and growing as we grow, of artists on full-time salaries. I want to make it so that group can focus on the work, not on how to get the work. I want the Shareholders to be the pinnacle of the artists steeped in the work that is done here, and to play dynamic leading roles in every aspect of the education and programming activities. Beyond that core company, I want to embrace the extended family model, creating artists who feel like stakeholders whether they are performing in a given season or not.

I want Staunton to be the hub of a national and internationally recognized brand.

To do that we have to build brand awareness. And that may be a place where there’s some work to do. Is the brand ASC? Is it Blackfriars? Is it the touring program that began the whole thing? Is it the magic of the director-less Actors’ Renaissance Season? It’s all of these of course, but nevertheless, the brand needs to be unified in a way that permits the multiplicity of the expressions it has manifested to both individually and collectively flourish.

The ASC brand is the best, most accessible, most vital productions of Shakespeare in the country. I want to position the ASC not so much as a place for “original practices” but as a cutting-edge, innovative organization that dares to produce without resorting to technical tricks, that puts the focus of theatre where it should be: on the handmade, on the performer, and on the words.

Doing that means getting more people to come to this home in Staunton, and that in turn means getting out to where more people live in order to give them a taste that induces them to take the next step. In order to expand the brand we need to import audiences and we need to export the work.

Touring is literally in this company’s DNA. There could hardly be a more Elizabethan pursuit. The company’s shared light, limited-tech aesthetic partly developed in response to the demands of the road and remains uniquely suited to that activity. We need both to continue the incredibly vital travel of our primary touring company and to do more to exploit them as brand ambassadors in each community they serve. And, at the same time, tour other products from the Blackfriars stage, most particularly the Actors’ Renaissance Season, in ways that will include regional appearances in Washington, in New York, in Chicago, in Southern California, as well as in Raleigh, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah, Atlanta, and so forth.

And we cannot stop at our borders but must tour internationally, starting with the festival circuit in places such as Edinburgh, Dublin, Spoleto, Sydney, Melbourne, and Macao, expanding to include more of Asia such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Middle East.

It’s a big world, and we are going to get out in it with the invention of plays rehearsed and performed by a single company of twelve in stagings that embrace the shared environment of whatever venue they are performed in. That’s a brand no one else in America has at the moment, and it will be the inflection point for the ASC’s advance in national and international recognition. And while we accomplish that, it will help gradually expand and build capacity within the organization in preparation for a future where we produce on more than one stage.

That’s not the only direction in which I believe the ASC can grow. I also want the programming to expand the mission.

I love the addition of the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries and think it is an inspired initiative to bring new voices to this stage and its staging approach. I am also inspired by Shakespeare’s old contemporaries, and the ASC’s enormous capacity to take risks in exploring that repertoire in ways that no other company in this country can as effectively. To this, I would add even more international work that might be considered on par with Shakespeare, as well as continuing to discover how many musical offerings benefit from a fully unplugged performance. Each season should have some mix of these elements.

Further, the American Shakespeare Center should boast a company that looks like America in every aspect of the organization. In particular, I want every audience member to be able to look onstage and picture themselves in the story. Ultimately, inclusion is about doing more than just casting or programming although those are both important aspects of the equation. It is about thinking, educating, and building awareness all the time. It is about questioning, demanding, and pursuing. You can’t challenge historical inequities without a consistent, persistent, and insistent focus on dismantling systemic discrimination.

And by the way, I want to be more rigorous with gender than just the wonderful fluidity available in casting or offering contemporary women writers a chance to adapt the work of dead males. What really interests me is doing work to situate women in the continuum of the historic theatre experience since no matter what role they’ve played, we know that they have been present all along. That potentially means some new scholarship, as well as the dramatic work that might spring out of it and the ASC/Mary Baldwin University masters program could be a significant tool in advancing this agenda.

And I want to take the broadest definition of accessibility. Hard work was done (and historic corners cut) to make Blackfriars architecturally “accessible” to audiences with physical limitations. What are we doing to make our work accessible to audiences with financial limitations? It’s not just the cost of the ticket. It’s the time of day of the performance, or what to do with the kids or the car. To my way of thinking, successfully pursuing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion means making our work and our selves open and Accessible to all.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Shakespeare is that he wrote for the widest possible audience – from illiterate groundlings standing in front of the stage to educated nobles fluent in multiple languages displaying themselves onstage or in the boxes. And Shakespeare was capable of speaking to all of them. I want to serve diverse audiences in the largest sense: diverse in age, in experience, in race, in ethnicity, in physical ability, and in sexual orientation. I aspire for the ASC to maximize accessibility to everyone.

And I want to embrace new technologies that are capable of expanding our reach and mission. We ought to be a pioneer in creating new and dynamic filmed representations of the plays in ways that can be used to educate and broaden our audience. And we should open ourselves to opportunities to document the pursuit of these so-called “original” practices (I can readily see the making of the Actors’ Renaissance Season as a documentary, if not a reality show!) in part because these experiments in technique are a crucial part of what is going on down here.

I love that the foundation of this company has always been part research and part performance facility, straddling the worlds of the academy and the craft. And it’s clear that the touring arm, in particular, has a mandate to recruit artist/educators who can teach about historical practices and context as well as the plays themselves. I believe that all theatre is an educational opportunity and that the Education and Artistic departments are not separate but two sides of the same coin. We educate ourselves as artists and when we share that we educate our audiences, building connoisseurship in one another. I want the ASC to be a center for developing new educational tools in consultation with teachers that will help bring accessible classical theatre to life for students at all levels of learning all across the country.

And I want to continue to knit together the academy and the practice. I love the opportunity to use the living stage to do theatre archaeology. Ralph Cohen is one of the great Shakespeare brains in the world. And he is in residence. That’s an asset of incalculable dimension.

I’ve often noted that kids love Shakespeare because they are used to observing grown-up behavior and, if not entirely getting what is going on, synthesizing meaning from what they have observed. More often than not, it is adults who get frustrated when they think they don’t understand something because it “makes them feel stupid.” If anything, education reminds us all to be kids again, to open our minds to what we do not yet fully understand.

And the company – I love refining human systems, thinking about how best to do what we do, and do it in a way that lets us all still be human. Every single person in the organization has a vital role to play, an essential part of the story around the stories we tell on stage. We are in the business of throwing a party every night, and like a restaurant, we are only as good as our last meal. Every member of the company is part of the customer experience.

Over the years, I have cultivated a deceptively simple producing philosophy that can best be expressed by the formula: GOOD ART = GOOD BUSINESS. What this requires is wholeheartedly putting ART at the center of the equation for an arts institution. To do that effectively demands an organizational capacity for risk as well as a core agreement about the quality of product. It asks for regular innovation and even disruption to be applied with deliberation and tact. It asks that everyone within the company perform at peak creativity, all of us arts entrepreneurs, if you will, working together towards a common goal.

The ASC has deep roots here in Staunton, and I want to continue to explore every way possible to partner with the community, understanding that we have a collective responsibility to make every visitor’s experience special and that while the ASC can serve as a brand ambassador for the town it will only succeed if we all row together. If the ASC wants to be a destination theatre, then Staunton has got to be the destination. That is going to require further local coordination on how all of us contribute to the customer experience, but this town and this region are beautifully positioned to profit from farm-to-table trends that emphasize the local, the handmade, and the authentic.

And no matter how far we roam, I want to continue to explore the Blackfriars home space. Technology (not a dirty word) now exists to make far more convincing electrified candles. So too to explore what the windows at the top of the room might have been like (I can imagine a world where we program LED screens to simulate an afternoon drifting into twilight, or the movement of clouds across the sky).

What Blackfriars offers is not a limitation but freedom – freedom from the tyranny of having to design so much, a tradition that has been haunting Shakespeare in production since before the 19th century. “Immersive” experiences are a new buzzword in the culture business. In my opinion, all theatre ought to be immersive. We are, after all, the original immersive and participatory art form.

Success won’t be when everybody decides to “do it with the lights on.” (We don’t want to put lighting designers out of business; some of them are our best friends!) Success will be when everyone who makes Shakespeare thinks about the lessons pioneered and developed at the ASC and about how many ways this material can be accessed.

More than anything, I want to be part of a place that makes art that matters.

I want to use the theatre to knit back together our fractured polis — to specifically reinvigorate classics in order to remind us that no matter how modern we become, our struggles to create and sustain a society are not in fact new, and that we can constantly learn from the past and see in it new and better reflections of our future.

So there is a lot to do. And we must work slowly. We must work carefully. We must be nimble and quick and take advantage of every opportunity while carefully cultivating and nurturing our own garden, methodically building towards our long-term goals.

At the opening, I pointed us towards a slow theatre. And I think I’ve spent the bulk of this vision outlining an exhaustive list of ambitions. So I’d like to come back to the original. All those ambitions are possible because of what the ASC already does so well.

I don’t think we need to be reminded that Shakespeare is modern, so much as that we ourselves are ancient. That we are no different as humans than our Elizabethan forbearers, that we crave the same things and still find value in being seated uncomfortably close to our sweaty smelly neighbor to watch and listen to a story being told, still hunger for the warmth of our fellow travelers when dusk gives way to night, still long for the reassurance that we are not alone.