The Governor’s Summit on Rural Prosperity, hosted by Governor Ralph Northam, brought together local, state, and private sector representatives from across Virginia to discuss innovative initiatives occurring in rural communities. At the invitation of Senator Emmett Hanger, attendees visited our Playhouse to learn about the impact of an arts organization on a community like Staunton.

Participants walking into the Playhouse were greeted by complimentary snacks provided by Cranberries Grocery and live music from the Hand of Time Touring Troupe. As many of the attendees were visiting the Blackfriars Playhouse for the first time, Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen (co-founder and director of mission), shared the history of the American Shakespeare Center, “In 1988 Jim Warren and I founded this organization on the belief that all it takes to share the joy of Shakespeare is a company of good actors and an audience they can see to help them make believe.” Dr. Cohen further noted that the, “…the partnership between the City of Staunton and the American Shakespeare Center has grown into a model for how an arts organization and its community can work together for economic development.”


Ralph then introduced, ASC’s incoming Board Chair, Candice Hark, and the Director of Tourism for the City of Staunton, Sheryl Wagner to share their perspective on the arts and the economy. As a business owner and a new farmer, Candice recognized her unique perspective on how important organizations like ASC are to driving economies in rural areas. She shared, “Staunton’s investment in world-class art supports a maker economy, enabling artisans, farmers, and local entrepreneurs, and the people who support them to create their own jobs and make their own way.” She added, “At the ASC, we further our support of these local businesses by serving local snacks, beer, and wine during our intermissions.”

Candice continued to express:

“Visitors are attracted to the beauty of our natural landscapes, the charm of this area, and the warmth of the hospitality they find here. This back and forth, where we build on each other’s efforts and amplify one another’s impact, is so important that ASC in fact honored the citizens of Staunton with our Robin Goodfellow award last month. This award honors persons whose contributions to the ASC have been fundamental to our mission of making the joys of Shakespeare accessible to all. I don’t know where we would be if Staunton hadn’t taken a chance on us all of those years ago, but I like to think that we have repaid their investment back many fold.”

Sheryl Wagner, Director of Tourism for the City of Staunton, took the stage to discuss the ways in which the arts builds strong communities and tourism economies. Sheryl stated:

“When communities invest in the arts, as Staunton has done, they are supporting jobs, generating government revenue, and promoting a healthy tourism economy. Arts and cultural organizations are valued members of the business community. In 2000 before the Blackfriars Playhouse opened, the Economic Impact of Tourism in Staunton was $27 million. In 2017, the Economic Impact of Tourism was $56 million. That’s over a 100% increase in 17 years. You can always tell when a community’s tourism industry is strong because you start to see more restaurants, shops, breweries, wine bars, and hotels. We have 3 new hotels opening in 2018 accounting for 237 more rooms in Staunton’s hotel inventory. This is what the arts have built in our community.”

Amy Wratchford, Managing Director, shed some light on the outreach the American Shakespeare has across Virginia and the nation through ASC on Tour. She commented:

“We opened this year’s tour with a performance at UVA-Wise, our fourth annual visit to that wonderful Southwest Virginia community. The Virginia Commission for the Arts helps us keep the tour affordable for rural locations across the Commonwealth including Wise, Weyers Cave, and Marion. Closer to home and through support from the National Endowment for the Arts, we offer subsidized weekday matinees to schools near and far, serving over 12,000 public, private, and homeschool students last year. For many of our students from rural counties, their visit to the ASC represents their first experience seeing professional theatre. In addition to the intrinsic benefits of a shared theatre experience, theatre participants are shown to have greater levels of empathy, tolerance, and civic engagement. Our Education team deepens experiences for local audiences and on the road through teacher training, residencies, summer camps, and corporate leadership workshops. Combine all of these offerings and you’ll see that the ASC enriches every district in the Commonwealth. Through our vast programming, we are training the future generation of theatergoers who will continue to fill theatre seats, hotels, restaurants, and voting booths for years to come.”

New ASC Artistic Director Ethan McSweeny, offered his thoughts on the Blackfriars Playhouse and the future of the ASC:

“When I look around at this gorgeous room, at this Virginia White Oak hand carved by local artisans, look at these chandeliers designed and manufactured locally, I see a space that is at once intimate in scale and epic in imagination, simultaneously old and new. Last year alone, ASC hosted patrons from every state in this country, every province in Canada, and six continents hailing from at least thirteen countries that we know of. It is a little theatre in a small town with a big reach and even bigger ambitions.

And as it grows, so will continue to grow the hospitality and tourism industry in this beautiful city and our surrounding counties. Since I’ve arrived, I’ve learned about how ASC produces theatre a remarkable 50 out of 52 weeks a year. And we don’t just produce that here in our Blackfriars home, we also do it around the state and around the country, serving as ambassadors not only for Shakespeare but for art and culture in the state of Virginia. We do it using an understanding of Shakespearian performance conditions cultivated over the thirty years of this company’s history, we do it by leaving the lights on over the stage and in the auditorium, engaging the audience in direct address, and performing live music that ranges from contemporary to classical. All in all, we think it makes our performances not only exceptionally authentic, but also accessible, inclusive, and just a whole lot of fun. Our goal is to recover the joys of Shakespeare for contemporary audiences of all ages and backgrounds.”

Following Ethan’s remarks, the Hand of Time Tour took the stage once again to perform the Ode of Oedipus, an original work created by troupe member Josh Clarke that provides the pre-story for Sophocles’ Antigone through rap, hip-hop, and movement.

Chris Little, the current Chair of the ASC Board of Directors concluded the visit by saying:

“I made the choice to serve as a member of the Board, of course because of my deep love of Shakespeare, but also because of my belief in what a well-managed, fiscally sound, organization that is dedicated to artistic excellence and local engagement can do for a community like Staunton. While this Playhouse is downtown’s anchor, its impact radiates out and enriches our schools, our businesses, and our farms for miles and miles.”