The American Shakespeare Center recovers the joys and accessibility of Shakespeare’s theatre, language, and humanity by exploring the English Renaissance stage and its practices through performance and education.
The American Shakespeare Center is Shakespeare’s American Home – a beacon for all to feel more alive through the experience of Shakespeare, changing lives one encounter at a time.
We do it with the lights on.
We think Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions create an engaging, interactive, and magical theatre experience for our audiences – even if the show isn’t by William Shakespeare. Here are the ins-and-outs of our unique style, and why we believe using Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions is an exceptional way to create exceptional theatre.
Shakespeare’s actors could see their audience; our actors can see you. You play the roles that Shakespeare wrote for you — Cleopatra’s court, Henry V’s army, or the butt of many jokes.
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has 49 characters and features the scene with the most speaking parts in the canon — 15 — which provides some idea of the minimum available actors. Henry VI, Part 2, with 64 speaking roles, might have required actors to play at least four (or more!) roles. Our actors, following these conventions, have played as many seven roles in a single show.
Actors in the age of Shakespeare were predominately, if not exclusively, white males. Women didn’t take to the professional English stage until after the Restoration (1660), so Shakespeare’s female roles were played by boys.
Fortunately, we’ve moved beyond Elizabethan casting practices. We look for actors of all shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities. We cast women as male characters and men as female characters. We cast actors of color in any and all roles. We believe that Shakespeare’s plays tell the stories of us all and want our casting to reflect that.
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.” We try to fulfill this promise through brisk pacing, judicious cutting, and continuous dramatic action.
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. Just as the Chorus of Henry V says, “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.”
Costuming was important to the theatre companies of Shakespeare’s day for three reasons:
- Costumes provided fresh color and design for the theatres.
- Costumes made it easy for one actor to play a variety of roles.
- Costumes helped an audience “read” the play quickly by showing at a glance who was rich or poor, royalty or peasantry, ready to work or party.
However, historically accurate costumes were NOT important in the theatres Shakespeare worked in — more important was sharing stories with his audiences. Similarly, we’ll use costumes that are contemporary, Elizabethan, and everything in between to build a unique world for each play.
Musicians played instruments before, during, and after the play. Shakespeare’s plays are sprinkled with songs for which many of the lyrics, but not much of the music, survive. We set many of these songs in contemporary style, furthering our mission to connect Shakespeare’s text to you.
Principles of staging practices
- If we have evidence to believe that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights did things in certain ways, we are in favor of trying those ways or the closest approximation to them. We should be the company that shows the world how those practices work.
- We encourage exploring those things that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights might have done in that building (for example, there is no evidence that actors ever mingled with audience in the stalls, but there’s no evidence that they didn’t).
- We are wary of those things we have evidence to believe that he and his fellow playwrights didn’t do, but deal with each on a case-by-case basis (for example, he didn’t have a piano or a saxophone, but they are still acoustic instruments we play live and unplugged; he didn’t have women actors, but we are committed to a diversity of representation on our stage).
- We are attentive to what the text makes clear he and his fellow playwrights did do, closely considering explicit stage directions and implied stage directions, so that, in Hamlet’s phrasing, we “suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”
- Wherever we can afford to make our building more like we believe it was, we will.
- We aim always to preserve the relation to the audience provided by universal lighting.
- We make the conversation about our staging conditions and practices an essential part of the conversation in the rehearsal room, in the classroom, and in public forums.
Beliefs that drive our Actions
Shakespeare and performance
We believe in creating exciting, imaginative, and inclusive theatre with an emphasis on clarity, language, Shakespeare’s staging conditions, and continued experimentation.
We believe in diversity of talent, expertise, and experience. We believe in open, honest, and respectful communication and creating a foundation of mutual respect and trust in all our dealings.
We believe in living within our means and being a leader in our industry. We believe in making all decisions in line with the realities of our economic and human resources while seeking to expand those realities in ways that allow us all to grow. We believe in developing economically viable, long-term careers with the ASC, including supporting work/life balance.
We believe in the enrichment and celebration of the human spirit, as it lives in Shakespeare’s plays, and in our daily lives as we collaborate, create, listen, and learn from each other. We believe in creating a vibrant, diverse, and healthy community on a local, regional, national, and international level.
We believe in the joy, the beauty, and the transformative power of words.