American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va. offers simple, authentic experience

Some members of the audience are seated onstage in the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse.
Some members of the audience are seated onstage in the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse.
Posted: June 27, 2010

STAUNTON, Va. - In this little town in the Shenandoah Valley, near the curvaceous Blue Ridge Mountains, surrounded by nature, history, and culture, a doughty band of actors bring Shakespeare alive - the way actors did in Shakespeare's day.

The American Shakespeare Center, specializing in "original staging practices" of Renaissance drama, is seeking to join the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., and the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City, Utah, as "destination theater" - drama as an anchor for regional vacations.

Ashland and Cedar City are lovely - but Staunton and its region, the Shenandoah Valley, have even more to offer, from its historic downtown district and nearby Civil War battlefields to the Blue Ridge Mountains and popular Luray Caverns.

Staunton (pronounced Stanton - no one seems to know why) is a city of about 24,000 in northwest-central Virginia. This 18th-century regional trading post grew in importance when the railroads came, making it an important supply station during the Civil War - the era of much of its downtown architecture. It has reinvented itself as an arts and culture destination, with the ASC as its heart since 2000.

On a long weekend in February, my wife and I made the five-hours-and-change drive for a Renaissance blowout. We saw Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. They were accessible and vigorous. The audience roared at Jonson's acid satire, thrilled to Marlowe's booming language, and chuckled at Shakespeare's comedy of love.

"This isn't crushed-velvet Shakespeare," says Jim Warren, artistic director and co-founder. "We're trying to re-create the stage conditions he was writing for. That's why people come - it's the only one of its kind in the world."

What makes the ASC different? Start with its home, the Blackfriars Playhouse. Named and designed for the indoor theater used by Shakespeare's troupe, it's the only such replica in the world.

The outdoor Globe is far more famous, but the King's Men (Shakespeare's bunch) expanded to the Blackfriars in 1608, to attract a better, wealthier clientele. Shakespeare's last six plays, including The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, were probably written with the Blackfriars in mind.

We don't know the exact dimensions of the original playhouse, but we do know they performed with the lights on (there's a slogan for you - "Shakespeare with the Lights On"), and with natural light coming in through windows. It was intimate, with a stage projecting into the audience, galleries close to the action, and spectators seated on stage.

That's how they do it at the ASC: little scenery, nice costumes, no amplification needed, nose-to-nose with the audience. Actors invite courageous playgoers to sit on the Gallants' Stools onstage or in the Lords' Balcony. Between acts, the cast performs popular tunes ("Business Time," by Flight of the Conchords, or "Los Angeles, I'm Yours," by the Decemberists) while refreshments are hawked from the stage and consumed right where you sit. After the play, there's bound to be a dance.

During the "Actors' Renaissance season" (January-March), the troupe works without a director - again, an "original practice." As in Shakespeare's day, the actors hold only their own "sides" - their character(s) lines and cues - not the entire script, keeping them on their toes.

Six days a week, 51 weeks a year, the ASC combines lots of Shakespeare with deserving, less-seen, roughly contemporary theater. Through the end of November, they're doing The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, and John O'Keefe's romantic romp Wild Oats.

"The way it's done here, the plays feel fresh and new," says actress Ginna Hoben. "With technology, lighting, and sound, theater has gotten away from immediacy. We can't compete with high-tech, but what we can do like no one else is put people right in front of you with lights on."

Stunned at first, audiences warm to the immediate, participatory feel. Actor Ben Curns says, "It's exiting to see return patrons, the ones who come back a lot. You meet people on their way to or from Massachusetts or Florida, and they tell you after the show, 'We're going to make this part of our trip every year. We're going to bring our kids next year.' "

Warren says the center has big ambitions - namely, to build a first-ever replica of Shakespeare's "second Globe" (built in 1614, after the first one burned down) in Staunton, making the town an even more dramatic draw. When? "The sooner the better," he says.

Curns and Hoben count themselves blessed to be a part of ASC.

"They've worked to build a family here," Curns says. "The theater and the town constantly are giving a lot to each other."

Hoben agrees: "We actors have an artistic home, and this charming, beautiful little town in the country is such a cool place to live."


Historic Town & Countryside

Staunton, an inviting, walkable town, is a fitting home for the American Shakespeare Center. Free guided walking tours of the historic old-town district start at the Woodrow Wilson Museum (see below) at 10 a.m. Saturdays, May through October (www.historicstaunton.org).

You can also tour the town via the Free Green Trolley, which runs 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with expanded routes Friday and Saturday nights.

Things to see

Among the sites in town, start with the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum (24 N. Coulter St., 540-885-0897, www.woodrowwilson.org). Wilson was born here in 1856; his home became an official presidential library in 2000. A visit includes a tour of his birth home, a self-guided tour of the boxwood gardens, and the museum, which houses artifacts and memorabilia of Wilson and his time. The museum recently opened a major exhibit, "World War I: The 'Doughboy' War."

The Museum of American Frontier Culture (1290 Richmond Rd., 540-332-7850, www.frontiermuseum.org) may have a slightly corny ring to it, but it's a splendid surprise - a living history museum documenting and enacting the lives of Virginian frontiersfolk.

Gypsy Hill Park hosts music events in July and August, with Praise in the Park on Tuesdays at 7 p.m., bluegrass Wednesdays at 8 p.m., jazz Thursdays at 8 p.m., and Friday night flicks at dusk on select Fridays through August (540-332-3945). And the Staunton Music Festival (540-569-0267, http://stauntonmusicfestival.com) takes place throughout town in August and September.

Places to stay

A short walk from the ASC, the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center (24 S. Market St., 540-885-4848; www.stonewalljacksonhotel.com) offers 124 rooms from $120, with a restaurant and Shakespeare package deals. Frederick House

(28 N. New St., 540-885-4220; www.frederickhouse.com), a block from the theater, is a sweet bed and breakfast with rooms and suites between $106 and $275, with package deals including hiking, biking, horseback riding, and, of course, Shakespeare.

Places to eat

We enjoyed Zynodoa (115 E. Beverley St., 540-885-7775, www.zynodoa.com), specializing in fresh, local ingredients, and Shenandoah Pizza (19 E. Beverley St., 540-213-0008, www.shenandoahpizza.com), a popular pre-Shakespeare nosh site. For a list of restaurants, go to www.visitstaunton.com.

History day trips

Staunton sits in the midst of history. Thirty-five miles away is attractive Lexington, with Washington and Lee University, home to Lee Chapel and Museum (540-458-8768, http://chapelapps.wlu.edu), tracing the national contributions of both George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Also in Lexington is the Stonewall Jackson House (540-463-2552, www.stonewalljackson.org), with period furnishings and Jackson memorabilia.

Charlottesville, with the University of Virginia; Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home (434-984-9822, www.monticello.org); and all the attractions of a university town and regional center, is about 40 miles away. Montpelier, home of James Madison, (540-672-2728, www.montpelier.org), is an hour and change away.

If you don't come to the Shenandoah as a Civil War buff, you may well leave as one. Created by Congress to protect and interpret the valley's Civil War story, the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District includes 14 Civil War battlefields and a host of historic sites across eight counties. Websites such as www.virginia.org, www.civilwartrails.org, and www.shenandoahatwar.org offer maps that help you follow the great campaigns. Visitor centers are plentiful along the way.

Recreation

There's also a lot of outdoor stuff to do, with the Blue Ridge Mountains, George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, and the Shenandoah River nearby, offering hiking, boating, camping, and fishing galore. There's the picturesque Blue Ridge Parkway (828-298-0398, www.blueridgeparkway.org) with its serpentine views, and dozens of parks and attractions. Skyline Drive, the section closest to Staunton, is one of the parkway's most beautiful stretches. It runs through Shenandoah National Park (540-999-3500; www.nps.gov/shen/index.htm), which offers camping and more than 500 miles of trails (including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail). Entrance fee is $10 per vehicle, $5 per person over 16 not in a vehicle. The hiking trail to the top of Old Rag Mountain, while challenging, is especially popular. There are a range of campgrounds, some with showers and laundry. Most facilities open in the spring and close in November.

Natural wonders also abound, notably underground caverns. An hour away is Natural Bridge (1-800-533-1410, www.naturalbridgeva.com), a natural rock formation and park, with hiking trails, caverns and camping. Luray Caverns, about 55 miles away in Luray, Va., is a complex of 11 "rooms" discovered in 1878. Since then, it has become perhaps the most-visited cavern complex in the East (540-743-6551, www.luraycaverns.com). One-hour tours wind along lighted walkways. There's also a car museum, maze, and other attractions and special events.

More information

Staunton Convention and Visitors Bureau

1-800-342-7982

www.visitstaunton.com

Virginia Tourism Corp.

1-800-847-4882

www.virginia.org

- John Timpane


Shakespeare in Staunton

Playing through the end of November:

Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and Othello, and John O'Keefe's Wild Oats.

Fall season

Sept. 2-Nov. 28

Henry IV, Part 2

The Fair Maid of the West by Thomas Heywood

Holiday season

Nov. 30-Jan. 2

The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

The 12 Dates of Christmas by Ginna Hoben

Three preformances each of As You Like It, Macbeth, and Measure for Measure

Tickets: $20-$40. Season subscriptions, youth and group rates, playhouse tours, and package deals also available.

Getting there

By car: We drove down in a little more than five hours. From Philadelphia, you can drive west to Interstate 81 at Harrisburg and go south from there, or take I-95 South, to I-64 West, to I-81. If you take I-95, try to miss the crazy rush-hour traffic around Washington. The rest of the drive is pleasant and pretty.

By train: This is a nice way to make a relaxing weekend of it. Amtrak train 51 leaves 30th Street Station at 8:16 a.m. Fridays and arrives at Staunton at 2:57 p.m. Fare: $88. Train 50, The Cardinal, leaves Staunton at 1:31 p.m. Sundays and arrives at Philadelphia at 8:02 p.m. Fare: $88.

By plane: US Airways flies nonstop to Roanoke Regional Airport from Philadelphia. The lowest recent roundtrip fare was $631. United flies to Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport with one stop; the lowest recent fare was about $444.

More information

American Shakespeare Center

1-877-682-4236

www.americanshakespearecenter.com.

- John Timpane


Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com or www.twitter.com/jtimpane.

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