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American Shakespeare Center

McSweeny Unveils First Blackfriars Season

American Shakespeare Center logoEthan McSweeny did more than announce his first season at the helm of the American Shakespeare Center during a forum Sunday morning for subscribers at the company's Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia. McSweeny, who took over as artistic director last summer, unveiled a vision of making the Blackfriars a destination theater while maintaining the company's core competency of producing actor-centric plays using the staging conditions of William Shakespeare's own theater.

McSweeny's initiatives include rebranding some of the seasons, bringing in guest artists while solidifying an established company of artists, and expanding genres at the world's only re-creation of Shakespeare's indoor theater. That last includes the world premiere of a new musical in the fall, The Willard Suitcases by Julianne Wick Davis. When the state of New York closed its Willard Psychiatric Center in 1995, several still-packed suitcases were discovered that had belonged to residents who had checked in but never checked out. Davis's musical, inspired by the suitcases, will be staged in the American Shakespeare Center's signature aesthete, using only acoustic instruments played by the ensemble.

The Willard Suitcases will debut during what is being rebranded as the Fall Repertory Season, joining the three plays that will open during the summer in what is now being branded as "The Festival Season" from June through August. McSweeny has scheduled three productions for the summer in a package he is calling "three great plays, two great authors, one great story": William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, and George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra.

Supplementing this package of plays will be a variety of ancillary programming, including concerts in partnership with the Staunton Music Festival, programs and conversations moderated by American Shakespeare Center's Co-founder and Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen, and performances by American Shakespeare Center children's camps. Additionally, the theater's touring company will produce a special "entry-level taste of Shakespeare," an adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The full Shakespeare version of that play will be part of the touring company's repertory when it hits the road in September and returns in the spring for Blackfriars' Tour Homecoming Season (nee Spring Season). Joining Dream will be Shakespeare's Cymbeline retitled as Imogen, and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

The Holiday Season will feature Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol in an adaptation by the company's own Jay McClure that debuted last December. Another holiday-centered show has yet to be announced.

The Actors' Renaissance Season is unchanged: the acting company without director or production team staging a repertory of four plays running from January into April. That lineup of plays has yet to be announced. Also to be announced will be the next round of the company's Shakespeare New Contemporaries programming, a competition for playwrights to create a new work that pairs with a particular Shakespeare play. McSweeny's announcement of the upcoming seasons came the day after the world premiere of the first of the Shakespeare New Contemporaries plays, Amy E. Witting's Anne Page Hates Fun. The next title will be 16 Winters, or the Bear's Tale by Mary Elizabeth Hamilton, which the touring company will pair with its production of The Winter's Tale this spring The touring repertory also includes Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and Antigone by Sophocles.

McSweeny has also invited new directors in to experience the Blackfriars playspace and meld their creativity with the company's staging principles, including Bedlam's Eric Tucker for Caesar and Cleopatra and Sharon Ott for Antony and Cleopatra. McSweeny will make his Blackfriars directorial debut with Julius Caesar.

With the goal of extending patrons' visits to Staunton centered on the Blackfriars, McSweeny is packaging some key weekends during the year that celebrate season openings and special events. He also is arranging a summer-fall schedule that will allow audiences to follow the historical timeline of the pivotal events in the Roman Empire, but with the Egyptian queen as the centerpiece.

February 19, 2019

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