This weekend, Pip and I took off for a Valentine’s Day weekend. Instead of getting our lovey-dovey on today, we dropped off the Boom with grandparents, and enjoyed a quiet pre-Valentine’s Day weekend in Staunton, Virginia. If you are not familiar with Staunton, this is truly one of the crown jewels of Virginia’s crown. It is a fantastic town nestled within the Shenandoah Valley, just about 20-30 minutes away from my alma mater, James Madison University. Why I chose Staunton as our getaway weekend, though, wasn’t for its historic architecture, quiet setting, or quaint downtown shops. It was for The American Shakespeare Center.
You probably don’t think “Staunton, Virginia” when you think of William Shakespeare, but you should. The American Shakespeare Center (ASC) is located in downtown Staunton, and they manage the Blackfriars, the world’s only reproduction of Shakespeare’s indoor theatre. This weekend, the ASC was putting on The Comedy of Errors, a show that holds a very special place for me. As Pip had never seen a production of Comedy nor a show at the Blackfriars, I thought this would be a great opportunity. Better still, the Frederick House offered a Shakespeare Package that included tickets and a backstage tour. As you can see by the photos (click on them to view in full), the Blackfriars is gorgeous, and how you see the stage—even with the lights up—is how the ASC does Shakespeare. The show itself was tremendous, and Pip and I are still talking about it. The actors (including an old friend from JMU who is still performing with the company, I am proud to say) gave high energy with every line and every comic moment, making the less-than-two-hours traffic fly by. So yeah, when you think of Shakespeare, you should also think of Staunton, and you should make it a priority to catch a show here. It was a terrific choice Pip and I made, and we’re heading back to Staunton in May. (More on that trip to come…)
What I didn’t expect from this trip to the Blackfriars was a memory from the past, back when I was a professional actor and facing a tough call.
Not to sound too ominous, the ASC and I have a history. I knew the ASC when they were the SSE, or the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express. They started as a theatre troop independent of the JMU Theatre department, run by the Shakespeare professor, Dr. Ralph Cohen, and under the artistic direction of Jim Warren. (Side note: Jim is still the Artistic Director at the ASC. That really makes me smile.) They first got off the ground with Henry V, and then took on Richard III. While I missed Henry, I caught Richard…
I didn’t like it.
No, I mean, I really didn’t like it.
Exactly how much did I, the young, 20-something, I-got-this-acting-thing-down, college student, not like this production of Richard III? I ranted about it. With a couple of other students. In my acting class. Oh yeah, and then I reviewed it in a write-up a year later with Taming of the Shrew (a show I really, really liked). This review was shared with the cast.
As you might guess, my rant came back to haunt me. Particularly when I came to audition for the company.
When I first started auditioning for the SSE people were surprised, considering the earlier disdain I threw around over Richard III. A lot of it had to do with my semester in England. That time overseas gave me some space between the microcosmos that was JMU, and also opened my eyes a bit. I took a Shakespeare class, saw a LOT of Shakespeare, and grew up a bit. When I got back to JMU, the SSE started hitting a stride. From Twelfth Night to MacBeth to the insanely-difficult Measure for Measure, the company hit a stride and quickly built a reputation for getting high school students excited about Shakespeare.
I wanted to be a part of that.
I never made callbacks.
I wasn’t surprised.
No, I didn’t blame the SSE. That’s not what a professional (or someone who wanted to be a professional) would do. A lot of things happen in the audition process (and as an actor and as an editor, I’ve been on both sides of it). When you have only a few open slots and a lot of talent showing up for said slots, I could have breathed fire while dancing a salsa and still not made callbacks.
Yet a voice in the back of my mind wondered if things would have been different had I kept my opinions to myself.
Fast-forward a few years. I am auditioning once again for the SSE. This time, by invitation. At that time, the SSE was collaborating with the Richmond Shakespeare Festival and Vpstart Crow Productions in a massive cattle call audition for Shakespeare, and I also remember my elation when the SSE invited me to their second round of auditions. While this was still the same SSE I knew back in the day, things were very different for the company; just as I was still the same ol’ TeeMonster…but also a very different actor. The morning started early, and by the afternoon I had read for a variety of roles. My heart was practically pounding out of my chest as I waited to hear results from reading, waiting, reading, and reading again. Then, finally, an associate started reading off names for people to stick around for the last round of auditions. Mine was called.
This was it. Final callbacks.
Then the other shoe fell.
The SSE handed me a contract. (No, that wasn’t a typo—a contract.) This contract spelled out everything, down to the last detail, of exactly what an SSE associate did for the company, how much they were paid, how much they were fined if they did not meet these conditions, and how long of a commitment they expected from their actors. I give a lot of credit to the SSE: this was the clearest contract I have ever read. There was no question of what was expected of me, and I was ready to rise to that challenge.
What I wasn’t ready for was what came next: I couldn’t go into callbacks unless I signed it.
To perform with the SSE would have meant quitting my job and either commuting to Harrisonburg (2+ hours, one way), or relocating. (We had just moved into a house.) Making a call like this without checking with Natalie would have carried severe consequences. I was also making a commitment to a company without know where I would “fit” into the show. (In other words, I was agreeing to the commitment, and then finding out where I was cast.) And if something unforeseen were to happen, I would still be locked into this agreement with no out, the exception being to “buy myself out” of the contract which I couldn’t afford.
While others around me were quickly signing and turning in their paperwork, I hesitated. I was being told “Sign it now…” and I couldn’t. Every instinct in me told me not to. I needed time to consider.
The SSE Associate reluctantly got Jim Warren to the door, and Jim—as I’d always known him to be—was gracious. With actors filing in and final auditions seconds before commencing, he afforded me a few minutes. I was told what I already knew: No exceptions. This was the way the SSE did things back then, and I had to make a choice.
I glanced over to the assembled actors all waiting for the last round of readings, handed Jim back the unsigned contract, and said, “I’m sorry. Maybe next time.” and I walked away.
I walked away from my last shot with the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express.
These memories came back to me this weekend, and Pip was doing her best to cheer me up. It wasn’t regret I was feeling. I don’t miss acting (well, okay, yeah, maybe a little…), but I do miss performing Shakespeare. There really is something magical to watch people—kids, especially—laugh at jokes that were written over 400 years old. When you consider performances like Tenant’s Hamlet, Stewart’s MacBeth, McKellen’s Richard III, or Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, you appreciate the passion and love that go in these productions; and even if you have seen the show before, it will be the first time you’ve seen it that way.
So, yeah, I miss performing William’s works.
Since this weekend’s wonderful production, and taking the theatre’s tour (which, again, I highly recommend), I have gone back to that crossroad. I know had I signed that contract, had I gone through that callback, things would have been different. Whether I had been cast or not, I would not be the person I am today. I probably wouldn’t be blogging right now. People in my life (Pip, Sonic Boom, friends from podcasting, friends from writing, etc.) would never be. Sacrificing those band of brothers, the days I have seen, and hearing the chimes at midnight just will not do. Heck, just thinking of what I am now and what I could have been could easily make one wiser, mad.
I guess I never really considered that moment a crossroad, but there it is. Lani Tupu once told me that I will never “stop” being an actor. It will always be a part of me; and when I’m ready, the stage will be waiting. I admit to getting my fixes when I take on voicework with various podcasts, including my own; but will I ever return to Shakespeare on stage? I honestly don’t know. I think Pip said it best in her tweet today:
For those who feel alone, remember things can change faster than you think.
I don’t regret the choice I made at that particular crossroad. I’m just missing time with the Bard. We were the best of friends. Still are. I think Pip sees that, too. I Forgot to mention we upgraded our seats for Comedy, and we took two “Gallant” seats which are stools on the stage. Pip ribbed me a bit with “You just want to get on the stage with them, don’t you?”
Yeah. I do. When I’m ready.