Shakespeare in the Shenandoah

Head to Staunton, Virginia for authentic Elizabethan-style theater.

Photo by Tommy Thompson

“Down With Caesar!” reads the sign in the protester’s hand. I’m trying to reach the front door of the American Shakespeare Center (ASC), but some Romans—whose togas look suspiciously like bedsheets—are blocking the way.

I soon realize the picketers are, in fact, a high school Latin club, and they’re just getting into the right frame of mind to watch Julius Caesar. Their rabble-rousing presence turns out to be a good omen. At this theater, everyone has a chance to become part of the action.

Truth be told, I’ve come here on a quest. Just as some fans seek to visit every Major League Baseball stadium, my goal is to see every Shakespeare play performed live and to visit every major Shakespeare theater from Stratford, Ontario, to Stratford-upon-Avon, England, the bard’s birthplace.

You have to cross an ocean to view a replica of the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare’s famous outdoor venue in London. Yet the world’s only re-creation of his company’s indoor theater is tantalizingly close to home—just three hours away in the historic mountain town of Staunton, Virginia.

I start my pilgrimage by joining a one-hour tour of ASC’s theater, called the Blackfriars Playhouse after its famous namesake. Guide Liz Bernardo explains that the original Blackfriars in London was built in a former monastery, and its name refers to the black robes worn by the monks. Shakespeare’s theater troupe, the King’s Men, began using Blackfriars for winter performances in 1608. Staunton’s version was completed in 2001 as a permanent home for the theater troupe that formerly toured as Shenandoah Shakespeare Express.

Walking into this performance venue is like entering a time capsule. A rustic wooden balcony rises over the small stage, and wrought-iron chandeliers studded with electric candles illuminate seats and stage alike. The exact level of illumination, we learn, is designed to mimic the brightness of the original Blackfriars at 2 o’clock on a sunny afternoon.

Besides precisely re-creating the look of the stage that Shakespeare walked across, Staunton’s Blackfriars also strives to reproduce the period’s staging conditions. In Elizabethan times, the audience and actors could see each other (before modern electricity there was no easy way to light the stage while darkening the audience), so this theater follows suit. Suddenly, I understand why T-shirts in the gift shop display the cheeky slogan, “We do it with the lights on.”

A musical number by the cast of Romeo & Juliet. Photo by Tommy Thompson

Categories: Travel