- We do it with the lights on.
The American Shakespeare Center (ASC) is a repertory theatre company based in Staunton, Virginia. Originally known as the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, it was founded in 1988 by Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen, then a professor at James Madison University, and a former student of his, Jim Warren. Originating as a touring troupe, the company spent the '90s spreading their reach with their tours, even traveling to England to perform. In 2001, the company set its roots in Staunton and built the Blackfriars Playhouse, the world's only reconstruction of Shakespeare's indoor playhouse. As their motto suggests, the lights in the Blackfriars stay up at all times, just one aspect of the comapany's embracing of the original staging practices that would have been used in Early Modern England. Other such practices include: audience contact, actors playing multiple roles, cross-gendered casting (for both men and women!), the presence of 'gallant stools' on the stage where audience members can sit, refreshments being sold before the show and during intermission, and the actors playing music during these periods. The actors pick modern songs (Shakespeare's actors weren't exactly performing centuries-old music after all), and the only proviso is that none of their instruments rely on electricity. The company is also known for their snappy dramaturgy; a show is cut to fall within the "two hours traffic of our stage", and actors generally pick up their cues and shared lines very fast.
The company is also acclaimed for its spring "Renaissance season," wherein the actors are given just a few weeks of rehearsal time to mount a show with no director. The actors costume themselves and have a prompter on standby should they forget a line (signalled with a call of "Prithee"). Needless to say, these conditions give rise to some very frantic, and very fun performances.
The ASC also offers workshops for students, teaching them about scansion, rhetoric, the staging conditions they (and Shakespeare's actors) work in, stage combat, stage blood, and several other topics. The Blackfriars is also home to the bi-annual Blackfriars Conference, an academic convention where Shakespearean scholars and educators meet to discuss ideas. The playhouse is located right on the edge of Mary Baldwin University, where Dr. Cohen (in addition to his role as Director of Mission) now teaches in a specialized Shakespeare & Performance graduate program, leading to an intimate partnership wherein students of the program are able to take classes and perform on the Blackfriars stage as well being given the opportunity to work as education artists for the ASC running tours and workshops.
While the name of the company is "The American Shakespeare Center," the company does not limit itself to the Shakespearean canon. They also perform works by Shakespeare's contemporaries, some of which have been given their first full staging in centuries! The Blackfriars stage is also not a stranger to modern works such as The Santaland Diaries, and musicals such as Return to the Forbidden Planet, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Peter And The Starcatcher.
On July 31, 2017, it was announced that Jim Warren would be stepping down from the position of Artistic Director—a role he had filled for the company's entire history.