In the Autumn of 1996, during my freshman year of college at James Madison University, I was offered extra credit if I attended a production of The Comedy of Errors at the JMU arboretum. Because I got the start time wrong, I ended up arriving an hour early, and after looking at the pretty trees for half an hour, I ended up sitting in the front row once people came to set up the stage.
The play was put on by the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express (the forerunner of the American Shakespeare Center), and it turned my view of Shakespeare on its head.
Suddenly, 400-year old jokes were hysterically funny. The doubling of roles by the players added a layer of humor and irony to a play about mistaken identity. The minimalist sets and costumes put extra emphasis on the actors and their portrayal of their characters. But most memorable of all was the interaction with the audience!
Sitting in the front row and divided from the play only by a rope on the ground, I had actors speaking directly to me as though looking for a response, coming into physical contact with me, and drawing me into the experience. It remains one of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences of my life, and it convinced me of the value of the production and staging principles that the SSE (and the American Shakespeare Center since) have tried to maintain.
In the years following that production of The Comedy of Errors, I was completely hooked. I followed the SSE religiously throughout my time at JMU and beyond, seeing every show they produced in Harrisonburg until I graduated in 2000. After moving back to northern Virginia, I watched their website for productions near me, on one occasion crashing a production of Twelfth Night for a high school drama class. I was privileged one year to partake of their “Summer on the Lawn” program at UVA of a week’s immersion in the world of Shakespeare and to get a deeper sense of their craft.
It has been a joy to watch the SSE evolve into its current form, to see them build such a beautiful home at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, and to see them continue to deliver such wonderful entertainment while remaining committed to educating students and adults alike about Elizabethan stagecraft and the joy of theater. Thank you!
– Matthew Parowski