This summer, I found myself working at a small Shakespeare theatre in Staunton, Virginia. I never really considered myself a theatre person and I approached this job from a literary standpoint. I’d focus on the analysis and interpretation of the text and I wouldn’t give a crap about the staging. But over the course of the summer, I learned that staging can bring the text to life in a way that all the analysis and research work can never do. And this tiny theatre in Staunton, Virginia brings the text to life in a way that I’ve never seen any other theatre come close to.
The name of said tiny theatre in Staunton, Virginia is the Blackfriars Playhouse. Twelve experienced actors get on empty stage and they bring “dusty” old texts to life. They use few set pieces, they stay true to the original text, and they pull the audience into the story. And they do all this while performing with the lights on. Whenever you go into a playhouse, you know the play is about to start because they dim the lights, halfway. Then after a few minutes, the music starts and the lights go down, and you enter the world of the play. But the lights never go down at the Blackfriars and yet, somehow, you become part of the play in a way that you never could have imagined.
The actors at the Blackfriars achieve this through eye-contact and audience interaction. I’ve sat in the audience at the Blackfriars and halfway through a monologue, one of the actors will look me dead in the eye, and suddenly they’re speaking directly to me, even if I’m sitting all the way in the back or up in the balcony. Their words are meant for me specifically, not for an empty stage or a faceless mass of people. Hamlet, or Bottom, or Beatrice is speaking to me, and no one else. I have entered the world of the play.
Another way the actors pull the audience members into the play is through the gallant stools. The gallant stools are seats on the stage and actors will speak to, touch, and incorporate the people sitting in these stools. Often, they try to make their lines fit the patrons, such as a line about love being directed to a couple or a line about youth being directed to a child. And often, this makes the lines more understandable. Benedick is no longer making up women in his mind when he speaks the lines “One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; another virtuous, yet I am well.” Instead, he is picking out and pointing to women in the audience that are “fair,” “wise,” and “virtuous.” You can be sitting there quietly and suddenly King Lear accuses you of adultery or Feste the Jester lets you hold his guitar and wear his hat. And there’s something genuinely thrilling about being singled out and spoken directly to, about being made part of the play.
The reason all of this eye-contact and audience interaction works so well is because it’s actually how Shakespeare intended his plays to be performed. They didn’t have the ability to turn off the lights and spotlight the stage in his day, so through necessity, the room was lit with candles and sunlight. But playwrights, Shakespeare in particular, used this to their advantage. He wrote his lines with an active audience in mind. He used lyrics of songs that everyone knew. His “asides” were meant to be given directly to viewers rather than the empty air. He meant for his audience to be part of the play.
Today we tend to keep the audience and the actors separate, and in all honesty, it’s not as fun that way. But Shakespeare’s texts were never intended to do that and the Blackfriars has recaptured this. They’ve brought the texts to life and they’ve built a world that the audience can be a part of. Rather than sitting back and hoping that everyone is willing to step into their world, they bring their world to the audience. And it’s truly powerful.