Love's Labour's Found

Virginia: In the historic town of Staunton, the stage is set for a Shakespearean renaissance.

October 14, 2001|By SARAH CLAYTON | SARAH CLAYTON,Special to the Sun

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen

Turns them into shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

-- A Midsummer Night's Dream

The Blackfriars Playhouse, William Shakespeare's other theater, opened in Staunton, Va., last month after closing almost 400 years ago in London.

FOR THE RECORD - A story in Sunday's Travel section listed an incorrect phone number for Shenandoah Shakespeare's Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Va. The number is 877-682-4236. The Sun regrets the error.

The arrival of the playhouse, a replica of one of the earliest theaters in the English-speaking world, is the centerpiece of a building and restoration program that may well put this historic town of 24,000 on the map for tourists and theater enthusiasts.

Most people associate Shakespeare with the open-air Globe Theatre. But the original Blackfriars -- the first Elizabethan theater to be roofed -- is often claimed to be the venue Shakespeare preferred most.

Ralph Cohen and Jim Warren, co-founders of Shenandoah Shakespeare, the acting troupe that inspired the Blackfriars project, set out 13 years ago with a simple goal: "To present Shakespeare as Shakespeare intended it," Warren said.

"We didn't dream about a building -- at first," said Cohen. "We dreamed only of making people love Shakespeare. ... I think it's fair to say that what's happened here has outstripped our basic dream."

The Blackfriars has outstripped everyone's dreams -- the architect's, the actors', the builders' and the city of Staunton's.

The intimate, 320-seat, timber-framed theater was built with Virginia white oak and features handcrafted wrought-iron chandeliers and intricate woodworking done mostly by local craftsmen.

"This theater is like a beautifully made piece of furniture," Cohen said.

Shenandoah Shakespeare has scheduled the four plays currently being offered -- A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, The Alchemist by Ben Jonson, and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard -- so that all can be seen in a single weekend. The theater will present Shakespeare works year-round.

The original Blackfriars was closed in 1642 with other London theaters by a Puritan Parliament that pronounced them "spectacles of pleasure ... too commonly expressing Mirth and Levitie." The theater later burned in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Because there were no extant drawings or physical remains of the Blackfriars, Tom McLaughlin, the architect who designed the playhouse, had to assume the role of architectural detective.

He studied plans of various other 17th-century theaters, made trips to England to experience existing Elizabethan buildings, combed through Shakespeare's few stage directions for clues, and consulted with scholars and historians of the Elizabethan era.

One of those scholars, Andrew Gurr, former director of education for London's reproduction of the Globe Theatre, which opened in 1997, said, "When Shenandoah Shakespeare completes the Blackfriars, it will immediately become one of the top five most historically important theaters in the world."

Indeed, a conference at the theater recently drew 150 Shakespeare scholars from around the world to help launch an Education Center, which will offer seminars, tours, camps and classroom activities.

One of the challenges McLaughlin faced was designing an exterior that would fit into its immediate, more residential neighborhood as well as into the greater downtown area with its old Victorian buildings. One could almost walk past the theater's brick building on North Market Street without noticing it, so integrated and discreet is its design.

"What we've done," the architect said, "is a mirror image of what Burbage did back in 1596." James Burbage, a carpenter and father of the leading tragedian of the day, Richard Burbage, constructed a modern theater inside the mid-14th-century Blackfriars monastery.

"Here," McLaughlin said, "we've constructed an old theater inside a modern building."

In the original, roofed Blackfriars, branches with candles were extended over the stage for illumination.

Staunton's theater is lit by nine wrought-iron chandeliers with electric candles and single-candle sconces, all done by local artisans. Most of the 250 workmen who built the playhouse were local.

"I've come in here on weekends," said Cohen, "and found the carpenters showing it to their children."

"I can show this to my father, and my daughter," said John McGlaughlin, a cabinetmaker who did the coffered ceiling and railings. "She'll show it to my grandchildren. It's something that will be a keepsake of my work locally. I'm very proud of that."

"It's a living thing," said Paul Borzelleca, who made the theater's benches and doors. "It's a piece of history that will become part of the fabric of this community."

"We're wood guys," added Stuart Dawson, who made the wainscoting and wall trim. "We want to make it right -- to make it pretty, so you can still feel it's put together by hand."

The actors are equally thrilled with the project.

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