By Rebecca J. Barnabi
For Augusta Free Press
STAUNTON — The plays of William Shakespeare appear regularly on a stage on South Market Street in downtown, but the American Shakespeare Center will take their devotion to the Bard even further in 2021 with an actor-led theater company.
With the center since 2018, Ethan Sweeney resigned as artistic director on Feb. 11.
As the curtain rises on the 2021 season in the spring, the actor-led company model will mimic theater as Shakespeare knew it in his day.
“We’re all leading the way together,” said Chris Johnston, an actor-manager with the center since 2006 who handles music for the stage productions.
Johnston said that he and three other actors, Brandon Carter, Zoe Speas and John Harrell, will lead the theater company through the transition, but nobody will be in charge and everyone will be welcome to make decisions.
“We are talking through everything, and taking our time,” Johnston, who lives in Staunton, said.
Right now, the actors are working on the company’s 2021 season for spring, summer and the holidays.
Johnston said that planning for the season is almost complete and the company expects to announce in early March.
“I’m already thinking about options for the new shows,” Johnston said.
As an actor in charge of the music, he has been involved in all of the productions performed indoors at the Blackfriars Playhouse.
“It’s a lot more responsibility [with the new model]— having to discuss artistic decisions beyond what I’m used to,” Johnston said.
But he and the other actors are up to the challenge.
A new idea under consideration is having an outdoor space dedicated for performances. That space may be at The Blackburn Inn, Johnston said, where the company performed “Twelfth Night” and “Othello” last year.
“It was a really great experience,” Johnston said.
The audience was able to feel comfortable during the COVID-19 pandemic experiencing theater outside in an environment that easily encouraged social distancing.
Also, according to Johnston, listening to and watching Shakespeare’s work “under the stars” is “really quite charming.”
Johnston said he takes into consideration with outdoor performances how each song will sound outdoors at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night to an audience. The center’s music is provided by all acoustic instruments, and no instruments that require electricity.
“I hope we’ll be able to move forward [with the new model and] keep providing great theater,” Johnston, who is originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, said.
Brandon Carter also lives in Staunton but grew up in Reedville, Virginia, earned his undergraduate degree at Longwood University, then his master’s at Pennsylvania State.
After some time off-Broadway in New York, Carter’s acting career brought him back to Virginia and a resident actor position at the American Shakespeare Center three years ago. He is now an actor-manager.
“That’s kind of what attracted me to here was the actors,” Carter said of coming to the center. He wanted to be part of a team again like he was when he played sports in high school.
Audience members have seen him in nearly 18 productions at the center, including “Henry IV” parts 1 and 2, and will see him on stage in the upcoming “Henry V.”
“I don’t think it will affect us,” Carter said of the model change. “It will just enhance what we already have.”
During the winter and spring, Carter said, “the artists take charge” with the Renaissance model of theater.
“We have a proven record of successful shows and reviews,” he said.
Carter said he is excited about the new model and the opportunity to be even more so part of a team of actors.
With the new model and the pandemic, “we actually get to find out who we are,” Carter said.
“I’m very excited about this,” Carter said of the center going to a model that more resembles theater in Shakespeare’s time. “It’s a good experience, and could be a good model.”
Founded in the 1990s as a touring company of actors, Carter said the new model is “reinvesting in our roots,” which he thinks was the goal of the company’s founders.
“We have one of the biggest resources of Shakespeare in the country,” Carter said.
As Carter, Johnston, Speas and Harrell take the lead, Carter said the goal is “to be an actor-led model, but that’s still with the whole company having a voice.”
“I think it’s a natural outgrowth of how we operate,” said Kelly Burdick, the center’s director of communications for four years.
Burdick said that ASC is unique for theater companies because actors stay for a long time and make the nearby community their homes. Most actors move around finding work in their craft.
“So, you have a lot of people with a little buy-in,” Burdick said.
And “when you look at the future” of theater, Burdick said, the conclusion is that the industry is returning to how it was during Shakespeare’s time: actors performing on stage and making decisions off stage.
“I think it’s very exciting,” Burdick said. “I think actors are often put into a box of what their capability is.”
Often actors have the least say in how productions are put together on stage, but the new model at the center will give Burdick and audience members opportunities “to see those who are most impactful internally be impactful externally” with the center.
“Getting through COVID has been challenging — financially challenging and emotionally challenging,” Burdick, who lives in Staunton, said.
Members of the company are looking forward to performing to a full theater audience when safety allows, and are excited to get started on the company’s next act.