By Jessica Osnoe, Assistant Artistic Director; Master of Education
There’s something about a trip to Staunton, Virginia that always makes me reevaluate my life. After my third visit, I have decided that it must be a combination of the loveliness of the town (and its charming, gingerbread-like qualities) and the atmosphere of the American Shakespeare Center and Mary-Baldwin College that creates such a potent effect. I am still relishing the joys of last week’s Blackfriars Conference, where I made one of five from Sweet Tea Shakespeare who took part in a theatrical experiment throughout the week.
Jeremy, Marie, Reagan, Tohry & I (Jessica) joined forces with a small cohort of conferees (a mix of actors, scholars and graduate students) to stage a Renaissance-style production of As You Like It, which means that we agreed to do a director-less play with something like 13-14 hours of rehearsal. For many of us, this idea became absolutely terrifying at the beginning of last week; we’re used to having at least three weeks of solid rehearsal and feedback from a director before a show, so losing the familiar process and surroundings for a performance was unnerving.
In the midst of this initial discomfort, I rejoiced in sharing the delights and fears of the experience with my fellow STS members. I knew that I could look at any one of them during rehearsal to find a smile or glance of commiseration. Our camaraderie freed me to invest in the process and enjoy working with other actors in our group because I was with friends I already knew, loved and trusted; the existence of such faith made the task before us less daunting, as if we knew that since it was present, it could be created among our cast through a similar, albeit shortened process.
We began putting together the play on Wednesday morning with the first of several rehearsals open to curious conferees. I felt very much like an experiment under a microscope with people watching us stitch together scenes on the Blackfriars Playhouse stage. It was a relief to retreat to private rehearsal in the afternoon to figure out music and staging (and how to work in an environment where no one is telling anyone what to do). The lack of familiar structure made it harder to decide how to spend our time and get things done. With so little rehearsal time, much of the process depended on the work of individual actors and choices they made on their own.
By the second day, we were able to stumble through the show and figure out problems more easily as time and familiarity made us better understand each other. I remember thinking with some awe that we had sketched together a play faster and better than we might do otherwise because we’d come in more prepared. I realized then the truth of a lesson I’d heard, but not yet understood: the quality of the play depends on where you are on the first day of rehearsal.
I started wondering what we could do if we started here and had two or three weeks to build and play before opening. When we performed the next morning, I was able to enjoy the privilege of the experience and then celebrate our work with excitement for what comes next. For those of us in STS’s January production of As You Like It, we have the extra time to build and play with new cast members before sharing the story with our audiences in Fayetteville. We return with the perspective of experience and fresh vision for where we can go in the coming year which, I hope, includes another trip to Staunton.
Jessica L. Osnoe