By Jeremy Fiebig, Artistic Director
Though I certainly wasn’t tracking the proverbial weather at the time, we ended up with a stormy season in 2017-2018. As this season comes to a close, I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on the passing storms at Sweet Tea Shakespeare, our productions this year, and the stormy nature of the present moment on this mortal coil. One of my common phrases with those who work with me closely is that life imitates art, by which I mean that we tend to become, in reality, a version of what we produce onstage. If you’re playing Hamlet onstage, you’ve got to be a little careful of your own psyche, for instance. And if you’re playing Macbeth, you’ve got to keep your ambition in check. And so on. What I often forget as I parcel out this advice to others is to take it myself, and so I should’ve known that a season in which we scheduled King Lear, LITSummer, Songs for a New World, Jane Eyre, The Tempest, and Pericles was going to be a stormy one, even if magical.
As a couple handfuls of STS company members gathered daily to make the trek from Methodist University to William Peace University to rehearse King Lear in partnership with Honest Pint Theatre Company, I should have predicted the stormy, divisive way that life would imitate art. The Monday or Tuesday after we started rehearsals in August, I was called in to my department chair’s office for a meeting about STS. In that conversation, my chair and I discerned that it was time for STS to divide itself away from its functioning home since its founding in 2012, Fayetteville State University, just as Lear divides his kingdom among his daughters. If you can imagine the existentially thunderous reality of trying to figure out how to make that happen while directing a monolithic play and traveling several hundred miles a week, you may have a sense of what the core folks in the company were dealing with at that time. King Lear is a play where all the wrong (and a few of the right) people die at the end, and the realization of our own mortality at Sweet Tea Shakespeare resuscitated us at the very last moment, bringing our common life and the importance of what we do into sharp focus. Our heart would continue to beat.
Between that August meeting and mid-October, we worked on a magically fun production of LITSummer, the latest installment of our drunken Shakespeare series, this one based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Although that play doesn’t have quite the storm of Lear, it does have a certain element of capricious mischief, an inherent mistrust among and between its characters–lovers and fairies, royals and mechanicals. And it’s a play where a lot goes wrong before it begins to go right. In the life-imitates-art department, imagine me a panicked Peter Quince huddled in the corner hoping things go okay. We filed to incorporate Sweet Tea Shakespeare as a non-profit 501(c)3 company right in the thick of that, and received our approval from the state on November 1st and from the IRS in early January.
Since January, we’ve produced four shows, all with storms in them. Songs for a New World is about storms external and internal, from the deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship to the rainy day of a soldier’s funeral. Jane Eyre had both the literal storm crashing atop Rochester’s proposal and the stormy journey Jane herself was on. In both Pericles and The Tempest, storms are the definition of travail, anguish, and suffering, separating this person from that, ending worlds of a sort. And since January, in the “real world” of Sweet Tea Shakespeare and in the real world of planet earth, things have been stormy as well. Life has imitated art. And though I won’t go into all the details here, I’m sure you can imagine how the dark clouds have taken shape, crackling with lightning and buzzing with incessant showers.
And yet here we are, closing out one kind of hurricane season here at STS, washed ashore after a rocky ride or two, looking ahead to a new sort of world, including a very ambitious 2018-2019 season. We don’t come ashore intact without the diligent work of some important fairies and wizards, of course, and so I want to take a moment to thank the company members, actors, musicians, and craftspeople of Sweet Tea Shakespeare for working their magic during this year even as we’ve faced some strong headwinds now and again. Seven folks deserve very high praise indeed, both for their work as artists and as company leaders. Marie Lowe, Jessica Osnoe, Jacob French, Tohry Petty, Jen Czechowski, Medina Demeter, and Jen Pommerenke serve as board members for STS and what we call “Masters”–folks who lead company operations. We thank tremendously our artists who’ve traveled from far away, including when far away means almost daily commutes from Raleigh or Laurinburg or Virginia and points beyond (thanks Cerina, Alexcia, Tyler, Mary Lynn, Aaron, Hannah, Alex, Arlie, Will, Jessica Schiermeister, Ana, Austin, and anyone else I might’ve forgotten). Thanks to our very magical newcomers, Sana (who is not exactly a newcomer), and Dean and Dena and kiddos, who have, in a very short time, transformed some key elements of our company in needed ways. Thanks to Laura Parker, Barry Jaked, Steve Wood, Traycie Zapata, Christine Orozco, Taj Allen, Joyce Borum, and the many capable hands as designers, builders, and doers who have helped us step up our production game with a new portable playhouse, a huge stock of costumes, new paint, a new sound system, new lighting booms and fixtures, and some killer production elements for our last two productions in particular. Thanks to our venues and their staffs, especially David Reid at the Museum of the Cape Fear and Jeff Thornberg at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, as well as St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Paddy’s, Cape Fear Botanical Garden, Wade Newhouse at William Peace University, Fainting Goat Brewing, and everywhere else I’m forgetting. Thanks to our incredible audiences, especially our Patrons, Sponsors, and season ticket holders who have literally kept the lights on and the actors paid more times this year than I can count. Thanks to Jen Pomm and our new young company, Green Tea, and their parents, who are testing out the Shakespeare ropes even now before sailing on to their first production later this year.
Without all these folks–and many more whose names aren’t listed here because I am a forgetful guy (thanks, Lear)–we simply wouldn’t have weathered the storm of this season in the way we have. That we’re intact at all is a testament to the STS community. I am–we are–exceedingly grateful to be here.
And here’s the thing: the storms are going to rage on (have you read The Comedy of Errors or Sweeney Todd or Richard III? Yikes.), but our ship is tight and yare and we’re preparing as best we can for what’s on and beyond the horizon. And that reminds me of one more thing: we’re new at this. Tremendously new. We aren’t meteorologists or sailors or whatever the stormy-shipwreck metaphor most requires. We are, for instance, still figuring out how to sail the budget seas on ticket sales and a smattering of sponsorships and monthly pledges. And we’re learning how to season our company–working on everything from managing cash flow to forming contracts to rigging up policies and more. What we’ve found on the journey so far is that we need more members of the crew. Yes, artists, but also doers and lawyers and money people and board members and fundraisers and sponsors and Patrons and ticket buyers and sales reps and property owners and and and. If we’re not careful, those needs can begin to sound like a mighty thunderous front rolling through every now and again, lightning striking ground in the form of this crisis here and that fire to put out there. It can be loud and overwhelming at times–and the needs can be great–but we are hoping you’ll come on board with us.
And we’ll weather whatever comes next.