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Wondrous Strange

By Jeremy Fiebig, Artistic Director

Sweet Tea Shakespeare is a strange place.

We perform outdoors in North Carolina in the summer. It’s hot.

We ask all our artists to put their brains and hands to work on the totality of the production. A lot of actors aren’t used to that.

We organize ourselves differently by putting actors and artists in charge of the business of the company. That happens rarely.

We have a number of idiosyncratic practices, such as cross-gender casting, universal lighting, and permissive audience interaction. You don’t get that most places.

These are what I like to call “big asks.”

Few people understand why we do these things since they’re so strange. You can walk into most theaters, including several in our region, that don’t ask so much of their actors or their audiences. Where you can simply buy a ticket, come to see a show or, if you’re an actor, just learn your lines alongside everyone else and make some good choices, and you’re done. Those relationships are easy, simple, and transactional.

And I don’t want to sell those places short, because I work in those places and love them. And there are certainly tons of opportunities for actors and artists and audiences to engage much more deeply by volunteering, by serving on boards, and a host of other activities from educational offerings to lighting hangs.

But the basic exchange is simple: show up. Do your part. See the show. Go home. Repeat.

In one of these other theaters, you might see a wondrous and moving story that inspires you. You might see something you have to see again. You might see something that doesn’t speak to you, or that is bad, or that misses the mark in some way that you can’t get over. If you’re an actor or an artist, you may have a struggle backstage, or you may forge some meaningful relationships with your cast.

But there’s the potential for a lot of uncertainty in this exchange. The show may or may not be good. You may leave the theatre having never met a soul — neither the actors nor your fellow audience have really been *with* you for the entire production — you’ve sat in darkness watching folks who can’t see you and who do not know you do their thing. As an actor or artist, the backstage experience might be terrible or lovely. You may craft a magical experience onstage or off, but contracts end and your colleagues go off to other projects. There’s a lot of risk involved, even if the payoffs can be enormous.

At Sweet Tea Shakespeare, we’re really after a different approach that works to transform what happens between artists and company and between actors and audience. We’re looking for relationships, not transactions.

Good actors are smart people and exceptional collaborators. Many processes ask actors to check their other abilities — and their ideas — at the door in the service of a director’s vision. At Sweet Tea Shakespeare, we seek artists who are willing to engage their whole person in our company endeavors, both at the production level and at the company level. Our company is run by a group of company members and associates who literally run the show.

Relationship invites long-term commitment. Though there will always be room in the theatre for the contract folks who are in and out for a show and then on to the next project at another place or in another town, we welcome and cultivate artists to be in relationship with each other and the company over the long term. One of the great pleasures that we enjoy, and that Shakespeare’s own companies enjoyed, is the opportunity to see folks appear again and again in different roles over time — to invest in and see their growth as artists over the long haul.

Relationship and collaboration and commitment belong to the audience, too. Here’s what happens in a lot of theatres: show up, purchase your ticket, sit in an assigned seat, watch the show while sitting in total darkness. Watch only. Don’t talk — certainly don’t be in conversation with the art or artists. Behave yourself. Laugh. Clap. Leave.

Audiences can be great collaborators and friends. That means seeking an audience-actor dynamic that isn’t just about watching passively from the darkness, but which is about sharing, together, story, roles, pictures, and even food. At Sweet Tea Shakespeare, all our plays are in universal lighting — actors and audiences are lit together. Actors can see audience. Audience can see other audience. It’s a very different feel to a show. That sight, and the interaction that comes from it, are integral to the audience becoming collaborators.

But we don’t stop there. We invite audiences to come early for food and fellowship at our “What You Will” preshow. We have audiences join us on the stage for dancing and singing. We host open workdays, workshops, and public rehearsals so that audience members can join us in the creative process. We host The Chamberlains, a group of actors committed to continual growth, The Mechanicals, our volunteer group, and The Suspenders, our house band. We also keep in touch with our audiences in a variety of ways when we’re not performing, through our robust social media channels, regular updates, crowdfunding campaigns, season selection, and more.

We invite artists and audiences into relationship with beautiful text and compelling stage practice. Many of our idiosyncrasies come from looking back at Shakespearean and other early modern textual, bibliographic, and stage practice for inspiration. The logic is this: if the way plays were made in the 1580s, 1590s, and first couple decades of the 1600s yielded Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson, and a host of other marvelously successful playwrights, some of the most memorable and compelling plays, and successful businesses, wouldn’t it make sense for us to study what they were doing and see what we can learn about our own play-making?

Some of those practices include:

Sweet Tea Shakespeare embraces a number of early modern staging practices in its performances, including:

Universal Lighting

Shakespeare’s theatres, and many others, enjoyed light that illuminated actor, stage, and audience alike, allowing for engagement between the actor and the audience member.

A Surrounded Space

Throughout theatre history, and especially in Shakespeare’s theatres, audiences surrounded a central performance space in configurations now called thrust and arena staging. When the audience surrounds the playing space, they are part of the world of the play, visible to actor and other audience members, working as confidants and communities throughout the performance.

Simple Staging

Early modern theatres didn’t have fixed sets. In Shakespeare’s theatres, acting companies performed different plays each day, so there wasn’t time for a complete set to be built. Instead, large, movable set pieces were used, such as beds, thrones, tombs, and the like. Simple sets upend the economics of making theatre, putting the emphasis on actor and text. Since the advent of film, some theatres have put themselves into an unwinnable competition with the spectacular effects and grand visuals of the cinema, and replacing the role of the audience’s imagination with complex and show-stealing technologies. Simple sets offer a different approach, and allow for audiences to build the world of the play with imagination.

Doubling

Many Shakespeare plays, from Hamlet to Macbeth to the histories, have dozens of characters, but early modern playing companies often had casts between 12 and 15, with apprentices and journeymen and others joining occasionally, or with cast sizes expanding for special occasions. With a small group of actors and many characters, it was common practice for actors to play more than one role. By doubling shows, audiences can enjoy one favorite actor play several parts over the course of an evening.

Enlivened Costuming

With simple sets and doubled actors, costumes are of critical importance to Shakespeare’s theatres. They served as the primary visual draw for a production and helped distinguish between characters. Importantly, Shakespeare’s theatres wore what was for them modern dress. Think the equivalent of a t-shirt and jeans, an evening gown, a tuxedo, or military fatigues for teenagers, ladies-in-waiting, lords, or soldiers, respectively. Occasionally, such as for the Roman characters in Julius Caesar or the religious figures of Henry V, companies used more developed and historically-minded costumes. By using this mix of modern with a patina of the past, audiences can approach the play as Shakespeare’s audiences did, seeing a world that isn’t too different from their own.

Cross-Gender Casting

Shakespeare’s theatres employed all male casts, using boys whose voices hadn’t broken in puberty for young women’s roles like Juliet and Viola. Early modern companies and audiences were accustomed to seeing boys and young men play women (some of whom were disguised as young men, as in Viola’s case). Sweet Tea Shakespeare performances are for everyone, but we enjoy the fun of playing with and in gender by casting across gender frequently.

Live Music

Shakespeare’s plays included concerts. In addition to numerous music and dance within the plays themselves, shows were often preceded my musical and other entertainments. When Shakespeare’s company moved to Blackfriars in 1608, plays began to include musical interludes that sometimes were more popular than the plays themselves. The music then was contemporary, sometimes plucked off the streets and inserted into a performance in ways that connected the timeless texts with accessible, modern music.

The Early Modern “Ballpark” Atmosphere

With universal lighting, surrounded spaces, live music, and access to food and drink, Shakespeare’s theatres more of a modern-day baseball or football stadium than a darkened theatre with assigned seating and demure audiences. Amid the music, noisy audiences, side entertainments, and beer, a play happened. Just as double plays, triple plays, plays at the plate, homers and beloved players draw the attention of a raucous crowd to the field, so can great writing, humanity, music, and spectacle draw the eyes and ears of the audience.

​​After we tackle all this stuff — empowered artists, collaborative audiences, and enriching theatre practices — we believe we’re well on the way to a relationship between and among all these things, where the “big asks” become delightful favors and strange ways of loving each other, the craft, and the text.

Join us as we together become “wondrous strange.”