Built for the Bard

With a thatched roof and no lights or indoor plumbing, this is theater as Shakespeare would have liked it.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor.

It's the kind of performance space that Shakespeare had in mind as he was writing his plays - right down to the thatched roof.

Right now, the triple-decker theater - an exact duplicate of the one where Shakespeare acted in the 16th century - exists only as an 18-inch-high platform, half-buried in the snow.

But if all goes well, western Massachusetts will become home to the world's first historically accurate reconstruction of the Rose Playhouse. It will be an international symbol for Shakespeare & Company and all its soaring aspirations.

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Those aspirations have been formed largely in the mind of its peripatetic artistic director, Tina Packer, a British-born and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art-trained director, teacher, author, and actress, who founded the company in 1978.

Out on the fringes of her imagination, beyond the world of meeting budgets and fundraising in tight economic times, lies a vision of a national center for Shakespeare studies: the Rose and the theater company at its core, surrounded by educational and research projects, to draw scholars and schoolchildren, actors-in-training and audiences - as well as tourists - onto the rolling, leafy campus.

But the road from being a feisty, respected regional Shakespeare company with exciting dreams to becoming the kind of world-class organization that Ms. Packer envisions may be a rocky one. The climate for arts organizations around the country has chilled, even since this project was first born.

"Theaters are feeling the pinch in the downturn of the national economy," says Ben Cameron, executive director of the Theater Communications Group, an advocacy organization for professional nonprofit theaters in the US. His group is tracking "significant shortfalls in corporate giving, foundation giving, individual giving" across the board. But "building campaigns may be faring better than some other campaigns in the arts world," he adds, since they can show donors real bricks-and-mortar results.

Until the next round of studies is completed, including detailed building plans, Shakespeare & Company doesn't know if the Rose and the Rose village of related buildings is going to cost $25 million, $30 million, or perhaps even $40 million.

The project, planned for completion by 2007-08, doesn't scare Packer. "It more stimulates me. I do think there's danger in it. I'm not daft about it. But ... I actually think that in the end the way these things get done is through the energy of the troops and the vision of the thing."

A quarter-century old, Shakespeare & Company makes its home on a 63-acre property in Lenox, Mass., that was once a boy's school. Among the actors who have trained at the campus over the years are Richard Dreyfuss, Andie MacDowell, Bill Murray, Keanu Reeves, Sigourney Weaver, and Raquel Welch.

Twenty-one buildings in various states of repair dot the campus. One by one, they're being turned into useful space for the theater group or are being marked for demolition.

The former gymnasium has already been transformed into the gleaming 400-plus-seat Founder's Theater, the main stage for the acting company. A large room in Spring Lawn, a mansion on the property, has been turned into a pocket theater. Half of a gigantic field house has become shops for the design, building, and storage of sets and costumes. The other half remains unused, perhaps someday to become a film or video studio.

Quest for authenticity

The Rose project blossomed from a relatively simple concept: Let's do the plays of Shakespeare in authentic surroundings. The Globe theater had already been reconstructed in London. A British expert on historic theaters suggested to Ms. Packer that she build the Rose, a rival theater that Shakespeare likely performed in as an actor (as depicted in the 1998 Best Picture "Shakespeare in Love") and the site of the first performance of at least two of his plays.

But then the project took on a life of its own. "I blithely said, 'Of course we're going to build an Elizabethan playhouse' because that makes sense artistically, you know. The aesthetic is about trying to play Shakespeare with that kind of authentic, raw energy and freedom the Elizabethans had," says Packer over soup and sandwiches around a desk in a tiny office. "Obviously, it makes sense for us to build the theater that the scripts were written for and have that kind of open-air boisterous energy," she continues. "What I hadn't realized ... is that for another set of people this is a whole other journey."

Those were the passionate advocates of authentic timber-frame buildings in both Britain and the United States. Timber-frame builder Peter McCurdy and architect Jon Greenfield, who worked together on the re-creation of Shakespeare's Globe in London, have been chosen to team up again on this project.

"But the real reason we decided to do the Rose instead of Globe is that there's so much more information about it, and we can make it more accurate than the Globe," Packer says. "The guys [McCurdy and Greenfield] have learned so much more by doing the Globe."

The actual foundation of the Rose, which was built in 1587, has been uncovered near the Globe, providing important archaeological evidence. And the theater's owner, Philip Henslowe (played for comic effect by Geoffrey Rush in "Shakespeare in Love"), kept detailed records of the theater's operations.

Indoor plumbing - who needs it?

The Rose was - and will be - a smaller theater than the Globe. Its diameter will be 72 feet, the height about 30 feet. Most of the audience, 400 to 500 people, will sit on three levels around the circumference of the polygon, under a thatched roof. Another 220 or so "groundlings" will stand under the open sky to watch the plays in the "yard" in front of the stage. Electricity has been banished - performances will rely on natural sunlight, as in Shakespeare's day. (Indoor plumbing also has been deemed anachronistic, so spectators will have to visit another building.)

As a result of the daytime performances, actors giving soliloquies will see the audience's reactions. As in the 16th century, the "groundlings" will be shifting and milling about, perhaps talking back to the actors.

Not that Shakespeare & Company is just waiting around until the Rose can be built. It's already a hive of activity. In addition to performing Shakespeare and other plays to an annual audience of about 40,000 during the warm weather months, it conducts intensive month-long training programs for about 150 professional actors. Its education program also includes going into area schools to work with about 40,000 students annually, hosting a fall festival of high school plays, and working with juvenile delinquents.

"Shakespeare isn't some kind of irrelevant Dead White Male," Packer says. "He's actually talking about our lives. There is not just joy in seeing a Shakespeare play.... There is actually real wisdom to be had."

Shakespeare, she says, keeps asking three simple questions: "What does it mean to be alive? How should we act? What must I do? These three questions are the very essence of human debate."

Packer interrupts the conversation to get up and hunt for a copy of a vision paper she's developing for what she's tentatively calling the "American Center for Shakespeare Performance and Learning," the organization that Shakespeare & Company could become. The paper asks: "What influence [could] a Shakespeare company have on our national culture and way of thinking?" Her answer: It would have a "profound effect on theater itself, theater training, theater in education, academe, public discourse, and the intellectual standards of the nation."

The skills taught by letting children "inhabit" Shakespeare through performance (not just reading the plays) helps them "think in complex, multidisciplinary ways." Even the "current level of our democratic debate" could be raised through more contact with the Bard, she suggests.

All this activity would ripple out from a single wooden "O" that's just waiting to be built if funds can be found to make Packer's vision real.

"Are we going to do all this? I don't know," she says with a laugh. But Shakespeare & Company has a strong track record, she says. "We have been manifesting what we've been talking about. And I don't think you can overestimate the credence that gives you."

If the inspiration is strong enough, she says, "other people will want to come along and do it."

Back outside, near the future site of the Rose, community projects director Mel Cobb shows off a thatched-roofed shed, constructed to practice timber-framing techniques. Last summer, Mr. Cobb helped cover sections of its walls with four different mixtures of plaster to test which one will hold up best through the rugged New England winters.

Can Packer pull all this off, he's asked. Of course, he replies quickly. "She's a practical dreamer."

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