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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. / January 3, 2003



LENOX, MASS.

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

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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.

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."

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