American Shakespeare Center

The American Shakespeare Center (ASC) is a regional theatre company located in Staunton, Virginia,[1] that focuses on the plays of William Shakespeare; his contemporaries Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Christopher Marlowe; and works related to Shakespeare, like James Goldman's The Lion in Winter and Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet.[2]

American Shakespeare Center
FormationSeptember 1988
TypeTheatre group
PurposeShakespeare and other classics, contemporary plays, new plays
  • The Blackfriars Playhouse
    10 S. Market Street
    Staunton, VA 24401

The ASC is notable for its theatre, the Blackfriars Playhouse, the world's first recreation of the original indoor Blackfriars Theatre in London that was demolished in 1655.[3][4] As a theater company, the ASC hosts performances by two rotating ensembles of 16 different titles in 5 distinct seasons, 52 weeks a year, at its Blackfriars Playhouse, as well as hosting a regional travelling company, ASC on Tour. The ASC also provides a year-round laboratory for students and scholars through education programming in Staunton and on the road.[5]


Shenandoah Shakespeare EXPRESS

The American Shakespeare Center was founded as the Shenandoah Shakespeare EXPRESS in 1988 by Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen and Jim Warren.[6] The first show performed by the newly organized company was Richard III, where actors who made up the locally travelling ensemble troupe came from James Madison University's current students and graduates, and the performance was two hours long (compared to a more typical three hour plus run time).[7]

In 1990, the company started performing multiple shows in rotating repertory with a season of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Julius Caesar.[6][8] Shenandoah Shakespeare Express grew quickly during its first five years,[9] moving from a single touring show in Virginia in 1988 to a three-show tour in 1992 that included the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and an overseas leg in London and Edinburgh. Three years later, the company toured the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, and Scotland as well as starting to build the Education arm of the company with a six-week National Endowment for the Humanities institute.

In 1997, the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express introduced the Young Company Theatre Camp, a three-week intensive summer program for high school students.

Shenandoah Shakespeare

Shenandoah Shakespeare Express changed its name to Shenandoah Shakespeare in 1999 and moved to Staunton, Virginia.

In September 2001, the Blackfriars Playhouse – the world's first re-creation of Shakespeare's indoor theatre – opened in Staunton, Virginia[10][11] and ASC Education hosted its first Blackfriars Conference.

In 2014, another replica of the Blackfriars theatre, called the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, was opened in London.

American Shakespeare Center

In 2005, Shenandoah Shakespeare changed its name to the American Shakespeare Center to reflect its focus on being a center for performance and research. Also in 2005, the first Actors' Renaissance Season debuted. The Actors' Renaissance Season uses Shakespeare's rehearsal conditions (self-directed, self-designed, short rehearsal period) as well as his staging conditions to delve deeper into the plays. The Actors' Renaissance Season is also an opportunity to explore rarer titles of the early modern period.[5]

In 2005, the Bob Carlton musical, Return to the Forbidden Planet, which was loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest and the science-fiction classic movie from the late 1950s, Forbidden Planet, was produced by the touring company, then called the Blackfriars Stage Company. The performances incorporated acoustic music, a piano, and a three-sided thrust stage, all of which were selected to maximize audience engagement.[2]

The American Shakespeare Center celebrated its 25th Anniversary in 2013.

Shakespeare's New Contemporaries

In April 2017, the American Shakespeare Center launched an international playwrighting competition to develop a canon of new plays that are inspired by and in conversation with the work of William Shakespeare. [12][13] Each new play will be performed in rotating repertory with the Shakespeare play it corresponds with. Each round names the Shakespeare plays to serve as "jumping off points" for playwrights. [14]


  • Round 1: Anne Page Hates Fun by Amy E. Witting (Performed February 7-April 14, 2018) - In conversation with The Merry Wives of Windsor
  • Round 1: 16 Winters or the Bear's Tale by Mary Elizabeth Hamilton (Performed May 1-June 8, 2019) - In conversation with The Winter's Tale
  • Round 2: Keene by Anchuli Felicia King - In conversation with Othello
  • Round 2: The Defamation of Cicely Lee by Emma Whipday - In conversation with Cymbeline

Blackfriars Playhouse

In Staunton, the ASC constructed the Blackfriars Playhouse, the first modern re-creation of Shakespeare's original indoor theatre, the Blackfriars Theatre.[17] As no reliable plans of that theatre are known,[18] architect Tom McLaughlin based the design on plans for other 17th-century theatres, his own trips to England to view surviving halls of the period, Shakespeare's stage directions and other research and consultation.[19] The chosen dimensions of 50 feet (15 m) by 70 feet (21 m) were derived from the research of theatre historian Irwin Smith.[20]

Construction began on the playhouse in early 2000, as part of a three-building construction plan that would also include a re-creation of the 1614 Globe Theatre and a Center for Research and Education. The theater was built with timber sourced by Dreaming Creek.[21]

The playhouse was completed at a cost of $3.7 million,[22] and opened in September 2001.[20] Built inside a brick shell, it is a wood-pegged, post-and-beam structure,[19] made of Virginia oak,[18] with a hammerbeam roof.[20] The seating capacity is 300.[19] Raked benches in a pit and two levels of galleries place the audience close to the actors,[20] and even seating on the stage is possible.[22] Unlike the original Blackfriars, the theatre has no painted decorations except at the back of the stage, and no windows in the auditorium. Electrical lighting reflected off the ceiling is used to simulate daylight,[20] and lights simulating candles are mounted on sconces,[19] and on wrought-iron chandeliers.[23]

In 2012, the Blackfriars Playhouse appeared in BBC's documentary Shakespeare Uncovered, which aired in the U.S. in early 2013.[24]

Shakespeare's staging conditions

The American Shakespeare Center gives its audiences some of the same experiences that an Elizabethan playgoer would have enjoyed by following the basic principles of Renaissance theatrical production - including Universal Lighting (audience and actors share the same pool of light), Doubling (one actor playing multiple roles in a show), cross-gender casting (men playing female characters and vice versa), and minimal sets.[5]


For resident theatre companies, according to Zelda Fichandler, "repertory is destiny" - a theatre company acquires its audience by the productions it presents.[25] Most of the production at the American Shakespeare Center's are from Shakespeare's canon; however, each year several productions are works by his contemporary playwrights or more modern plays that relate directly to the Shakespeare canon or work well using Shakespeare's staging conditions.

Educational programming

ASC Education offers workshops, performances, staged readings, lectures, a biennial international conference, teacher training, archival materials for scholarly research, and summer programs for teens and adults.

Mary Baldwin University

The ASC partners with Mary Baldwin University in the one-of-a-kind MLitt/MFA Shakespeare and Performance graduate program for actors, directors, teachers, and dramaturgs. The program's graduates have gone on to doctoral work, tenure-track faculty positions, and professional theatre careers.[26]



  • Ralph Alan Cohen, Co-Founder and Director of Mission, Shakespeare Scholar
  • Ethan McSweeny, Artistic Director
  • Amy Wratchford, Managing Director

Advisory Board


In 2008, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine honored American Shakespeare Center co-founders Jim Warren and Ralph Alan Cohen with the Governor's Awards for the Arts. [28]

On September 12, 2013, the Staunton, Virginia City Council passed a resolution honoring the 25th Anniversary of the American Shakespeare Center, acknowledging its growth from a touring troupe performing Richard III fourteen times in rural Virginia into an international Shakespeare center that has:

  • Performed in 47 U.S. states and five other countries
  • Built the world's first re-creation of Shakespeare's indoor theatre
  • Become the hub of scholarship on early modern performance at the biennial Blackfriars Conference[29][30]

Shakespeare's Globe awarded American Shakespeare Center co-founder Ralph Alan Cohen with the Sam Wanamaker Award in June 2014. [31]

In 2015, The Folger Shakespeare Library awarded the American Shakespeare Center with its Shakespeare Steward Award for its contributions in Shakespeare education. [32]

In 2016, the Arts Council of the Shenandoah Valley awarded the American Shakespeare Center its Circle of Excellence Award. [33]

In 2017, the Virginia Commission for the Arts named the American Shakespeare Center one of its "50 for 50 Arts Inspirations" in the category of Bedrock Institutions. [34]

See also


  1. "Theatre Profiles: American Shakespeare Center". Theatre Communications Group. Archived from the original on 18 May 2015. Retrieved 13 May 2015.
  2. Davis, Deryl (October 2005). "Shakespeare Rocks". Stage Directions. New York, NY: Timeless Communications. 18 (10): 110–113. ISSN 1047-1901. ProQuest 2265143.(subscription required)
  3. Siegel, Robert (7 September 2001). "Blackfriars Playhouse". All Things Considered. NPR. Retrieved 15 May 2015.
  4. Virchow, Tory Talbot (19 August 2012). "Shedding Light on the American Shakespeare Center: A Few Highlights of a Remarkable Weekend". Shenandoah Press. Archived from the original on 26 July 2013. Retrieved 5 March 2013.
  5. Wren, Celia (February 2006). "Currents: They Do It Like the King's Men Did-Almost". American Theatre. New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group. 23 (2): 44–47. ISSN 8750-3255. ProQuest 2408823.(subscription required)
  6. "ASC - History". American Shakespeare Theatre. Archived from the original on 31 May 2013. Retrieved 5 March 2013.
  7. "On the Road with William Shakespeare". Staunton News Leader. 14 December 1988. Archived from the original on 18 May 2015. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
  8. Cook, Hardy M. (1 July 1992). "The Shenandoah Shakespeare EXPRESS at the FolgerCURRENT". Shakespeare Electronic Conference. 3 (157). Retrieved 5 March 2013.
  9. Gowen, Anne (10 July 1992). "Shakespeare Express speeds to success". The Washington Times.
  10. Nash, Eric P. (21 October 2001). "A Virginia Theater true to Shakespeare". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 March 2013.
  11. Francisco, Dr. Virginia (11 October 2001). "Here's the scoop on our new theatre". Staunton News Leader.
  12. Schuessler, Jennifer (2017-04-21). "Theater to Commission 38 Modern Riffs on Shakespeare". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-10-26.
  13. "American Shakespeare Center Launches Playwriting Competition". AMERICAN THEATRE. 2017-04-21. Retrieved 2017-10-26.
  14. "Submit". Shakespeare's New Contemporaries. Retrieved 2017-10-26.
  15. Center, American Shakespeare (2018-05-31). "Meet The First New Contemporaries". American Shakespeare Center. Retrieved 2019-12-06.
  16. Editors, American Theatre (2019-04-15). "American Shakespeare Center Introduces the Bard's New Contemporaries". AMERICAN THEATRE. Retrieved 2019-12-06.
  17. Blackfriars Playhouse, American Shakespeare Center, archived from the original on 3 July 2009, retrieved 20 June 2009
  18. Skinner, David (November 2007). "Shakespearetown". Humanities. National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  19. Lebovich, William (14 November 2001). "Blackfriars Shakespearean Playhouse". Architecture Week. Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  20. Cohen, Ralph Alan (2005). "Shenandoah Shakespeare and the Building of the Third Blackfriars Playhouse". In Radulescu, Domnica; Stadter Fox, Maria (eds.). The Theater of Teaching and the Lessons of Theater. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. p. 155. ISBN 978-0-739-11033-1.
  21. "Theaters, Centers & Public Places: Blackfriars Playhouse". Dreaming Creek. Retrieved 13 May 2015.
  22. Klein, Michael (14 July 2002). "There's much ado about the Bard in Virginia". Philadelphia Media Network. Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  23. Clayton, Sarah (14 October 2001). "Virginia: In the historic town of Staunton, the stage is set for a Shakespearean renaissance". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  24. "Shakespeare Uncovered". PBS. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
  25. Fichandler, Zelda (2003). "Whither (or Wither) Art? A Resident Theatre Pioneer Gauges the Artistic Pulse of the Contemporary American Theatre". American Theatre. New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group. 20 (5): 28. ISSN 8750-3255. Archived from the original on 18 May 2015. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  26. "Shakespeare and Performance". Mary Baldwin College. Archived from the original on 2015-05-12. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  27. MacGregor, Sue (27 April 2012). "The Reunion: Globe Theatre". BBC. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  28. "Gov. Kaine announces Governor's Awards for the Arts". Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved 2017-11-09.
  29. "It's Shakespeare Week all over Staunton". Augusta Free Press. Archived from the original on 21 September 2013. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
  30. "Staunton City Council Proclamation". Archived from the original on 21 September 2013. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
  31. "ASC co-founder honored". The News Leader. Retrieved 2017-11-09.
  32. "American Shakespeare Center Wins Shakespeare Steward Award". Retrieved 2017-11-09.
  33. "Contact Us". Retrieved 2017-11-09.
  34. Powell, Avery. "American Shakespeare Center honored as a bedrock institution of Virginia". Retrieved 2017-11-09.

Further reading

  • Stern, Tiffany. Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0-198-18681-6 OCLC 43323659
  • Lenhardt, Allison K. 2012. "The American Shakespeare Center's 'Actors' Renaissance Season': Appropriating Early Modern Performance Documents and Practices". Shakespeare Bulletin. 30, no. 4: 449-467. ISSN 1931-1427 OCLC 5183429508
  • Don Weingust. 2014. "Authentic Performances or Performances of Authenticity? Original Practices and the Repertory Schedule". Shakespeare. 10, no. 4: 402-410. ISSN 1745-0918 OCLC 5689070844

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