Lost in 2020: Epic Shakespeare, and the theater it employs


I have written several versions of this story. At first it should have been an account of a small theater company’s ambitious stage project, then a story about that disrupted project and the company’s plan to regroup due to an epidemic. It is now an alley for a small theater that closed the coronovirus.

On a bright but chilly Saturday afternoon in February, I stopped on a train outside Alexandria, WA for Washington. I was visiting the Brave Spirits Theater, presenting the first part of a daring effort: eight of Shakespeare’s eight plays from the history drama (two tetralogies, “Richard II” to “Richard III”), In 18 months, the marathon performance of all eight acts culminated.

I went there to see the first two plays of the series, beginning with the performance of “Richard II”. On the car from the train station, I stared at the quiet suburbs of Alexandria – brick houses with wraparound porches, American flags by the doors – until I came into the theater, channeling the small town craze of a playhouse in a storybook used to do. The space, a converted church building, had pale yellow columns in front and bright turquoise trim around the windows, with red accents.

Charlene V., who co-founded Brave Spirits in 2011. Smith told me that the idea for the project coincided with him in 2008, when he saw the Royal Shakespeare Company in London perform a marathon of history. Brave Spirits “was making history by being the first professional American theater company to mount complete productions of Shakespeare’s two histories that play the role of tetralogies and include them in performances.”

A few feet away from where we were sitting, in a corner of the lobby, was a chalkboard. The four calendar months were neatly drawn in fully symmetrical boxes – January, February, March, April – with a color-coded schedule of performances of the first tetralogy, which the company named “The King’s Shadow”: Richard Bright Red In, the first Henry clover green, the second Henry in yellow and the last Henry in a crisp, royal purple.

In a humble but well done production, the Brave Spirits crowned and killed Richard II, and his successor, Henry Bolingbroke, aka Henry IV, was named the new king. After the audience left, the cast roamed around the space, talking in the kitchen, which doubled at the box office. “Is your bag above the head?” I heard someone calling out of the hall. Some worn shirts that were being sold by the company, black tees with gray tee letters that read “Richard & Henry & Henry & Henry & Richard”. (Never Shakespeare Stupid, I Bought One.)

That evening I saw “Henry IV, Part I” and every seat was full. The old couple and the family and a couple gulped and waved each other; Everyone was local. I left the next morning on the train, still buzzing with energy in that small converted church.

I wrote the article, but before it was published that the epidemic led to the discontinuation of the performing arts across the country, and the story of brave souls changed. Like many other theaters, it was forced to cut the short project, which DC Metro Theater Arts predicted was “a must see for the 2021 season.” April 19–20 was considered a major weekend for the company, when the first tetralogy would stage all of the plays’ performances, ending in the first half’s capstone, “Henry V.”

On March 12, Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia declared a state of emergency and shortly after, the White House issued a proclamation declaring Kovid-19 a national emergency. The Brave Spirits decided to cancel the marathon weekend, but still had to go out with one last performance – “V.”

“At that point,” Smith said when I checked back in with him at the end of April, “People put so much into it that everyone was liking: ‘Us” Henry V. “Need to open We need an opening-night performance tomorrow. We just need it.” Brendan Edward Kennedy reported that after the show, in his dressing room, he started singing the war song “We Will Meet Again” Did. (“We’ll meet again / Don’t know where / When don’t know.”) He briefly sang it over the phone.

Then there is still costumes on racks and props in cans stored under “Henry V,” Theater Fros: Audience Resource. As tools of war – swords, spears – Smith had stored them in his home in McAllen, Va., For safekeeping.

The theater kept a fight through the spring and summer; An annual fund-raiser raised more than $ 7,000, compared to its usual $ 3,000, giving the cast and crew some hope. (Smith told me the company’s annual budget was about $ 50,000, but it was tripled for the first time to project season, roughly around $ 150,000.)

For several weeks, the cast kept up with online script readings and planned to decline with more virtual rehearsals, until they were expected to return in January 2021 with the second half of the project.

This was my new story to be reckoned with: about a small theater that was permanent despite the consequences – something that captured the stakes and scope of the difficulties but still ended up about hope and resilience.

By this point you already know that I am not telling this story right now, 10 months later I first came to Virginia and nine months later the lockout began. On November 21, the Brave Spirits announced its closure: “Without the ability to plan future performances, the Brave Spirits are financially unable to recover from the loss of Shakespeare’s history,” a news release said , The last two words spoken through a megaphone, albeit in bold form.

Brave Spirits produced more than 20 plays and employed more than 300 actors, and was known for its quietly subversive interpretations of the classics, usually through a feminist lens. But the company announced it was a farewell gift: an audio recording of the plays in the History Project, which they hoped would come out in late 2021. It is not difficult that a few months as another reminder of all that was destroyed in the coronovirus.

The fact that Brave Spirits lost this battle if it was not even completely unhappy, is ironically Shakespearean. This spring, during a follow-up call with Kennedy, I asked the actor how he attacked King Henry V’s famous St. Crispin’s Day speech.

Speeches are usually said to be pomp and fireworks. King Henry V, the now childless, mischievous Prince Hal, has become a prolific leader, inspiring his men to demonstrate greatness. Kennedy said his approach to the scene was a bit different – a spectacular moment that is still fatal, with soldiers fully realizing the cost of the war.

Kennedy told me that he and Smith had conceived the bleak logic of the soldiers: “Let’s get out in a blast of glory, and let’s hurt them so hard that people keep talking about it for centuries.” They are going to remember all our names, and this deed is going to make us heroes in the annals of history. “Kennedy knew the similarities – that, like the soldiers on St. Crispin’s Day, he and his fellow performers knew about the performance” that there is a possibility that this might be the last time we do it. “

The End of Brave Souls is not the story I wanted to end. And yet this small theater in Virginia, which persisted until it was one of the many, was one of many that would not make it until 2020. It is a shame, not only to shut ourselves down, but also the fact that circumstances could have prevented it: the government’s poor response to the epidemic, and our nation’s general refusal to value and subsidize art, as it happens. Should, guarantees that some theaters will not survive.

I thought about the day in February, when I interviewed the cast, celebrated a colleague’s birthday with pizza and cake and a round of “Happy Birthday” in the theater’s lobby.

I packed as quickly as possible, I didn’t want to get in the middle, but they had forgotten me happily. Their conversation and laughter filled the space, a different world and a safe haven for artists’ communities. Although briefly, I thought so. But that’s all I can offer: the image of kings on a stage, a church-based theater in Virginia, a post-show pizza party. With brave souls now closed, I have it all, and I wish it was enough.

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