The Bard on the Boards: Shakespeare Tavern

By Julia Turner

Time travel may not be possible still, but a visit to The New American Shakespeare Tavern at 499 Peachtree St. is a close runner-up. In the Globe-replicated façade and theater, it’s possible to step back to Shakespeare’s England thanks to original practice-based performances, Elizabethan stage and costumes, and traditional British pub food and drink.

The Atlanta Shakespeare Company, which had its first performance in 1984 at Manuel’s Tavern, does all its performances as original practice, or performance in a manner consistent with its creator’s original intent. This focus makes the company unique locally and nationally. “The heart of original practice is to observe the aesthetic as it was intended by the playwright,” says Tony Brown, the company’s education programs coordinator, and it is not a common practice in modern theater.

For Shakespeare’s works, original practice means audience involvement. “Based on the way they are written, the plays lend themselves to direct audience interactions,” says Brown. Whether this means responding to an audience member’s sneeze with “God bless you,” or acknowledging a cell phone ringing – “What birds are these?” – ASC actors are always “in the room” with the audience.

Jeff Watkins, the company director, developed original practice as the basis of the tavern’s performances after an interesting theatrical background in college. Having skipped Shakespearean acting in classes, he had the opportunity to perform in a Shakespeare play while still in school and see several performances in the U.S.; none of them resonated with him, however. “The beauty of the plays can get lost in modern performances and adaptations,” says Watkins.

When he directed his first Shakespeare play, he tried to impose as little as possible on the text, instead focusing on relaying the poetry in the manner most like its original delivery. To Watkins and the rest of the company, directing the play in this way has proven most effective in conveying Shakespeare to a modern audience. “My favorite audience comment is, ‘What translation did you use?’” Watkins admits, “it shows the clarity of Shakespeare when it is performed by people who really understand how the original was spoken and heard.”

The original practice methodology extends to all aspects of the ASC, from the theater stage itself (renovated a few years ago to include a balcony) to the company’s business practices. Brown has worked with the company for about 20 years, and his case is not unusual. Several of the actors have been with the company since its first performance of As You Like It in 1984.

“We have a corporate aesthetic that encourages loyalty and longevity,” Brown says. The retention of actors is more aligned with theater practice in Shakespeare’s era than it is today. ASC also offers an apprentice program that has a high integration rate into the company after completion of the program.

Recently, the company completed adding all 39 Shakespeare plays to its repertoire. This season it will be performing the comedies in the order they were written; however, long-standing performances such as Macbeth in October and Romeo and Juliet in February will remain. Check out the full season’s listings at shakespearetavern.com.

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