Lost in 2020: Epic Shakespeare, and the Theater That Planned It

I have written several versions of this story. First it had to be a report from a small theater company’s ambitious stage project, then a story about the interruption project and the company’s plan to regroup due to the pandemic. Now it’s an elegance for a small theater that has shut down the coronavirus.

On a clear but cold Saturday afternoon in February, I boarded a train to Alexandria, Va., Just outside Washington. I visited Brave Spirits Theater, which presented the first part of a daring effort: performing eight of Shakespeare’s historical pieces (the two tetralogies, from “Richard II” to “Richard III”) in the repertoire, during the course of 18 months, culminating in a marathon performance of all eight works.

I was there to see the first two plays in the series, starting with a matinee performance of ‘Richard II’. On the car from the train station, I peek at the quiet suburbs of Alexandria – brick houses with enclosed porches, American flags at the door – until I arrive at the theater, which channeled the small town’s whimsy of a playhouse into a storybook. The space, a converted church building, has light columns in front and bright turquoise decoration around the windows, with red accents throughout.

Charlene V. Smith, co-founder of Brave Spirits in 2011, told me that the idea for the project came to her in 2008, when she saw the Royal Shakespeare Company in London make a marathon performance of history. . Brave Spirits claims to make history by being the ‘first professional American theater company to set up complete productions of Shakespeare’s two pieces of history tetralogically and to perform in repertoire.’

A few feet away from where we were sitting, in one corner of the foyer, was a sign. Four calendar months are neatly drawn in perfectly symmetrical cabinets – January, February, March, April – with a color code of the execution of the first tetralogy, which the company calls ‘The King’s Shadow’: Richard in bright red, the first Henry in clover green, the second Henry in yellow and the last Henry in a bright, royal purple.

In a humble but well-deserved production, Brave Spirits had Richard II crowned and killed, and his successor, Henry Bolingbroke, or Henry IV, was named the new king. After the audience left, the cast grinded in the space and chatted in the kitchen, which was also the box office. “Are your pocket heads up?” I hear someone shouting from the hall. A couple wore shirts sold by the company, black tees with gray block letters that read: “Richard & Henry & Henry & Henry & Richard & Richard.” (I once bought the Shakespeare nerd.)

That night I saw ‘Henry IV, Part I’, and every seat was filled. Older couples and families and some teens gabble and wave to each other; everyone was a local. I left the train the next morning, still buzzing with energy in that little converted church.

I wrote the article, but before it was published, the pandemic closed the performing arts across the country, and the story of Brave Spirits changed. Like many other theaters, it was necessary to cut short the history project, which DC Metro Theater Arts predicted to be ‘one of the must-sees of the 2021 season’. April 19-20 was supposed to be a big weekend for the company, when all the plays in the first tetralogy would be performed in repertoire and end in the keystone of the first half, “Henry V.”

On March 12, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia declared a state of emergency and shortly thereafter, the White House issued a proclamation declaring Covid-19 a national state of emergency. Brave Spirits has decided to cancel the marathon weekend, but is still going with one last performance – the opening night show of “Henry V.”

“At that point,” Smith said when I checked in with her again in late April, “people were so upset that everyone was like, ‘We have to’ Henry V. ‘ open. “We need that opening night performance tomorrow. We just need it. ” Brendan Edward Kennedy reported that after the show in his dressing room he started singing the ballad of the war, ” We’ll Meet Again ”. (“We will meet again / Do not know where / Do not know when.”) He sang it to me briefly over the phone.

After that ‘Henry V’, the theater froze: costumes still on shelves and props in trash cans, tucked under the audience. As for the tools of war — swords, spears — Smith kept them in her McLean, Va. Home.

The theater has waged a struggle through spring and summer; an annual fundraiser of more than $ 7,000, compared to the usual $ 3,000, gave the cast and crew hope. (Smith informed me that the company’s annual budget was about $ 50,000, but for the first historic project season it tripled to about $ 150,000.)

For a few weeks, the cast kept pace with the script’s online readings and planned to make a fall with more virtual rehearsals until they would return in January 2021 with the second half of the project.

It was supposed to be my new story: one about a small theater that is enduring despite the consequences – something that captured the importance and scope of the problems, but ultimately is about hope and resilience.

At this point, you already know that this is not the story I’m telling now, ten months after I first visited Virginia and nine months since the closure began. On November 21, Brave Spirits announces the closure: “Without the ability to plan for future performances, Brave Spirits cannot financially recover from the loss of Shakespeare’s Historical,” reads a news release, the last two words boldly spoken by a megaphone.

Brave Spirits has produced more than 20 plays and employed more than 300 artists, and was known for his quietly subversive interpretations of classics, usually through a feminist lens. But the company has announced that it has one separation gift: audio recordings of the plays in the history project, which they hope will bring out by the end of 2021. It’s hard not to see it again as a reminder of all the things the coronavirus did in just a few months.

The fact that Brave Spirits lost this battle would have been sad enough if it had not also been so completely, ironically, Shakespeare. This spring, during a follow-up interview with Kennedy, I asked the actor how he portrayed the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech by King Henry V attacked.

The speech is usually said against fanfare and fireworks. King Henry V, no longer the childish, mischievous Prince Hal, became the brilliant leader and inspired his men to perform a feat of greatness. Kennedy said their approach to this scene was a little different – a wonderful moment that is nonetheless fatalistic, with the soldiers fully understanding the cost of the war.

Kennedy told me that he and Smith proposed the soldiers’ gloomy logic: ” Let’s go out in a glimmer of glory, and let’s hit them so hard that people are going to talk about this for centuries. They will remember all our names, and this deed will make us heroes in the annals of history. ” Kennedy was aware of the parallels – that he and his fellow actors, just like the soldiers on St. Crispin’s Day, on St. was engaged in the performance aware of ‘the possibility that this is the last time we do it’.

The End of Brave Spirits is not the story I wanted to end with. And yet, this small theater in Virginia, which persisted until it could no longer, is just one of many that would not make it in 2020. It is unfortunate, not only the closure itself, but the fact that the circumstances that led to it being preventable: the poor response of the government to the pandemic, and the general refusal of our country to value and subsidize the arts as it should be, guaranteed that some theaters would not survive.

I thought of that day in February, when they were celebrating a colleague’s birthday with pizza and cake and a while of ‘Happy Birthday’ in the foyer of the theater after I had an interview with the cast.

I packed up as quickly as possible and did not want to interrupt, but they happily forgot about me. Their conversations and laughter filled the space, a separate world and a safe haven for a community of artists. No matter how fleeting I felt. But that’s all I can offer: the image of kings on stage, a church-turning theater in Virginia, a pizza party after the show. With brave spirits now locked in, that’s all I have, and I wish it was enough.