Returning HVSF Actors Bring ROMEO & JULIET to 16,000 Students

Our 2017 Spring Education Tour, a vibrant ROMEO & JULIET directed by Tom Ridgely, is slated to visit over 30 schools throughout the tri-state area from March to May. Supported by a National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) Shakespeare in American Communities grant, HVSF will reimagine this classic tale for modern audiences in grades 6 and above – many from underserved communities – with a diverse cast of seven.

Returning to HVSF are 2016 Conservatory Company member Jessica-Brittany Smith (Juliet), 2016 A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM tour’s Amanda Thickpenny (Lady Capulet), and 2015 MACBETH tour’s Jon Cook (Friar & Benvolio). Wolf CR (Mercutio), James Hesse (Romeo), Monica Jones (Nurse), and Virginia Shakespeare Festival standout Rod Singleton (Capulet & Tybalt) have also signed on.

Ridgely, Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 Phil Killian Directing Fellow and founder of the New York-based theater ensemble Waterwell, will reimagine the Montagues and Capulets within a New England prep school environment. Sean McNall, HVSF’s Associate Artistic Director and Director of Education, estimates that roughly 16,000 students will experience a performance, take part in post-show talkbacks, and heighten their understanding of the production with an accompanying ROMEO & JULIET study guide. Half of this group will also benefit from an in-school, five-day residency with HVSF Teaching Artists.

“Our Education Tours take the same approach to Shakespeare as HVSF’s mainstage productions,” McNall noted. “Performances are fast-paced, athletic, energetic, and playful – an ideal equation for younger audiences – and rigorously maintain the depth and integrity of Shakespeare’s texts. We are very grateful to the NEA for their ongoing support of HVSF’s Education Programs, which encompass performance experiences, professional training, and theater education for the next generation.”

ROMEO & JULIET will run March 20 – May 5, 2017 with a possible extension May 8 – 12 and additional sum-mer dates currently in discussion. Approximate running time is 1 hour 30 minutes, including a talkback with the actors. To learn more about this touring production and HVSF’s Education programs, or to book a performance, please visit or contact HVSF’s Associate Director of Education, Nora Rosoff, at (845) 809-5750 ext. 13 or


Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production of ROMEO & JULIET is part of Shakespeare in American Communities, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest

Read the full release here.

His Fantastical Allegory: Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel talks TWELFTH NIGHT

A young woman in disguise. A lost twin brother. A powerful nobleman. A beautiful, grief-stricken noble lady. An enlightened, musical fool. Beguiling letters, boisterous drunks, and reveling pranksters. TWELFTH NIGHT, often considered one of Shakespeare’s finest comedies, is – unsurprisingly – one of our resident playwright’s most profound.

“What I really love about this play,” noted TWELFTH NIGHT Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, “is in a world where people find themselves upended by their own circumstance – shipwrecked, saddled with unrequited feelings or the death of a loved one – they’re still able to find the love and redemption they seek. These are real people finding language for human situations.”

“These are real people finding language for human situations.”

– Moritz von Stuelpnagel

Von Stuelpnagel, the Tony-nominated talent behind Broadway’s Hand to God and upcoming Present Laughter starring Kevin Kline, seeks a sort of redemption of his own from stage to stage: “We all curate a kind of facade, a public face,” he recently told Playbill, “but when the laughs and the parties end, I think we’re left with something darker and deeply human: ourselves, private, true.”

And what’s more deeply human than the figure of the clown (in TWELFTH NIGHT’s case, a fellow named Feste) embodying wisdom far beyond his peers? As clowning extraordinaire/SO PLEASE YOU Director Zachary Fine recently explained, the clown represents many human qualities – those we acknowledge, and those we often keep hidden: rambunctious hope, baffling chaos, ridiculousness, sublimity, brilliance, courage, curiosity, trepidation…

“Comedy gives us enough perspective to laugh at our own absurdity.”

– Moritz von Stuelpnagel

“My sense of humor comes from the need to laugh at suffering,” allowed Von Stuelpnagel. “Comedy gives us enough perspective to laugh at our own absurdity. I believe laughter is a healing force, allowing us to unite and reminding us how similar our experiences are.”

And unite we will this summer, as TWELFTH NIGHT’s vibrant musical universe expands along the Hudson, populated with a colorful slate of characters. But Von Stuelpnagel isn’t giving anything away. “I hope our production will exemplify a new kind of light, raucous spirit. Shakespeare, in my mind, reads like fantastical allegories… grotesque fairy tales. All I’ll say is that we’re telling a magical tale in a magical space. Expect a rollicking midsummer romp.”

We like the sound of that.

TWELFTH NIGHT is in previews June 8 – June 15, 2017 and runs June 16 – August 27, 2017. Season tickets go on sale to the public in March, but members of our Saints & Poets Society and Festival Circles have early access. Are you between the ages of 16 and 35? Consider joining our Revelers or Teen Revelers program for exclusive discounts, events, and more.

Cold Reading: Tech to the Future

The following is part of our ongoing series
Cold Reading: Winter insights on the upcoming season from Artistic Director Davis McCallum

Hi, Friends.

We’re about to start tech rehearsal for Lauren Gunderson’s THE BOOK OF WILL here at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts on Friday. This is the part of the production process when the show’s team of Designers (Scenic, Lighting, Sound, Costume, and Props) appears together in the rehearsal room. Of course, the Denver Center’s brilliant Stage Managers have been keeping them looped in on the many day-to-day decisions we’ve been making, but once we’re able to have our creative team in the room in person, all sorts of new ideas surface and new possibilities emerge.

tech rehearsal, noun /tek/rəˈhərsəl/

A rehearsal that focuses more on the technological aspects of the performance, such as lighting and sound cues, than on acting.

We’ve been working on a production that includes some cheeky moments of anachronism, with elements of our theater culture today sprinkled in with what we imagine it might have been like for Shakespeare’s company in the early 17th century. We can all imagine what it might feel like for a group of actors to go out to the bar after a performance – in fact, you may have even spotted HVSF’s own company members patronizing the watering holes on Cold Spring’s Main Street during the summer months – but how would the actors in Shakespeare’s company take their drinks? In pewter steins? Bottles? Ceramic jugs? Would their post-show haunt include a tap? Might there even be a dart board in the corner?

Would a Stage Manager in Shakespeare’s time use a clipboard? Of course not. But in the world that we’re creating onstage, perhaps he could. How about a stopwatch? Is it possible there’s a ghost light on the empty stage at the Globe in this play, even though electricity won’t truly be harnessed for several centuries?

ghost light, noun /ɡōst/līt/

An electric light that is left energized on the stage of a theater when the theater is unoccupied (‘dark’), for improved safety – and superstition.

This, of course, relates to the vocabulary of the music and the clothes and the set. Our goal with THE BOOK OF WILL is to create a world that’s not at all concerned with historical authenticity, but somehow still feels realer than real, and captures the playful spirit of Lauren’s writing. The play has been exhaustively researched and has woven into it a significant amount of detail from what we know about the printing of the First Folio, but the show’s spirit is irreverent. I keep thinking that the creation of ‘the book’ in the Jaggard Print House in THE BOOK OF WILL should be about as authentic as Doc. Brown’s DeLorean time machine in Back to the Future. In other words, we’re making the play with more emphasis on engaging the audience’s imagination, than on conforming to what we think we know about the past.

I look forward to heading into tech with Lauren and this remarkable team and figuring out how all of these pieces fit together. See you on the other side!


THE BOOK OF WILL is in previews June 9 – June 21, 2017 and runs June 22 – July 28, 2017. Season tickets go on sale to the public in March, but members of our Saints & Poets Society and Festival Circles have early access. Are you between the ages of 16 and 35? Consider joining our Revelers or Teen Revelers program for exclusive discounts, events, and more.

Rosalind Flees to the Folger of Arden

HVSF’s 2016 production of AS YOU LIKE IT directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch will experience something of a rebirth next month, when it moves to Washington DC’s masterful Folger Theatre.

“We are thrilled to be collaborating with The Folger Theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library on this production,” said HVSF Managing Director Kate Liberman. “Like HVSF, they, too are deeply committed to producing plays that explore the essence of Shakespeare’s work for a wide and engaged audience. It is so exciting that a play that originated under our Theater Tent this past summer will be performed for new Shakespeare admirers in our nation’s capital.”

This isn’t the first time an HVSF production has migrated indoors. The Festival’s critically acclaimed, small-cast production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM – directed by Eric Tucker – transferred to New York City’s The Pearl Theatre Company and was nominated for a Drama League award in 2015. And in 2017, the Festival will mount a production of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST – directed by Ian Belknap and featuring the HVSF Conservatory Company – which will tour city schools in the fall with New York’s The Acting Company.

Still, AS YOU LIKE IT’s move to Washington is proving to be one for the record books: ten overflowing boxes of costumes and props will make their way to the Folger, as will 2016 Conservatory Company members Kimberly Chatterjee (Audrey) and Cody Wilson (Denis/William), 2015 Conservatory Company member Brian Reisman (Silvius), 2016 Acting Company member Antoinette Robinson (reprising her role of Celia), and much of the original creative team (Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch, Scenic Designer John McDermott, Costume Designer Charlotte Palmer-Lane, Lighting Designer Eric Southern, Sound Designer Leon Rothenberg, and Choreographer Alexandra Beller).

Much of the remaining cast has been assembled locally, as the Folger maintains a strong commitment to hiring DC talent. Among them are Tom Story taking on the role of Jacques, a “caustic and cynical sort… with a coat that a dusty Willie Nelson might wear” (The New York Times) originally played by HVSF’s Maria-Christina Oliveras. Musicianship certainly played a role in the design of both Ms. Oliveras’ Jacques and Mr. Story’s. “Maria-Christina’s costume was inspired by rock legend Patti Smith,” said HVSF’s Resident Costume Designer Charlotte Palmer-Lane, “so I took inspiration from another icon for Tom’s: Tom Waits.”

Rosalind, Orlando, and AS YOU LIKE IT’s cast of characters land at the Folger on January 24, 2017, running through March 5. If you make the trip, tickets run $35-$75 and the Theatre offers a number of pre- and post-show events to help you get reacquainted with the world of Arden.

“I’m honored that the ideas which energized our production will have another life at the Folger,” added HVSF Artistic Director Davis McCallum. “We’re grateful to Janet Alexander Griffin (the Folger’s Director of Public Programs and Artistic Producer) and the entire Folger Theatre team for making this HVSF-associated production a reality.”

Weirdo Women: Playwright Kate Hamill on PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

“Once you’re known for something, people ask you to keep doing it,” posed playwright Kate Hamill at the end of a long day of workshopping her new adaptation of William Thackeray’s VANITY FAIR at The Pearl Theatre Co. The workshop fell just after the close of an unprecedented run of Hamill’s SENSE & SENSIBILITY at Bedlam, and a few months before starting PRIDE AND PREJUDICE rehearsals for Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.

Adaptations are kind of Hamill’s thing lately. “I’m planning to do all of Austen’s books, and in the order in which they were written. It’ll be fascinating for me to see how our journeys align as young artists and young women.”

“I feel this immense responsibility and honor as a female artist to help
reclaim the classics for everyone. ”

– Kate Hamill

Why now? For Hamill – an actress as well as a playwright – the answer lies onstage. “I’ve been in the audition room with 400 other women all vying for the chance to play ‘Guy’s Girlfriend #1.’ The truth is there just aren’t enough truly great parts for women, by women, and the majority of plays and adaptations are by men. I feel this immense responsibility and honor as a female artist to help reclaim the classics for everyone.”

Digging into Austen’s work, which often explores women’s dependence on marriage in the pursuit of improved social and economic standing, has allowed Hamill to explore her own thoughts on contemporary pairing culture. “I guess PRIDE’s subtext should really be Thoughts on Marriage. There’s still all this pressure to pair off and get hitched. Rules to be followed. Do’s and dont’s to be honored. But how do you know when you’ve found the right person?”

Janeite, noun \ˈjā-ˌnīt\

A devotee and enthusiastic admirer of the works of Jane Austen.

She concedes that the conventional wisdom is, generally speaking, awful. “I’m not trying to give advice with this adaptation. For me, PRIDE is the question, not the answer.”

Compared with Austen’s first novel (SENSE & SENSIBILITY), PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a simpler tale with less exposition, offering an ideal environment for exaggeration and creative casting decisions. Hamill, a self-proclaimed Janeite, has leveraged her absurd humor to reshape the world of the Bennets and Bingleys while respecting Austen’s original aims. “Mary Bennet’s someone I find particularly interesting because she’s super tragic. The sisters are all so mean to her throughout the story, so I’ve made her the worst. Totally insufferable. There’s something inherently funny about a black sheep and she’s become the blackest of the black sheep in my adaptation. Lizzy Bennet’s also a total weirdo and should be treated as such. She and Darcy are both odd ducks… odd ducks that swim together. ”

Exposition, noun \ĕk′spə-zĭsh′ən\

The part of a play that provides the background information needed
to understand the characters and the action.

Reactions from other Janeites have been surprising and humbling for Hamill. “I’m conscious of the very personal, committed relationships Austen fans have with these characters, and the very real disappointment they feel when their favorites have been desecrated. However, their input has been so lovely and gratifying – they can appreciate that plays and novels are different and require different things.” And while Hamill recognized the hunger in her own life for women’s stories told by women, she didn’t expect that other Austen fans would echo her sentiments so strongly: “They really need women’s voices onstage now more than ever.”

Hamill will join PRIDE Director Amanda Dehnert in January to workshop the play before rehearsals start in April. Dehnert, a household name at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, is no stranger to vibrant adaptations of tested classics. “I think we both prize theatricality, storytelling, and not being too precious about what goes onstage,” said Hamill. “When you’re workshopping or rehearsing with a director, everyone’s kicking the tires. Sometimes the stuff that’s feverishly written at 3:00AM that I thought would sound stupid can become the most important part of the play. This baby lives in the room, not on the page, and I’m really looking forward to co-parenting with Amanda.”


PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is in previews June 10 – June 23, 2017 and runs June 24 – September 4, 2017. Season tickets go on sale to the public in March, but members of our Saints & Poets Society and Festival Circles have early access. Are you between the ages of 16 and 35? Consider joining our Revelers or Teen Revelers program for exclusive discounts, events, and more.

Cold Reading: Davis Goes to Denver

The following is the first in our ongoing series
Cold Reading: Winter insights on the upcoming season from Artistic Director Davis McCallum

Dear Friends,

I’m writing you from Denver, where I’m at the end of the first week of rehearsal for THE BOOK OF WILL by Lauren Gunderson. We’ll be mounting the show here at the Denver Center Theater Company at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in January, then again at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival Theater Tent this summer. The play tells the unlikely story of two actors in Shakespeare’s company, who take it upon themselves to ensure the survival of his plays by collecting and publishing them as the First Folio (The Collected Works of William Shakespeare) in 1623 [read more]. It’s funny and heartbreaking and full of lip-smackingly juicy parts for actors. I love it and am having loads of fun rehearsing it. I’m especially looking forward to seeing how it changes and grows over two productions, in two very different spaces.

We started on Tuesday with a big meet and greet and design presentation. It was very inspiring to hear Lauren talk about how and why she started writing the play. We share a strong conviction that Shakespeare belongs to everyone, and the 36 plays contained in the First Folio reflect the full range of what it means to be human. The more I work on the play, the more I am convinced that it’s really a story of a theater company more than it is the story of the creation of a famous book. And that’s something that I relate very strongly to HVSF.

We have a brilliant dramaturge on the show here in Denver, Doug Langworthy. He’s an old friend of mine from Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and he’s been at the Denver Center for the last decade or so. His role is to be an advocate for the play, and to help the playwright and director in making a show that expresses as fully as possible the play’s potential. In this context, he’s provided myself and the cast with an exhaustively researched packet full of information about the First Folio, Shakespeare’s theater company, Jacobean society, clothes, manners, money, publishing, copyright, etcetera… anything that might have bearing on the events of the play. It’s great fun to have him in rehearsal because he knows so much about the world of the play, and can be a great resource to the rest of the team as we make all the different choices that go into a production.

We’ve had six days of rehearsal, and we spent the first few around the table reading the play to each other. And then for the last couple of days, we’ve been up on our feet, making the first feeble stabs at staging the various scenes. The company here is wonderful and we’re all excited about the direction that it’s going.

Denver is lovely, but I miss my family and the Hudson Highlands. Wishing everyone there a great start to the holiday season!

More next week…





THE BOOK OF WILL is in previews June 9 – June 21, 2017 and runs June 22 – July 28, 2017. Season tickets go on sale to the public in March, but members of our Saints & Poets Society and Festival Circles have early access. Are you between the ages of 16 and 35? Consider joining our Revelers or Teen Revelers program for exclusive discounts, events, and more.

Our Lady of Will: Playwright Lauren Gunderson on THE BOOK OF WILL

“When I came across the story of the First Folio printing, I was struck by the many rich characters involved and the myriad ways they could’ve not succeeded,” said THE BOOK OF WILL playwright Lauren Gunderson on a recent November phone call. “It spoke to so many themes — lineage, mortality, legacy, family, friendship — and I was excited to write a new play about a timeless subject: how art lasts beyond the humans who make it.”

First Folio, noun \ˈfərst\ˈfō-lē-ˌō\
The 1623 published collection of 36 of William Shakespeare’s plays, otherwise known as Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies.

THE BOOK OF WILL, a rolling world premiere set for the HVSF Theater Tent June 9 – July 28, 2017, follows the lives of two actors in Shakespeare’s own company, Henry Condell and John Heminges, as they navigate the preservation and printing of Shakespeare’s work in the early 1600s. With no money, no easy way of authenticating Shakespeare’s catalogue of plays, and a deep desire to get everything right, the pair enlist the help of their wives and colleagues to bring the iconic stories of Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Othello, and so many more to the world.

Gunderson, an Atlanta native recently named the most produced living playwright in America by American Theatre Magazine, often writes historical dramas. “I fancy theater as a kind of time travel. We’re not just seeing a world but actively visiting it.” Many of her dramatis personae are respected women in the sciences: astronomers, mathematicians… so what of the women supporting Shakespeare’s all-male company?

“Even though women tended not to be acknowledged onstage or in historical record during Shakespeare’s day, Condell and Heminges both named their wives as executors of their wills,” said Gunderson. “This is a big deal because it meant that they respected them enough to, essentially, hand over their legacies. It was a natural jumping off point for me.”

As the noise and color of Elizabethan London begin to unfold onstage, so, too, do the desires, doubts, and egos of a diverse band of relatable friends. “Shakespeare doesn’t need our help in idolizing him, but humanizing him,” said Gunderson. “Stories of him at the bar with friends, of him being heartbroken or frustrated, of those he left behind in death… they resonate.”

“History walks again here. Love is lived again. Loss is met and survived and wept for and understood here and not the first time but every time.”

One particularly affecting scene finds Condell and Heminges on a darkened Globe stage in the middle of the night, united in mourning. Gunderson admits that it dragged her into the phenomenon of storytelling itself: “The scene came out all in one big rush and spun me off into… why? Why do we do this together? We still go see Romeo & Juliet. We still go see Richard II. Why? It became the heart of the entire story.”

Gunderson and the show’s director, HVSF Artistic Director Davis McCallum, will get the chance to further investigate that heart in the new year, as the play experiences its first staged performances by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company (January 13 – February 26, 2017). A number of Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival favorites – including powerhouse couple Kurt Rhoads and Nance Williamson – will perform in Denver’s production before the show is reimagined for HVSF’s Theater Tent by McCallum.

Not a ‘Shakespeare person’? Not a problem for Gunderson. “Ultimately, it’s an underdog tale. I hope our audiences will see it as a powerful story of friendship and legacy.”

THE BOOK OF WILL is in previews June 9 – June 21, 2017 and runs June 22 – July 28, 2017. Season tickets go on sale to the public in March, but members of our Saints & Poets Society and Festival Circles have early access. Are you between the ages of 16 and 35? Consider joining our Revelers or Teen Revelers program for exclusive discounts, events, and more.

Embracing the Great Work Ahead

Dear Friends,

Seen from above in its setting by the Thames, Shakespeare’s theater was a large circle that drew into its circumference all sorts of people to experience an astonishing diversity of stories. Shakespeare and his fellow company members called it “The Globe” not just because it was round, but because it was conceived to be a place of radical inclusivity; its purpose was to encompass the whole world.

Empathy, generosity, diversity, imagination, and courage: these are the values that permeate Shakespeare’s plays, and they are the core values that define the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. They are also profoundly American values, and they have been severely tested during this long and divisive election season.

At a time when the social structures that bind us together are increasingly in peril, we at HVSF are more committed than ever before to creating and supporting community through theater. This process requires listening actively and empathetically to everyone’s stories, not just to those who shout the loudest, but also and especially to those whose voices are often ignored or silenced. As people who care about the health of our democracy, this is the great work ahead, and we are ready to embrace it.

Playwright Richard Nelson (The General from America) was recently asked whether this year’s election season has caused him to feel more optimistic or pessimistic about the role of theater in the popular conversation. His response?

“Wildly optimistic. Theater is the only artistic form that uses the entire live human being as its expression. We, the writers, express ourselves… using all of it: voice, body, movement. It’s why, for thousands of years, people have come together for theater in all sorts of ways. It’s live human beings sharing space at the same time, and that’s a very, very important experience.”

I’m with Richard. And with Shakespeare. And I hope you’ll join us in this most urgent and timeless of civic conversations: “Who are we? And who do we aspire to be?”


Davis McCallum, Artistic Director

GRAVEDIGGER’S TALE: Gravedigging Colatown, SC by Louis Butelli

Originally published April 28, 2016 by Louis Butelli.

Hello, friend! Thank you so, so much for popping by for this, our latest dispatch from Gravedigging across the nation.


So far, my one-man show Gravedigger’s Tale has traveled to Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Florida, and South Carolina. In the morning, I hop on a plane to play the show in Hawaii. There will be plenty to say about that, but, for now, I want to focus on the South Carolina gig. And even more particularly, I want to focus on my dear friend and closest collaborator, Robert Richmond.

It’s hard to know even where to begin about Robert.

I’ll start with where he’s at right now. Rob is the Associate Chair, Co-Artistic Director and Professor of Theatre at University of South Carolina in the enchanted city of Columbia, SC. He also directs plays all over the place, most notably at Folger Theatre in Washington, DC. He is Dad to two beautiful kids, both of whom I’ve had the great pleasure to know since they drew their first breaths. He is a mentor, a teacher, a friend and a confidant to a huge number of people, many of whom now dance alongside us in this ridiculous business. He is a nurturer of talent, a brilliant editor and advisor, and is the person I would call first if I was taken to prison. Admittedly, he’d probably let that call go to voicemail. But he’d be there for my court appearance in the morning, and would have acting and wardrobe notes.

We have worked side by side in a wide variety of venues since 1998, and I hear his voice in my head every time I am required to make an artistic choice: even when I’m working on a project that Rob is not working on, we are still collaborating. As an actor, I think, “what would make Rob laugh?” As a director, I think, “how would Rob solve this problem?” As a teacher, I think, “how would Rob articulate this?” To be fair, sometimes I think that and then do exactly the opposite. But, to be even more fair, most often I outright steal from him, or just do what I imagine he might do.

All of this is to say that there wouldn’t be such a thing as Gravedigger’s Tale without Robert. It was his pitch and his concept and, a year ago, Folger locked he and I in a room with instructions “not to come out” until we “had a show.” I’ve been in that kind of situation before and, believe me: there is nobody else with whom I’d rather be locked in a room – you know, like that crazy “escape puzzle” kind of room – than Robert.


Rob in a handsome suit.

If I had to put it into words, I would say that the reason for the statement is that we both sort of live for “the room.” We love the problem-solving nature of it. We love the challenge of it. We love the gallows humor that comes from it. We love the heightened emotions that come from it, and how they reflect the work, just by being there with a task at hand. I won’t presume to speak for Robert here, but I also love some of the shittier parts of the room. The too-much coffee. The tired limbs. The eye-wobbling frustration of pounding away at an expired idea. The 11th hour burst of energy, leaping to one’s middle-aged feet when a new idea seems like it just might work.

Additionally, I love how, when I make something with Robert, we find two (or more) ways to the same destination. More than that, I love how, once we’ve made the thing, it takes on a life of its own when it’s unleashed on an audience.

Which brings me to part deux of this blogggg post.

Our Gravedigger show is billed as “interactive.” Now, that means lots of different things to lots of different people. And please believe that I am just as horrified by being asked to “participate” in an evening’s entertainment as the next person. (Please disregard at this point the fact that I currently perform in the amazingly kick-ass Sleep No More. That’s fodder for a whole other post).

In this show, it’s all very gentle. I pull a female audience-member onstage to help me with Ophelia and, more pertinently to this post, I pull a male audience-member onstage to stand in for Hamlet’s father. In the bit, I explain how Hamlet’s uncle poured poison into his father’s ear, and what the effects were. I then “coach” the audience-member in the finer points of dying by poison.

At one of our shows at USC, I spotted a very rapt and eager boy, probably 8 or 9 years old, in the audience with his parents. I couldn’t help myself: I simply had to pull him up and poison him. I won’t waste too many more words on it, but this boy was…perfect. He was open, he was game, he was brave, he was funny, he gave the audience a big “thumbs up,” and he was all anybody could talk about at the reception afterwards.

I’ll close this post with a sequence of pictures of this excellent young man in action:


Found him!


Placed him, produced poison!


He begins to “die…”


He “dies” simply and elegantly.


I take his example.


He does it better than I ever could.

I wish I knew that kid’s name. I wish that he could’ve been in the room with Robert and I when we created the show, because I feel like that kid every time Rob and I get to work together. I hope that kid keeps coming to the theater, regardless of where his life takes him. I just can’t thank him enough. Not to sound like an absolute sap, but I get a little bit misty thinking about our moment on-stage together.

Oh! Just by the way, all of these photos are courtesy of the most excellent Jason Ayer and the University of South Carolina’s Department of Theatre and Dance.


Thanks for reading! Next stop: HAWAII!!!!!

Come back and see us, y’all!

GRAVEDIGGER’S TALE comes to HVSF October 26 – 31, 2016 inside the Boscobel Mansion!



Theater Comes to The Public: Bringing Our Town(s) Together

Originally published by The Thornton Wilder Family.

This past summer, Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival produced Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN with a company of 3 professional actors and 36 citizen actors from towns dotted around the theater’s performance-space home in Garrison, NY.

They performed the play 4 times in 3 different locations for a total audience of over 1,300 people. All tickets were free of charge. The Wilder Family spoke with the director of the production, John Christian Plummer, HVSF Managing Director, Kate Liberman, and Associate Producer, Emily Sophia Knapp, about how they managed to make this ambitious idea a reality.

Has HVSF ever worked on a project of this scope and scale in the past? How did you dream up this project?

Kate: This is the first time we’ve ever done anything like this. The genesis of the idea came from our Artistic Director Davis McCallum as we planned the 30th Anniversary celebration of Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. We were trying to figure out how to celebrate the anniversary in a way that would thank our community for supporting the theater and reflect back to the community the kind of beauty that we see in the place where we live and make theater.


About a year ago, Davis came back from seeing a performance of Public Works at the Public Theater. He was so jazzed by what they were able to do by merging community and professional talent, and it seemed like a great way to celebrate our community here in the Hudson Valley as part of the 30th anniversary. Replicating that program would not have worked, but we found a way to create a version that would serve a less urban, very diverse and disparate area.

And why OUR TOWN?

Emily: Well, Philipstown feels like Grover’s Corners. Everyone knows everyone. We all know our village trustees. We know who goes to what church and what time somebody hung their laundry out to dry. It felt really meaningful to produce that play.

In addition to involving the community on stage, we also wanted it to be completely free. The tickets “flew off the shelves”– they were completely “sold out” within 45 minutes of being available online.

John, how did you cast the play? Was it difficult to strike a balance between amateur and professional actors, so that it felt like everyone was in the same production?

John: Well, we started with Sean McNall, an HVSF company member who we knew we wanted to play the Stage Manger. It seemed to make sense to all of us to have a professional actor play that role—someone who could command an audience and had played under the tent before. [HVSF’s primary home is a spectacular open-air theater tent at Boscobel House and Gardens in Garrison, NY.]

Ryan Quinn is another company member we wanted to involve. Ryan was only available for the last 2 weeks of rehearsal, so we cast him as Sam Craig, the Grover’s Corners boy who goes out West. And that seemed to make sense because he was coming in late, just like Sam comes in late. The third professional actress was an amazing woman named Antoinette Robinson who played Emily.

In order to find our “Citizen Actors” we started by offering workshops in 4 different communities: Philipstown, Newburgh, Beacon and Peekskill. We did 2 workshops in each place. And during the workshops, we never even touched the text. They were workshops in fundamental theater exercises, just to get people to stop thinking and start moving together from the heart. At the end of that, we talked about the play and we talked about the process. We had 230 people come to these eight workshops, aged anywhere between 10 and late 70’s. The people who came were ethnically diverse, socio-economically diverse, and diverse in terms of gender identification. It was phenomenal.

We invited everyone to come back for two more workshops at which we would begin to work with the text in a very rudimentary way. Then we did “auditions.” People were not allowed to audition for a particular part and we read the same scene for everybody (the scene between Doc and Mrs. Gibbs, when Mrs. Gibbs returns home from choir practice.)

You see, my whole feeling about theater in general, but certainly about Mr. Wilder’s play is that it’s about community and therefore, it’s about unity. So to achieve unity as an ensemble, you have to suppress the ego. It can’t be about “me first.” It has to be about surrendering your courage, your compassion and your creativity to your fellows. That’s the way the auditions were conducted, and in that way, we were able to separate the “truth-tellers” from the “hambones.”

For example, we found a guy called Tim Harbolic to play George who had some improv-comedy experience. He’s a young John Goodman or James Gandolfini. He’s built like a football player, so not necessarily a casting director’s first choice for George in terms of “type”. But like those two actors, he has so much heart and so much sincerity. Tim and Antoinette had great chemistry together on stage, as did the actors who played Doc Gibbs and Mrs. Gibbs, and Mrs. Webb and Editor Webb. I had so many audience members come up to me afterwards asking which of the actors were the professionals. They couldn’t tell.

This company blew me away. I would put these guys up against anyone. If there were an OUR TOWN Olympics with different companies entering, I would enter this one and expect to win the gold!


How did you rehearse this behemoth?

John: Ultimately we did not have very much time.

We took about a month off between the workshops and starting rehearsals, and we asked everyone to just read the play out loud as often as they could in preparation. It was clear when they came to that first rehearsal that people had been reading the play a lot, because they were so connected with each other and the play.

We started rehearsing regularly in July, 2 or 3 evenings a week for 4 hours a night, and one day on the weekend. Then in August we rehearsed 3-4 nights a week and 2 days on the weekend.

At the start of every rehearsal we’d begin with a few exercises. We’d meet in a circle, make eye contact and go from there. Sometimes we’d do an hour of excises, just wacky, crazy stuff. In fact, this one guy who had been in the military was in the cast and on closing night he came up to me and said, “I couldn’t figure out what any of this stuff had to do with doing the play! But eventually, I realized, this is just like basic training! You’re breaking us down! You’re trying to break all of our bad habits in order to unify us. Because that’s what it was like in basic—we had to become a unit.” And said, yes. That’s exactly what we’re doing. But for peace instead of war.

What was your biggest take away, for you personally and for the theater?

Emily: At the end of process, we asked people to write about their experience and one of the questions we asked was, “What will you remember 1000 days from now about OUR TOWN?” Three people wrote about one specific moment at the very end of the play. John had the dead seated on stage with Emily. The lights came up very dimly, right at the end of the stage as the Stage Manager walked out toward the bluff, and all of a sudden you saw that the entire rest of the cast was also seated at the back of the stage, extending the graveyard off into the horizon. People wrote that their favorite moment was sitting in their chair, waiting in the dark, looking up at the stars about the venue.

I thought that was such a beautiful metaphor for that intangible thing you can never explain to someone about what it feels like to be in a play, to know that you are part a team and a small part of a something much larger than yourself. And because of this interesting mix of community members and professional actors, talking about Grover’s Corners, but describing things that are exactly what we see in our town, people were having real experiences. They were looking up at real stars, not just pretending.


How do you plan to maintain the connections you’ve created with the community going forward?

Kate: Well, this project happened at the same time as Davis and I were working on a strategic plan for Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. And as Davis described it, the OUR TOWN project was kind of like sticking our fingers in a socket and realizing that we’d hit on something big. …Though I’m not sure that’s exactly the right metaphor! In the last five weeks, community engagement has made its way into all levels of this strategic plan. That’s become a bit of a buzzword in the theater, but for each community, it means something different. We’ve been able to see what the Public Theater does in a place where there’s public transportation and a subway that connects all five boroughs. But here in the Hudson Valley, we’re working with five disparate communities where transportation and communication is so fundamentally different. Despite those challenges, Emily and John made this production work so seamlessly; we want to see how we can continue to do this in different ways and what that means for us. While we can’t innumerate the 10 ways in which we will achieve this, we certainly want to find ways in the coming years to continue to involve our community on stage. We want to continue to find ways to run on the energy that OUR TOWN built.


Emily: This play is about dissolving borders—borders between life and death, between men and women, between communities. The towns around where we live also feel very separate, so we saw this play as an opportunity to bring together lots of different kinds of people across borders.

John: So much of this play is about the porousness of borders. I tried to demonstrate that through the cast, by having amateurs and professionals perform together. The origin of the word amateur is amare, or “to love” and professional originally meant “ “a spiritual person” or “one who professes” and it wasn’t until the 19th century that it came to mean “people who got paid for doing their job.” Those two things are really connected—one who loves and one who professes. They profess based on their faith, which is love. There’s really no difference.

If you were to do this again, what would you do differently?

Emily: If we had to this to do again, we’d do more shows. We had a huge problem with scarcity of tickets. In a way, our ability to be really welcoming to the whole community would have been greater if we’d had more performances and more tickets to give.


Kate: And that was compounded by the fact that we had a cast of 40 individuals who, of course, all want their family and friends to see the show so that’s 200 tickets right there. Our home theater is an outdoor theater, under a tent on this beautiful bluff that overlooks the Hudson River. We did two of our performances in our home venue, but then we also took the show for one night only to venues in Peekskill and Newburgh. Each of those performances were so unique, in terms of who came out to see the shows, the way that the actors engaged with the community, and how the spaces worked differently with the show. Transportation is a big issue here, and this production provided access to so many more people. As much as it would have exhausted our company to do another week, it would have been wonderful for the community to be able to perform in one or two more venues in other neighboring towns.

John: If this program were to be successful again, you’d have to start with the play. This play is an absolute a masterpiece, on the level of Shakespeare. There are layers of meaning and intent and interconnectedness in the dialogue, the things that are so seemingly mundane, yet so profound. Like in the first act, when the Stage Manager says, “The morning star always shines brightest just before it has to go. Doesn’t it?” It’s a reference, of course, to Emily, the brightest girl in class. That’s what I mean by a masterpiece. And as a result, a company will rise to the level of the play.