Ralph Alan Cohen is co-founder and director of mission at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton and Gonder Professor of Shakespeare and Performance and founder of the Master of Letters and Fine Arts program at Mary Baldwin College. He is the author of ShakesFear and How to Cure It: A Handbook for Teaching Shakespeare.
Cohen was project director for the building of the Blackfriars Playhouse and he has directed thirty productions of plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. He has also been a VFH Grant project director. VFH chief operating officer Kevin McFadden caught up with Cohen in an email interview about the early days of American Shakespeare Center and some help VFH gave along its way.
KM: VFH has a record of being the first grant to some organizations. Tell us a little about the first grant to the American Shakespeare Center and what it meant at that time.
RAC: Our company formed in 1988 and in 1990 we were approved as a non-profit, so we began to search for appropriate grants. As a traveling theater company, we naturally applied to arts funders and particularly to the NEA and the VCA. No luck.
Jim and I were driving back from Richmond after a discouraging meeting with a potential funder, and as we were passing the first of the Charlottesville exits, I suddenly said to Jim, “I know who might give us a grant.” A few years before I had, with Brian Delaney, received a small VFH grant for a program called Film and the Political Process, and I remembered how much I enjoyed our dealings with Rob Vaughan. Two exits later we were finding our way to your offices, where we were pretty much immediately ushered in to Rob.
Rob was not the least put off by the fact that we were a theater company looking for humanities funding. He understood without the spiel that as an English professor I was all about was making Shakespeare accessible beyond the stage. By the time we left his office we had conceived of a two-week seminar for high school teachers on using performance to teach Shakespeare called “Bringing Shakespeare Home.” Your office guided us through the application process, and the result was our first grant ever.
What that grant meant to us was an acknowledgement of the worth of our work for the four years previous and a new confidence and belief in our future that led to the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse. It fueled our dreams and helped us define our mission. It also gave twenty Virginia teachers, some of whom are still in touch with me, the tools to spark more interest in Shakespeare among their students. That was twenty-five years ago. I often think that, if those twenty teachers each taught just fifty students in that quarter century, that in some way the VFH through “Bringing Shakespeare Home” reached 25,000 young minds.
KM: How important are teachers and educators to providing that critical link to Shakespeare?
RAC: I teach a Shakespeare pedagogy class to our graduate students at Mary Baldwin. I think in the day-to-day hurly burly of preparing classes and grading papers and dealing with one or two problem kids in a class of thirty, teachers lose sight of how much they mean to their students’ lives. So I begin the pedagogy course by having them each name the most important teacher in their lives. Then I make them write that teacher a thank-you note. For more than half of them that most important teacher is the one who introduced them to Shakespeare.
When it comes to Shakespeare, the correlation is almost one to one between how students feel about the subject and the teachers they have had. In many ways, what we are trying to do at the American Shakespeare Center is help teachers at all levels be the ones that helped inspire a love of his works.
KM: How would you describe how the vision of ASC has grown over its nearly three decades?
RAC: In 2005 we changed our name from the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express to the American Shakespeare Center. Having built the only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater and established the only graduate program for the performance and teaching of Shakespeare, you could say that our vision grew from regional to national. But I think the most important change in our name is the word “Center.” We want to be more than a “theater” or a “company” or a “festival.” We want to be a center for ideas—ours and others’—about Shakespeare and theater, a center for professional development for teachers like those who came to that first VFH workshop, but also for other professionals interested in what Shakespeare can teach us about leadership and law and ethics. We want to be the place where actors want to come to experience the joy of performing these plays before audiences they can see and where their skill is the most prominent thing on display.
KM: What do you hear most from audiences about ASC productions?
RAC: That Shakespeare is easy and Shakespeare is fun. When I eavesdrop in our lobby I hear people say, “I understood every word” or “they must have translated it into modern English.” Of course we don’t change any words; we just have great actors perform them in a way that helps audiences get past their “ShakesFear.” They are surprised we sell wine from the stage. They are surprised that the actors talk to them and even more surprised that the script makes that seem appropriate.
KM: Shakespeare is celebrated and produced around the world, but why is Shakespeare a particularly good fit for Virginia?
RAC: Shakespeare has become American. At last count there are over 200 Shakespeare companies in America devoted to Shakespeare. There aren’t twenty in England. Virginia is where Shakespeare landed in America. The people behind the founding of Jamestown were the people who went to the Blackfriars playhouse in London, while the people who founded Plymouth were the people who wanted to tear down that playhouse. Well, we’ve rebuilt that playhouse in Staunton, and a graduate program to go along with it, and a traveling troupe that takes Shakespeare from here all over the country. So as far as I can tell, Staunton is Shakespeare’s American home.
KM: As the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death approaches, can you tell us what ASC sees on the horizon?
RAC: We are trying to make what we do more and more accessible to as many constituencies as possible and on as many platforms as we can—from our archive at Washington and Lee, where this interview will wind up in five years, to apps to our study guides to digitized material. And we’ve always wanted a Globe to go with our Blackfriars, and we’ve been working steadily toward a time when we could go forward with that plan.