Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol
Tony Simotes, Artist Director of Shakespeare & Company, Tells The Story of the Theater
Simotes, inheriting the troupe, which is replete and complete with educational, training, and production components, has become a transition facilitator. Shakespeare & Company, which arrived at its new locale a decade ago, is defining, modifying, adjusting and, to an extent, inventing its vision and purpose.
The relatively new leader, speaking recently, explained that he also "has been fighting for my life. I developed throat cancer and have endured the pain, the treatment, including chemotherapy, and the fear. I am now getting better." So, too, is the fiscal health of the company, which had its best box office return last summer. Ticket sales, thus far this spring, have accelerated even further.
Shakespeare & Company enjoyed its salad days during the late 1970s at The Mount, once Edith Wharton's estate, which is just a half mile down the road from the current spot. Simotes, Dennis Krausnick (Training Director), and Kevin Coleman (Director of Education) were previously classmates at New York University. Tina Packer was an NYU visiting guest artist. In 1978, Packer and her friends Kristin Linklater, B.H. Barry, and John Broome were among those who came together to catapult a new theater as it blossomed into life in the Berkshires. "These were her mates from England," says Simotes. "It was wild and amazing. No one knew how long we would be around, but there we were, up from the city, and many of us didn't even know who Edith Wharton was. It was like an archaeological discovery group that discovered the gardens and the dog cemetery. There were tours and we all had to clean up our rooms. The place was magical, we were living and cooking together complete with all the personal relationships. Most of us were in our twenties or early thirties. It was a new way of thinking about the theater and ways to make it extraordinary. Everyone migrated to this one place. The summer of 1978 was remarkable as we put up flyers all over ... everybody doing everything ... all hands on deck all the time. We created the structure. Maybe it was like that when Group Theatre began."
The company developed a national reputation as its teachers, leaving the area, became master instructors, in different programs, on their own. The landscape in Lenox shifted as people like Richard Dreyfuss, Raquel Welch, Alicia Silverstone, Keanu Reeves, Sigourney Weaver, and others arrived for training. "People who were celebrities and just good, solid New York actors came together here in."
Until the year 2000, Shakespeare & Company was best known, perhaps, for its extraordinary evening performances in the outdoor theater next to the Wharton house. "Under the trees, in the woods, under the stars," there it was, says Simotes. The turn into this century meant a new epoch for the company. Tina Packer continued as the lead administrator until electing to pursue her own projects, such as the brilliantly conceived and enacted Women of Will. She, for decades, has been investigating and exploring Shakespeare and many of his female characters. "Tina is still here and I rely upon her," says Simotes. "She has entrusted me, with respect, as the person to continue. Tina is playing without having to deal with the weight of the company. We used to be primarily outside in the experiential theater and, if anything, we are more like other theaters in this area. At The Mount, you had The Stables, The Wharton Theater, the outside space. We had candles in the window of the house, playing off the balcony ... Right now, what do we have to offer that is different? The past ten years has been a re-establishment of its brand and taking our training methodologies and living in the new space. The theater has shed one skin and I am coming in on the ache of muscles which have been working out, so to speak. In a strong way, we are discovering the voices on this property. We are becoming ourselves in this century, complete with new stories. The strong basis of Shakespeare will always be there. The 'and company' part is something else. We are re-imagining our stories and I am allowing this to happen."
Simotes wants to maintain relevance and cutting-edge training and also accommodate younger artists here who did not know The Mount. He is pleased not to be beholden to certain histories of Shakespeare. "I am not from the United Kingdom. Yes, I like to be surrounded by scholars of that time but I want other artists, too."
Simotes and Krausnick appeared, in their first major professional play, in Henry V, directed by Joseph Papp, with Meryl Streep in the cast, in Central Park. Not long after, Shakespeare & Company was developed in the Berkshires. Dennis Krausnick, for example, found his talent as a writer. He was able to compose scripts by adapting Edith Wharton's fiction. Coleman, who came as an actor, has developed nationally recognized programs for students. "His skill for understanding the adolescent mind and the creation of an art form was uncovered here. The Mount was a laboratory of discovery and inspiration." Coleman has been honored by the President's Council on the Arts and Humanities.
Currently, Simotes wants to support Tina as she moves along. His NYU classmates, Krausnick and Coleman, continue to evolve and progress. "They've all worked so hard without almost any let up. Theater is always in crisis. I've been in crisis, given my health. I never would have imagined that I would go through this. It has allowed me to find a greater and bigger part of myself. At the same time, I've been fighting for the company and for my life. I came to the company, so long ago, because we were about the very essence of theater: self-revelation, telling stories, reflection of humanity to the audience. That was what we touched upon."
Simotes is a nationally known fight-choreographer who has also acted, directed, and taught. He worked in New York and Los Angeles before going to Florida State University while he occasionally participated, during summers, in Lenox. Then, he moved to the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a full professor and Director of University Theatre.
The organization, on its many acres, had endured fiscal troubles and the property, envisioned as a Shakespeare village, needed tending and development. "Now, we are able to earn our way and we are finishing strong. We want the buildings to become an asset. When this was purchased, it seemed like this might be like Sturbridge Village on steroids. The problem was we did not have the resources to make it all a reality. The past decade had to be weathered even as the economy went south. This area includes other major theaters. Our donor base, audience, and box office have all recently grown."
One of the people who has come to flourish at Shakespeare & Company is Elizabeth Aspenlieder. An associate artist who also wears marketing and communications hats and outfits, she is, arguably, one of the company's leading actors who has received many a deserved on-stage accolade. "Her hands have been on the playbill and publicity. She connected me with the local chamber of commerce, and with individuals in Boston and New York. She has pushed me, politically, too, and has been an integral part of my transition here. There is no doubt that everyone has been talking about her one-woman shows, expertise with comedy ... she is also capable, as demonstrated with Hermione in The Winter's Tale last summer, of being a wonderful dramatic actor. She is a right-hand person. Elizabeth is always here and she kept many irons going, maintaining relationships. She is almost like a chief of staff. She and all of us, however, need to be able to take a break. We need to keep people healthy, active, and still creating. A year from now, our 35th, we will celebrate our training methodology."
What, then, does the future hold for Shakespeare & Company? Simotes is looking to prosper further on the current site. It is a matter, perhaps, of partnering with others. "Our earnings, even as they go up, will not pay to repair and renovate the buildings. I am looking to find someone who will also see the land as asset; and then they will pay us. Maybe we can turn something into another theater or restaurant or boutique hotel. At this time, I want to see others we can invite in to this party. We need to expand just what the property will be. Could we still recreate a Rose Theatre? Can a field be transformed into a sustainable garden? These are questions I ask."
The artistic director also wants to generate new work in addition to the continuance of Shakespeare's work. Two theaters, Founders' and Bernstein, exist on the property. Two upcoming plays in the Bernstein are especially intriguing. The Memory of Water is the story of three sisters who come to their former home to prepare for their mother's funeral. Tina Packer stars in Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. Still, this place revolves around Shakespeare. Thus, productions of As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet this summer.
Soon turning 60, Tony Simotes, a survivor, embodies the spirit of the past and holds a vibrant view of the future as artistic director of Shakespeare & Company. He describes his position as "a dream job." For further information on the upcoming season, visit Shakespeare.org.
- Fred Sokol