West Virginia’s only touring Shakespeare troupe is back with the bard’s lesser known works. (2019 line-up)
In 2014, West Virginia was one of just two states that didn’t have a Shakespeare troupe or festival.
It was a lack that southern West Virginia native Jason Young and his friends from their theater days at Fairmont State University lamented. His best friend from college had gone off to Scotland and become a classically trained Shakespeare actor. And his friend Celi Oliveto had done her master’s work on Shakespeare at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, home of the American Shakespeare Center, and had since returned to West Virginia.
But when Young and Oliveto revisited their lament in early 2014, Young was newly in a position to address it. Just the previous year, he’d founded Vintage Theatre Company to unite the very best teaching and performing artists in West Virginia. VTC already had an improv troupe, The Fearless Fools. Why not a Shakespeare troupe, too? He and Oliveto assembled seven actors and several support staff for a summer 2014 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream before they even had a name for their new ensemble.
What to call it? The ideal name for a Shakespeare troupe comes from the writings of the master wordsmith himself.
“‘Mountaineer’ shows up two or three times in Shakespeare’s canon—mostly as an insult,” Young laughs—as in the jeering “Yield, rustic mountaineer.” They did like the word “rustic,” though. “We believed it described what we were trying to do, to take Shakespeare into every corner of West Virginia we could get it into.” Then they looked for words Shakespeare used for actors. “Players,” of course. But they also noted the use of “rude mechanicals” in Midsummer to describe actors. “We decided we’d be The Rustic Mechanicals: a blue-collar group of Shakespearean actors.”
The Mechanicals, as Young calls the troupe for short, holds open auditions every November and December at Vintage Theatre Company’s space in downtown Clarksburg. All comers have to have ties to West Virginia—if not as natives, then through college, theater performance, or some other connection. By New Year’s each year, they’ve hired their troupe for the coming year.
In its first five seasons, the troupe performed 13 of Shakespeare’s thirty-plus plays—three each year after that founding year. The Mechanicals’ seasons do indeed take them all over the state: 2018 raised the curtain on 30 performances from Athens to Weirton and Martinsburg to St. Albans, in city parks, high schools, and historical playhouses.
To keep their shows accessible, The Mechanicals cut them to run from 90 to 100 minutes and present them intermission-free. “It’s like going to the movies,” Young says. “It makes everything a little more tight and intense and fast-paced, which is good for a modern audience.” It’s an approach that’s working: The troupe sustains itself through ticket sales, payments from groups that host its performances, and donations from generous supporters as well as side hustles like educational workshops. And it’s growing—in membership, from 10 that first year to 50-plus this year, counting a dozen high school apprentices, and in everything else, too. “Our audiences are growing and the number of venues is growing,” Young says. “And as the group gets bigger, the number of shows gets bigger and the number of people who see shows gets bigger.”
Heading into The Mechanicals’ sixth season, seven troupe members are from the founding season, and 10 are brand-new Mechanicals. “It’s a delicate balance, because you definitely want to honor the commitment of the people who’ve come before, and you want people who’ve been with you and understand what it means to go on tour,” Young says. “But new blood also changes the dynamic and usually increases our quality. At this point, we’ve gotten bigger every year—we’ve added people who’ve brought positive contributions every year.”
The 2019 season, shows 14, 15, and 16, is made up of lesser-known works. Lesser-known, but currently relevant: Shakespeare’s plays wax more and less topical with world events. “Everybody thinks Shakespeare wrote about kings and battles and wars, and he did,” Young says. “But, in his brilliance, he also wrote about people—people who were making decisions that we all face today. The difference is that, when a Shakespeare character makes a decision, it can topple a kingdom.” King Lear, he says, about an aging dad trying to deal with his three daughters, is a domestic drama—where the father’s actions affect his entire realm. “That’s how Shakespeare’s plays work, in my mind. As our world changes and different people rise to power, you can always take it back in some way to something Shakespeare wrote about. That’s why he has stood the test of time.”
The Summer’s Tale
In its first five seasons, The Rustic Mechanicals performed 13 of Shakespeare’s 30-some plays. In this sixth season, the troupe dives deeper into the canon. “We’re asking our audiences, after five years now, to take a chance on us,” says Vintage Theatre Company artistic director Jason Young. He’s looking forward to it. “Really, it’s more freeing to do the lesser-known works.” Here’s the 2019 line-up.
Measure for Measure
As The Rustic Mechanicals were choosing their 2019 plays, Brett Kavanaugh’s U.S. Supreme Court nomination and the #MeToo movement dominated the news. In response, Young put this play in the line-up.
“Measure for Measure is about a man in power who forces himself upon a female—a man who uses his power to try and manipulate a woman,” Young says. “The character Angelo puts a man in prison and sentences him to death because he impregnated a woman out of wedlock, which is illegal. That man’s sister, a nun in training, goes to Angelo and says, ‘Why are you going to kill my brother? Everyone is doing this!’ Angelo says, ‘If you will sleep with me, I will not kill your brother.’ Shakespeare wrote this play 400 years ago, and nothing has changed in the way that men in power treat women. I think right now is a really good time for this play.”
The Mechanicals will tell the story and let audiences take it as they will. But they’ll hold discussions following their performances at Fairmont State University and West Virginia Wesleyan College, and possibly after others as well.
“I think it’s one of the most beautiful plays Shakespeare ever wrote,” Young says. “We have a strong director, with KB Saine Helming that production, and I think she’ll bring an interesting take to it.”
As You Like It
“Our summer show is always a lighter comedy—you sit outside, we’re going to make you laugh,” Young says. “We had the chance to bring in Jim Warren, and he’s excited to direct As You Like It.” That’s a big deal. Warren is co-founder and former artistic director of the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. The ASC built and operates the Blackfriars Playhouse, the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater and a thoroughly unique theatergoing experience. Warren left the ASC recently after 30 years and is sharing his deep expertise with Shakespeare troupes across the country. His West Virginia tie? He taught at Davis & Elkins College for a semester last year.
“We were also really lucky to secure Bridget Rue Esterhuizen as Rosalind, the largest female role Shakespeare ever wrote,” Young says. Esterhuizen teaches theater at Davis & Elkins and was formerly with the ASC.
As a rom-com, As You Like It is perfect summertime outdoor theatre. “Some of what’s cool about it is the way it explores what the play calls ‘court versus the country,’” Young says. “There are rich people, the court, and they end up in the Forest of Arden with these farmers and people like that. So there’s this interesting dichotomy in the play between city folk and country folk—I think that’s something that people can plug into in a fun way.”
“Fall will be one year before the next presidential election, so politics will be pretty hot by then,” says Young, who is directing the fall production. “I think that’s going to make Julius Caesar pretty relatable to a lot of people.”
The play is really the story of Brutus. “He’s this senator, statesman, who loves the empire so much that he would murder his friend because he thought his friend was going to negatively affect his country,” Young says. “That’s how Cassius convinces Brutus to do it. That’s amazing to me.”
Young took some chances with casting in this male-dominated show. “I had a lot of really talented female actors on my list. I thought about regendering, but if I turn Brutus or Caesar into a woman, everyone’s going to go, ‘HiIlary Clinton!’” Of course, Shakespeare cast men in his female roles, and Young once saw a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where a woman played Oberon, a male, as a man. After a few minutes, he says, it was just Oberon. “So I cast a female Brutus, a female Cassius, and a female Cinna, and they’re going to play them in pants. I was comfortable doing this because of the strength of the actors. Caesar is so much about patriotism, and that’s pretty genderless, I think. It’s a little risky. But in my mind, it’s really exciting.”
Featured photo courtesy of Tyler Maxwell, Lost Trail Studio