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Benjamin Reed and Zoe Speas are Actors' Renaissance 2020 company members. They performed in "A King and No King."

Just 30 minutes south of JMU sits the Blackfriars Playhouse, home to the American Shakespeare Center. Within its walls, there’s a hidden gem of the Shenandoah Valley: the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater.

Filled with connections to JMU — from posters on the walls to the people in the halls — the Center is Jacobean brought to the American South, and JMU had a hand in every part of getting it there.

The Center was founded as the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express in 1988 by Ralph Cohen, a then-English professor at JMU, and Jim Warren, a JMU alumnus (’88), out of what Cohen described as a desire to put on high-quality productions of Shakespearean theater with a commitment to period-authentic performance conditions. When it comes to what allowed such a seemingly out-of-place idea to flourish, Cohen credits the people behind it.

“It really was the magic of the people, the students at JMU really being enthusiastic about it, really knowing what they were doing, really knowing what they were saying and getting into it and having no shame about what they’re playing, who they’re playing for,” Cohen said.

A little over 30 years later, the Center is now a nationally recognized institution for Shakespearean productions with five seasons and three dedicated companies of actors from across the country — many of whom are JMU alumni — and the mission hasn’t changed at all since the beginning. 

John Harrell, a JMU alumnus (’93) and actor at the Center, said that while it’s a modern drama institute, the Center’s dedication lies in faithfully reproducing Shakespearean works using methods that simulate the way they would’ve been performed at their conception. This includes techniques such as leaving all the lights up to simulate the constraints of natural light and candlelight Shakespeare would’ve worked in.

“If you go to a big proscenium theater with the lights off over the audience, and you walk on that stage, you can pretend the audience isn’t there, you know,” Harrell said. “Here, in our space, we can see everything. We can see what they’re thinking and what they’re doing and, you know, how they’re enjoying it or not enjoying it.”

The Playhouse seats audiences on three sides of the stage and, sometimes, even on the stage itself. By doing so, the space puts the actors within the crowd, creating a dynamic rarely found in modern theater.

Ethan McSweeny, artistic director of the Center, said one of his biggest draws to it is the atmosphere it can create. He explained that the art of theater can generate what he called a “shared experience” and that the Playhouse offers audiences the opportunity to witness theater in an intimate setting that may not be found elsewhere.

“It’s the combination of those actors in our beautiful theater that sits a little over 300, where everyone is within the reach of the actors’ voice and their eyes, and it creates an experience that is incredibly accessible and intimate,” McSweeny said. “We go to live theater to have experiences that we can’t have in a movie theater or sitting on our sofa watching Netflix.”

It’s an environment that, McSweeny said, demands actors who are fully immersed in their oftentimes multiple roles. The Center produces its shows in repertory, meaning several shows are staged during the same season, requiring actors to play several roles at the same time. 

“Shakespeare is like a muscle, and if you don’t exercise it, it doesn’t stay strong and flexible,” McSweeny said. “This is a group where, in all three different companies, all of these actors have incredibly well-developed Shakespeare muscles.”

Thirty years later, the Center has found those actors, it’s built the Blackfriars Playhouse, and it’s now one of the most well-known destinations for authentic Shakespearean productions. But that all started somewhere, and Harrell said it goes back to the JMU theater department. In the ’80s and ’90s, he said, if one had an idea, they’d be given the tools to make something out of nothing, and that’s what inspired the beginnings of the Center as the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express.

“There was a sense that you could do it yourself there, and I think that and this place here, Ralph Cohen, was a part of that,” Harrell said. “It was that aesthetic, that idea that ‘I’ve got a couple friends, I’ve got a few ideas; let’s see what we can do.’”

Through all of its work in Shakespearean theater and the education of students and lovers of theater, the American Shakespeare Center traces its roots back to its birthplace — JMU, where a professor and a student ran with a dream of doing Shakespeare right. With companies, crews and leadership all packed full of people with connections to JMU, as McSweeny said, “You can’t throw a brick here where you don’t hit a JMU person.”

“We didn’t feel like we needed to be a drama conservatory to put on good productions of classical plays,” Harrell said. “We could just be people who knew how to read a script and had a place. It was a very ‘JMU’ aesthetic.”

Contact Jake Conley at breezecopy@gmail.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.