At Blue Ridge Summer Theatre Festival in Amherst, Va., the location's the thing

By Ellen Perlman
Friday, July 2, 2010; WE15

Few audience members were spared the actors' attention during the Endstation Theatre Company's production of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" in Lynchburg, Va., at a recent Sunday matinee.

Not the woman with whom Juliet (actor Derek Arey in drag) flirted the moment Romeo died.

Not the audience members who said, "Get thee to a nunnery" in unison upon the request of actor Michael Stablein Jr., who told them, "Section A, that was awful."

Not even the 85-year-old man in a section of people who were asked to wave their arms over their heads and declaim in high-pitched, Monty Python-ish voices, "Maybe, maybe not."

"You weren't even moving your lips," actor Walter Kmiec accused the octogenarian. "You know what that means, right? You're going to have to do it all. By. Your. Self."

And the man did, first asking, "What am I supposed to do again?" Oh, the hoots from the crowd.

The energy in the room was boundless, the audience laughter hearty, the applause generous.

Soon, however, the three actors will shift into tragic mode. "Complete Works," written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, is part of a three-play Blue Ridge Summer Theatre Festival 2010, and that show ended last month. The actors are now rehearsing "Hamlet."

Between the Shakespeare bookends comes "Alice in Wonderland," aimed at children ages 3 to 12. The whimsical production will burst with color and creativity, said Krista Franco, resident scene designer and co-founder of the theater company. It will be performed in a theater on the campus of Sweet Briar College in Amherst, about 12 miles north of Lynchburg, as part of an ongoing partnership between the theater company and the college.

"Hamlet" will be staged at a third venue. The outdoor show, a la Wolf Trap but without a roof, uses an abandoned dairy barn as a backdrop.

This is the wonder of Endstation's summer festivals. The play's not the thing. The location is.

Artistic director and theater co-founder Geoffrey Kershner chooses a campus location first, without knowing what play will be performed. "It's about the space," he said. "I'm interested in found space and developing a show in and around it."

One outdoor show is performed each year, and so far, it has always been Shakespeare. Kershner believes that the Bard pulls in an audience that associates his plays with outdoor summer theater.

"Romeo and Juliet" took advantage of a building with balconies. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was performed on a grassy dell. Fairy characters sat in trees illuminated by strings of white lights. The actors hid behind bushes before making entrances, and the audiences could see them walking far into the distance after exiting.

Why go to Amherst for Shakespeare? Kershner, 32, produces shows unique to the area. This year's "Confederate Hamlet" is set in 1864, when Virginia was a hotbed of Civil War activity. Hamlet goes off to Richmond, instead of France, to fight. The play itself "echoes so much war imagery," Kershner says. "I was really intrigued by that."

The son of a theater professor, Kershner grew up on the Sweet Briar campus and knows all its crannies. He uses them to full effect, but each new venue has its challenges.

Fireflies were a lighting bonus for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and are expected to make an electric appearance again this year. The clouds will fit right in when Kmiec's Hamlet looks skyward and says to Polonius, "Do you see yonder cloud that is almost in the shape of a camel?" Watching rehearsals at the barn, I actually looked up. But the challenge was the lighting: A huge transformer had to be brought in to provide electricity.

Another challenge has been Polonius's death. Polonius can't die and stay on the grass, getting in the way for the rest of the show. Instead, he will die inside the barn, his demise indicated by a swipe of a bloody hand on a window.

Unlike many other outdoor theaters, Endstation has an inclement-weather backup plan for its roof-less stage. In the case of rain, the company will head to a campus theater building and perform a reprise of the "Complete Works" comedy so that the evening isn't a wash for theatergoers.

The company has learned that live shows offer surprises. During "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a squirrel dropped into a scene just as it was ending, freezing and staring out into the audience for a moment. "Out of nowhere, a dog appeared and chased the squirrel," says Stablein. The "interlude" got a big laugh.

How a Rocky and Bullwinkle moment of laughter might be worked into a "Hamlet" scene is another question.

Perlman, who read "Hamlet" in high school, blogs at http://www.boldlygosolo.com.

Getting there

Sweet Briar College is about 165 miles from Washington. Take Interstate 66 west to U.S. 29 south. Exit onto U.S. 29 Business/Amherst toward Sweet Briar College/Madison Heights. Turn right at Sweet Briar Road to get onto campus.

Staying there

Florence Elston Inn & Conference Center


http://www.elstoninn.com On the campus of Sweet Briar College. Rooms start at $125 single occupancy.

Eating there

Bull Branch

1030 Main St., Lynchburg, Va.


Tapas, Mexican selections and salads from $5 to $10. Entrees start at $15.

What a Blessing Deli & Bakery

195 Ambriar Plaza, Amherst, Va.


Offers a variety of salads and sandwiches, on homemade bread, for less than $10.

Playing there

Blue Ridge Summer Theatre Festival 2010



Tickets for all shows are $15, $5 children and students. No assigned seating.


"Alice in Wonderland"

Murchison Lane Auditorium, Sweet Briar College

Friday and Wednesday-July 9 at 7 p.m., Saturday and July 10 at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., July 11 at 2 p.m.


Sweet Briar College grounds

July 14-18 and 21-25 at 7 p.m.

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