Former Shakespeare Theatre Company associate director Ethan McSweeny has been named to run the 30-year-old American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., beginning next week. The Blue Ridge troupe performs in the Blackfriars Playhouse, a facsimile of the indoor theater used by Shakespeare’s troupe.
Co-founder Jim Warren stepped down last year as artistic director of the company, which produces 15 shows a year.
McSweeny was a candidate in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current search for a successor to artistic director Michael Kahn, who is entering his final season with the company he has run since 1986. The “Twelfth Night” McSweeny staged in the STC’s Harman Hall last winter reimagined the 774 seat, $89 million theater as an airport terminal; last month McSweeny won a Helen Hayes Award for his direction of that show, which was also took outstanding play honors.
The Blackfriars Playhouse, billed on the ASC website as “the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater,” cost $3.7 million and seats about 350.
“I did say at one point, ‘I’m probably known for my elaborate re-imaginings of Shakespeare; what the hell am I doing here?’” McSweeny says. “The longer I’m at this, I find that limitations are actually a kind of freedom. It really fires my creativity to imagine what you would do if you had nothing more than Shakespeare had.”
The ASC evolved out of the bare-bones touring Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, which made a virtue of sticking close to Shakespeare’s circumstances — minimal scenery and costumes, and general lighting. The organization still has a touring arm, but in addition to producing Shakespeare and less frequently seen classical titles, the ASC is also producing a series called Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries — new plays relating to Shakespearean works. An “Actors’ Renaissance Season” involves actors putting on shows with no directors and minimal rehearsal.
McSweeny co-directed Upstate New York’s Chautauqua Theater Company for eight years, and has had a vigorous freelance directing career among U.S. regional theaters and internationally; McSweeny directed the Arena Stage-born adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill” that briefly alighted on Broadway in 2013. D.C. audiences know him mainly as one of the STC’s go-to directors, and in 2016 he made his Studio Theatre debut with Deirdre Kinahan’s intimate drama “Moment.”
He will continue to direct outside the ASC, but also sees the company poised to grow and perhaps brand itself more firmly as a theatrical destination. “30 years ago a guy I know took over a classically oriented troupe performing on a small Elizabethan stage,” McSweeny says, referring to his mentor, Kahn. “And that story turned out really well.”