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Brandon Carter is named artistic director of American Shakespeare Center

Resident actor is first person of color to lead the Staunton, Va., playhouse, which also announced a new roster of productions after some recent strife

Brandon Carter, a resident actor with the American Shakespeare Center since 2018, was named the new artistic director of the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., on Jan. 10, becoming the first person of color to lead the 34-year-old company. (Lelund Durond Thompson)

After a contentious year that saw the departure of its artistic director and the cancellation of its autumn slate of plays, American Shakespeare Center announced Monday the appointment of a new artistic leader and a return next month to a full roster of performances.

Brandon Carter, a resident actor with ASC since 2018, assumes the directorship in a new management structure that the company describes as “a coequal group of individuals” running other departments such as operations, production and engagement. Carter is the first Black man, and person of color, to serve as artistic director of ASC, a 34-year-old company producing the classics in a 300-seat mock-Tudor playhouse in Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley.

The plans for 2022 include new productions of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Comedy of Errors,” opening in February and March, respectively, and continuing through May. And according to Carter, there will be an increased emphasis on contemporary plays, starting with Duncan Macmillan’s “Every Brilliant Thing,” directed by Stephanie Holladay Earl and running from May 27 to July 3.

“Our audience is ready to see something new from us, and I’m ready to open the door,” Carter, 34, said in a phone interview.

The announcement settles the question of ASC’s survival, an issue that had supporters worried after the company’s decision in October to eliminate a four-play autumn roster. Although $1.8 million in federal arts aid kept ASC solvent during the pandemic, the company experienced internal rifts and defections over complaints about racial insensitivity and treatment of women. The previous artistic director, Ethan McSweeny, resigned in February 2021 following the circulation of a letter, signed by many members of the staff, complaining about management deficiencies. His departure prompted resignations by two key board members who objected to the way McSweeny himself was treated.

American Shakespeare Center cancels fall season amid reports of internal strife

As at many theater companies, ASC was forced to make deep cuts during the pandemic; its budget of about $4 million and staff of 70 full- and part-time workers were essentially reduced by half. To address concerns raised about equity and inclusiveness, the board hired a consultant in October to help with, as one ASC official described it, “revising company values”; the company added the suspension of the fall season was intended to give ASC time to focus on the training.

The company, which employs original Elizabethan practices — productions use minimal set pieces and props, and are performed with the house illumination on — took the first steps back to its traditional operation in December: It staged its annual “A Christmas Carol” again in its Blackfriars Playhouse in downtown Staunton. The announcements Monday of the members of a newly constituted management group, as well as the shows that will be produced throughout 2022, signaled other moves toward stability.

Carter has played dozens of ASC roles, most notably as both Prince Hal and King Henry in the “Henry IV” and “Henry V” cycle. He’ll continue to act, beginning in February as Romeo opposite Meg Rodgers, in a “Romeo and Juliet” to be directed by José Zayas. Carter said one of his priorities will be to try to draw more audiences of color into the playhouse, and another will be to address the desire of many actors to be given contracts of shorter duration, to maximize their scheduling flexibility.

The schedule for 2022 is a somewhat pared-down version of the programming ASC offered before the pandemic; for one thing, the company’s national touring arm will not be revived until 2023, Carter said. If all goes as conceived, the summer season will consist of “Twelfth Night” (June 9-Aug. 6) and L M Feldman’s “Thrive, or What You Will” (July 7-Aug. 7), a modern companion piece to “Twelfth Night” that was developed through the company’s New Contemporaries project.

In the fall, ASC plans “The Tempest” (Sept. 23-Nov. 26); “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” (Sept. 30-Nov. 27) and Aimé Césaire’s 1960s play, “Une Tempête” (Oct. 27-Nov. 26). The last of these is a comic riff on “The Tempest” that reexamines the relationship between the wizardly Prospero and the enslaved Caliban.

Carter says his goal is to illuminate the canon in novel ways for audiences, “ ‘decentering’ who they perceive to be in these stories, breaking the legacies of the action of the past,” he said. “That is what this all means to me right now.”

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