Wondrous Strange

By Jeremy Fiebig, Artistic Director

Sweet Tea Shakespeare is a strange place.

We perform outdoors in North Carolina in the summer. It’s hot.

We ask all our artists to put their brains and hands to work on the totality of the production. A lot of actors aren’t used to that.

We organize ourselves differently by putting actors and artists in charge of the business of the company. That happens rarely.

We have a number of idiosyncratic practices, such as cross-gender casting, universal lighting, and permissive audience interaction. You don’t get that most places.

These are what I like to call “big asks.”

Few people understand why we do these things since they’re so strange. You can walk into most theaters, including several in our region, that don’t ask so much of their actors or their audiences. Where you can simply buy a ticket, come to see a show or, if you’re an actor, just learn your lines alongside everyone else and make some good choices, and you’re done. Those relationships are easy, simple, and transactional.

And I don’t want to sell those places short, because I work in those places and love them. And there are certainly tons of opportunities for actors and artists and audiences to engage much more deeply by volunteering, by serving on boards, and a host of other activities from educational offerings to lighting hangs.

But the basic exchange is simple: show up. Do your part. See the show. Go home. Repeat.

In one of these other theaters, you might see a wondrous and moving story that inspires you. You might see something you have to see again. You might see something that doesn’t speak to you, or that is bad, or that misses the mark in some way that you can’t get over. If you’re an actor or an artist, you may have a struggle backstage, or you may forge some meaningful relationships with your cast.

But there’s the potential for a lot of uncertainty in this exchange. The show may or may not be good. You may leave the theatre having never met a soul — neither the actors nor your fellow audience have really been *with* you for the entire production — you’ve sat in darkness watching folks who can’t see you and who do not know you do their thing. As an actor or artist, the backstage experience might be terrible or lovely. You may craft a magical experience onstage or off, but contracts end and your colleagues go off to other projects. There’s a lot of risk involved, even if the payoffs can be enormous.

At Sweet Tea Shakespeare, we’re really after a different approach that works to transform what happens between artists and company and between actors and audience. We’re looking for relationships, not transactions.

Good actors are smart people and exceptional collaborators. Many processes ask actors to check their other abilities — and their ideas — at the door in the service of a director’s vision. At Sweet Tea Shakespeare, we seek artists who are willing to engage their whole person in our company endeavors, both at the production level and at the company level. Our company is run by a group of company members and associates who literally run the show.

Relationship invites long-term commitment. Though there will always be room in the theatre for the contract folks who are in and out for a show and then on to the next project at another place or in another town, we welcome and cultivate artists to be in relationship with each other and the company over the long term. One of the great pleasures that we enjoy, and that Shakespeare’s own companies enjoyed, is the opportunity to see folks appear again and again in different roles over time — to invest in and see their growth as artists over the long haul.

Relationship and collaboration and commitment belong to the audience, too. Here’s what happens in a lot of theatres: show up, purchase your ticket, sit in an assigned seat, watch the show while sitting in total darkness. Watch only. Don’t talk — certainly don’t be in conversation with the art or artists. Behave yourself. Laugh. Clap. Leave.

Audiences can be great collaborators and friends. That means seeking an audience-actor dynamic that isn’t just about watching passively from the darkness, but which is about sharing, together, story, roles, pictures, and even food. At Sweet Tea Shakespeare, all our plays are in universal lighting — actors and audiences are lit together. Actors can see audience. Audience can see other audience. It’s a very different feel to a show. That sight, and the interaction that comes from it, are integral to the audience becoming collaborators.

But we don’t stop there. We invite audiences to come early for food and fellowship at our “What You Will” preshow. We have audiences join us on the stage for dancing and singing. We host open workdays, workshops, and public rehearsals so that audience members can join us in the creative process. We host The Chamberlains, a group of actors committed to continual growth, The Mechanicals, our volunteer group, and The Suspenders, our house band. We also keep in touch with our audiences in a variety of ways when we’re not performing, through our robust social media channels, regular updates, crowdfunding campaigns, season selection, and more.

We invite artists and audiences into relationship with beautiful text and compelling stage practice. Many of our idiosyncrasies come from looking back at Shakespearean and other early modern textual, bibliographic, and stage practice for inspiration. The logic is this: if the way plays were made in the 1580s, 1590s, and first couple decades of the 1600s yielded Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Middleton, Ben Jonson, and a host of other marvelously successful playwrights, some of the most memorable and compelling plays, and successful businesses, wouldn’t it make sense for us to study what they were doing and see what we can learn about our own play-making?

Some of those practices include:

Sweet Tea Shakespeare embraces a number of early modern staging practices in its performances, including:

Universal Lighting

Shakespeare’s theatres, and many others, enjoyed light that illuminated actor, stage, and audience alike, allowing for engagement between the actor and the audience member.

A Surrounded Space

Throughout theatre history, and especially in Shakespeare’s theatres, audiences surrounded a central performance space in configurations now called thrust and arena staging. When the audience surrounds the playing space, they are part of the world of the play, visible to actor and other audience members, working as confidants and communities throughout the performance.

Simple Staging

Early modern theatres didn’t have fixed sets. In Shakespeare’s theatres, acting companies performed different plays each day, so there wasn’t time for a complete set to be built. Instead, large, movable set pieces were used, such as beds, thrones, tombs, and the like. Simple sets upend the economics of making theatre, putting the emphasis on actor and text. Since the advent of film, some theatres have put themselves into an unwinnable competition with the spectacular effects and grand visuals of the cinema, and replacing the role of the audience’s imagination with complex and show-stealing technologies. Simple sets offer a different approach, and allow for audiences to build the world of the play with imagination.

Doubling

Many Shakespeare plays, from Hamlet to Macbeth to the histories, have dozens of characters, but early modern playing companies often had casts between 12 and 15, with apprentices and journeymen and others joining occasionally, or with cast sizes expanding for special occasions. With a small group of actors and many characters, it was common practice for actors to play more than one role. By doubling shows, audiences can enjoy one favorite actor play several parts over the course of an evening.

Enlivened Costuming

With simple sets and doubled actors, costumes are of critical importance to Shakespeare’s theatres. They served as the primary visual draw for a production and helped distinguish between characters. Importantly, Shakespeare’s theatres wore what was for them modern dress. Think the equivalent of a t-shirt and jeans, an evening gown, a tuxedo, or military fatigues for teenagers, ladies-in-waiting, lords, or soldiers, respectively. Occasionally, such as for the Roman characters in Julius Caesar or the religious figures of Henry V, companies used more developed and historically-minded costumes. By using this mix of modern with a patina of the past, audiences can approach the play as Shakespeare’s audiences did, seeing a world that isn’t too different from their own.

Cross-Gender Casting

Shakespeare’s theatres employed all male casts, using boys whose voices hadn’t broken in puberty for young women’s roles like Juliet and Viola. Early modern companies and audiences were accustomed to seeing boys and young men play women (some of whom were disguised as young men, as in Viola’s case). Sweet Tea Shakespeare performances are for everyone, but we enjoy the fun of playing with and in gender by casting across gender frequently.

Live Music

Shakespeare’s plays included concerts. In addition to numerous music and dance within the plays themselves, shows were often preceded my musical and other entertainments. When Shakespeare’s company moved to Blackfriars in 1608, plays began to include musical interludes that sometimes were more popular than the plays themselves. The music then was contemporary, sometimes plucked off the streets and inserted into a performance in ways that connected the timeless texts with accessible, modern music.

The Early Modern “Ballpark” Atmosphere

With universal lighting, surrounded spaces, live music, and access to food and drink, Shakespeare’s theatres more of a modern-day baseball or football stadium than a darkened theatre with assigned seating and demure audiences. Amid the music, noisy audiences, side entertainments, and beer, a play happened. Just as double plays, triple plays, plays at the plate, homers and beloved players draw the attention of a raucous crowd to the field, so can great writing, humanity, music, and spectacle draw the eyes and ears of the audience.

​​After we tackle all this stuff — empowered artists, collaborative audiences, and enriching theatre practices — we believe we’re well on the way to a relationship between and among all these things, where the “big asks” become delightful favors and strange ways of loving each other, the craft, and the text.

Join us as we together become “wondrous strange.”

“Sweat” Tea Shakespeare

By Marie Lowe, Assistant Artistic Director; Master of Audience

Actors sweat. Costumes, wigs, lights, nerves, and the physical nature of many shows guarantee a sweaty curtain call. It’s no big deal, really – you do what you can to be clean and deodorized and have minty fresh breath, but at the end of the day you don’t judge your castmates and they don’t judge you, because acting is a sweaty business.

However, here at Sweet Tea Shakespeare we have a lot more sweat than an average production, and not just because of these glorious Fayetteville summers. We sweat the PRODUCTION stuff. Every performer in a Sweet Tea production has put hours of sweat equity into it, building the stage, stringing the lights, and loading in the sound equipment and the costumes and the props. It’s work that many actors never even see, because at other theaters wonderful technical crews do it when we’re not around.

We sweat the ARTISTIC stuff. Every song during the pre show and the show itself has been arranged or composed by our music director and musicians. Every character choice has been meticulously considered. Every movement, but particularly fighting and dancing, has been choreographed by a company member and rehearsed deep into our muscle memories. Every prop and costume has been collected or designed or painted or sewn by hand, by us. We all contribute to make each show look, sound, feel, and, yes, smell, the way it should.

We especially sweat the COMMUNITY stuff. It starts with making our castmates, musicians, and volunteers feel welcome and important and supported. We like each other, we respect each other, and we choose each other – for a taco before rehearsal or a drink afterwards or a fantastic Zumba class or a role-playing game or to do a reading at your wedding or to take a trip together or visit your church. We put time into each other. We also like and respect and choose Fayetteville, and are constantly reaching out to this community – through our work with FAPS and the Arts Council, through our educational programs, through our relationships with the other fantastic theaters in town, through our outreach to Girl Scouts and church groups and senior groups – and to our audience, through our social media platforms and our pre show fellowship and the occasional bit of audience interaction. We put time into Fayetteville, and into you.

The Tempest absolutely glistens with the sweat we’ve put in. So come. Come early for “What You Will” (our pre show) and enjoy delicious barbecue, fantastic music, and a chat with the cast. Unfold your chair and settle in for a night of magic and hijinks and glory. And if you feel a little trickle of sweat run down your temple, don’t you worry. The sweat is what makes it so great.

And we won’t ever judge.

Managing the Wondrous

By Monika Cruson, Stage Manager Extraordinaire

If there was any one word I would use to describe Sweet Tea Shakespeare it would be joy, pure unadulterated joy; seven year old on Christmas morning joy. It is with that in mind that I say stage managing with Sweet Tea Shakespeare over the past 6 months has been an overwhelmingly delightful adventure, which I’m sure I won’t always have the privilege of saying.

When I started stage managing for Sweet Tea just a short 6 months ago I wasn’t sure of exactly what to expect, my high school theatre teacher (Medina Demeter, Trinculo & Antonio in The Tempest) told me about the SM opening and I leapt at the chance to gain some much needed experience. I was nervous and probably a little awkward but I was met with immense warmth and grace, which I am ever grateful for.

There is a little something called LOVE floating around Sweet Tea and it’s infectious. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I have become a better version of myself because of the people in Sweet Tea and the proximity with which we all work and live together; we share our space, emotions, books, jokes, and most importantly food. Despite the arduous rehearsals, there is nowhere I would rather be than in the company of my Sweet Tea family. Simply put, they are the light of my life. If I could go back in time the only thing I would change is that I would meet this unbelievable family that I have gained earlier.

This may seem like a goodbye blog post and in a way it is, in August I’ll be leaving for The University of North Carolina School of the Arts to further pursue my stage management career but I know that every time I come back home I will encounter more magic, love, and joy than I did when I left; a present I will always be willing to tear open.

I’ve said, or typed rather, this bittersweet tearjerker to tell you that if you’re looking for an open sanctuary to have fun and create otherworldly theatre Sweet Tea Shakespeare is the community for you, even if you’re not an actor. We’re always looking for anyone willing to participate in our magic.

All About the People

By Jennifer Czechowski, Sebastian in The Tempest

There are so many reasons that being a part of The Tempest is an incredible experience. The best thing about it, without a doubt, is the people with whom I have the privilege of working: castmates who are kind, supportive, hilarious, and, yes, great dancers in addition to being prodigiously talented; musicians who astound me with not only their talent and inventiveness but also their patience and grace; a stage manager who can build Easter Island heads out of cardboard and sheer will; a director with an incredible vision, who gives actors freedom to build and play and make choices while offering spot-on suggestions like “more Muppety” and “walk like a wistful sailor.” It is a privilege and a joy to spend so many rehearsal hours with people who are committed to bringing something beautiful and wonderful to the stage.

Rehearsals are hard work, but so much fun. We punctuate the intellectual workout of Shakespeare with taco breaks, songs that run the gamut from car dealership jingles to ‘90s R&B, bad puns, and impromptu dance-offs (the more inappropriate, the better). I look forward to rehearsal not only for the work, which I love, but for the sheer enjoyment of being with these people. I am grateful to have this opportunity not only to be a part of such a lovely, funny, hopeful play, but to be able to do it with this specific collection of people. I learn something fromthem at every rehearsal—even if it’s just how good they are at doing the Roger Rabbit.

A Shakespearean Soundtrack

By Jacob French, Company Member and Master of Note

When my experience with Sweet Tea Shakespeare (STS) began, it was because of the music. My wife, you see, had been cast in one of the shows and shared with me that STS had live music prior to their performances.
“You should really come along and play!” she pleaded with me. “You’re always complaining that you don’t have anyone to play with.”
I’ll be the first to admit that I can be a complainer, so my wife’s comments were probably truer than I’d like to believe.
“What could it hurt?” I told myself. “I can at least strum along while standing nondescriptly in the background.”
Fast forward one year and now I’m the Master of Note (the company music director and “leader” – if there is such a thing – of our house band, The Suspenders).
Sweet Tea’s relationship between Shakespeare and music has been a steadily growing one. The music that once served mostly as pre- and mid-show entertainment has grown into an integral part of the Sweet Tea experience. No longer is the music confined to preshow; it now weaves its way in and out of the play itself – like a soundtrack to the script.
The process for The Tempest has been very similar to the process we use for all our shows. Company members, the artistic director, and I all add songs to a list that we feel match the feeling of the play. The artistic director and I then whittle this list down a set of songs that not only match the feeling of the play, but will also move the audience. Does this mean move the audience physically, like in a participatory dance? Perhaps. The real movement we want is emotional.
Once the final set of songs is chosen, I get to play composer and create the arrangements we use. While this process is somewhat time-consuming, it’s the part of the job that I truly enjoy. One of the many things I take pride in at STS is that we don’t cover songs exactly as they are performed by the original artist; we perform our version of the songs. This means you could get an Avett Brothers song which stays pretty much in the same style as the original, or you could hear a folk-rock version of Katy Perry or Ke$ha. The actual arrangement I create depends largely on who is involved in the Suspenders for each show. For some shows it’s only me on guitar with a singer. For The Tempest, the Suspenders are comprised of two guitars, a mandolin, a cello, a percussionist, and the vocalists.
Once arrangements are finalized, I assign singers to each of the songs and we begin rehearsals. This is where I could claim a lot of undue credit if I was that kind of person. The truth is, at this point my job is largely done. I could say that I lead the group through strenuous music rehearsals, nitpicking every little thing they do, guiding them to musical nirvana. In actuality, once rehearsals start, the process is largely collaborative. Yes, there is some coaching or correcting from me, but 95% of what you’ll hear at a STS show is the result of a great GROUP of people working TOGETHER to move people.
Whether you’ve been complaining about not having anyone to play with or you just want a good performance with great music, join us for a show or join us in its creation.
Perhaps you’ll pull up a lawn chair and drink a glass of tea while you take it all in.
Or maybe you’ll just stand nondescriptly in the back and strum along.
That’s what I did.