To commemorate the happy occasion of Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s fifth birthday, Artistic Director Jeremy Fiebig and I are talking about how the company got started and how it continues to evolve. We’ll be sharing that conversation here. Read on to see how STS began, and keep checking back for more.
Jen: So…STS is five! I remember reading about the first play, Much Ado About Nothing, in the Fayetteville Observer and thinking it was something I couldn’t miss. I got tickets; I loved the show; and I was so glad that something like it had come to Fayetteville.
Jeremy: We threw together that first season in a hurry. Long story, kind of.
I first started teaching in Iowa, where I was making plans to launch a company called Sweet Corn Shakespeare. When I moved here, there was so much transition I sort of tabled the company idea for a while. We picked it up after I caught wind of an Arts Council grant slot coming available while I was working on a production of As You Like It with the Gilbert. We scrambled to get a quick season together with folks at Cape Fear Botanical Garden.
We had several people from that production in our first season at the garden. I directed Much Ado and Robyne Parrish directed The Importance of Being Earnest.
The Much Ado ran for five nights that June, including three of the hottest days on record in NC. Temperatures, no joke, peaked out at something like 106 degrees and most of our guys were in leather pants. At the end of the week, there was this massive hail storm that damaged cars, took out a lot of our scenic fabric and lighting. It was crazy. But we also had a good start to a company.
Jen: I remember that heat wave–it was ridiculous, even for NC. Was the season just the two shows? Was it originally meant to be summer theater only, and if so, how did the transition to the kind of seasons we’re doing now happen?
Jeremy: We did start out for the first two seasons with summer-only shows and had a great time. After the second season, which included productions of Chekhov’s The Seagull and Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, we added a winter show — Twelfth Night.
We did that based on suggestion from Ruth Nelson and Sean Hanlin, I believe, and the initial idea was just to do three shows a year. But then stuff happened.
Some of the stuff was natural momentum. Excited people got excited. But there was actually some philosophical thinking behind the shift, too. One of the things I had noticed after the first two summer seasons is that it was way, way difficult to maintain momentum from one summer to the next. Folks went and did other shows. Audiences forgot we existed. It was like starting from scratch each time, which wasn’t fun.
So. We adjusted pretty quickly at the first opportunities we saw, including that first production of Twelfth Night and then later that spring in a production of another Much Ado, which we did because a group in Jacksonville hired us to do it and we brought it to CFBG and then to the Museum of the Cape Fear as well.
It’s taken us really until this current season to sort of settle in to something like a plan each year. Even last year, we decided to add the Lit series mid-season. We’re sorting through how to schedule a season, and what a full season means for us.
Jen: You’ve mentioned the Botanical Garden and the Museum of the Cape Fear. How has location determined how STS has grown and evolved?
Jeremy: One of the great challenges and delights of what we do is that we don’t have one “home.” The delight of that is that we’ve gotten to figure out how to make a space home quickly and beautifully when we’re in a new-to-us performance space and to be super flexible about making it work. The challenge is that a lot of people conflate location and theatre company, so it’s a bit of a dance for our audience, I’m sure.
What we’re committed to in our mainstage performances are beautiful spaces. The way we do Shakespeare is to do minimal sets and props and lights. Whether we’re at the 1897 Poe House or CFBG or another location, the idea is that we’re not there to compete with the space around us, we’re there to enjoy the space while a play is going on.
This is a big philosophical difference between the kind of work we do and a lot of other places. What’s happened as a general trend in theatres is that there’s been a mad scramble to keep audiences coming back. Theatre attendance nationwide has been in decline generally for decades, particularly as the convenience of TV and film has taken over in the 20th century. It’s not just traditional theatres, though. Churches, another kind of theatre, are seeing declining numbers. Even the NFL is seeing a decline in attendance as folks get busier and as a quality experience is available from their devices.
A lot of theatres, including Broadway and the regional theatre movement, mega churches, and the NFL, have settled on technology and visuals that try to operate in the same realm as TV and film special effects and trickery. And, look, there’s a great argument to be made for doing that and many examples of places and ways that that approach has been successful. But it’s also really expensive. It’s also a huge gamble for producers. And there are other ways to approach the same problem.
One of the ways we approach that same problem takes a cue from the craft beer industry, which is booming these days. Here’s a great example of how mom-and-pop operations are taking off all around the country. How are they doing that while Budweiser and Coors are seeing sales declining? I’d offer that they’re:
- Run by people and not “operations”
- They take the time to build relationships in a bunch of creative ways
- They’re incredibly idiosyncratic—they operate on being different, not on being the same
- They belong to the community they’re in and don’t outsource as much as the big operations
And that’s our approach. I’d add that our approach is committed to getting people outside. North Carolina is a beautiful state for that, and the Museum, CFBG, and so many other great venues force people outdoors in a way that I think they like. In other words, we’re at a point in our history where technology is taking us away from nature, and I think there are a lot of folks who resent that. And so here’s a theatre company that’s requiring engagement with the outdoors as a condition of watching. It’s a way of bringing some delight back in to what we do.
Jen: That’s really appealing, I think–in a time when we experience so many things in a distant and impersonal way, a Sweet Tea show brings people together to engage with something alive and immediate. And while the indoor settings are beautiful–especially Holy Trinity Episcopal Church–there is nothing quite like the experience of the outdoor shows. Sense and Sensibility performed at the Poe House with the garden at the height of its springtime blooming–that was gorgeous, and so perfect for Austen. These settings allow the audience to be close and visible, which adds to the sense of community between actor and audience.
Jeremy: It’s taken us a while to figure out who we are when we’re inside. And of course now, we’re inside much more frequently than in years past, but we’re still committed to making the space feel like you’re watching a play in your backyard or in the living room.