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History of STS, Part 4: Building a Season

Jen:  This has been a rich, varied season for STS. How do you plan a season of theatre? What decisions and considerations must be made?

Jeremy:  Season selection is really the heart of what we do. What stories do we want to tell and how?

In our first two seasons, we paired a Shakespeare play with a non-Shakespeare play. In 2012, that non-Shakespeare was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which is perhaps my favorite comedy. I think it’s a perfect play and I cannot wait to do it again. In 2013, the non-Shakespeare was Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, which had been on my list since I saw an amazing production by the Royal Shakespeare Company several years ago. At the time, a lot of folks asked why we called ourselves Sweet Tea Shakespeare if we did things that weren’t Shakespeare. The answer, for me, was that of course everything after Shakespeare is somehow Shakespeare. In literary and performance criticism, we talk about this concept of “afterlives”–how plays live on after their first productions. How they break down, how they influence, how they pollinate things that come after them. So in Earnest, we were interested in seeing the lively banter of the language and the love stories and mistaken identities paired with some of those same elements in 2012’s production of Much Ado About Nothing. In The Seagull, three of the central characters in the story are actors, some even referencing Shakespeare. And there is definitely an afterlife of Romeo & Juliet in that play.

At any rate, we now have a practice of doing about 70% Shakespeare and 30% other things. The 30% may be a classic playwright like Wilde or Chekhov or Shaw or Austen. By the end of this season, we’ll have done Chekhov twice and Shaw twice if you count our presentation of Pigeon Creek Shakespeare’s The Dark Lady of the Sonnets. We also do devised work as we have done in our adaptation of Bottom’s Dream and Jessica Osnoe’s adaptation of Paradise Lost. Devised theatre is a different way of developing plays that doesn’t really start with a script necessarily. There may be a story or a structure that emerges, but the production emerges from a lot of experimental and laboratory kinds of work. Though these productions are pretty unconventional for a lot of people, there is a movement of this kind of work, and of site-specific work (as Bottom’s Dream and Paradise Lost both were as well). The thinking is that there is so much good storytelling across theatre, film, television, and books, that theatre has to once again concern itself with the way it tells stories, not just the stories themselves.

Add to that our Lit series, which has emerged in the last year or so as a hybrid of Shakespeare and what we call “Makespeare”–improvisation, games, audience interaction–all at a level and in a way that both is and is not conventional Shakespeare.

Add to that our Honey series focusing on women.

So by the time you put a season together that accounts for all these things, the question becomes: who are we?

We present theatre grounded in a love of Shakespeare and other classics. We’re not afraid to be playful and experimental and weird. We’re really into exploring what music does to performances.

So from there, season selection is a multi-step process where I ask a lot of questions of company members about what their ideas are, where I add some ideas, where sometimes we’ll ask the audience what they think, even taking proposals from them about projects. And then we kinda look at all that and see what emerges. Some of it is about the stories we want to tell. Sometimes it is about the opportunities we want to provide our company members to be in certain roles. Sometimes it’s about balancing what we think will draw an audience. We balance all that stuff and see what emerges.

Once there’s a narrower list, we spend a lot of time talking to venues about where to do the productions, logistics of scheduling, that sort of thing. We look at what other theatres are doing and we look at our own lives–do we want to be rehearsing over Christmas break this year? Do we want to brave the sweltering heat of August? Can we even get a space? And then we look at budgets, whether we think we can cast the show, and tons of other stuff.

But the overriding thing is a word you brought up in the question: we’re looking for variety. What Enobarbus calls “infinite variety.” We think theatre is at its best when we’re surprising the audience and subverting its expectations. So one way to think about how we select seasons is that even if we choose a really famous play by the world’s most famous playwright, we’re engaging that choice in the spirit of showing audiences how they can connect to the piece in ways they never imagined.

History of STS, Part 3: The Company

Another entry in an ongoing conversation with artistic director Jeremy Fiebig, this time focusing on the people who make Sweet Tea Shakespeare happen.

Jen: How has the company structure changed over time? Do you find people who meet the company’s needs, or do things change based on who is involved?

Jeremy:  Our first two years, really, we were an a la carte company. I worked with and relied heavily on Staci Graybill, Robyne Parrish, J.R. Hustwit, Michael Carney, Sharon Osborne, and some other great folks to buoy me through the first couple seasons. In “those days” (it really does feel like forever ago), we hired actors and assigned everyone to a setup/strike job because to do a show at the Cape Fear Botanical Garden we needed to load in and out sets, costumes, and props each night. It took an army. I quickly learned I needed a better approach.

I also knew that there were folks in the mix who loved what we were doing, who were passionate about making it all work, and who had skills that extended off stage. So after our 2013 production of Romeo & Juliet, I started inviting some folks into company membership (“Sharers”). At the time, the promise was that they’d have input on how the company took shape, would engage in season selection with me, and would take on production needs as they came up. I know Ruth Nelson, Cheryl Edson, Sean Hanlin, Clayton Riddley, Johnson Taylor, Joey Narvaez, and others were in the mix in those first 2-3 seasons. In 2014, when we added a winter and a spring show and moved to the Poe House, that really became a turning point for us — a realization we needed much more of a company structure than just some folks figuring out how to do plays one at a time. It was at that point that we decided to formalize our company structure into two levels: Sharers and apprentices (I can’t remember if that’s actually what we called the apprentices at the time). The idea was that the Sharers were the core group of permanent members and apprentices were probationary additions.

This sounds sort of arbitrary and weird, and to an extent it is, but I also have to say there’s quite a lot of intention behind it.
It goes like this. Theatres can be and have been built in many different ways over the centuries. The current model everyone understands, whether that be in a professional or Broadway house or a community or educational theatre, is a hierarchical one, where a producer and a director run the show in the way you’d run a Fortune 500 company or a small business or whatever. But this was not the case in theatre for a long, long time before bureaucracy and singular vision for performance were invented, mostly in the 19th century. Before that, companies were run by leading actors, or by multiple shareholders, or by writers, or others.
In Shakespeare’s day, and in the medieval and renaissance periods that constituted the soup in which he and his fellow playmakers swam, the practice was to run a company with a group of sharers. In Shakespeare’s company, there was a business manager, a playwright-actor, an actor who might have handled the leading roles, another who might have helped with props or costumes or who was an able swordsman, and so on. Everyone had other skills they put to use in the production economy.
That model is an approach we take today with our company members, and actually we extend and build on it in a specifically medieval fashion. We now have core members — instead of sharers, they’re now call “Masters” — and members in consideration. Fellows are folks who’ve made it past a probationary period in the company and who are helping us to run the thing. Wrights are introductory members who are helping us by contributing on and offstage in a variety of tasks. We also have Journeyors, who are folks who may have been in the company in the past, but who have things that cause them to need to dial back on the day-to-day commitment.
Our company expands and contracts frequently, and our door is open to folks who demonstrate commitment in any of a number of areas of need, but we also welcome folks who can help us grow in new directions. Right now, we have almost 30 company members who deal with everything from producing to tickets to marketing to costumes and so on. We’re always looking for new prospective members, and have a particular need for scenic artists and craftspeople and technical directors.
One of the great advantages to our structure is that we’re constantly able to bring in fresh perspectives and new energy. The structure also allow us to begin to be “person proof”–meaning that our company is stronger than any one person–and that we actually seek out ways to work in an integrated as opposed to hierarchical way.
This bears out in our work on stage, too, where our Masters and indeed all of our artists become part of the rehearsal room economy, contributing to the overall production.
Connected to all this is the obvious: this is not how most places work. We ask a ton of our company members, believing that their individual investment of time and energy can serve the group and our audiences well. We use folks well — and value both onstage talent with offstage capacity. You have to be able to act, sing, play an instrument, and contribute to one of the many things a working theatre needs to be able to do what it does.

History of STS, Part 2: The Music

In which STS founder and artistic director Jeremy Fiebig and I continue our conversation about where Sweet Tea Shakespeare came from and where it’s going. This snippet focuses on how we use music to enhance the experience and help to tell the story. (Speaking of music, we’re on Spotify now, under the username sweetteashakes. Follow us to listen to playlists from past shows, like this one from As You Like Lit.)

Jen: Music seems to be one of the most appealing of the insurance policies. As I mentioned, the first STS show I saw was Much Ado About Nothing in 2012; I didn’t see another until Love’s Labour’s Lost in 2014, and the inclusion of music had increased noticeably. Now, the preshow, intermission, and internal music is such a huge part of the experience that it’s hard to imagine the shows without it.

Jeremy: So there’s an interesting side note here for Shakespeare nerds. Music was intertwined in early modern performance of all sorts, and of course Shakespeare and other early modern playwrights use music throughout their plays. At Blackfriars, Shakespeare’s indoor playhouse, there’s an indication that musicians played during act breaks while theatre staff came and trimmed the wax from the candles that might otherwise drip on the audience. In some cases, the music became more popular than the plays themselves.

For us, music took a bit longer to fully realize in our productions — in part because we were waiting for the right folks to come along to lead it. Now, we’ve got a small handful of guitar players, and a couple handfuls of other instrumentalists, plus we audition vocalists as part of casting for the plays. We’re looking for folks who can pull at least double duty wherever possible and fortunately, over time, we’ve been able to build a culture of music here.

Of course, because it is such an essential part of what we do now, and because so many of us and our audiences come in invested in music in ways that they aren’t, say, invested in classic theatre, there’s always lively discussion about how we select our music and the thinking that guides our selection. For me, music selection is something that’s always evolving, but we’ve got some basic principles in mind.

As a general rule, we want to select music that adds to the “poem of the experience” of the STS event. To me, this means we should make song choices as Shakespeare would make linguistic or contextual choices. If, for instance, listening to “The Star Spangled Banner” would help frame, contextualize, and critique a play about nationalism (say like Henry VI part i), then that would be a potentially good choice and the kind of choice we’d want to make. That said, we would never choose to do the Star Spangled Banner because it is, in fact, a terrible song and it makes people feel awkward.

Part of the goal with music is to bridge the gap between modern experience and Shakespeare experience: demonstrate that we can respond to both things (old and new) identically.

Generally, we want to avoid being “on the nose” with a choice. Singing a song from the Hunchback of Notre Dame while doing Richard III might fit that. This is a general rule that we’re occasionally happy to break, as doing “Henry VIII I Am” while performing Henry VIII should be a lifelong goal for all Shakespeare fans. 🙂

Generally, we want to avoid bad music. This is not to be confused with performing music badly, but we want to avoid that, too.

Generally, we want to avoid music that is so culturally iconic that by doing it we are putting people into the mindset of THAT piece of music rather than the mindset of the play. See: “Hey Jude” or “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Another way of thinking about this is that we want to be careful about music that will enable the audience to get too far ahead of us because they’re so familiar with the piece.

Generally, we want to avoid sounding like we only listen to Top 40, or only the Alt station in town, or only the jazz classics, or only the hits of the 80s, 90s, and today, or only mid-century ballads, or only singer-songwriter. Mixes are good, with a massive bias toward newer music for reasons I’ve said above. This is probably the least understood element of how we choose music and the biggest change from our earlier days — people want a jukebox, you know?

The above ideals notwithstanding, the overall aesthetic of STS music should be “rustic/folk” readings of whatever songs we select with departures where justifiable and appropriate. Imagine what the Avett Brothers or Old Crow Medicine show would do with the song and that’s what we want to shoot for, more or less.

Generally, we do not want to do only familiar songs or only unfamiliar songs.

Generally, we want a mix of vocal leads and a mix of songs that feature one voice versus several voices.

Generally, we need to be thinking of songs that can be played with the following instruments: guitar, guitar, guitar, guitar, djembe, cajon, acoustic bass, banjo, upright bass, mandolin, uke, harmonica, accordion, concertina, air-powered keyboard, etc. Nothing — nothing — nothing should be plugged in — it is in our constitution to have all our sound actor-driven. And as I say this, I’m recalling a conversation I’ve had in the last few months where we might be open to changing that a tiny bit.

Generally, we want 2-3 “all skate” songs where everyone plays a part, even if those folks aren’t 100% musical.

Jen: Which songs that STS has done particularly stand out to you as ones that have exemplified what you envision?

Jeremy: I often go back to our 2015 Winter’s Tale production as the place where we started to get music right, and specifically to two songs, Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time, and King Charles’ The Brightest Lights, as the place where we started to really and truly connect the musical content to the play content and create stirring,  moving moments as part of a complete package. Since then, there’ve been several, including Timber in The Cherry Orchard, Make in The Tempest,and The Infanta in Antony & Cleopatra.

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Want to experience the musical magic that WoCo is cooking up now? Make plans to see Othello, opening June 1 at the 1897 Poe House!

 

History of STS, Part 1

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.

 

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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.