For Brandon Carter ’10, it started with Julius Caesar, but it was Othello that really did it. Tracie Steger Skipper ’96 got hooked by A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
And as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen Turns them into shapes and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name.
—THESEUS, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Those who love Shakespeare come to it in different ways, whether through the drama of a tragedy like King Lear or the playfulness of All’s Well That Ends Well. But those who love it never seem to lose that feeling—often returning again and again to the plays for inspiration or guidance and for their enduring wisdom.
How often can one ponder “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”?
For four Longwood alumni who work in various roles at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, the answer is every day. One by one, they all found their way to the Bard, whether they were initially inspired by a high-school performance or a trip abroad. And one by one, their passion grew at Longwood, nurtured by faculty members who often saw something in them they didn’t even see in themselves.
They contribute in various ways to the tragedies, histories and comedies played out on the stage of ASC’s Blackfriars Playhouse, one of the premier classical theaters on the East Coast and patterned on Shakespeare’s original theater of the same name, which burned in 1666 in the Great Fire of London. Three of the Longwood graduates are full-time members of the small production team, while another is a member of the 12-person acting ensemble. Uniting them is the thrill of live theater, a devotion to bringing Shakespeare’s words to life and a passion for the stage that came to fruition at Longwood.
ACT I, SCENE II
Enter BRANDON CARTER.
“I got cast as Caesar in my senior high-school English class, and the teacher told me I was either going to read it or fail the class. So, of course, I sat down and read it,” said Carter, who plays Cassius, the devious conspirator and ringleader, in the company’s summer season production of Julius Caesar. “I didn’t know what any of the words meant, but I still felt like I knew what the characters were saying, as weird as that sounds. But that was the beginning.”
From those humble beginnings grew a love of Shakespeare that has persisted to this day. And little did Carter know that 15 years later he’d be starring as one of the two main villains in the same play, this time as a professional actor.
Men at some times are masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.
—CASSIUS, Julius Caesar
Carter also couldn’t foresee that his fate would mean spending his precious time off between seasons not relaxing but on the stage, practicing his lines when the 15-by-12 foot wooden space is not in use.
“I can’t lose momentum,” he said. “I’m always trying to stay on top of it.”
Staying on top of it is critical—Carter is appearing in three shows this summer. The American Shakespeare Center performs in a uniquely Elizabethan way—with a lot of encouraged audience interaction and even inviting some of the guests to sit on the stage to watch the performance.
Enter TRACIE STEGER SKIPPER ’96.
“These actors have to really be in the moment,” said Skipper, ASC’s technical director/operations manager. “There’s no fourth wall—if an audience member coughs or laughs, the actors will often acknowledge it and say something to them. It can get pretty fun—and Brandon is one of the best at playing that role.”
“That’s really the thing I love about live theater,” said Carter. “There’s an energy that I really feed on, and, when you are live, you have to problem solve in the moment. It’s magical. A lot of people say about theater that the audience only experiences that performance once—but at Blackfriars Playhouse it’s actually the case. Every performance is different, and that really feeds something inside me.”
Carter’s is an unlikely story. Born into a family of Northern Neck fishermen, his future seemed laid out until he decided at the last minute to change his major at Longwood to theatre. During his senior year, he was cast in Othello, and, while learning his lines on a fishing boat, he decided that he would make stage acting his only priority. That determination in mind, he graduated and went on to earn a master’s degree in acting from Penn State.
“That was it,” he said. “That was the moment that I knew I had to make it.”
ACT II, SCENE II
Enter ADRIENNE JOHNSON BUTLER ’13.
Butler hates the spotlight. If you cast her as Lady Macbeth, she’d turn you down. But she is an expert at helping actors bring characters to life.
“The work that actors do is hard,” said Butler, who is the resident assistant stage manager. “Standing in front of people and letting them judge you is really difficult, and I have a lot of respect for them. I can’t control every audience member or every cell phone that isn’t turned off, but I can control the backstage area. If an actor can come offstage and feel comfortable and confident that everything is in the right place, I know that I’ve done my part to make the production a success. In that way, I get to help them do that hard work, which is really fulfilling.”
Butler facilitates much of the backstage operation—coordinating costume changes, special effects, props and sets moving on and off stage; making sure actors are ready to enter on cue; and handling a thousand other roles that literally are behind the scenes and often unnoticed.
As in a theatre, the eyes of men, after a well-graced actor leaves the stage, are idly bent on him that enters next.
—DUKE OF YORK, Richard II
When I was at Longwood, I dreamed of this job, I wanted very much to be a stage manager in an equity playhouse that performs Shakespeare, and that is exactly what my role is here.Tracie Steger Skipper ’96 Tweet This
The Blackfriars Playhouse at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton is patterned on Shakespeare’s original theater of the same name, which burned in the Great Fire of London in 1666.
It was at Longwood that she found her love for the job.
“Professor Eric Koger really opened my eyes to the different roles that people can play in theater production,” she said. “I came in thinking my options were limited, but he recognized what I was good at—being organized, taking charge, helping people—and asked if I had ever considered stage management. Then he started me in stage management in Longwood productions as a freshman.”
That set the scene for a career where she could combine her passion and skill. But Butler wasn’t always on the artistic side of the house. For two years, she worked with the ASC’s summer theater camp for aspiring actors. And it was there that she came to appreciate the larger mission of the theater company.
“It’s a three-week program for students who are really committed to Shakespeare and acting,” she said. “Seeing those kids open themselves up to a larger world really showed me the importance of the work we do here. It’s not just students but everyone who comes to a performance. We are a part of the community in a way that’s really powerful.”
ACT III, SCENE IV
Enter TRACIE STEGER SKIPPER, bearing curtains.
“When I was at Longwood, I dreamed of this job,” said Skipper. “I wanted very much to be a stage manager in an equity playhouse that performs Shakespeare, and that is exactly what my role is here. I’m thrilled to have this job, and feel very, very lucky to be here.”
No profit grows where no pleasure ta’en.
—TRANIO, Taming of the Shrew
The curtains are for the summer season, replacing those that had become faded and worn after a decade’s service in the Blackfriars Playhouse. Skipper’s always moving, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Whether it’s HVAC or building a set piece, changing a lightbulb in the rigging or repairing a broken prop sword, I’m on the job,” she said. “Theater is such a collaborative art, and I love working with people and bringing a vision to life. And at ASC, I can have my own vision and make that a reality.”
Skipper’s introduction to the Bard came, as so many do, during high school.
Unlike most high-schoolers, though, she performed with the Buckingham Touring Company. Traveling in a yellow school bus, the company brought Shakespeare to correctional facilities around the commonwealth on the weekends. From then on, Shakespeare was in her blood.
“We performed Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I just loved the comedy of it,” she said. “Then my first internship was with a Shakespeare company, and I was hooked. My favorite is probably Taming of the Shrew—there’s something about the juxtaposition of the women in the play. Shakespeare was really so advanced and loved strong female characters. I actually had a cat in college named Bianca because of that play.”
After that, it was onto Longwood, where Skipper learned from some of the most legendary professors at the university: Moffatt Evans and Nancy Haga.
I love … telling stories with fabrics, shapes and symbolism. I have a special place in my heart for historical costumes and strong warrior women.Hope Maddox ’15 Tweet This
At Longwood, I learned how theater should work,” she said. “Professors Evans and Haga were really instrumental in my developing a love for this work that I have carried with me to today.”
ACT IV, SCENE I
Int. costume shop. Enter HOPE MADDOX ’15, bearing needle and thread.
“Let’s get you into this costume,” Maddox says to an actor in the ASC’s touring company, which will take A Midsummer Night’s Dream—a favorite of all Shakespeare lovers—around the state and region this coming fall and spring, including a performance at Longwood on Sept. 19.
Maddox, ASC’s costume shop manager, and her team are helping prep a photo shoot for promotional materials. She jots down notes on her pad—slight adjustments to be made in the next hour before photography starts. The actor is hustled across the room to hair and makeup—which Hope will also assist on.
“We all have to do a little of everything,” said Maddox, whose training in costumes with Associate Professor Leslie Cook-Day at Longwood laid the foundation for her career. “My main role is managing everything that has to do with the production and storage of costumes, which means working with guest designers who need their vision brought to life.
“I also get to build costumes, which is what I love—telling stories with fabrics, shapes and symbolism. I have a special place in my heart for historical costumes and strong warrior women. The wonderful thing about working here is that I get to work on costumes that fall into those categories all the time.
“But I also supervise the interns [which this year includes Longwood student Tori Wright ’21], occasionally assist with hair and makeup, and I have helped backstage in cases of emergencies. My job requires me to do a lot of different things, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
As Shakespeare wrote:
’Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens to the which our wills are gardeners.
A trip to London was all it took for Maddox to fall seriously in love with Shakespeare. It was a trip to the famed Globe Theater to see Howard Brenton’s celebrated play Anne Boleyn that sealed the deal.
“Seeing that play made me want to study theater at Longwood,” she said. “The way they staged it was very old-school—universal lighting, very few props and period costumes, and I knew that I wanted to be a part of something like that.”
Thus, she did. Every day, bringing the Bard back to life.
About the Author
MATTHEW McWILLIAMSPHOTOGRAPHS BY MIKE KROPF ’14