As misunderstandings and misjudgments continue to tear the world apart, it may be comforting to know that it is still possible to lose yourself in a drama of another kind and, in so doing, to find universal life lessons that, even after centuries, may still bring people together. One profound example of this phenomenon is Actors’ Shakespeare Projects’ forthcoming production of William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” (http://actorsshakespeareproject.org).
Among the Bard’s last and least produced stories (though perhaps among his most famous, if only for the stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear”), “Tale” combines elements of comedy, tragedy and romance and brings audience members from dark days of despair to at least glimmers of rebirth.
Ranging in emotion from anger and jealousy to forgiveness and reunion, “Tale” tells of a king who becomes convinced that a friend has fathered his child and who takes his unfounded jealousy past the extreme, destroying people and relationships in a fury. As time passes, however, experiences are reconsidered and lives and loves are again reconstructed, with a little help from magic.
As the play deal and ends with love, it fits in well with ASP’s seasonal theme of “Affairs of the Heart” (which included the critically-acclaimed production of “Othello” and which will also include Shakespeare’s “Richard II” February 17-March 13, 2016 at Cambridge YMCA, and Sheridan’s The “School for Scandal” April 13 – May 8, 2016 at Multicultural Arts Center in Cambridge.)
When asked how the company comes up with these themes, Artistic Director Allyn Burrows explains that “a lot of our titles rise out the company membership. We throw a lot of stuff up against the wall and then arrange them according to what will go well together and make a good season.”
As everyone in the company has a say in the pre-season planning, the decisions may be surprising but are always communal.”What comes out of this in terms of themes is that certain themes rise out of the choices in a collective way,” Burrows observes. “We do not impose the themes.”
Likening the process to molding in clay, Burrows suggests that the theme often suggests itself to a point and then the actors follow it. In addition to personal proclivities and preferences, Burrows says that the times also offer a great deal of influence to each season’s structure.
“We see what fits into the landscape, in Boston and beyond,” he explains, “and what is connected to these elements.” In the end, the theme and its associated productions have been considered by so many people from so many angles that they take on a life and power of their own. “Everyone can relate to the theme,” Burrows maintains, “and then we try to make it more specific.”
For this season’s theme, Burrows admits that, as always, they wanted something to which audience members and actors could all relate. “We had the titles in mind,” he says, “but it was how we talked about them that led us to pick out where they would resonate with our audience.”
As ASP works in such intimate venues, audience connection is paramount and plays no small part in the selection and arranging of each season and each show.
“It has gotten to the point where I can spot a 2,200-square foot space from the street,” Burrow laughs, recalling the motorcycle ride during which he first saw Willet Hall at Brookline’s United Parish. “I banged on the door and asked if they had space available.” Upon entering, Burrows was awed by the beautiful structure. When he was taken down into the basement, he knew he had found his stage.
“Churches often have stages in their basement,” he observes, musing on the possible link between religion and theater. And while the actual stage will be used for part of the production, much of the action will take place in the middle of the main floor, which is laid out in the form of a labyrinth.
“That marks the inner workings of Leontes’ mind,” suggests Burrows, who will be playing the role of the jealous husband himself in the play. “And of course the church fits in with the power of redemption”
As he is taking on a major role in “Tale,” some may ask if Burrows chose or directed the company towards the play with that idea in mind.
“Casting gets addressed on the back end,” he demurs, explaining that the plays are often cast by the director (as is the case with “Tale”). “We do not do a play because we have certain people.”
Posing Boston as “one big theatre,” Burrows admits to a desire to take care of his company members, but also embraces and encourages a willingness to look outside for new people and new ideas.
“We like to keep the door as open as possible,” he maintains, “while making sure the company feels looked after. I want them all to know that I am thinking about them all the time!”
Another element that is constantly in Burrows’ mind is that of the world around him. So even as ASP begins to mount new productions of stories they may have engaged before, Burrows posits that the breadth of Shakespeare’s ideas and the changing ways of the world leave more than enough room for new interpretations for new audiences.
“There is a figure at the center of the play who is consumed with mistrust and acts on it,” he explains, without giving too much away. “That has a very strong resonance, especially in the past few weeks.”
And while recent world events may lead some to think of theater and entertainment as trivial, Burrows suggests that it is as at such times when it is most relevant.
“Acting is important because it is life-affirming,” he says. “You are exercising your ability to create, and that is the answer to all the violence from people who are trying to take that away.”
– Matt Robinson
Tickets: $28-$50 ,.
210 Harvard St., Brookline, http://actorsshakespeareproject.org 866-811-4111.