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POV: Shakespeare and Company’s Game of Thrones

I hear the cries around me of "bring back Tony Simotes," but who would be so noble as to put himself forward to be humiliated publicly once again. The season awaits. 'The Comedy of Errors' dominates the summer and perhaps that is as it should be in a season where so many errors, though not so comic ones, have already been committed.

Lenox — So why, you might ask, is transparency so difficult a concept at Shakespeare’s American home? If life in the arts was just a game the score on the jousting fields of Shakespeare and Company in Lenox would be an obvious 2 to 0. But that’s today. In the tournament going on there’s been a brief public pause in the action while the teams are seemingly recomposing themselves and it’s hard to grasp exactly who is playing against whom. It’s even hard to assume the odds. In the past four months, two men with little to bind them together have been taken out: former Artistic Director Tony Simotes and his successor (in all but title) Executive Director Rick Dildine. But the fallout may be far greater than that. The hot political term “transparency” is not a word you find in Shakespeare.

Former Artistic Director Tony Simotes.
Former Artistic Director Tony Simotes.

“Transparent,” though, actually occurs five times in five plays, five uses out of 884,421 total words in Shakespeare’s 43 works. “And this fell tempest shall not cease to rage/Until the golden circuit on my head,/Like to the glorious sun’s transparent beams,/Do calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw.” The Duke of Gloucester in Henry IV, Part 2 uses it in defining how storms can bring about peace.

Ferdinand in Love’s Labours Lost, Lysander, awakening from his dream in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo speaking of how we see things when we love all use the word transparent to describe something transcendent.

The fifth use of the word comes in Twelfth Night when Festus says “Why it hath bay windows transparent as barricadoes,/and the clearstores toward the south north are as/lustrous as ebony;/and yet complainest thou of obstruction?” That’s it for transparency in Shakespeare, then and now.

On March 5 a simple press release from the company announced that the recently appointed Executive

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis logo.
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis logo.

Director/Acting Artistic Director Rick Dildine had resigned his new job and was returning forthwith from whence he came, St. Louis. That stunning announcement issued from Kathy Aicher, “Interim Director of Marketing & Communications.” There was no explanation, and a sentence in response to my questions to Ms. Aicher ended, so to speak, all inquiry on the subject. “If this is in reference to yesterday’s announcement, Rick and Sarah have no further comments. I would refer to the press release for their statements. Steve Ball is out of town and unavailable for comment.” (Sarah is Sarah Hancock, chair of the board of trustees; Steve Ball is the just-appointed Interim Managing Director; odd how no one is available to answer any questions — transparency again….not!)

So let’s look at that word, “transparency” again and try to figure this out. Elizabeth Aspenlieder has been Communications Director/Artistic Associate for the company for quite a while. Usually, when she is unable to communicate, the task has fallen to Molly Clancy. Suddenly, this new title and person has taken the reigns and when questioned, as I attempted, she simply referred me back to Aspenlieder who wasn’t responding to questions. That was something new for me. She hadn’t been answering questions for quite a while, in fact.

Rocco Sisto as King Richard II in Shakespeare & Company's 2013 production.
Rocco Sisto as King Richard II in Shakespeare & Company’s 2013 production.

Let’s wind back. On February 18 I had an appointment to interview Dildine for but things went wrong. Neither he nor Aspenlieder were in the office when I arrived and I found that she had been trying to reach me while I was en route to the Lenox campus of Shakespeare and Company. Dildine had been called away to his new home in Pittsfield, I was told, and I would have to talk with him by phone. I went home and called him and we talked for 38 minutes.

At the end of the interview I found myself unable to write the article for a number of reasons that disturbed me. The article had been intended as a positive look at a new director’s vision for the company but what I got from him, instead, was a series of quotes from earlier articles written about the man, most of them from his five years as head of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. I contacted Aspenlieder for some clarification. She promised to get me the answers I sought and I never heard from her after that until after the announcement of his resignation appeared on my computer screen, that press release from Kathy Aicher, Interim Director.

Jim Frangione and Elizabeth Aspenlieder in Christopher Durang's 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.' Photo: Kevin Sprague
Jim Frangione and Elizabeth Aspenlieder in Christopher Durang’s ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.’ Photo: Kevin Sprague

Look up the word “interim”: an interval of time between one period and another. What does it mean in this case? I still don’t know exactly how it applies here. Has Aspenlieder moved on or not? She is on vacation in the Caribbean. She promised to call me March 6. Instead, on Sunday March 8 I received an e-mail from her. She told me how expensive it was to make a phone call from the Caribbean; this on top of her earlier e-mail indicating that she would be away starting Monday, March 9.

Where does this leave us? Is someone else going to replace her or is this all in my imagination? I have heard from more than one source that she has run afoul of another actress in the company. She was also a great supporter of a former artistic director, Tony Simotes. Are their fates to be inextricably aligned? I’m waiting to find out and I hope that I am totally wrong here, that she will return and be the conduit for actual information once again.

In fact, very few members of the company have been available to talk about what’s going on. Indeed, one popular member of the ensemble wondered whether he’d be coming back. Message machines are “full” and not taking messages. Those who do return calls are very chary in their comments. Of course they are. Jobs and futures seemingly are at stake here.

One theory that keeps rearing its ugly head — in fact, at dinner at the Old Heritage in Lenox on Monday night — is that Dildine was brought in by the board to be their axe-wielder, forcing Simotes out of the company while keeping the board’s hands clean. With Simotes gone there was no reason to keep Dildine around and so he was also axed. It’s only a theory but one that is gaining ground. His recently acquired home is for sale, or so he has notified the world on his Twitter blog.

In our interview Dildine said to me “I was excited to get people to the Berkshires when we were visiting here last summer. . .we have the best destination theaters in the country.” Yet this past week, in interviews with St. Louis journalists he is quoted as saying “that the opportunities and the art and the support in St. Louis, is, bar none, and I agree with that,” an awkward back-of-the-hand slap in the face of our regional theater community which has certainly sent more new shows to Broadway and the nation than any other part of the country has done in the past decade.

David Joseph in Shakespeare and Company's production of Molière’s 'The Liar.'
David Joseph in Shakespeare and Company’s production of Molière’s ‘The Liar.’ Photo: Chad Champoux

He has also recently said “The work at Shakespeare & Company was demanding a full-time administrator, and in St. Louis, I’m much closer to the programming and the artists, and that’s where my passion is.” Yet in our phone interview, when I asked him about this change in his job relationship to the company, he explained: “For this season, I am getting into the mix through collaborations with artists, staff, to put together a group to find out what’s been done and talked about — these are incredible conversations — balancing when to do certain plays again in our case. I am not taking a direct hand in this, no, no, I am very happy watching the season and making it a reality. That’s my focus. . .producing a great season, bringing all the diverse groups here going in the same direction. I spend a lot of time talking and listening to people about their hopes and dreams for the company.” From the sound of those comments made on February 18 it seems that his past, present and future goals are almost identical, that he is just taking those directions to another place, not using them here.

I also asked Dildine in our talk about his job with Webster University as their MFA Director in Arts Management and Leadership. He assured me that the post had gone to “someone just as qualified” as he. The university lists no one in the position and no search on Dildine’s name reveals any current connection there, but with Dildine’s return to his former job with Shakespeare Festival St. Louis (no one had been tapped to replace him, though he left there after last summer to join the staff in Lenox and they have a 2015 summer season to plan and run) will he also return to his university post? We have to watch carefully to see where this man turns up in the near future. That’s transparency again.

Historically, the man has worked as an actor and director with Trinity Rep in Providence, R.I., and with the Brown University/Trinity Rep Consortium and as a director with other regional theater companies around the country. His hand, he told me, is not really a strong presence in the 2015 season in Lenox but a Dildine personal choice, playing for two performances only in late August, “Cry Havoc” by Stephen Wolfert, is, he said, “what I think theater should be. When I saw it I left emotionally charged, wanting to know more and do more.” I asked him about a possible return of the play, perhaps in 2016 and was told by the then company director that he could not plan for 2016 and wouldn’t address the possibility of a longer run for this work about which he felt such a strong emotional and artistic connection. I thought it an odd response in February, but not so in March. Here was a man making no plans for a future in Lenox, not for next season and not for himself.

Dennis Krausnick as Julius Caesar in the Shake & CO.'s  2013 production. Photo: Kevin Sprague
Dennis Krausnick as Julius Caesar in the Shake & CO.’s 2013 production. Photo: Kevin Sprague

A man not committed to his work could not possibly commit a thought to a future season. The sudden and abrupt announcement of his departure back to a previous, unfilled job made so much sense when reviewing the notes and quotes from our phone interview and even the shift from in-person to on-telephone made sense. A man who has decided to leave his job and return to a former lifestyle is not one who wants to face a journalist. Then, perhaps he had not made such a decision but had, all along, been on hand here for a single purpose as those at dinner suggested to me, and not for the first time this past week.

The official March 5 press release announcing his resignation offered this quote for the press to use: “I have learned a lot while collaborating with the Board and the staff at Shakespeare & Company over the past few months,” said Dildine. “In evaluating the opportunities ahead for Shakespeare & Company, I’ve decided that my skills are best served in St. Louis. My deepest thanks to Chair Sarah Hancock and the other trustees who have worked so closely with me to create a more sustainable organization.” Dildine’s work in St. Louis was both administrative and artistic. His work here held the same obvious options. The company in Missouri is principally a summer outdoor theater experience while the company here has become a year-round production organization with a healthy educational component as well. Is the small fish-big pond fear at work or just the opposite? No one will tell us. And exactly how is the Lenox company now a “more sustainable organization” when they have no active leadership, no direction and a company left without answers?

Tony Simotes. Photo: Kevin Sprague
Tony Simotes. Photo: Kevin Sprague

Shakespeare was an astute observer of people, an acute creator of all types of characters. What plots he contrived could stand alongside the current storyline of wasted talents at the company that bears his name. “Transparency” is not in Shakespeare’s lexicon and it doesn’t seem to be a factor in the operation of his legacy in the Berkshires. Perhaps co-founder John Hadden, recently the artistic director of the acting company at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, N.Y., will become the next company director, or perhaps a different fall-guy for an administration headed by a board that doesn’t seem able to find the answers it seeks.

I hear the cries around me of “bring back Tony Simotes,” but who would be so noble as to put himself forward to be humiliated publicly once again. Tina Packer, still involved in the company she created, speaks well and says little. Board chair Sarah Hancock declines to comment on what is going on. The season awaits; The Comedy of Errors dominates the summer and perhaps that is as it should be in a season where so many errors, though not so comic ones, have already been committed. This is my opinion and the few facts I know. The rest is silence.


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