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The Ages of Aquarius: Turbulent evolution of Shakespeare & Company

"I know I’m supposed to say that I’m excited about the season coming up, but I am actually really excited about the season coming up. I think our education process is great and our training program is having an outstanding success. Maybe I’m being a bit Pollyanna, but from where I’m looking, the company is really doing great." -- Jonathan Croy, interim director at Shakespeare & Company

The Past

Lenox — “This [was] the dawning of the age of Aquarius,” the world was singing in 1968 when the creative hippie movement was beginning to dominate our consciousness. “Hair, the tribal rock musical” sang their song to open the show and the concept took off. With a new baby in hand British actress Tina Packer had recently retired from stage and television work to be a stay-at-home mother which both hurt her career and helped to save a marriage that would not be saved. It also gave the 30-year old woman a chance to cogitate on the future. A 1964 graduate from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and winner of their prestigious Ronson Award for most promising actress, she had flashed into theater-goers sights in “The Master Builder,” then she replaced Julie Christie in “The Comedy of Errors,” moved on to roles in “Timon of Athens” and “Hamlet” starring Paul Scofield. She had made memorable appearances on television in “Doctor Who” and “The Avengers,” and played Dora in the TV series “David Copperfield” starring a young Ian McKellen. She was on the fast track to a great career before she pulled the plug.

Tina Packer in the 1960s.
Tina Packer in the 1960s.

Then, in 1971 she moved back to London and took a job at LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts) and began a new career as a director, putting up productions of two William Shakespeare plays, “Measure For Measure” and “The Winter’s Tale.” While doing so, she began to formulate her own ideas on teaching and producing Shakespeare’s works. A year later she met Dick Kapp, a program manager for the Ford Foundation and together they forged an unusual project, an experiment for the theater to work on Shakespeare’s plays “through the emotion contained within the sound of the word itself.” It was a $100,000 Ford Foundation grant that she applied for and it was abetted with a second grant of $11,000 from CBS.

To quote from Helen Epstein’s fascinating biography of Packer, “The Companies She Keeps,” Tina wanted to rehearse her actors in England for four months and then perform for two months in America with everyone on salary. “She asked John Barton, her mentor from the Royal Shakespeare Company, to work on textual analysis and John Broome, who had been her movement teacher at RADA to teach movement. She asked B.H. Barry, a colleague at LAMDA to teach tumbling and combat and Kristin Linklater to teach voice.” Director Peter Hall of the National Theater endorses the project. Christened “Shakespeare and Company” in 1973 after a bookstore in Paris that Packer had known well as a teenager, the company began to perform “The Taming of the Shrew” in the outer reaches of the British Isles and then, in June, they came to the United States, performing first at the O’Neill Center in Waterford, Connecticut, and then moving to East Hampton, Long Island, and finally to the Performing Garage in New York City.

In spite of enthusiastic reviews in England the company was a flop in America. “The more you love Shakespeare the more you’ll loathe what this company is doing to him,” wrote one critic. WNBS News called it “violent, sexy, full of action. . .an experiment that works,” but the Village Voice asked (in reference to all the physicality of the performances) “how much is enough?” The Ford Foundation shut down their support and the company folded with less fanfare than it had anticipated. Packer returned to London and a second “retirement.”

A light lunch at The Mount, during the heyday of Shakespeare & Company's residency at the Edith Wharton Estate.
A light lunch at The Mount, during the heyday of Shakespeare & Company’s residency at the Edith Wharton Estate.

Her life was changed again the following year through Dick Kapp’s intervention and EST training, one of those age of Aquarius activities so popular in the early ‘70s. With a different Ford Foundation grant she set out on a world tour of other companies learning how actors were trained in different cultures. Back in New York in 1976 she met Dennis Krausnick.

Through Kristin Linklater Packer had been hired to direct a “War of the Roses” project at New York University and he was compelled to join the company. The three of them decided shortly thereafter to both live together and form a new “Shakespeare and Company.” It was the age of Aquarius after all. In 1978 it finally came together when Mitch Berenson, a friend of Kapp’s, took Packer on a tour of Berkshire County and they found The Mount, the almost deserted former home of author Edith Wharton in Lenox, Massachusetts. After contracting a rental agreement the three partners moved into the mansion and started building a first company, which during that summer of Packer’s 40th birthday, would first perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on the grounds of The Mount. They would perform on the property for the next twenty-two (22) years.

The Present

Gillian Bargh and Lorna Heilbron — two English actress friends of Packer’s, students and faculty members from Smith and Hampshire colleges including British director Kenny McBain, and Kiki Smith, chairperson of Hampshire College’s drama department along with two students from NYU, Gregory Cole and Tony Simotes, were among the founding company that year. They all camped out on the floors of the furniture-free rooms, much like the tribe of hippies in the now ten-year old musical, “Hair.” After learning about American production regulations and unions, the company performed their play — with Simotes as Puck — to much acclaim. They extended its run. By the end of that first season they were $25,000 in debt, their grant money exhausted. Even so, they signed an agreement to purchase The Mount and set out to raise money for both the property and a second season.

A quick look, here, at the age of Aquarius to try to understand all of this and to set up a means of looking at what has transpired since.

Astrologers believe that an astrological age affects mankind, possibly by influencing the rise and fall of civilizations or cultural tendencies. In an article about feminism in the French newspaper “La Fronde,” February 26, 1890, August Vandekerkhove stated: “About March 21st this year the cycle of Aquarius will start. Aquarius is the house of the woman.” He adds that in this age women will be equal to men.

Traditionally, Aquarius is associated with electricity, computers, flight, democracy, freedom, humanitarianism, Idealism, modernization, astrology, nervous disorders, rebellion, nonconformity, philanthropy, veracity, perseverance, humanity, and irresolution, many elements here expressed in the ideals and goals of Tina Packer.

The expression Age of Aquarius in popular culture usually refers to the heyday of the hippie and New Age movements in the 1960s and 1970s. The New Age movement is more accurately a phenomenon and yet seen by many as the harbinger of this future changeover of values associated with the arrival or imminent arrival of the Aquarian age. EST was one of those movements.

Tony Simotes042210_555
Tony Simotes

Valentine’s Day, 2009 is written about as a day when the “perfect alignment of stars to support our collective manifestation of love and peace and the dawning of the Age of Aquarius” will arrive. Curiously, especially in reading the history of Tina Packer and of this company, it was about this day when “Shakespeare and Company” hired founding member Tony Simotes as the “next Artistic Director” of the company. The stars were in alignment and the new age of Aquarius was on its way, moving forward.

“I completely endorse and look forward to the transition,” Packer was quoted as saying in a company press release, “and I couldn’t be happier with the choice. Tony is a founding member. He knows our aesthetic and training discipline, and that is extremely important to our vitality and mission. We have an outstanding artist management structure in place and his energy, forward looking vision and experience will only add to that. I believe our best years are still yet to come.”

Simotes instituted many changes in the way “Shakespeare and Company” took on new productions. In November of 2015 he parted from the company, shortly after a new Executive Director, Rick Dildine, was hired to head the management of Shakespeare and Company. The new Aquarian regime was over.

Rick Dildine
Rick Dildine

Within a few months, Dildine was gone and three senior members of the company’s Board of Directors had resigned their positions (one of them leaving the board entirely). A triumverate of interim directors was announced on March 5, including actress and director Ariel Bock (who joined the company in its second year, moving into The Mount with the rest of the tribe and ultimately marrying two of them, Kevin Coleman and Jonathan Epstein), Jonathan Croy, actor and director, who has been with the company since 1982 (its fifth year), and Stephen Ball, a designer and manager who has worked with the Lenox company since 1989.

“In the wake of events they decided to lean on us, given our extensive history with the company — there is no aspect of the company we haven’t worked in — together we present 91 years of experience for us here,” Jonathan Croy said in a recent group interview.

Ariel Bock came to Shakespeare and Company in 1979 to study with Kristin Linklater (who remained with the company for about two decades) and has worked as an actress, teacher, director, development consultant, grant writer and theater administrator with Shakespeare and Company, Berkshire Theatre Festival, Mixed Company and The Ensemble for the Romantic Century. “Any company this size has tensions,” she said in that same group interview, “but we are moving forward.”

“I still see it as a long-term set of changes and adjustments shifting from a founder-driven company to one that is still sustainable and surviving without the excitement of the founder-driven oversight and that’s a long process,” Stephen Ball added.

There is a strong tendency among the current players on the Shakespeare campus in Lenox to refer to a single founder, to Tina Packer, and while it was her vision that drove the company into existence there was truly a pack of founders, including Simotes and Linklater and Kapp and others, who made this company possible.

Jonathan Croy, Ariel Bock, Stephen D. Ball in the conference room in the Miller Building. Photo: Peter Bergman
Jonathan Croy, Ariel Bock, Stephen D. Ball in the conference room in the Miller Building. Photo: Peter Bergman

“The continued involvement of Tina makes this different from the normal, text-book sort of company,” Croy offered. “It’s not easy to go from A to B if you look at it. Anyone who follows the Founder is not the one who takes the company on the long term. This is a textbook situation and we find ourselves not outside of the norm. You don’t want to wish that on anyone but that was the position Tony found himself in and Rick found himself in. And we may find ourselves in the same place too.”

Packer is still an active member of the company, a member of the Board, and often an outspoken spokesperson for the company. In a recent radio interview this April she said, when asked about Simotes’ departure, “Essentially the way that was going to develop was not necessarily the way that Tony would’ve developed it. I do think we’ll review everything that has happened in the last six months. But I don’t think that we ourselves know absolutely how certain things happened and I think the thing about Tony is one of those things.” Packer told her interviewer that because of severance negotiations she had to remain vague about anything to do with Tony Simotes, and this was more than three months after the former director and founding member whom she had earlier extolled for his vision for the company, had been officially separated from the company. Three months is a very long time to not have reached a formal conclusion in such matters.

After a previous article I wrote on the company shake-up was published, a former employee of Shakespeare and Company wrote to me supporting the suppositions in that article about the end of that uneasy relationship between the Artistic Director and the company. He also indicated his sense that the death of Elayne P. Bernstein meant “that a firm, visionary and supporting hand on the tiller at the board level was gone. . .no one [on the Board] has quite the mix of political, emotional and social talents that Elayne had, as well as the substantial resources that could be brought to bear in a crisis.”

Of all the crises occurring Croy said, “For us this isn’t breaking news, tragic or alarming.” He also affirmatively pointed out that the 2015 season has been in place for a long time, a comment that was seconded by both Bock and Ball. “Most of the plays for this year we’ve had our hands on for a year or so,” Croy added.

“We were both very instrumental in putting this season together,” Bock said. “Most of the plays were being put together over the past year or two. Jenna Ware had been working on ‘Henry V’ for about two years.”

“And ‘Cry Havoc’ has been scratching at the door and hoping to get on our stage for quite a while,” Croy said. (This is a play that Rick Dildine had said he was instrumental in identifying and bringing into the season, a statement quoted in my previous piece and now refuted by Croy and others as well.) It has a very limited run. “We’re not sure we’d have 40 audiences for it,” Croy admitted.

” ‘Comedy of Errors’ has been in the works for a number of years. We didn’t do it last year but we are now,” Bock added. “And ‘Red Velvet’ has been looked at for a while – Daniella Varone found it.”

“Tod Randolph is going to be perfect in ‘The How and The Why’,” she said. “As I worked with the director. . . what I like to do is spend an hour or two on the phone with them to get an idea about what kind of production they would like — we both thought of Toddy for the role. We have a nice blend of seasoned performers, company veterans and newcomers in the season, so she has a new woman playing the younger role. It’s such a valuable experience to pair our company regulars with talented actors we’ve never worked with before.”

John Douglas Thompson as Richard III in the Shakespeare & Company production.
John Douglas Thompson as Richard III in the Shakespeare & Company production.

“Some projects come almost fully baked — largely fully cast and talking among itself for a long while rather than trying to get a committee together to cast it,” Ball remarked. Among those was “Red Velvet,” a historic play about the first Black actor to play Othello on the British Stage.

“John Douglas Thompson was inevitable casting, just incredible with Kelly Curran playing the role of Ellen Tree in ‘Red Velvet’ and Adrianna in ‘Comedy of Errors.’ Lovely to imagine her playing the craziness of Adrianna and the control of Ellen,” said Bock.

While never said by any of the three interim directors it was clear that the 2015 season had nothing to do with choices made by Rick Dildine but is, instead, the artistic legacy of former Artistic Director Tony Simotes. Bock admitted working with him on the season. “As an artistic associate, well, it can mean anything,” she said. “Tony needed me to be a part-time literary manager for him. It depends. From year to year it can be different.”

Many of the more familiar artists at Shakespeare and Company have held the title “Artistic Associate,” an indication that they are more than meets the eye with this organization. “It started at The Mount with Tina. It became harder to work on all the shows,” Bock told me. At that time they would help Tina plan the season, work up a project they wanted to bring along or be in or to write things during the season. That kind of evolved around ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ in 1990. I had been a teacher and an actor and it occurred to me that I really loved working to make something happen, so I stayed on to do that. You worked with Steve on budgets and that kind of morphed into casting director and that was what kept me going on. It’s always been a changing cast of associates, too.”

“It changes and flows from year to year,” Croy added. “You do whatever the Artistic Director needs you to do.”

The Future

“Harmony and understanding / Sympathy and trust abounding / No more falsehoods or derisions / Golden living dreams of visions / Mystic crystals revelations / And the mind’s true liberation / Aquarius. . . .” sings the bridge of the song from “Hair.” Harmony, trust, golden living dreams are certainly part of the Shakespeare and Company history, mission and vision and this final season designed by founding member Tony Simotes with assistance from second season member Ariel Bock and everyone else involved promises some wonderful theater, but what about 2016 and beyond? There seems to be very little anyone is willing to offer.

Malcolm Ingram as a bloated Sir John Falstaff on the welcoming wall to the Miller Bldg at Shakespeare and Company. Photo:Peter Bergman
Malcolm Ingram as a bloated Sir John Falstaff on the welcoming wall to the Miller Bldg at Shakespeare and Company. Photo:Peter Bergman

In her April radio show appearance, when asked if she would consider resuming her leadership position, Packer had this to say. “Structurally we just can’t do it. We need to sort out what happened since Tony left. That is really the issue that’s before us. I wouldn’t come back because I just think that it’s not going to help for me to come back.” Of course, serving on the board, Tina Packer hasn’t exactly left. Still, she has a new book coming out and she intends to go out into the wider world and plug it.

What the new trio at the helm said is that there are no plans for the 2016 season at the moment. This seems frightening in the light of their revelations about the planning of this current season and the amount of time, years really, that were put into it.

“We’ll start our homework on next year perhaps next month,” Ball said, starting the conversation.

“Shepherding the company through a most difficult season is our main responsibility this year. Picking plays is the easier part, the fun part of the work,” Croy added.

“We don’t do musicals; we’re not equipped for that,” Bock said. Croy admitted, “We don’t have the skill-set.”

“But Shakespeare belongs to everyone,” Bock admitted.

“We’ve been proprietary about it,” Croy continued in their almost overlap dialogue.

“And we do other playwrights, contemporary playwrights as well,” said Ball.

Croy finished with “We have opinions — everyone in the theater has opinions.”

“And on the topic of a search for Directors, Artistic or Executive? I imagine we’ll do one, but there is a committee of the board that is beginning that discussion now,” Croy said, “and it’s a long-term process and I think the conversation will begin to get going in maybe six months.”

“I don’t think that process will really begin until next year,” Bock said.

This threesome has their mutual finger on the pulse of the company and among them they have done almost everything that can be done in a theater company. It’s not just the accumulated years that made them good choices for these interim positions. “That’s how we came to be here,” Bock admitted. “It was the only thing we hadn’t done yet.” She reminded Croy that she had even stage-managed in 1992 for “A Life in the Theater” in the Stables Theater at The Mount.

“We like working with each other,” she said and Croy added, “We share an office and talk all the time.”

As of now there are no shows being discussed for next season, no new staff, and no new actors. The company’s trio of head-honchos are busy getting things going for this summer and very busy with it all. Croy will appear in “Henry V” and direct “Hamlet” in the glen at The Mount. Bock will be off-stage for the basic season but may appear in a reading or two as the summer moves forward. Ball has his hands full with contracts and overseeing at least 80 people who work in areas other than on-stage. From Tina Packer’s handful of founders to a large regional company this troupe has moved into the big leagues and staying there successfully is their principal goal. As with all large companies, non-artistic and artistic, there are sacrifices to make to stay on top. Sometimes they are the right thing and sometimes they are the inevitable choice. Now and then, though, something goes wrong at the top. Then a company has to take a long and hard look at where they are, what they’re doing and retrench.

There is pride here in the way talent comes and goes. “I’m a gardener and so I do like to see things grow. Our artists moving on and developing their work in other places is essential,” Bock said when talking about company members such as Enrico Spada who is shepherding the new Shakespeare in the Park company in Pittsfield, Mass.

Putting thoughts of the departures of Simotes and Dildine behind him, Jonathan Croy summed up the trio’s current experience and it may also be true for the future at Shakespeare and Company. “I know I’m supposed to say that I’m excited about the season coming up, but I am actually really excited about the season coming up. I think our education process is great and our training program is having an outstanding success. Maybe I’m being a bit Pollyanna, but from where I’m looking, the company is really doing great.”

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