shattering glass ceilings: Charlene V. Smith makes history with 8 play cycle of Shakespeare’s histories

By Julian Oquendo

This article was first published January 10, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

Charlene V. Smith is not shying away from a theatrical marathon. As the artistic director for Brave Spirits Theatre (BST), Smith and the company’s productions have often focused on learning contemporary lessons from historical, usually action-packed, plays. The company’s tagline: Verse and Violence, acknowledges the nature of what you can expect from them, an appreciation of the writing of that era, and an acknowledgement of the violent drama involved.

And this year, Smith will be the first woman in the world to lead an eight-play cyclical staging of one of the most dramatic arcs of William Shakespeare plays: Richard the Second, the Henry plays, and Richard the Third.

Starting with Richard the Second in January and culminating in a marathon performance of all eight productions during the summer of 2021, BST sees these plays through a feminist lens, and promises a look at they can reflect on issues of gender and race today.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’ve been doing theatre my whole life. My mother was one of the co-founders of Bay Street Players, a community theatre in Eustis, Florida. It’s where she and my father met, and where I grew up with my brother and sister. We all spent a lot of time together at the theatre, and there were several productions where all or most of us were involved. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to keep doing theatre for the rest of my life.

What brought you to DC?

I came to DC after college on what I assumed was a temporary stop on my way to New York City. I had heard there was a good theatre scene here, so it seemed like a friendly place to take the first steps into a professional theatre career. I was only here for about six months when I realized I wasn’t leaving.

Why this cycle, why now? 

In some ways, I’m doing the cycle as early as I thought I could get away with it! The longer answer is that I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s history cycle in 2008 and walked out of that experience determined to mount my own cycle at some point. Once Brave Spirits Theatre was growing and I started thinking about when we could do it, the year 2020 popped out to me. It was far enough away (at that point) to give us planning time, and it allowed me to make use of the clever tagline “History is 2020.” The year 2020 in of itself contains circles and repetition, and that hindsight always allows us to see much clearer the consequences of our actions, political or personal. I also knew then that we would be experiencing an election cycle during most of the project, though, of course, I couldn’t have predicted how painful and fraught our own political process would become.

I hope these plays will help us all think about the systems of power in our own society, the harms they cause, as well as who benefits from them, who is complicit in them, and who are the people always left cleaning up the messes.

What’s the story on how Brave Spirits got started?

So many coincidences and strange twists of fate! Victoria Reinsel and I were randomly paired together for a callback for The Comedy of Errors for the Virginia Shakespeare Festival in 2010. You always get very little time at these things to prepare with a stranger, but we went in together and something clicked. I remember thinking, “this woman knows what she is doing.”

We agreed that we loved how much Shakespeare there was in this area but we were both still yearning for a different kind of Shakespeare than what we were seeing. We wanted DC to have a company that was passionate about text work and that gave more focus to female artists and characters.

How did the Richard the Second rehearsal process look like for you and the actors? Are you prepping for the next production already?

I spent a couple of years on a very complex spreadsheet. I had to figure out how we would rehearse and perform eight plays on a non-equity schedule, ie, with only nights and weekends.

How does each play get the rehearsal hours it needs, and how do we do all this without burning people out who are also working other jobs? Due to venue availability, we ultimately split the project across two years and I think that has turned out to be a positive choice. We’ve been overlapping the first four plays in the rehearsal room since the beginning.

How many directors are going to be involved for this two year stint? 

Two. I am directing this year’s four plays and Jordan Friend, artistic director of 4615 Theatre Company, is directing next year’s four plays. The two of us have also had many conversations about the overall vision and arc of the project and we are staying involved in the other person’s half. He’s also composing and music directing for these first four plays, along with offering feedback to me from a director’s eye. I’ll be playing Margaret of Anjou in the second four plays when he takes over the directing reins.

Are you expecting to keep the same production team throughout the two-year period?

The hope is that the entire acting ensemble and production team will stay with the project the entire way through. 

Are there any moments from the cycle that you’re most excited about staging? 

I’m really excited about the Henry the Sixth plays in general – they are so rarely performed, even less so in three parts, and I love them dearly. For the plays I am directing, I have been most nervous from the beginning of the choruses in Henry the Fifth — how do we stage them in a way that makes sense in the context of the cycle as a whole and supports the way in which we want to critique these men in power?

I’ve found in the past that the moments in plays that I am most nervous to work on end up being the most rewarding. I’m hoping that will prove true here as well.

With such a busy/tight marathon scheduling, how are you (and the actors) keeping your spirits up?

I know we are very lucky that this cast bonded quickly and easily and remains close and friendly. They are excited each night to be working together and that really is what makes this all possible. They’ve also found their own traditions – this is a cast that is drinking lots of tea together and they chat and catch up each night in the kitchen as the water is boiling and the tea is brewing.

Your Twitter seems to be set to post the same thing every day?

Yes, I do! For those who don’t know, every day at noon, my twitter account posts a reminder that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes. It is my own way of acknowledging the history we are currently living. And though my followers are used to it by now, every so often one of them responds because seeing it on a particular day hit them in a particular way. It’s an important reminder that more of us wanted to work for a better future and a sobering reminder of the way our antiquated and undemocratic electoral college subverts the will of the people.

There was this amazing study that came out a few years ago that tracked Hillary’s approval ratings – she was always more popular when she was doing a job and less popular when she was applying for a job or a promotion. Our society still punishes women for seeking power and I think about that a lot, especially with the material we are rehearsing now.

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