BY ERICA MAGRIN
William Shakespeare’s playing company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, built the Globe Theatre in 1599. Thereafter, all of the Bard’s works were shown at this open-air, circular amphitheater until June 29, 1613. It was burned down tragically on this date, as the thatched roof became kindling during an error with a cannon in a production of Henry VIII. Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, but the Globe Theatre would be granted a second life. Shakespeare’s Globe, an approximate replica of the Globe Theatre, was completed in 1997. This new Globe was designed to be everything that the original was: a circular, roofless theater on the River Thames used to stage the great works of William Shakespeare.
As for us Americans, it may seem that we have struck out in the department of authentic Shakespeare recreations. Of course, these more than classic plays have been done in the US and all over the world time and time again, but very seldom are productions held in a performance space that harkens back to the reality of what seeing one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces would have been like when they were originally created.
Enter Shakespeare Downtown, a theater company that values the importance of classical theater, even in these modern times – because before there was Hamilton, there was the Bard of Avon. Artistic director Billie Andersson, director Geoffrey Horne, and designer Amy Goossens spearhead Shakespeare Downtown. The theater company started off by performing more American classics, such as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, along with many genres of plays, some of Shakespeare’s included, at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, where Horne was a professor. “When I moved to New York, when I went to the [Strasberg] Acting School, it changed everything for me. ... It gave meaning to my life, almost like a kind of calling,” says artistic director Billie Andersson.
Now the troupe focuses on the works of Shakespeare, but what sets them apart is exactly where these performances take place. The setting: Castle Clinton, which, like the Globe Theatre before it, is a round, open-air landmark. Located in Battery Park, it is also right on the water, and obtains all the ambience of the Globe with its own New York flare. All performances are free, as Shakespeare Downtown is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
“By staging these free outdoor performances at Castle Clinton, audience members will be able to experience the plays how they were originally done at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre over 400 years ago,” says Shakespeare Downtown’s web page. “If it’s raining,” the website says, “performances are canceled.” This is what makes this particular theatre troupe’s production of a Shakespeare play different from others: the live genuineness of the experience, presented in a way that is so rarely done, even if this was the only way it was originally done. “[Castle Clinton is] perfect for doing Shakespeare,” says Billie Andersson. “It’s open-air, and in the round.” Shakespeare Downtown also uses historically accurate Elizabethan costumes, and classical theatrical designs. The troupe themselves are close-knit, with most of them having studied at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. Andersson and Geoffrey Horne, the company’s director, are even a husband and wife team. They are also local to the community, as the director and assistant director live in the downtown neighborhood. When forming Shakespeare Downtown, Andersson and Horne set out to find a performance theater specifically downtown in order to share their talents with their community, and now are doing just that at Castle Clinton.
Shakespeare Downtown will put on free performances of Romeo and Juliet at Castle Clinton in Battery Park Tuesdays through Saturdays from June 7th to June 25th, 2016. With no intermissions, the performances will start promptly at 6:30 p.m. and run until 8:15 p.m. Though Shakespeare Downtown performances are free, those who wish to see the show must obtain tickets at Castle Clinton the day of the performance.