3 Days in a Van With a Shakespeare Troupe: Daggers and Dunkin’ Donuts

HOLYOKE, Mass. — The sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes needed to feel real, dicey, dangerous. But maybe not this dangerous. At Wistariahurst — a historic house museum here — a small playing area and slippery parquet floors made even a blunted weapon a menace. “Watch yourself,” Daniel Light said as he teasingly slid a dagger through an onlooker’s legs. Jordan Mann, who plays Hamlet, spritzed some hair spray on the bottom of her shoes to make them stickier. “Take it a little bit slower,” she advised. “Fast words. Slow footwork.”

Elsinore had arrived here about an hour earlier, with Ms. Mann, Mr. Light and four fellow actors rattling up in a Ford Expedition and a dusty Econoline, carting curtains and cables into a high-ceilinged gallery. Every year since 1982, Shakespeare & Company has sent young performers on the road from early winter through late spring, for four months of Dunkin’ Donuts breakfasts, motel showers, flubbed lines, forgotten props, missed turnoffs, standing ovations and the chance to live with Shakespeare’s words a lot like the traveling players of 400 years ago would have.

They perform a play somewhere new, and usually less treacherous, nearly every day. Earlier this month, I spent a few days with the 2019 troupe — Dara Brown, Caitlin Kraft, Nick Nudler and Kirsten Peacock were the others — as they tramped through four states, delivering their 90-minute “Hamlet.”

By the time I joined them late one Tuesday night, in an otherwise deserted motel abutting a golf resort in western Vermont, they had played a private school in Connecticut the day before and a Vermont public school gym that afternoon. On Wednesday, they were at Vermont’s Long Trail School.

On Thursday, after a night at Shakespeare & Company housing in Lenox, Mass., they went to Wistariahurst, performing for an audience of mostly teen mothers, then drove four hours south, with stops for gas and Popsicles, staying overnight at a Crowne Plaza in Saddle Brook, N.J.

“This is where everyone in Saddle Brook has their prom,” Mr. Nudler announced as he pulled the van into the parking lot.

At 5:20 a.m. they drove into New York City for a morning performance for high school students at Trevor Day School on the Upper East Side. They took audience questions, ate a quick cafeteria lunch, dismantled the set with preternatural efficiency. By noon they had packed every last ripped tarp and bloodstained poet shirt into the vehicles for the three-hour drive back to Lenox. This was #VanLife, Elizabethan-style.

Maturity Is Key

Shakespeare & Company has always had strong education programs, the tour among them. About 100 actors audition for it every year, heading to Lenox to deliver two contrasting Shakespeare monologues and answer a few questions. Every year the tour prepares a comedy and a tragedy (this year “Hamlet” alternates with “The Taming of the Shrew”). The directors of each play — Tom Jaeger and Kelly Galvin this year — not only have to figure out how to cast 30 or 40 roles with just six actors, but also divine who will work together best once the tour is up and running.

Almost anyone can appear polite and friendly during a 15- or 20-minute audition. But who can manage it after weeks of little sleep and a punishing lack of privacy?

“You want to pick people that are mature,” Kevin G. Coleman, Shakespeare & Company’s director of education said, when I called him a few days before joining. “Because the tour is profoundly stressful.”

Maturity is relative. The actors tend to be young — this year’s troupe ranges from 22 to 31 — and unmarried. (Ms. Kraft is recently engaged.) They are hired to tour from January through May, break for a month, then reunite in July and perform one of the plays (this year, “Shrew”) back at the Lenox campus.

Allyn Burrows, the theater’s artistic director, did the tour 30 years ago. “It’s a grueling, long commitment,” he told me. “A boot camp for 17 weeks.” But it was, for him, “one of the most challenging, most rewarding experiences I would ever have.” (I asked him if anyone famous had ever joined the tour. Oliver Platt. And maybe Bronson Pinchot, though he wasn’t completely sure.)

The tour pays around $500 per week, plus free housing, travel expenses and a per diem for nights on the road. There are no personal days, no paid vacations, no health care, though most of the actors are young enough to be enrolled on their parents’ plans and others qualify for Medicaid. And there’s a chiropractor in Lenox, I was told, who will see you for $20.

The cast convenes in December and rehearses for three weeks before a furlough for the Christmas holidays. In January, after several more weeks of rehearsal, the tour begins, sometimes with a few false starts. This year, on the first day, the Expedition’s brakes were on the fritz. So the actors piled into Ms. Kraft’s own car for the drive to Watertown, Conn. They made it.

During the early weeks it can be hard to remember all the costumes and props and characters. Ms. Mann, who along with Hamlet portrays five characters in “Shrew,” recalled being backstage during that show and having to hiss at a cast member: “Who am I?”

The whole cast still talks about the time they forgot the laptop that runs the sound cues and a volleyball decorated to look like the “Shrew” character Bianca. (When you have six actors and at least twice as many characters, you get creative.)

Besides acting, everyone has extra jobs. Ms. Kraft is the road manager and looks after the sets. Mr. Nudler is the vehicle manager and oversees the lighting. Ms. Brown is the travel agent and liaises with each school. (Schools pay Shakespeare & Company $2,300 for a performance; for other venues the fee can go as high as $3,500. Financial aid is available.)

At each new location, the schedule runs more or less the same. Arrive. Load in. Put up the set, a pipe-and-drape system of purple curtains and foam panels semi-convincingly painted like stone. Arrange the lights and sound. With that accomplished, the actors sit in a circle and plan for the day, trying to anticipate any hiccups.

Then they “check-in,” a Shakespeare & Company practice in which each person expresses how he or she is feeling. An emotional safety valve, it helps to keep things civil. (What else keeps them from killing one another on the road? “State laws,” Mr. Light, who often plays villains, said.) The actors separate for individual warm-ups.

They quickly restage the play for the space — some stages are wide, some are narrow, some are raked, some are flat, once they had to dodge a half-built set for “Cabaret” — and rehearse the fight scenes.

This all takes about an hour and a half. Sometimes there’s a further break for lunch in the school’s cafeteria, sometimes they eat after. How are the cafeteria meals? Usually pretty good. “There are schools we go to where it’s a five-star buffet,” Ms. Peacock said back in the van one afternoon.

Then it’s “half-hour,” when the cast goes quiet, hurrying backstage to dress for the first scene, arranging subsequent costumes, props and water bottles into tidy piles as the students file in. Just before Ms. Mann hits the first sound cue on the laptop, the six actors huddle together, murmuring, “Got your back.” The performance begins, sometimes for an audience of nine and once, in Worcester, Mass., for a crowd of 1,600.

Students boo. They doze. They giggle. At Wistariahurst several took cellphone videos of the death scene.

“I like the audiences when they’re fully reacting,” Ms. Kraft, who was on her second tour and specializes in clowns and queens, said the day before. “I’m not a movie screen.”

A Traveling Tradition

I exchanged a few emails with Siobhan Keenan, a literature professor at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, and the author of “Travelling Players in Shakespeare’s England,” the classic of the field. She wrote that the tour “sounds great fun and perhaps not entirely different from what life was like for traveling players back in Shakespeare’s time!”

Even the van has an analogue, in the horse-drawn wagon that players, like the ones who visit Elsinore in “Hamlet,” would have used to carry costumes and props.

Traveling players were usually young members of established companies. They weren’t paid especially well; there are records of actors selling costumes to buy food. Performance locations varied, as did accommodations. Renaissance players could be beaten or jailed under a 1572 act targeting “rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars.”

That’s not a real danger today, though a teacher did once catch Ms. Mann loitering with a dagger in her belt outside an auditorium (she had an entrance through the audience) and nearly took her to the principal’s office.

Still, Renaissance players didn’t insist on a talkback after each show, a mix of actors’ prompts and audience questions. (The actors can tell which schools have taught “Hamlet” when a teen asks “Where’s Fortinbras?”) And traveling Elizabethan troupes didn’t lead workshops on the text, an optional add-on.

The educational component isn’t why most of the young actors, some just out of college, others newly released from M.F.A. programs or Shakespeare & Company's own acting intensive, join the tour. They join because they want a job or to hone their craft or to see what it feels like to do a show 30 or 40 times instead of playing it over one weekend or because, as Mr. Nudler, who plays kings and knaves, said at dinner one night, “I had always kind of fantasized about this idea of acting on the road.”

But the talkbacks and workshops are often why they return. Ms. Peacock, a British-American actress and the troupe’s leading lady, was back for a second season. “Last year’s tour was just such a rewarding experience,” she said. “Being able to take Shakespeare into schools and see the impact that it can have on young people, the conversations that they have.”

At Long Trail School I watched as a dozen middle school and high school students, in bare feet and Birkenstocks, took ownership of Shakespeare’s verse. One three-person group reset some Act I lines in what seemed to be a dentist’s office (a robot was involved). Another group relocated the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene to an after-party at a mermaid prom. “Don’t stop mermaiding!” one of the students, Timur Langford, urged his colleagues.

At Wistariahurst, the actors led a 45-minute workshop for students at the Care Center, an alternative education program for young mothers and women resuming an interrupted education. I stood with some of the women and their teachers as they worked this same scene.

“Sounds like a breakup,” one young woman observed. “She got friendzoned,” another added.

They came to Hamlet’s line, “I never gave you aught.”

“That’s like the baby daddy saying he doesn’t want the baby,” a third said, delivering Ophelia’s line “You know right well you did,” as a snappy comeback.

After the workshop, Pearl Manus, a student at the Care Center’s chapter of Bard Microcollege, talked to me about “Hamlet.” “Even though it’s a very old play there are still the same issues in contemporary life,” she said. “You don’t feel so alone.”

She turned to Ms. Peacock, whom she’d seen as Desdemona in “Othello” last year. “I thought about how you died in two plays and you got slapped in two plays,” she said. “I was stronger. I didn’t cry this time around.”

‘It Taught Me a Lot About Myself’

For the last performance of the week, at Trevor Day School, I watched from backstage, tiptoeing from one wing to the other while Claudius scrolled through his phone and Horatio quickly became Polonius and Ophelia undid her hair for the mad scene and Gertrude grabbed the skulls she needed for the gravedigger and Laertes checked the prop swords and Hamlet stripped down for the fight scene.

The actors had performed the play almost 30 times by now and they had an ease with it, often lip-syncing each other’s lines backstage or breaking into aggressive dance moves before they had to scurry away for an entrance.

I was a theater major in college and did some acting for a year or two after, and in the backstage jostle I remembered, acutely, why I’d loved it — the adrenaline, the manic camaraderie, the phenomenon of having so many eyes and ears trained just on you, the confidence that you could take strange words and make them brilliantly alive. I also remembered why I’m grateful not to do it anymore, for a lot of those same reasons.

I also thought about something Mr. Coleman, the education director had said: how if you’re an actor on the tour, you’re falling in love with Shakespeare, yes, but “you’re falling in love with yourself. You’re discovering what you can do.” Which should go a long way toward making up for those early mornings and highway miles and terrible loneliness, even within the group.

“Shakespeare allows you to grow and discover at every performance,” Ms. Mann said. Ms. Brown, the troupe’s youngest member, who plays little sisters and sidekicks, said, “It has taught me a lot about myself.”

Over dinner, at the Saddle Brook Crowne Plaza, I asked the actors if they would do the tour again.

“In a heartbeat,” Mr. Light said.

“Yes,” Mr. Nudler said.

“Yes, absolutely,” Ms. Peacock said.

“It depends,” Ms. Mann said.

“I’m too tired to answer that question right now,” Ms. Kraft said.

Ms. Brown, who has been reading books about loneliness and now hates hotels, was the last to answer. “I totally would,” she said.

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