I have written several versions of this story. First, it was supposed to be a narration of an ambitious theater project for a small theater company, then a story about that intermittent project and the company’s plan to regroup due to the pandemic. Now it’s the elegy of a small theater shut down by the coronavirus.
On a bright but cold Saturday afternoon in February, I hopped on a train to Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington. I was visiting Brave Spirits Theater, which was presenting the first part of a bold endeavor: eight of Shakespeare’s plays in history (quartet, from “Richard II” to “Richard III”) were shown in the repertoire, over an 18-month period, culminating in a marathon performance for all The Eight Actions.
I was there to see the first two plays in the series, starting with a morning performance by “Richard II”. In the car from the train station, I peeked into the quiet suburbs of Alexandria – brick homes with wraparound porches, and American flags by the door – until I got to the theater, which was directing the small-town whimsy of theater in a story. The space, a converted church building, had pale yellow columns to the front and bright turquoise ornamentation around the windows, with red accents throughout.
Charlene F. Smith, co-founder of Brave Spirits in 2011, told me that the idea for the project came to her in 2008, when she saw the Royal Shakespeare Company in London perform a history marathon. Brave Spirits was claiming to be making history by being “the first professional American theater company to provide full productions of my Shakespeare History Quartet and perform in repertory.”
A few meters away from where we were sitting, in a corner of the hallway, there was a blackboard. Four calendar months are meticulously painted in perfectly coordinated boxes – January, February, March, and April – with a color-coded schedule of performing the first quartet, which the company called “The King’s Shadow”: Richard in bright red, first Henry in clover green, and second Henry in color Yellow and the last Henry in royal purple.
In a modest but fine production, the Brave Spirits crowned Richard II and was killed, and his successor, Henry Bolingbrook, also known as Henry IV, was named the new king. After the crowd left, the cast wandered around, chatting in the kitchen, which became a box office. “Is your cape bag upstairs?” I heard someone calling from the hall. Few of them wore shirts the company was selling, which were black T-shirts with gray blocks written on them “Richard & Henry & Henry & Henry & Richard”. (Ever a Shakespeare nerd, I bought one.)
That evening I saw “Henry IV, Part 1” and every seat was full. Couples, older families, and two teens babble and wave to each other; Everyone was locals. I left the train the next morning, still bursting with energy in that converted little chapel.
I wrote the article, but before it was published, the pandemic shut down the performing arts across the country, and the story of Brave Spirits changed. Like so many other theaters, it was forced to cut short the history project, which DC Metro Theater Arts predicted was “One of the highlights of the 2021 season. “April 19-20 was supposed to be a big weekend for the company, as all of the plays in the first quartet would be shown in repertoire, ending with the coronation of the first half,” Henry V. “
On March 12, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency, and soon after, the White House issued a proclamation declaring Covid-19 a national emergency. Brave Spirits decided to cancel the weekend marathon but nonetheless come out with one final performance – the opening night show of “Henry V.”
When I got back to her in late April, Smith said, “At that point, people had put so much in it that everyone was like, ‘We need to open up’ Henry V.” We need the opening night show tomorrow. We just need it. Brendan Edward Kennedy mentioned that after the show, in his dressing room, he started singing the wartime song “We’ll Meet Again.” (“We’ll meet again / I don’t know where / I don’t know when.”) He sang to me briefly on the phone.
After that, the Henry V theater froze: the costumes were still on the shelves and props in boxes, stored under the audience risers. As for tools of war – swords and spears – Smith stocked them for safekeeping at her home in McLean, Virginia.
The theater fought back in the spring and summer; The annual fundraiser raised more than $ 7,000, compared to the usual $ 3,000, which gave the cast and crew some hope. (Smith told me the company’s annual budget was around $ 50,000, but in the first date project season, it tripled to roughly $ 150,000.)
For several weeks, the staff kept up with online transcript readings and planned to fall into more virtual drills until, as they had hoped, they would return with the second half of the project in January 2021.
This was supposed to be my new story: a story about a small theater that lasts despite the consequences – something that captured the stakes and scale of difficulties, but ultimately ended up with hope and resilience.
At this point, you already know that this is not the story I’m telling now, 10 months after my first visit to Virginia and nine months since the lockdown began. On November 21, Brave Spirits announced their closure: “Without the ability to plan future shows, Brave Spirits are unable to recover financially from losing Shakespeare’s history,” according to a press release, the last two words in bold as if spoken through a megaphone the sound.
Brave Spirits produced more than 20 plays that employed more than 300 artists, and were known for their subversive interpretations of the classics, usually through a feminist lens. But the company announced that it had received one parting gift: audio recordings of plays in the History Project, which they hope will appear in late 2021. It is hard not to think of it as another reminder of all the things that the Coronavirus has ravaged within two months.
The fact that the Brave Spirits lost this fight would have been sad enough if they weren’t quite like that, ironically speaking, Shakespeare. This spring, during a follow-up call with Kennedy, I asked the actor how he attacked King Henry V’s famous speech on Saint Crispin’s Day.
The speech is usually said on fanfare and fireworks. King Henry V, no longer the mischievous childish Prince Hull, had become the brilliant commander, who inspired his men to do great work. Kennedy said their approach to this scene was a little different – a glorious but nonetheless fatal moment, with the soldiers fully understanding the cost of the war.
Kennedy told me that Smith had imagined the soldiers’ grim logic: “Let’s go out in the flames of glory, and let us beat them so hard that people will talk about this for centuries. They will remember all of our names, and this act will make us heroes in the annals of history.” Kennedy was aware of the similarities – like the soldiers on St. Crispin’s Day, he and his fellow actors were going to a performance aware “that this might be the last time we’re doing it.”
The ending of Brave Spirits wasn’t the story I wanted to end with. However, this small theater in Virginia, which continued until it was no longer capable, is just one of many plays that will not be out in 2020. It is a shame, not just the closing itself, but the fact that the circumstances that led to it were It is preventable: the government’s weak response to the pandemic, and our country’s general refusal to properly appreciate and support the arts, has ensured that some theaters will not survive.
I thought of that day in February, when after I interviewed the actors, they celebrated a colleague’s birthday with pizza, cake and a round of “Happy Birthday” in the theater foyer.
I packed up as quickly as I could, and I didn’t want to interrupt, but they happily forgot me. Their conversations and laughter filled the space, a separate world and a safe haven for a community of artists. But for a while I felt it. But that’s all I can offer: portrait of kings on stage, church-turned-theater in Virginia, pizza party after the show. With Brave Spirits now closed, that’s all I have, and I hope that’s enough.