When English-born Tina Packer began hunting up money in the 1970s with the idea of teaching performers the Elizabethan style of acting—and living—from the gut as well as the mind, she wasn’t really concerned about where it was going to be based. So when a Ford Foundation grant brought her to the US, and a desire to involve a local community in her endeavor (and find an attractive place to raise her son) led her to the Berkshires, she was happy to give it a try. Thirty years later, Packard’s creation, Shakespeare & Company, has changed the face of Shakespearean acting in America.
“I didn’t expect to be [here] 30 years,” Packer says with a deep chuckle. “I thought I’d start a theater company, become famous in five years, and then go swanning off around the world.”
Instead, the company, which in 2001 moved from its original quarters at Edith Wharton’s summer mansion The Mount to a lush 30-acre estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, now offers one of the most extensive training programs in the country, focusing on Packer’s own unique take on Shakespearean acting.
“The aesthetic that we espouse, which is Shakespeare’s aesthetic, is that the language leads the action of the play,” Packer explains. “You have to be deeply connected to the play, always involving the energy of the audience. There is no fourth wall.”
More than 40 acting teachers have passed through Shakespeare & Company’s intense programs, spreading Packer’s technique to universities throughout the US, Canada, and Australia. In Packer’s native Britain, her style of in-your-face acting is now the norm.
“Elizabethan actors were incredibly physical. You fought, you danced, you spoke, all these things were visceral,” she explains. “The Industrial Revolution put the emphasis on intelligence. Connecting both feelings and intelligence is, in my book, a much healthier ethos. That doesn’t mean you can’t be clever. It’s just a prejudice that we have.”
For its 30th summer, the company’s Founder’s Theater productions include its first indoor version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (through September 1), the rarely done “Antony and Cleopatra” (with Packer as the Queen of the Nile, July 27-Sept. 2), and Tom Stoppard’s “Rough Crossing,” a comedy at sea based on earlier works by Ferenc Molnar and P.G. Wodehouse (through September 2). An improvisational, two-part version of Moliere’s farce “Scapin,” adapted by Bill Irwin and Mark O’Donnell (through September 1), is this season’s free outdoor Bankside offering. As always, the tented Rose Footprint, the site of what will someday become a full-blown re-creation of Shakespeare’s Rose Playhouse, offers a varied menu of lectures, presentations, and even tastings of Shakespearean repasts.
In addition to training professionals, the company also hosts one of the largest theater-in-education programs in the Northeast, reaching more than 50,000 students a year from the Berkshires and beyond. Realizing her effect on generations of New Englanders has surprised Packer.
“I think one of the joys of doing something over a period of time is you keep passing on the knowledge,” she said. “I’m teaching the children of the children. There’s something about the continuity which is truly rewarding.” (413) 637-1199; www.shakespeare.org.