Not all those who wander are lost.
Actors’ Shakespeare Project is Boston’s most prominent itinerant theater company, making wandering part of its mission and sometimes its aesthetic.
The company leases office space at the Center for Arts at the Armory in Somerville, and recently expanded its presence there to include a large rehearsal room. But its productions jump around the Boston area, this season hitting stages at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester, the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University downtown, and Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill.
AS YOU LIKE IT
“We feel like we want to represent all the neighborhoods in Boston. We want to touch on everyone,” artistic director Allyn Burrows says, sitting in the new rehearsal space.
Now the company wraps up its 10th season with Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It,” a tale of persecuted lovers and assumed identities in the Forest of Arden, presented at the former Springstep cultural center in Medford. Their love blocked at court, Rosalind and Orlando flee separately to the forest, and after many reverses and changes of direction, all ends happily.
Part of the reason Actors’ Shakespeare Project keeps moving is to bring its mix of Shakespeare and playwrights both classic (Chekhov) and contemporary (John Kuntz) to different parts of the Boston area. And part of it is financial and organizational, says Burrows, who was with Shakespeare & Company for years and saw it struggle as it moved from The Mount in Lenox to its own campus in that town.
“Once you take up permanent residence on a piece of real estate, a lot of your resources and a lot of your energies are going to go to maintaining that,” Burrows says. “We like to go into a community and form relationships in the schools, work with the kids, work with those neighborhoods, do lots of outreach, and then plan on coming back.”
Using a new venue for a show has an artistic impact as well.
“The director has got to walk in and say, ‘How does this room speak to this play?’ Because that’s our ace in the hole. That’s what makes up for the fact that at the beginning of the year, we’re like, ‘Where are we going to go now?’ ”
The contemporary architecture of the former Springstep cultural center is a great example, Burrows says. “It’s wild, it’s almost out of ‘War of the Worlds,’ like a big spaceship landed in the middle of Medford Square,” he says. “Even the doors are shaped like portals, you know?”
“It informs the show,” director Robert Walsh agrees. “It can’t not, because it’s such an environment. A real dedication to a period-appropriate clothing look is going to feel really bizarre in that room.” That inspired a turn to steampunk in costume design for the formal culture of the Duke’s court, he says.
Another challenge is finding new avenues for exploration in what is one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays. Walsh is looking forward to delving into the transformation that occurs when the fleeing Rosalind disguises herself as the young man Ganymede. “If you read the play, that happens offstage, and for me I’m much more interested to bring it onstage and see what that’s like. What’s that cost her?” Walsh says.
The task of showing us falls to company member Brooke Hardman, who plays Rosalind opposite Jesse Hinson as Orlando. She says she’s working her way into the role by finding the character’s physical presence.
“I’ve had a lot of fun trying to let Rosalind discover how to be Ganymede onstage,” Hardman says. “It’s not like I know right off the bat how to be a guy. There are some moments we’re playing with where I’m finding out how far I can go and where my voice is and where my stride is and how I stand.
“And it only gets more complicated when I’m with Orlando, because there are points when I definitely forget I’m pretending to be somebody else,” she says.
Costuming helps. “I’m wearing a corset for the first act, which any actress or any woman who has ever worn a corset will tell you, it does something very specific to your body and the way you breathe and the way you move. It’s very constricted,” she says. “And with the taking off of the corset and going into Arden, you can breathe, you can think, you can say what you want, you can be anyone you want to be.”
The other challenge, she says, is that about 80 percent of her lines are prose, not the usual iambic pentameter. “I’m realizing how much as a Shakespearean actor I depend on that meter to look for clues Shakespeare has left as to what’s going on with the character,” Hardman says. “She’s got a lot to say, and she says it very quickly, and it’s easier [to learn] when it’s iambic pentameter. Usually the memorization is not one of the parts of the process I get too worried about but this go-round has been a very unique challenge.”
Burrows lives close by the Springstep building, as do the married actors Paula Plum (who plays Touchstone) and Richard Snee (who plays Corin). Built in 2002, Springstep served as a nonprofit cultural center featuring dance and other arts before closing its doors last year. In the fall, the building was purchased by John Walsh, chief executive officer of the Medford-based Elizabeth Grady skin care company. Reached by phone this week, Walsh declined to discuss the future of the building.
The venue inside has been configured to seat 150, far fewer than other theaters the company has played, including the nearly 350 seats it used at the Chevalier Theatre just a few blocks away. After presenting “Macbeth” at the Chevalier in 2012, Burrows says, some patrons complained it was too big, the actors too far away.
“One of the things our audience really responds to is the immediacy of our storytelling as embodied by the actors in the room,” Burrows says. “People like to be close to the actors with us, we’ve found. It’s kind of our hedge against technology — proximity.”