The plotlines of William Shakespeare’s most famous works, like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet,” are almost universally known. Less common, though, is knowledge of how Shakespeare’s theaters actually operated and how his plays were performed in relation to their time. Sweet Tea Shakespeare, currently housed in the 1897 Poe House on Arsenal Avenue in downtown Fayetteville, puts on shows born from an organization that reflects Shakespeare’s ideologies and methods.
That doesn’t mean STS is not contemporary – in fact, quite the opposite. Jeremy Fiebig, STS artistic director and president, founded the company in 2012 after moving to Fayetteville to teach theater at Fayetteville State University. He brought with him experience as an assistant director, stage manager and understudy at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, three years’ experience teaching theater at Waldorf University in Forest City, Iowa, and a love for the spirit of Shakespeare. That spirit, he said, is rooted in accessibility.
He explained that, “One hundred years before Shakespeare became Shakespeare,” the printing press created a fast-growing separation between those who could read and those who could not. “Shakespeare was writing pieces of literature that were read out loud,” Fiebig said. “He was playing with the language in the same way they were doing in print, but it was accessible to a whole group of people who maybe hadn’t been educated in the same way he had. That was the kindling that caused him to catch fire.”
STS performs more than just plays written by Shakespeare, but Fiebig said that, no matter the source material, “We try to be accessible to all audiences, regardless of background. That makes us do what we do in a certain style that’s... like a combination of musical theater and children’s theater.” At the same time, he said, those who know the original texts will still find STS shows true to the essence of the language.
Associate artistic directors Jessica Osnoe and Marie Lowe added that STS aims to inspire wonder and delight, not just in the stories but in demonstrating creative solutions for how to tell those stories with basic materials like Shakespeare would have used – fabric, light, wood, live music.
“Jeremy has one of the best visual senses of anyone I’ve ever worked with,” Lowe said. “So many things in Shakespearean plays... are difficult to produce: ships, castles, harpies, magic, storms. Jeremy finds truly delightful ways of invoking these things without actually building a castle or crafting a ship.
“That visual wonder … That’s one thing I think every audience comes away from our shows (talking about).”
This wonder is homegrown by committed company members performing a variety of roles, both administrative and performative, rather than a cast that rotates with every show. “We organize ourselves in the way medieval and renaissance companies would have,” Fiebig said. “That structure is responsible for turning us into what we are today.”
Osnoe explained that eight STS “masters” operate in a structure like a craftsman’s guild, each overseeing an “area of responsibility and apprenticeship with and for other company members known as ‘fellows’ and ‘wrights.’ The company comprises nearly 40 members, all with varying backgrounds, training and theatrical experience.”
This structure, she explained, allows different members to take turns hosting different responsibilities, contributing his or her strengths and in turn receiving feedback and guidance for growth that will benefit not just them but the entire company. Entrylevel company members – the “wrights” and “fellows” – have the opportunity to move up as they continue to dedicate their time and talents to the larger body.
Fiebig added that actors who do not wish to commit to company membership are still welcome to audition and that STS shows usually feature a mixture of company members and one-time performers.
STS also includes a youth company, Green Tea, which offers young adults ages 12-17 monthly classes and the chance to perform.
The next opportunities to see STS at work are “Pericles” and “The Tempest,” which are running in repertoire every other night June 5-21, except for June 18. These shows will conclude the company’s 2017-18 season.
Fiebig is directing both shows, with the help of codirector Jessica Schiermeister for “Pericles.” “Pericles” follows the adventures of the Prince of Tyre, a character Fiebig described as “a great, regular old hero, like Jesus or, you know, D’Artagnan. A guy to whom things happen. Like Harry Potter.”
Pericles, who will be played by Richard Adlam, charges around various locations in ancient Greece, experiencing shipwrecks, pirates, a murder plot, incest and romance – not necessarily in that order. With a 35-person cast playing a total of over 60 roles, it’s the largest number of people STS has ever involved in a production.
“The Tempest” tells the story of, in Fiebig’s words, “this guy who in part feels like he screwed up his life with his approach to the world. He’s a loner. He feels like the last 12-15 years of his life, he’s been suffering the consequences.”
The guy, Prospero, is a sorcerer and the rightful Duke of Milan. The consequences are that he’s been stranded on a desert island with his daughter, Miranda, for over a decade. The story that unfolds introduces us to, in addition to Prospero and Miranda, a captive spirit, a bitter monster, a scheming brother, a lovesick prince and a wise counselor, among others. “(The story) is ultimately about forgiveness,” Fiebig said. Prospero will be played by Ana Burby.
STS 2018-19 season
The new season kicks off in August and winds down next June. It will feature:
• “The Comedy of Errors,” a story about a set of twins separated and the sweet, confusing, satisfying chaos and reunions that follow.
• “OthelLIT,” a uniquely light-dark and boozy spoof on “Othello,” the tragic tale of love, deception and revenge.
• “Behold,” a folk Christmas cantata that joyfully blends the new and the traditional.
• “Sweeney Todd,” to be performed at Fayetteville Pie Company in the Westwood Shopping Center. The story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is deliciously adapted with rich, saucy danger, despair and … a cat.
• “Maid Marian,” a new adaptation of “Robin Hood” by Osnoe. Get to know a new voice in the narrative. “I think it will mostly be bittersweet,” Osnoe said.
• “Richard III” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” in repertory. The first features one of Shakespeare’s most infamous villains and is a twisted tale of manipulation as a malcontent rises to power. Fiebig said it will feature electric guitars for a bluesy, rock feel. “The Merry Wives” is, in Fiebig’s words, “a great comedy while we’re still in the honeymoon phase of Megan and Harry,” referring to the recent royal wedding. “It has to do with who’s married to whom and who would like to be married whom.”
Fiebig reflected on his future goals for STS, saying, “We want to grow our relationship with Fayetteville and its businesses, organizations, families and individuals. I think for a city to work, actors and directors and designers are as critical as police and firemen and EMS workers. It’s so important to us that we aren’t just making art, but making art for here and making artists who will make a life here.”
For showtimes, tickets and more information, visit www.sweetteashakespeare.com.