All the World's a Stage at the Atlanta Shakespeare Company

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Photo Source: Atlanta Shakespeare Company

Jeff Watkins, artistic director of the Atlanta Shakespeare Company, can't help but show his love of the Bard. "It's just such terrific, juicy stuff," he gushes. And indeed, a solid box office and legions of local fans agree. We spoke to Watkins about the theater troupe, its Apprentice Company, and what we can look forward to in the coming months.

Tell us a little bit about the company.
We're a 240-seat thrust playhouse, with table seating and food and drinks.Though we're not strictly a dinner theater, since there's no service during the performance. Still, people often come and stay the day. We do 12 to 16 productions a year and have 22 full-time members—many of whom have full-time jobs here. We're also the only American Shakespeare company to perform the entire 39-play canon.

How were you able to do that?
Well, Shakespeare for the past 30 to 40 years has been the purview of the conceptual director. We call ourselves an "Original Practice Playhouse." We perform the plays as Shakespeare wrote them—we do very simple productions of great plays.
And a lot of the plays don't lend themselves to a conceptual approach. In the history plays, you lose the propaganda value. These were about reaffirming the right of Elizabeth and James' England. They're cautionary tales of what happens when you do not do your duty—the kingdom falls into disarray and you end up with Richard III. You can't honor that and put your individual stamp on it.

In addition to the performances, you also have an Apprentice Company. Can you talk a little bit about that?
The Apprentice Company is an eight-month gig where the chosen actors are paid for performance or work calls. It's a great chance for them to learn or beef up their Shakespeare skills. We also teach things like basic hand-to-hand combat, madrigal singing, trumpet fanfares, and what I call "recorder choirs."

The actors also learn the things we need in our company, like running a light board, assisting backstage, working the front of house. After eight months we hire the ones who are best qualified for what we do. And there are a lot of different avenues where they can remain employed. It's turned out to be an extraordinary thing for the company. About 80 to 90 percent of people who work here who are under 40 came from our Apprentice Program.
What type of actor are you looking for?
We're always looking for young actors, diversity, the next Juliet or Beatrice. A whole lot is attitude and openness and bravery. We're very interactive with our audience and we're not interested in rehearsed conversation. I think of us as having the precision of Mozart with the feeling of an improv show.

We do not spend a lot of time rehearsing—Shakespeare's company was in a hurry and so are we. You have to just jump in and run like hell. The young people really rise to that occasion when they know what is expected of them.

What do you have coming up?
We love Shakespeare Comedies in the summer! "As You Like It" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" are always popular. The deeper, more complex works are better in the fall. High season, December to March, you can do all kinds of stuff. In the summer we do something that's light. And a whole lot of fun.
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