Fair Assembly honors Shakespeare through movement, ensemble, and a love for his words
A new company committed to the work of William Shakespeare has popped up in Dallas. Spearheaded by SMU Theatre and Dance Alumni Emily Ernst, Christopher Rutherford, Joshua L. Peugh and Brandon Walker, Fair Assembly is committed to offering “text-driven, ensemble-led, minimally produced Shakespeare in an intimate space.”
The company sprouted from an idea that’s been germinating in Ernst’s creative thoughts for about 12 years. She returned to Dallas after attending the prestigious L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, and realized the timing was ripe for Fair Assembly’s actualization. Together with her friends, she crowdfunded the project, gathered the cast, and set out with a brisk vision.
I was curious about what this type of approach would look like in performance, and I wanted to know more about their process of taking the classic text from page to stage. The hour I spent talking with them was a vibrant contribution to my work week. As they lead up to the opening of their first production, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, these theatre makers carry an energy of passion, dedication, and fierce admiration for not only Shakespeare’s words, but his method of working.
How did your time at the LaCoq school influence the idea for Fair Assembly?
I came back from LaCoq and felt ready to make my own work in a way that I hadn't when I was younger. What we did [at LaCoq] was very scrappy. We would rehearse anywhere and what we showed was mostly bodies in space and not a lot of production value. And I found that to be really powerful - even more powerful than some of the most expensive productions I've seen. So, I wanted to work in that way.
We’ve described this process as an actor’s gymnasium. It gives an opportunity for actors to show the ability using the voice and movement, and facility with language. There's no central director. Shakespeare worked in that way. His troop was full of actor/managers and each one kind of compartmentalize the production and took on different roles. So, we're doing that.
It sounds like the process is not only text-based, but highly movement based.
Emily: Yes. Well, movement is text. That's something that I realized while I was at LaCoq. The body knows things about which the mind is ignorant. It’s been really helpful to have a thoughtful movement-oriented process. We always come back to movement because the words are on a bedrock, but then we're using the movements to make the words come alive.
By using movement, the text actually has something else to live on other than just the inside of your mouth and in your mind. Joshua has taken us through several exercises and now it seems that we're actually using movement, not just for the discovery of moments, but we're using movement to become an ensemble that breathes together, that has a shape together and starts and stops in unison.
Given the size of Shakespeare’s canon, why did you choose Romeo and Juliet specifically? Is this play timely in 2020 America, or did you choose it for a different reason?
Christopher: I don't know if you know this, but Romeo and Juliet is on the banned reading list for middle schools. Honestly, for me, I’d like to get as many middle schoolers as we can to come and see the play. I would rather be a rabble rouser about it because I feel that they're kind of sanitizing humanity. Yes. the play deals with heavy stuff – teen suicide and --
Emily: -- which have sky-rocketed since 2012.
Christopher: Yeah, those things aren’t stopping. Romeo and Juliet is one of the most enlightening play about teenage suicide - the classic play about teenage passion and how that can be a tragedy. That’s one reason I’m excited to tell this story.
I've always been excited about the story. It’s such an iconic story that's been interpreted and reinterpreted and re-imagined in so many different ways that there's something powerful about going back to the original text. That's super interesting to me because I think the way that we have changed, both in our own minds, and our culture has changed. It’s really cool to come back to the original texts and see what's really there and, and what has been changed and why.
What would you say to someone who has never seen Shakespeare, or might be nervous about seeing Shakespeare? Does this approach provide a deeper accessibility for audiences?
Joshua: Something that we've done with this production – is we’ve physically dropped right in the middle of the room. So, the play is happening in and around the audience. And I think that makes it more accessible in a way that it's not when it's a bigger production. Also, the time that we took with the text. I think we spent the first 10 hours of rehearsal sitting around the table getting comprehension as a group about what the text actually said and not any sort of ornamentation that we wanted to add to it. We’ve been really careful about trying not to ornament anything because it doesn't enhance the text. So, for that reason, I think that watching it and listening to it feels more accessible.
What is the inspiration for the title of your company – Fair Assembly?
Emily: There's a line in Romeo and Juliet - an illiterate servant comes in and needs somebody to read a list, and Romeo kind of messes with him and then says,” okay, yeah, I can read.” He reads the group and it turns out that the person who he’s been pining after is on the list and he’s sort of in awe and says, “oh, a fair assembly.” And I realized [the phrase] is also in a few other Shakespeare plays – All’s Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry VIII. It's an Elizabethan turn of phrase that basically means: a lovely group of people.
Finally, what keeps your creative spark alive? What keeps you inspired and provides generative energy for you?
Joshua: For me, it's curiosity. It's re-framing questions and it's about the shared experience, both in the creative process and the shared experience with people during the performance.
Emily: I know that creativity is a renewable energy source, but I've also been thinking about how our attention span has changed so much with smartphones. I think theater is one of the last places where we actually put our phones away. The challenge to keep someone's attention is happened in like a macro way with the entire play, but also line by line and you can feel when you're in the middle of a soliloquy when people start to back away, or even internally when they shift. It’s exciting to try to maintain attention by telling a story like this.
There's something so validating about just making an effort for something really, thrillingly honest sometimes. You have so much you have to do within the course of a day where you just keep maintaining yourself. There’s something exhilarating about wanting to get together with a group of people who want to create a moment of honesty and presence. It doesn't just happen to you. You have to seek it out. So, being around other people who are interested in that and are driven by that is contagious.
Fair Assembly will present Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in a limited run at Arts Mission Oak Cliff, 410 S. Windomere, Dallas – opening January 30 and running through February 2, 2020. Co-Directed by Emily Ernst, Joshua L. Peugh, and Christopher Rutherford.
For tickets, visit www.artsmissionoc.com/events-calendar/fairassembly.
To help support Fair Assembly’s production, check out their Indiegogo page.