We talk theater with Artistic Director Lynnea Benson of The Frog and Peach Theatre Company, Inc.
So I happened to catch The Frog & Peach Theatre’s latest, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the West End Theater. As all F&P productions are, this was not the usual take on the Bard’s play within a play play and I was treated to a specific wonderful two hour take on Shakespeare’s work. If you’ve yet to catch one of their productions or haven’t been lucky enough to attend one of this company’s celeb-packed readings you really do owe it to yourself to get out to do so. I had occasion to speak with the vivaciously spirited Lynnea Benson, F&P’s artistic director about all they do…and why.
How and why did this particular group begin?
Ted Zurkowski-company co-founder, brilliant actor/director/composer, and all-around Renaissance Man-I went so far as to marry the guy!-and I felt there was more to be explored in Shakespeare’s work. We had the conviction that the plays had much more to offer modern audiences than what we were seeing.
Like some other theatre groups I know of across the U.S. you guys have a specific mission to bring Shakespeare to the masses that might not regularly have exposure to The Bard. Why Shakespeare and not any other playwright? Is he really ‘all that’?
There was a time not long ago when almost every American who could read had a volume or two of Shakespeare handy; he was widely read for pleasure, by farmers and coal miners to bankers and high society folk. The current thing of “oh, the plays are elitist, they’re way too hard to understand, they’re just for fancy people” etc. is a relatively recent development–I don’t know where it comes from. At Frog & Peach, we prove that that is just plain wrong.
He’s especially for regular people. The plays are brimming with good lessons on how to live peacefully and generously, but they’re also very subversive, funny, and very enjoyable to watch. Also, the characters are very rich–not even the monsters are all bad, and the so-called good guys often do really stupid, terrible things. The plays are much more honest (and in a way, more loving toward people) than most of the happy-family stuff your parents want you to read. You really feel an intimate connection to these startlingly modern, angry, funny people. It’s kind of like being twelve years old and hanging out with your older cousin’s extremely cute, slightly dangerous friends. So yeah, Shakespeare’s all that…and more.
Your particular way of presenting Shakespeare is unique. Would you care to elaborate on what an audience can hope to experience with a Frog and Peach production?
Again, it speaks to the twelve year old in us. In Shakespeare’s time, going to a live show was a big deal, kind of like going to the Superbowl, or to the old-time movie houses where you’d get a newsreel, a bunch of cartoons, and coming attractions and a double feature. It’s always been important that audiences feel they’re getting their money’s worth, and in Shakespeare’s time, that meant a four or five hour show. Also, since there wasn’t any intermission in Shakespeare’s time, you’d have people going back and forth to the bathroom or to get something to eat, so just like instant replays at a sporting event, you often see repeated passages to make sure everyone’s got the story.
So although we never modernize the language, we do edit the plays to fit the needs of a modern audience. We carefully edit the repeated and archaic passages, and some of the ‘words from our sponsor,’ bits-Shakespeare wisely had lots of good things to say about his supporters’ ancestors, and these references don’t always make sense to modern people, nor do they always move the play along. And our performances really do move along–modern audiences are very quick, so we never talk slow, and would never dream of talking down to them.
You mentioned to me early that your approach includes The First Folio editions; can you explain what that is?
Yes, we start with The First Folio editions of the plays, the acting editions used in Shakespeare’s time. In those days, each actor would get a rolled-up piece of paper with just his cues and lines on it–no additional information about what the other characters were up to when you weren’t onstage…incidentally this is where we get the word ‘role’ from. It’s a very efficient system for putting a show up with little rehearsal time, and it gives the actors and directors a lot of clues about staging and character choices.
The First Folio approach also takes the audience into great account AS PARTICIPANTS. In modern theatre, you’re up on stage with lights in your eyes– you can’t really see who’s sitting out there. In Shakespeare’s time, the shows took place in daylight–so it was natural to speak directly to the people in the audience. There’s a lot of arguing among modern method actors about the value of the Fourth Wall, the imaginary barrier between you and the audience and it takes years to learn how to create the Fourth Wall, to be very private on stage. Frog & Peach often tears that wall down, with characters imploring, conspiring with, and sharing life’s ups and downs with the audience.
Making eye contact with the viewer is especially difficult for good actors to learn. I know brilliant actors who cannot do it, but for those who can, it’s a thrill you can’t imagine or explain. And it’s an important part of what we do at Frog & Peach. Audiences of all ages and backgrounds are quick to understand that this is a two-way relationship, and are unfailingly generous in reciprocating.
You rent the spaces for your reading and plays. Is it just too God awful cost pejorative to maintain a permanent space in NYC?
You have no idea. It’s just so expensive. But, like everything else in life, you can’t really own anything anyway. The space is ours for the time we’re in it, and I think we leave a lot of love behind when we move on.
You know, Frog & Peach has kept body and soul together while other companies (with much greater resources than ours) have folded their tents. We owe it all to audience support, and our famously frugal budgets. Rest assured, every donation that comes to Frog & Peach goes toward production costs, and there’s no such thing as a small contribution.
Can you tell us what’s coming-up on the F&P calendar?
Yes! I’m very excited to tell you that we’re having an All Star Benefit Reading at the Players Club July 9. Lots of surprises, special guests, and thrills!
Our fall production brings two of our most popular stars together in a Battle of the Sexes Royale in The Taming Of The Shrew, starring the lovely and terrifying Amy Frances Quint and the swoon-worthy Erick Gonzalez. Shrew runs at The West End Theatre October 11 through November 4…it’s bound to be a rollicking evening of naughty fun. I am so lucky to have these gifted people on board.
How and where can people find you and/or contribute?
Frog & Peach is right in the trenches with everybody else in this economy and we’re humble and grateful for any and all support. Our friends can make a secure, tax-deductible donation by clicking the yellow “Donate” button on our website at http://www.frogandpeachtheatre.org or by sending a check payable to The Frog & Peach Theatre Co and mail it to
The Frog & Peach Theatre Co., Inc
840 West End Ave, #B1
New York, NY 10025
Attn: Lynnea Benson
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