Jason Young, co-founder of West Virginia’s only touring Shakespeare troupe, rejects the notion that his group, the Rustic Mechanicals, might be playing the role of savior bringing culture to small-town rubes.
In his view, the Bard already belongs to rural America, because he, as a small-town West Virginian, belongs to rural America.
“We do this because we are the hicks who happen to know Shakespeare, and we’re making an investment in our home,” he said.
Reports of Rust Belt decline often focus on the shrinking paycheck, but the dispossession is also cultural. When a factory closes, a town loses a thousand people who could pay ten bucks to see a concert or show. Art follows the money. It’s a kind of poverty that most journalism about economic and economic geography struggles to capture.
That’s why Young’s work is so important. The Bridgeport, West Virginia-based director and actor is busy rehearsing and in 2022 will lead his troupe of 10 or so actors on a 60-date tour of West Virginia and surrounding states. Starting in April, they’ll perform — incredibly — five different plays: Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Love Labor’s Lost. The venture is funded by fees from schools and theaters, and grant money.
The troupe is still organizing bookings and ironing out their schedule, and all details will be available on their Facebook page.
Each play will be cut down to 90 minutes and performed with simple costumes and modern music.
Young founded the troupe, named after rambling actors in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with West Virginia actor Celi Oliveto in 2014. Young, who was born in West Virginia’s southern coalfields, where his dad worked as a mine health and safety inspector, had been teaching high school drama for six years and was tired, he told me, of “churning out musicals so parents could clap for their kid while he’s dressed as a Dalmatian.”
The new gang started in 2014 with a seven-person production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that toured four venues, including an amphitheater attached to a Baptist church.
Since then they’ve performed two dozen plays. One of them was a Romeo and Juliet, with West Virginia’s most famous feuding families, the Hatfields and McCoys, as the warring Montagues and Capulets.
To help West Virginian audiences connect with Shakespeare, Young enlisted the help of nationally experienced Shakespearen director Jim Warren, who espouses a populist interpretation of the Bard with audiences surrounding the action and seeing each other.
“If you recreate some of the staging conditions that [Shakespeare] was writing for, you uncover some of the magic,” Warren told me. “People immediately go for the ride because they’re not there for crushed velvet Shakespeare. They’re there for the popular entertainment and the fun that Shakespeare is.”
In schools, “we get to say how many of you have seen live Shakespeare before and like nobody’s hands go up,” said Young. “And then in that moment, we get to be the very first Shakespeare for these kids. And now if some of those students ever think about Dogberry [the night watchman in Much Ado About Nothing] again, they will think about me. I am the Dogberry that is in their head, and I think that’s a really, really cool thing.”
A lot of military veterans attend the plays. “Shakespeare writes soldiers all over the place, and West Virginia is a state that has a very high rate of military service and military participation,” said Young.
I asked: Are there plays that speak to the condition of rural America, Appalachia, and West Virginia? Yes, said Young, because so much is at stake right now during a moment of economic, cultural and political crisis. “Joss Whedon talks about how Shakespeare and Marvel Cinematic Universe are not that far apart because it’s about people that make epic decisions, and they’re the same decisions that we have to make in life,” he said. “We just don’t have kingdoms riding on our choices.”
The Rustic Mechanicals philosophy is to make the language accessible by owning it. “We’re text-centric,” said Young, using a familiar term in Shakespeare theater circles. “We spend at least two weeks of our rehearsal process going through every single word in the play,” he said. “And this is a technique that Jim brought us that he calls word swapping. We go through every single word in the play, and we look at it and we examine it and we try to figure out what is the heart of this word? Like what is exactly Shakespeare trying to say with this word? And why did he put it here? And then how can I use the word that Shakespeare chose to convey the song or the feeling of the scene.”
Warren told me Shakespeare is often taught poorly in schools. The language barrier starts in school “when you’ve got to read this play and you’re going to be tested on it.” That, he said, “is where ‘Shakesfear’ starts.” The best modern equivalent that often opens up Shakespeare for kids, he added, “is rap and hip hop music. If you look at those lyrics, yeah, on a printed sheet, and you’ve never heard it performed you might think what the heck is going on? Because that medium uses a different flavor of heightened language. Yeah, it’s not how everybody talks. In rhyme. Listen to the rhyme scheme of that particular track. That’s exactly what Shakespeare was. I don’t think everybody walked around Elizabethan London talking like Shakespeare. He wrote in a heightened poetic style. That was cool for their audience to listen to how he was going to manipulate language.”
Young noted that West Virginia’s population has shrunk to 1.8 million from over 2 million in 1950, but he’s not leaving. ““I am one of those guys that jumps in the river and then builds the boat while we’re going downstream,” he said. “Right now, I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.”
John W. Miller is a Pittsburgh-based former Wall Street Journal reporter and co-director of the PBS film Moundsville