Shakespeare Organizations during COVID-19: An Interview with Sarah Enloe

SAA member Susannah Eig-Gonzalez, a PhD student at University of the Arts, is conducting interviews with Shakespearean actors, directors, educators, and scholars. The purpose of these interviews is to engage in a conversation that addresses the ways in which Shakespeare is being used in this moment as well as how and why we value his work in general. Eig-Gonzalez kindly offered to share her interviews with SAA members. Below is a piece based on a conversation between Eig-Gonzalez and Sarah Enloe, Director of Education for the American Shakespeare Center.

Update on ASC operations as of 06/12/2020: This summer, the ASC will be presenting Othelloand Twelfth Night in Staunton, VA. Performances will be staged indoors with social distancing guidelines in place, as well as outside on the grounds of a local hotel. For those who cannot travel to Staunton, the shows will be streamed online. In July, the ASC will offer its summer camp online, and an in-person teaching seminar is also scheduled to take place. Last but far from least, the Education team is hard at work developing a MOOC based on their study guides; it will have both synchronous and asynchronous portions.

screenshot of Susannah Eig-Gonzalez and Sarah Enloe on a video chat
Susannah Eig-Gonzalez with Sarah Enloe

“But in this changing, what is your intent?” A Conversation with Sarah Enloe

By Susannah Eig-Gonzalez

Tell anyone in the Shakespeare industry that you are researching Shakespeare and education and Sarah Enloe’s name will inevitably materialize like some sort of Bard-Beetlejuice. Given that Enloe has been at the helm of education for the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia for ten years now—and with the organization even longer—her expansive reputation makes sense.

Though she is currently furloughed, there is an air of resolute hope for the future when she recounts the ways in which her department has changed during the past ten years. She has codified the curriculum, which includes a plethora of workshops for students delivered by trained actors and graduate students, developed over 20 study guides, each around 200 pages long, and incorporated the ASC’s core beliefs—like the importance of rhetoric and original practice methods—into their Leadership Workshops, geared towards professionals whose day-to-day lives have very little to do with theatre.

If you travel to Staunton, Virginia to see a show at Blackfriars Playhouse, “the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theatre,” you’ll immediately be struck by one thing: shared lighting.[1]  Enloe explains that this lack of what we consider—by today’s standards—as theatrical lighting is not only a hurrah to the ways of days past—Shakespeare’s company performed in the same light that its audiences sat or, rather, stood in—but also a proven contributor to the social experience of theatre.  The ASC has run a study which proves that being able to connect with the audience through direct eye contact creates a “significant social relationship.” This fact remains true, Enloe adds, even if you are not the audience member who an actor happens to lock eyes with on a particular night. “Our bedrock is this idea that it matters that we’re together, and right now we’re not,” she tells me.

We speak a bit more about the popularity of Shakespeare and why his work has persisted for over 450 years.  Not surprisingly, Enloe makes insightful comments about the importance of Shakespeare in 2020: “The work continues to open conversations.  We need opportunities to have conversations.”  Expanding, she states that in a world that more often than not turns to “fights instead of discourse, we need [Shakespeare’s] willingness to be ambiguous.”  In this political climate, “ambiguous” might very easily be thought of as a dirty word, but Enloe’s point is that the practice of empathy and the founding beliefs of democracy are perhaps closer bedfellows than Twitter feuds might want us to believe.[2]  She sees her role in this conversation as one of gatekeeper, in that she endeavors to “roll back the gates and locks” that often keep people at a distance from Shakespeare.

The American Shakespeare Center has an interesting history.  Started as a traveling ensemble, which touted significant success at home and abroad, it took some convincing for the troupe, known as the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, to plant their roots in Staunton, a town they hoped would become a cultural landmark—think Asheville, NC.  In many ways, they’ve succeed.  Enloe and I briefly discuss the differences between running education for the ASC versus an organization like the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.  While both have excellent reputations and programming, Enloe points out that in DC, it is much more likely to receive someone walking in off the street or interested in learning about Shakespeare on a whim.  With the Center’s remote location, approximately an hour and a half drive from DC and not accessible by public transportation, those who wish to glean the knowledge that Enloe and her team possess must make the pilgrimage to Staunton.  In Enloe’s words, “there is a level of commitment.”

Wanting to know more about the leadership workshops, arguably the least dramatic offering made by Enloe’s department—and therefore the most intriguing—I ask when they began.  Born out of a relationship with the Federal Executive Institute in Charlottesville—and overseen by governmental HR—a little more than ten years ago, the workshops started as a means of convenient income for the theatre.  However, their tenor the has changed in the last decade, and they have flourished into a masterclass in presentation, rhetoric, collaboration, and team-building.  While teaching various tools of rhetoric such as presentation and speech writing skills has always been a part of the curriculum, Enloe has introduced a particularly intriguing exercise: cue scripts.  Cue scripts were the way that Shakespeare and his fellow actors received their lines and learned their part, so called because they only received a “part” of the entire script—it being too costly for the scribe to write out a full script for each member of the cast.  These parts, written out on a scroll or roll of parchment—hence a “role”—had your lines plus the “cue” for your line.  If the person speaking before you had a long speech, it was imperative that you listen precisely in order to not miss your cue word or phrase.

Enloe uses this type of script to build rapport and investigate dynamics amongst teams and their leaders.  And she can’t help but express delight at the fact that participants leave feeling smarter.  She is quick to add, however, that this has nothing to do with intelligence.  Rather, the feeling of “conquering a cultural icon” is what she says empowers them.  Enloe isn’t shy about her ennui in response to the theaters being closed.  She discloses to me that she has plans to infuse the workshops with diversity and equity modules—inspired by her department’s notes on Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and, of course, Shakespeare—when the theatre reopens.

During these days of social distancing, theaters have suffered a particularly immense blow.  The ASC was quick on their feet and therefore able to create massive amounts of online content in the mere week between realizing that closings were imminent and having to shutter their doors.  While the theatre’s forethought is impressive, especially in light of the relative quietness of some in the industry, certain questions are displaced by the mad rush to create content.

Enloe says she’s been thinking about the Princess in Love’s Labors Lost, and I can understand why.  The stampede towards online platforms is beautifully countered by Enloe’s—and Shakespeare’s—Princess, who, far from an impulsive character, offers a judicious bargain to her hasty suitor, Ferdinand:

A time, methinks, too short
To make a world-without-end bargain in.
No, no, my lord, your grace is perjured much,
Full of dear guiltiness; and therefore this:
If for my love, as there is no such cause,
You will do aught, this shall you do for me:
Your oath I will not trust; but go with speed
To some forlorn and naked hermitage,
Remote from all the pleasures of the world;
There stay until the twelve celestial signs
Have brought about the annual reckoning.

Urging him to take the space of the “the twelve celestial signs” before making a “world-without-end bargain,” the Princess offers what seems like prudent advice for all the theaters—and, in fact, for us all—attempting to navigate these rude waters. Yes, the digital space is accessible and vast, and the serious financial need to move online cannot be ignored.  But we need to be intentional about how we use these new avenues.  An excess of content does not good content make, and so, taking a cue from the Princess—and Enloe—we must exercise patience and perseverance.

However, contrary to the Princess’ suggestion that “there is no such cause” for love, we find the opposite to be true when it comes to theatre.  There is more to be loved when it comes to theatre and to Shakespeare.  The Princess is not telling Ferdinand to give up his suit; she is teaching him, if he dare to learn, how to take his time so that the result may prove worth the effort:

If this austere insociable life
Change not your offer made in heat of blood;
If frosts and fasts, hard lodging and thin weeds
Nip not the gaudy blossoms of your love,
But that it bear this trial and last love;
Then, at the expiration of the year,
Come challenge me, challenge me by these deserts

Neither to cease nor to bombard, we, the makers of theatre, must find a way to do what we do best: help people feel.  Our challenge lies in the enforced—and necessary—“insociable life” we must now maneuver around and come to terms with.  (An obstacle previously viewed as insurmountable in regards to our process.)  But even as Enloe bemoans the fact that we can’t be together right now, saying, “you can’t make eye contact through the computer,” she says it while staring me straight in face.  Sure, it’s not the same as if we were in a theatre and she were on stage and I in the audience, but there is something powerful in the one-to-one connection, the link that transcends miles and miles, facilitated by a piece of technological magic itself.

I leave the conversation acknowledging that the unique opportunities afforded by an in-person theatrical performance are not the same as those offered by a Zoom live stream or online workshop.  These two distinct forms take up their own unique and helpful spaces.  Our challenge is not dissimilar to Duke Senior’s in As You Like It.  A ruler banished to the forest, he encourages his followers to “Find tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything” (2.1.16-17).  If we can adjust to this new normal with patience and perseverance, all the while searching for the “good” in virtual space, then we will emerge from this period of incubation with a whole that is much, much larger than the sum of its parts.

*I interviewed Sarah Enloe on April 28, 2020.

[1] “Blackfriars Playhouse” under “About ASC” on

[2] Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theatre in New York City gives a wonderful TED Talk on why theatre is essential to democracy…It has to do with dialogue and differing viewpoints.