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Kate Eastwood Norris should’ve been a meatpacker. Or a truck driver. Or, um, maybe a lawyer.

At least that’s what one of those career-aptitude tests told her back in high school. “No lie,” says the 33-year-old actress. “It wasn’t a lot of help.”

Especially given that her marine-biologist aspirations—the product of a childhood on the shores of the Chesapeake, “living with the fishes in my hair”—had come to a bitter end.

“Jacques Cousteau was an idol of sorts,” Norris says, “along with Valerie Taylor and the few other diving women who would do things like put chain mail on their arms and then wave half a fish around until a shark came up and bit them.” But two lousy science teachers in a row, plus “a fairly solid rumor that Cousteau wouldn’t allow women on his boat—except for his wife, who cooked—sent me looking elsewhere.”

It’s what she discovered in her various elsewheres (the years abroad, the stretch in the North Carolina apartment with seven roommates, the time in Seattle working as a Holiday Inn cocktail waitress) that led Norris to a life in Washington theater—and now here: the Shenandoah Valley town of Staunton, Va., two-and-a-half hours away from D.C. and a long way from the theater community that’s twice nominated her for leading-actress Helen Hayes Awards.

“Here,” more specifically, is the 300-seat Blackfriars Playhouse, the $5 million, 2-year-old home of Shenandoah Shakespeare’s recently established resident company. It’s a little gem of a theater, all warm woods and soaring beams, and, despite its funding from various local, regional, and state sources, it’s meant to be an anchor for more than Staunton’s downtown renaissance.

Indeed, the audiences currently trickling out of Blackfriars may not grasp just what an ambitious dream they’re part of: This modern-dress King Lear—an unusually bloody, bawdy production complete with a power-suited princess and a PDA-wielding chamberlain—opened in mid-June, in repertory with Much Ado About Nothing and a raucous Elizabethan comedy called The Knight of the Burning Pestle. The rotation runs all the way until next March, adding Molière’s Tartuffe in September and Antony and Cleopatra later in the fall.

Every weekend seems to bring a new group of academics or Shakespeare enthusiasts for workshops and teach-ins pegged to the authentic-performance philosophy that has always been Shenandoah Shakespeare’s hallmark. And the ambitious 15-year-old company, not content with its painstaking re-creation of the 16th-century Blackfriars—the intimate indoor hall where Shakespeare’s company played to prosperous London audiences—is making serious noises about building a 1,300-seat replica of the Bard’s bigger, outdoor home, the Globe.

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Add it all up, and you realize exactly what Shenandoah Shakespeare co-founder Ralph Alan Cohen and his colleagues are doing in this rural enclave, pop. 23,853: They’re trying to create a Shakespeare destination, a mid-Atlantic theatrical mecca in the mold of Ashland, Ore., or Stratford, Ontario, which hosts the world-renowned Shaw Festival .

“The goal is for people to be able to come pretty much any time of the year and find some Shakespeare,” says Cohen. But that’s only one reason the company’s season swallows all but four weeks of the year: “What we want to create is a kind of community where actors have a kind of tenure,” Cohen explains—a place where performers can settle in, “buy a house if they want to, work on their art.”

To that end, an institution traditionally fueled by the raw energy and eagerness of its youngish performers has started to reach out to more established artists, offering a 13-month Actors Equity-sanctioned contract that Cohen hopes “attracts people who put their art first.”

Enter Norris, along with Washington actor Craig Wallace, who’s playing Lear. And enter Joe Banno, the first outside director invited to stage a show at the Blackfriars. (Banno, artistic director of D.C.’s Source Theatre Company, is also the Washington City Paper’s opera critic.)

Of the three of them, only Norris will be camping out in Staunton for the full year. Banno is on board only for Lear, Wallace for that production and Tartuffe. Norris, though, is playing Lear’s Fool, the showy starring role of Beatrice in Much Ado, and the dingbat-ingenue part in Knight of the Burning Pestle. She’s also contemplating Cleopatra and will be the “bombastic old biddy” Madame Parnell in Tartuffe.

Oh, and she’ll be teaching school, too. The Shakespeare destination Cohen is intent on creating isn’t just a locus for theatrical tourism—it’s also envisioned as a place where making theater and thinking about it aren’t different prospects. “I hate the wall between scholarship and practitioner,” says Cohen, who’s been teaching Shakespeare for 30 years and currently heads the MFA/M. Litt. program Shenandoah has established with Staunton’s Mary

Baldwin College.

Norris, who’s already taught a clowning class and will soon lead a graduate-level acting course, expresses an enthusiasm for Cohen’s working method that isn’t exactly surprising: To be entirely accurate, Shenandoah Shakespeare is an elsewhere Norris has charted before. Back when it was still just the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, before the troupe had built itself a permanent home and split itself into itinerant and resident incarnations, Norris spent two years on the road with the company, hopscotching through big cities and small towns for so long that their names all ran together. Often enough, she was onstage for back-to-back matinee and evening performances.

Though she has also spent time in Italy and Greece—and Hungary and the Czech Republic—rooting around in the traditions of commedia dell’arte, teaching herself about the origins of theater, Norris says that it was on those Shenandoah Shakespeare Express tours that she really began to understand how many hats an actor can wear. “Actors usually know how to act, and that’s it,” she explains. “I want to be more of a performer….It’s good for an actor to know every aspect of the theater.”

So when Cohen came calling—four years after Norris said goodbye to the Express and settled in Washington, where she’d played in everything from the mannered comedies of Oliver Goldsmith to the brutal domesticities of Eugene O’Neill to the free-associative musings of Charles Mee—she knew she’d been handed another chance to expand her repertoire. “I want to sing and write and dance and do acrobatics and play instruments and crack whips and juggle and do everything but bear-bait,” she says. “[Shenandoah Shakespeare] allows me to do that.”

But if Shenandoah Shakespeare has all kinds of potential as an idea incubator and a talent lab, it has a few potential problems to deal with, too. Its culture is still an insular one, with too many actors who’ve worked only with the house directors—which can make for performers with a limited understanding of what the rough-and-tumble world of theater-making is really like. “They need to bring in more outside directors,” Norris suggests. “For a lot of these people, Joe was the first person they didn’t know.”

To make a real mark, Shenandoah Shakespeare needs to evolve, to broaden its perspective. “They really want to be recognized as a professional company,” Wallace says. “Reaching out to Joe was a first step in that. They need more professional eyes to come in, assess the talent, help them tell the stories.”

Bringing in outsiders poses problems of its own, though: There are habits at Shenandoah Shakespeare that don’t always sit easy with actors and directors accustomed to the efficiencies of union-governed professional productions.

“They rehearse plays backwards here,” Wallace says. He’s talking about the company’s institutional style, which Cohen values for its authenticity and intellectual rigor: Actors are expected to arrive with strong ideas about who their characters are, and they spend great chunks of rehearsal time just paraphrasing the text, making sure they understand the ideas behind the words. And because Shakespeare’s actors essentially guided their own productions, Shenandoah’s directors haven’t been expected to impose their own visions, but to tease a collective idea of the play out of the ensemble.

After just a three-week rehearsal period, shows can open in a state that feels unfinished to an experienced actor. “They put ’em up and hope they get better,” Wallace says—a reality that Norris seems to find equally frustrating. “I want it right the first time out,” she says. “I could use more time in rehearsal.” Now that the troupe has a home and a resident company, Norris says, “it’s so much better than it was, but they’re not asking how much better it could be.”

That quick-and-dirty rehearsal tradition isn’t the only downside of the organization’s scrappy, Shakespeare-on-a-shoestring tradition: Cast members are expected to write music for the shows—and perform it, too. They also make their own props, move boxes, and unload vans—all things it’s not unreasonable to ask a hungry young bunch of theatrical tyros to do.

Equity actors, however, are another matter. And as the company settles in at the Blackfriars, it’s bound to discover that not every seasoned professional is prepared to be as flexible as Norris and Wallace have been this season.

“Are Kate and I guest artists, or are we members of the troupe?” asks Wallace. It’s not an idle question: On the one hand, Wallace has paid his dues in Washington and at Shakespeare festivals around the country—and, he says, “I feel like I’ve earned the right not to move furniture.” On the other, a stint with Shenandoah is “an opportunity to drop away all the jadedness. These guys are so eager….It’s great to be able to approach the work that way.”

There are probably ways to continue professionalizing the operation without squelching that spirit. One tactic might be to let Cohen offload some of the administrative chores. “They need a managing director,” Wallace suggests, “someone whose only thought is making this place a Shaw or an Ashland.”

In the meantime, perhaps it’s enough that Shenandoah Shakespeare is what it is, that it delivers its idiosyncratic rewards to those who can reconcile themselves to its contradictions. “I have these lofty ideas of an actor as a student of the human condition,” says Norris. “That’s one of the main reasons I came here, to ponder with people who marvel as much as I…the depths of a brilliant playwright, his universal themes, his complicated characters, his remarks on that condition….

“I hope this place becomes what it wants to. It would be a valuable tool for the whole world.” CP