The Frog & Peach Theatre Company didn’t start out to be noble. We were just Members of The Actors Studio out to satisfy our curiosity: what if we could perform Shakespeare’s plays the way we’d always wanted to see them?
We wanted to try a dangerous mix of Method training, voracious text analysis and unembarrassed intimacy with the audience. We wanted to carefully cut the plays down to about the length of a movie, and see if we could turn people onto Shakespeare. Some said it couldn’t be done.
“What’s your concept?” they wanted to know. “What’s your style?”
We let the language set the style; Shakespeare’s company all wore the nicest contemporary clothes they had, and added just a touch of period: a Roman helmet here, an Egyptian headdress there. Cool idea, and cheap!
And even if we’d had a ton of money, concept can get a little wearying; you know, Mafia Merchant of Venice, Cowboy King Lear. Playing with concept can be a lot of fun; but it wasn’t a something we wanted to pursue.
This simplicity has brought Frog & Peach a great deal of acclaim, and has attracted a gifted core group of artists. Company members include stage greats like Austin Pendleton, Earl Hyman, Academy Award nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno, and the fabulous Karen Lynn Gorney.
Our first audience was ideal for our purposes: the Summer Day Camp Program at St Clements Church on West 46th Street.
We called up a bunch of other maniacs and got to work on Hamlet. There was a great deal of hamming at the first reading, some wildly conflicting interpretations, and vicious arguments. We were having a ball! But we decided somebody had to direct this experiment, and the job went to the least hammy and most wily company member, the lovely Lynnea Benson.
We stuck to the script and didn’t modernize the text at all. Now, these were kids of working parents in the neighborhood some call Hell’s Kitchen.
We were terrified. But the kids went wild for it! They were rapt and silent as Hamlet and Polonius and Claudius directly addressed them as important, trusted friends. They roared appreciatively at the funny parts, and strained not to miss one bit of the combat. We got to talk to them afterwards and they were just incredibly turned on to the story: Dad’s gone, Mom got remarried too soon; there were two-faced friends and a cute girl with a strict father. We were definitely on to something.
The company has been together ever since, thanks in large part to our incredibly supportive audience and our community, who, like those kids at the Summer day camp, really got into what Shakespeare has to say.
We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the generous support and encouragement of Reverend Bob Brashear and The West-Park Church (86th St & Amsterdam Ave), our first real home, where we mounted 17 full length productions completely free to the public. We built our audience and won much critical acclaim.
When West-Park closed for renovations, we continued to produce shows at various venues. Despite critical successes, it was hard to keep going without a home, and there were some very dark days.
But perseverance paid off. Our new home is at the beautiful West End Theatre, located in The Church of St Paul & St Andrew (corner of 86th St & West End Avenue). Plush seats, wheelchair accessibility, and a real dressing room! Lights that work! Wow! Was it worth waiting for, after all that time in the wilderness? You bet!
Our first season was a bona fide hit. Richard III starred Anatol Yusef (RSC) and Karen Lynn Gorney. As You Like It starred the fabulous Sidney Williams and Camryn Grimes. We greeted many long-time friends and made lots of new ones, as people from all over the tri-state area flocked to see what the critics called “well-conceived,” “impressive,” even “perfect!”. And even though we can’t do all our shows for free anymore, we make sure a good portion of seats are reserved for our special guests: the young, the less affluent, and the elderly in our community who might otherwise never see a play, let alone a Classic. Those bright young faces from our early days in Hell’s Kitchen are never far from our thoughts.
Shakespeare has a lot of important things to say about politics and sex and family and liars. He has a lot to say about faith and regret and war. Modern life can pretend all it wants to that things don’t get as irrational as they once did, what with kings and all, but the world is still pretty messed up.
One special message in each of Shakespeare’s plays is that we are all in this together, and his words are like a balm to the cynicism and resentment these awful times are bringing. Our beautiful city, so divided by have & have-not, so hurting and so skeptical about what light there is to come, has a real need for this special nourishment.
At Frog & Peach, we feel it’s our duty to provide that nourishment, and will continue to strive to do so.