John W. Miller of The Daily Yonder writes about a phenomenal troupe of actors who are devoted to bringing Shakespeare to rural America, not as “cultural saviors,” but as people who love the works of the Bard. Remember that Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed. In 19th century America, actors brought Shakespeare plays and scenes to small towns, and sometimes performed in local taverns to enthusiastic audiences who knew the plays well enough to throw tomatoes when the actors messed up their lines. In his important study of Shakespeare and American popular culture, historian Lawrence W. Levine reminds us of the two rogues in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn who “pass themselves off as a duke and a king,” and plan to raise money by performing scenes from Romeo and Juliet and Richard III. The troupe described here are not rogues and they do know their lines.

Miller writes:

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.