Shakespeare productions give McSweeny chance to cast CTC vets


CTC alums taking part in “The Merchant of Venice.” Top Row: Ethan McSweeny, Bonnie Brady, Steven Cahill, Matt Carlson, Liz Wisan. Bottom Row: Daniel Pearce, Mark Nelson, Deena Burke, Amelia Pedlow. Submitted photo.

Suzi Starheim | Staff Writer

When he’s not at Chautauqua serving as artistic director of Chautauqua Theater Company, Ethan McSweeny puts his directing skills to good use. He already has plans to direct three productions following the season.  Prior to the start of this summer, he worked with the Shakespeare Theatre Company directing William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”

The show ran June 21 through July 24 at Sidney Harman Hall in Washington, D.C., and McSweeny said what made this production special was the number of CTC alumni in the cast. This list includes former conservatory members Liz Wisan (Nerissa), Amelia Pedlow (Jessica) and Matthew Carlson (Lorenzo).

The show also included Mark Nelson (Shylock), who directed CTC’s 2005 production of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and Daniel Pearce (Launcelot Gobbo), who was a guest artist in “Reckless” in 2008, “The Winter’s Tale” in 2009 and “Close Up Space” last season.

CTC alumni also were helping offstage. This included Stage Manager Bonnie Brady, Voice and Dialect Coach Deena Burke and Composer and Sound Designer Steven Cahill, who just finished his work in CTC’s production of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” on Friday. Michael Kahn, artistic director of STC, also is the founding artistic director of CTC.

McSweeny said looking back at his CTC roster as he was casting for “The Merchant of Venice” was not a difficult decision. He is familiar with the actors’ talent from seeing them perform in CTC shows and said the list of Chautauqua alumni is a reliable one.

“Working with these top actors this early in their careers, I already know where they are, so instead of having to go out and audition and look for them, I can snap them up really fast,” he said. “It’s wonderful for me when I can bring a Chautauqua actor in to audition for something and very easily give them the job, and I feel a great sense of validation of our program here. It’s actually the first list I look at, is who’s a Chautauqua alum that might be a good fit for this, and if nothing else, let me get them in to be seen by this casting director and so forth. That’s always a first step for me in terms of how I go about casting.”

McSweeny said he also casts CTC alumni, who typically are young graduate-school students, to ensure they make their way into the “ever-expanding community of artists.”

“It takes a while for that to take root, because we are typically getting people in their first or second year of graduate school,” he said. “In ‘Merchant,’ I was also very eager to introduce some new blood to STC, which has some tremendous company members and associate artists, but I thought it was in need of some infusion, or of some people they hadn’t met before.”

McSweeny currently is in the process of casting for another play he is directing with STC, Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” which opens Nov. 23. While casting for this show is not yet set in stone, McSweeny said he has quite a few CTC alumni lined up to take part in it. These include two very recent and familiar faces to those who have seen “Love’s Labour’s Lost”: scenic designer Lee Savage and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau.

“Much Ado About Nothing” will be the third Shakespeare production McSweeny has directed in less than eight months. He said he had to get back into practice after not having directed a Shakespeare production for about seven years before “The Merchant of Venice.”

“Shakespeare is a muscle, and when you exercise it frequently, it becomes more adept,” he said. “Your ear tunes to it more adeptly.”

McSweeny also had to have a vision for each of the two productions he already has directed. This can prove difficult, as Shakespeare didn’t write with intricate props or settings in the forefront of his mind.

“There are very few settings called for, so you have to invent them in ways that will hopefully amplify the text in some way. I don’t only reset Shakespeare into other times and places by coincidence,” McSweeny said. “My creative response was to move it to the ’20s in the Lower East Side. In doing so, I didn’t realize until I’d done that that underneath was a real burning desire to essentially restore a missing balance to the play, and that by doing it, it actually allowed it to be a story that was more about warring immigrant groups contesting over little crumbs of the American pie.”

In setting “Love’s Labour’s Lost” on the Chautauqua grounds, McSweeny said his intent was to give people an accessible point of contact so the satiric elements within the play would shine through.

Prior to directing “The Merchant of Venice” for STC, McSweeny had a long history with the company.

“That was where I got my start,” he said.

He began with STC as an intern the summer between his sophomore and junior years of college. He then was hired on as resident assistant director at the age of 22. While working with STC out of college, McSweeny said he assisted with 25 Shakespeare productions directed by approximately 12 different directors.

“The Shakespeare Theatre is second only to Chautauqua as my home theater,” he said.