“When I dare to be powerful, to put my power at the service of my vision, it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid,” Audre Lorde wrote.
Actress Billie Andersson had this vision. One night, walking down the East River Esplanade near the Brooklyn Bridge to The Battery, she noticed the majestic round sandstone Castle Clinton in Battery Park.
“I had never seen it before,” Andersson says of the open-air national monument, originally created to prevent a British invasion in 1812. “And I immediately thought it would be perfect for the performance of Shakespeare, eh Romeo and Juliet.”
This chance encounter started Andersson’s quest to bring classical theater into the space. “I had to find out who was in charge of Castle Clinton, the National Park Service,” she says.
Because Castle Clinton is a national monument, there are many restrictions on the use of the space. “The NPS takes very good care of the castle. You are responsible for ensuring that no damage occurs.”
It took nearly three years to set up the non-profit organization Shakespeare Downton, raise the money and get all the necessary permits. “There were endless challenges every day,” Andersson recalls. “As an unknown actress, it was very difficult to pull that off.”
But Andersson and her husband, actor, director and legendary drama teacher Geoffrey Horne, were undeterred. “The biggest difficulty was creating a theatre. We cannot save anything there and change nothing. Our way through all of this was agreeing to remove the audio equipment and the chairs each night. Everything is packed into a U-Haul and taken to a parking lot.”
In its sixth season, Shakespeare Downtown continues to present free performances of classical theater in this sumptuous outdoor setting. “It’s a magical place, almost hidden in the beautiful battery,” says Andersson of Castle Clinton.
“The weather is strangely cool and breezy with the most beautiful sunsets. At the end of the play, when Joan says she cannot “live without the light of heaven” and “feel the wind in the trees,” looking to the edge of the castle walls and seeing the wind blow and to feel wind blowing the trees as the sun goes down.”
Not only did you do Romeo and Juliet, you did previous productions as well Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and The Three Sisters. “We’ve been working on the play for a year,” says Andersson. “It’s an intense labor of love.”
Free performances of Shakespeare Downtown this month Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw. Complimentary tickets will be distributed on the day of the 5:45pm performance prior to the 6:30pm performance, Thursday through Sunday, June 23 through June 26. The show is directed by Horne. Not only has he taught at the Lee Strasberg Institute for nearly 40 years, but as an actor he has worked with countless legends such as Arthur Penn, Harold Clurman, Sidney Lumet, Otto Preminger, David Lean and Hal Prince.
Andersson plays Joan of Arc, the heroic French peasant girl who led the fight against the British during the 100 Years’ War. Shaw wrote the play using the historical record of her trial for heresy in 1431. “Shaw took her true words from the actual trial,” adds Andersson. “Joan is one of the most beautiful people in the history of the world. She is full of hope, purity, courage, devotion and devotion. Anyone who hears her words can feel her spirit.”