A 1967 Dartmouth graduate with a degree in English literature, Ralph Cohen was consumed by the brilliance of the moderns, until he came to Duke for graduate school. "At Duke, I encountered George Walton Williams in his class on William Shakespeare. He was one of those teachers who seem to embody his subject. It turned my perspective around," he says.
Cohen soon shifted from modern American and English literature to its foundation--Shakespeare. That intellectual pursuit became the guiding light of his career and the spark that led to building a reproduction of Shakespeare's winter theater site in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.
"While at Duke, I saw myself as a literary scholar--still do sometimes," he says.
His mentor Williams, now a professor emeritus, became Cohen's Ph.D. adviser, and lifelong friend and supporter. "His extraordinary example and his utter belief in the critical importance of every word [of Shakespeare] are what I first remember when I think of Duke," says Cohen.
After earning his doctorate, he taught at James Madison University. Helping to teach a playwriting course led to his founding JMU's London program. He began taking students to London and Stratford-upon-Avon. "As Williams had done for me, I wanted my students to know what was 'so great about Shakespeare.' Williams taught me more than just how to read Shakespeare. He showed me how to think things through and how to believe in myself. So after seeing Shakespeare produced on stage so often, I began to think I might be able to direct."
He started directing in the Eighties with Taming of the Shrew. He says he felt he'd discovered a better way to involve students and audiences in the magic of language, humor, drama, and wisdom about the human soul that is Shakespeare. "I had the confidence--or arrogance--to think that I might know how to do Shakespeare in a way that would be more interesting than was even being done at the time by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
"The plays were written to be staged. The best way to understand them is to produce. And even better than to simply produce is to produce them under conditions similar to those that Shakespeare himself used."
Drawing on his own love of the Bard, Williams' good lessons, and a network of supportive Duke alumni friends, including Tom Berger Ph.D. '69 and Russ McDonald '71, Cohen founded the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express (SSE) in 1988. His mentor-professor continued to provide support as well.
"When Williams took me on as his advisee, he did so--as I've learned in the last thirty-three years--on a permanent basis," he says. "He and his wife, Harriet, are still an active part of our lives and I never write or direct anything without first assuring myself that I can justify my choices to George."
After several years, and after working closely with those who brought Shakespeare's Globe Theatre back to life in London, Cohen began to work on finding a permanent home for SSE. Fund raising began in January 1999, and the theater opened in Staunton, Virginia, on September 21, 2001.
Cohen, who continues to teach at JMU, went one step further: He found a way to pass on his knowledge, his love of the subject matter, and the perspective that there should be no wall between literary and stage interpretation. He established an M.Litt./M.F.A. at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton. And he gets to teach a graduate course each semester as part of the program.
Leotta is a storyteller and writer living in Burke, Virginia.