Staunton, as you like it: From Shakespeare to concerts to history

Gwen Woolf

Laugh, cry, swoon, and be enchanted at the Blackfriars Playhouse in downtown Staunton, Va., where William Shakespeare’s plays continue to touch universal emotions 451 years after the Bard’s birth. The summer/fall season is under way, with winter and spring offerings on the horizon. Besides theater, there are many other incentives to visit the picturesque Shenandoah Valley town, including music festivals, history, wineries, and walking tours.

The Blackfriars Playhouse at Staunton’s American Shakespeare Center brings the Bard to life, often with a contemporary flair.
The Blackfriars Playhouse at Staunton’s American Shakespeare Center brings the Bard to life, often with a contemporary flair.

Insider tip: For Washington, D.C., area residents, Staunton is a 150-mile drive or an easy ride via Amtrak (especially good for a winter getaway). The train station is just blocks from the theater. If you stay for a weekend, you can see several of the revolving plays.

Several hotels and bed-and-breakfasts in Staunton have lodging-and-theater packages. Among them are the historic Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Frederick House, a small European-style boutique hotel with several buildings. Anne Hathaway’s Cottage — a replica of Shakespeare’s wife’s Tudor birthplace house, complete with thatched roof and rooms named for Romeo and Juliet — offers escorted winery, brewery, or Civil War tours for guests.

The American Shakespeare Center operates Blackfriars Playhouse, which is the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s London indoor theater. The two-story wooden structure has lighting, staging, and seating conditions that replicate those of Shakespeare’s time.

The current season, which runs through Nov. 29, includes the epic love story Antony and Cleopatra, the magical A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the comedy-drama The Winter’s Tale, and the thrilling Shakespeare’s Joan of Arc (Henry VI, Part 1).

The holiday season, Dec. 1–Jan. 3, offers Julius Caesar and The Life of King Henry the Fifth, as well as some non-Shakespeare plays, including A Christmas Carol, The Santaland Diaries, The Twelve Dates of Christmas, and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Bluegrass to chamber music

Three special musical events are offered this summer in Staunton.

The Blues and Brews Festival moves to downtown Staunton for its Aug. 8 edition. The event features local and regional bands, food, and local beers. The festival runs 1:00-9:00pm and attracts several thousand music and beer lovers.

The Frontier Culture Museum is launching an American Roots Music Series, with the theme “Bluegrass on the Pavilion.” Mini-concerts will take place from 5:00 to 7:00pm on alternating Sundays in August. Featured will be several favorite Washington-area bands: Bud’s Collective on Aug. 2, East of Monroe on Aug 16, and Commonwealth Bluegrass Band on Aug. 30. Tickets include admission to the museum. Food and wine also will be available.

The outdoor living-history museum showcases the origins of early frontier settlers with dwellings and outbuildings such as an English manor house and German and Irish farms relocated from those countries. There are also African and American frontier buildings to explore. The museum holds many special events throughout the year. Upcoming is the Frontier Folk-Ways Festival, Sept. 19–20.

See living history at the Frontier Culture Museum.
See living history at the Frontier Culture Museum.

A summer staple for 18 years, the Staunton Music Festival offers 10 days of concerts, lectures, and workshops at various downtown venues, Aug. 14–23. More than 60 musicians from the United States and Europe will perform nearly 30 concerts of chamber and vocal music from the Renaissance to the present.

Among the composers represented are Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Liszt, Dvoàk, and Bernstein.

The final concert is a complete performance of Bach’s St. John Passion, with soloists, chamber chorus, and period instruments at Trinity Episcopal Church. Blackfriars Playhouse and the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace are other festival venues.

Free concerts are offered daily at noon, with ticketed events each evening. The evening shows include pre-concert talks by musicians, composers, and music historians. Lodging and festival ticket packages are available at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Frederick House. Several restaurants also offer discounts to festival attendees.

Visiting Staunton

Staunton, designated as one of the “Best Small Towns in America” by Smithsonian magazine, has a very walkable downtown with more than 100 unique shops, art galleries, and restaurants. For an overview, Staunton Guided Tours, run by a mother-daughter team, gives downtown and area tours by foot, trolley, van, or car.

Just around the corner from the American Shakespeare Center, take a break at Cranberry’s Grocery & Eatery, which combines a natural and organic store with a café serving amazing breakfasts, wraps, and sandwiches as well as gourmet coffee, juices, and smoothies.

You can see a glass-blowing demonstration and shop for fascinating artisan glass products at Sunspots Studios, or learn about Woodrow Wilson at his birthplace and presidential library.

Enjoy the views and the hospitality of John and Shelby Higgs at Barren Ridge Vineyards. The couple cleared an overgrown apple orchard and planted grapevines that produce award-winning wines. They preserved an 1890s apple barn, turning it into a modern winery and tasting room.

Take in Staunton — as you like it!

For more in formation:

American Shakespeare Center:

Frontier Culture Museum:

Staunton Tourism:

Staunton Music Festival:


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