“Magical, energetic, and dynamic” were the first words that came to mind for both Susane Lee and Nicholas Martin-Smith when describing the north end of Riverside Park’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument. The area’s special, stage-like configuration inspired Martin-Smith to found the Hudson Classical Theater Company — formerly known as Hudson Warehouse — in 2004. Since then, Martin-Smith and Lee, the executive artistic director, have worked together with over 100 people each summer to produce original and engaging adaptations of classic literature for the public.
“The bottom line is bringing quality, professional work to the community. That was my initial impulse,” said Martin-Smith. All of the company’s performances at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, located at Riverside Drive and 89th Street, are pay what you wish.
“Sleep and Blood”
“We develop really exciting, accessible adaptations,” said Lee. The Hudson Classical Theater Company strives to bring a wide array of productions to the stage, rather than sticking strictly to Shakespeare, as other theater companies do. The company’s past performances include Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” and, more recently, several adaptations of Jane Austen and Alexandre Dumas’ work.
Since 2010, the Company has put on three shows a summer. They are currently performing “Macbeth,” which Martin-Smith is both directing and starring in. When describing his creative process, Martin-Smith said “two words come out of the script for me — sleep and blood — so I started creating the play around those two ideas and those two images.”
The resulting production is “bloody” indeed; Lee begins the production by handing out ponchos to audience members so that observers can shield their clothing from fake blood. The result is a production that is thrilling and immersive for both audience members and performers alike.
“When the actor is standing six feet away from you, it creates a visceral and immediate connection,” said Martin-Smith.
Lee, previously a documentary writer for PBS, pens unique adaptations for many of the company’s performances. When taking a work from page to stage, Lee said that she likes to “pick out the text’s main ideas and then do my own thing with it.” She continued, “I adapt with artistic freedom. And I think it makes for a richer experience.” Her process is one of “freedom, joy, love, and inspiration.”
Her striking adaptation of Dumas’ three-part “The d’Artagnan Romances” and “Count of Monte Cristo” were particularly popular with audience members.
Her adaptations of classic literature often give audiences a peek into action which its source material confines to the off-screen world. When writing the script for Austen’s “Emma,” performed earlier this summer, Lee found it important to include scenes that depict the love story between Harriet and Robert Martin. Such scenes are absent from Austen’s classic, but when included in the play, make the couple’s eventual severance and reunion more cathartic.
Connecting with the Community
Fans come from as far as New Zealand and Amsterdam to experience the company’s intimate productions. “Theater is a great unifier,” said Martin-Smith. Their performances attract fans of all ages. “One of our audience members brought their granddaughter to “Hamlet,” and she loved it so much. She insisted on going out and buying a copy at Barnes & Noble on the way home to read it,” he recalled.
The Hudson Classical Theater Company also strives to fulfill their mission to help the community through their outreach programs. The company works closely with Goddard Riverside’s Bernie Wohl Arts Center. Their commitment to building the Center’s Community Arts Program — and providing free theater to the public — was recognized when they received Goddard’s “Good Neighbor Award” in 2013.
The company traditionally pays homage to Veterans Day at Goddard. Most recently, Lee interviewed seven Vietnam Veterans and produced a documentary inspired by their stories. The documentary was written and produced over the pandemic, and was streamed virtually. The result was a touching and meaningful tribute.
Hudson Classical Theater also works with four jails around the city, including Rikers, in order to bring theater classes and performances to inmates. While the pandemic prevented the company from working at correctional facilities in person, they have been continuing the program through video.
Lee and Martin-Smith recalled a particularly moving production of “Trojan Women” at Rikers a few years ago. In order to enjoy the play together, 270 inmates of different gang affiliations called a provisional truce.
“Theater is an essential part of what makes us human,” said Mr. Martin Smith, “Touching strangers is kind of miraculous — people come up to me and go ‘wow, and that made me cry.’”
During non-pandemic years, you can also connect with the Hudson Classical Theater Company — and learn how to stage fight — through their outdoor “Shakespeare Workouts.”
Martin-Smith and Lee both currently reside on the Upper West Side. They look forward to continuing their work and celebrating the company’s 20th anniversary with the community next year. They are dedicated to providing a safe and healthy environment for their actors and audience members alike — all of their members test for COVID several times a week.
“What I really want is to create a home for actors and anyone interested in theater. I want them to feel protected. I want them to feel encouraged and supported,” said Martin-Smith.
The Hudson Classical Theater Company is a nonprofit group whose work is made possible through community sponsors, grants, and donations. The Company continues to seek funding so that they can pay the hundreds of people they employ. Local business owners interested in sponsoring the company’s mission can inquire at: email@example.com.
The Hudson Classical Theater Company will be performing “Macbeth” every Thursday through Sunday for the next several weeks. All performances begin at 6:30 p.m. No advance tickets are required. Make sure to swing by before August 21, their closing night and end of their 19th season. You can learn more on their website, https://www.hudsonclassicaltheatercompany.org/index.php.