The 5-year rehearsal: How Shakespeare came to Marfa

Actors Darby Hillman and Wallace Shawn play the roles of Isabella and Angelo in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” at the Crowley Theater. Photo by Nicole Rosenthal.

MARFA — This is not a story about Rob Weiner. That is a story I have been all but forbidden from writing though he is, in fact and in spirit, omnipresent in all its parts. As the actors who have been rehearsing, for five years, all five acts of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, take to a stage for the first time, it is hard not to see him as part of the play.

The modestly-sized Crowley Theatre side room is ringed by a dais, surrounding the actors from above with their audience. Weiner sits on the raised platform, legs crossed, genuinely rapt — like he hasn’t been hearing these lines for five years. Then he leaps up, moves across the room, lights a Parliament, shouts a direction. 

Try it a different way. Turn towards that side of the room. Start from the beginning. 

And they do.

On Tuesday night, the cast performed all five acts before an audience for the first and last time. They’ve dubbed it the “final rehearsal,” not “performance.” A performance would signal a kind of studied cleanness that is not the point of these gatherings, not even one before an audience in the Crowley. 

Even after five years, actors occasionally stop to call out, “Line?” Weiner still interjects and redirects, though less than on previous nights, when they were still plodding through an act at a time. 

He laughs uproariously at the comedic stylings of Yoseff Ben-Yehuda and Sam Schonzeit. He is visibly delighted by them all.

When the final rehearsal comes to an end, there is an explosion of applause. There’s also a palpable catharsis for all those in costume: what started five years ago is over. 

How does that feel? I ask Darby Hillman, who played Isabella with a touching vulnerability, days later. “I wish I could tell you,” she says. “I still haven’t really processed it. I’m still processing it.”

When I tell her that Weiner agreed to speak to me only if I spoke to his cast first, she laughs. When I tell her that another cast member had texted me to say that Weiner would not want the focus of the article to be on him, she laughs again. 

It is, unavoidably, about Weiner, she acknowledges — his passion for the material, his bringing the actors into his process, his cultivating a sense of community across long stretches of time, historic shakeups, personal tragedies, state lines. “None of us would have been there doing it if it weren’t for him,” she says. “But he will very much try to place the focus on anybody else.”

I meet Rob Weiner at his home the week after the play, and we talk for roughly one hour over iced water in his backyard; his orange cat purrs in my lap as he smokes his Parliaments. He has certain stipulations: I may not record him, may not quote him directly, and he asks that his photo not appear in the newspaper. Before I leave, he mentions that he’d prefer his name appear in my story as little as possible. 

I hope he will forgive me. His own cast says his name so often.

The first read-through of Measure for Measure took place on a Wednesday evening in 2018, around Rob Weiner’s kitchen table. The play was selected by poet and fellow Marfan Eileen Myles — they had first read it at age 19, when its provocative themes of power and control spoke to them. In the play, first performed in 1604, the chaste Isabella finds herself facing a gruesome abuse of power at the hands of the Duke’s deputy Angelo, who demands her virginity in exchange for the life of her brother Claudio, who is sentenced to die for sleeping with a woman out of wedlock. 

To Myles, it suddenly seemed thematically appropriate –– urgent, even. The Kavanaugh hearings had just taken place. Trump was still president. “I think it’s so interesting, because the issues of the moment are all over it,” says Myles. 

Myles –– who would take the role of Escalus –– was at those early readings from the very beginning. So was Susannah Lipsey, who played several roles, including Juliet. So was Rachel Monroe, who would play Vincentio, the Duke disguising himself as a friar to secure justice for Claudio and Isabella. So was Darby Hillman. All except for Monroe had been involved in prior Rob Weiner projects — most recently, Wallace Shawn’s revision of The Threepenny Opera

Wednesday evening “play practice,” as the participants call it, was a reliable tradition. Every week, a crew would assemble –– around the same table, around the same time –– to eat a delicious meal prepared by Weiner and read through the selected play. 

Over the years, some faces would come and go; some remained consistently present. For those who stayed, the weekly appointments were an important part of their lives. The consistency was a comfort — even more so when chaos struck.

“It became almost like my weekly session, you know, sort of like therapy,” recalls Hillman. “Every Wednesday at 7:30, I knew what I would be doing. And then the pandemic hit and we started doing it on Zoom. And that really became even more like a grounding experience.”

Beyond the pandemic, a lot of change happened in Hillman’s life in a relatively short period: she lost her job. She met her now-partner. She moved to New Mexico. Yet she would still travel back to Marfa whenever she could for rehearsal. She brought her mother, once, when she was in town. She still has an alarm set on her phone for 7 p.m. every Wednesday, labeled “Shakespeare.” 

“I think it was a really important and really special thing, and to me, it’s kind of the best that Marfa has, to be in a small town like that full of creative people and have a real singular thing that you can go to, and engage with them regularly — it’s just it’s really something special,” she says.

In 2021, the group was touched by a devastating loss. David Tompkins, who had been expertly reading the role of Angelo for years, died in a tragic accident when the Marfa roads flooded from heavy rain. His death would weigh heavily on the continued rehearsals. Ultimately, famed actor Wallace Shawn — “Wally,” as the cast called him — would step into the role.

“I think that affected all of us who knew him and were there with him and working with him,” says Myles. “Wally was great. But he was playing the character that David played, and I think all of us were thinking about that at different times.”

Monroe remarks that Tompkins was so good that he was “scary” in the role — which he very much was not in real life — as though he drew from some “well of darkness.”  

The show went on. Shawn filled the role beautifully. Hillman traveled to New York to rehearse the tense, one-on-one scenes their characters shared. Shawn came to Marfa in September for the string of final rehearsals. The passion project that began as dinner table read-throughs was uniting theater-lovers across great distances.

Tompkins’ living presence would also remain throughout the process. On the night of the final rehearsal, Weiner remarked that Tompkins’ spirit was there with them. 

When I speak to Weiner, I get a better sense of just how true that was, tangibly — Tompkins’ reading of Angelo had been so great, his artistic devotion so powerful, it would continue to inform the process of the other actors –– and the spirit of the play itself.

There is a reason for Weiner’s reluctance to speak to me, beyond a desire to divert attention from himself — the relative secrecy of the whole thing is part of its charm, part of the magic. Undeniably, it is part of what makes it so very Marfa. The play was not advertised at all, apart from the banner that stood in the window of the Crowley — which, even then, was too vague to utilize without a little more detective work. 

I knew about Wednesday “play practice” because my friend had invited me months prior (I could never go, due to the newspaper schedule). I knew about the public final rehearsal(s) thanks to a social media post from Monroe, and only nailed down the specifics of timing — one or two acts per night beginning Saturday, all acts run through together on Tuesday — through deliberate inquiries. 

It was authentically, delightfully, word of mouth. But to chalk this up to stubborn old-fashionedness (though, yes, Weiner does not own a cell phone) would be a mistake. It is more about unburdening the artists from the constraints of “performance” and promotion — it is enough for them to simply show up at the little theater and do what they have practiced in front of whoever is there. 

The act of doing, alone or observed, is already worthwhile in itself; it is an argument for art for art’s sake.

It’s all for the actors and their nourishment, not for an audience. But Weiner acknowledges part of the joy and the function of art is in sharing it with others — in connecting with viewers. Sure enough, at a certain point, the actors began to crave bringing their secret Shakespeare club into the public eye.

“After a few years of [table reads], people have lines memorized, and there starts burbling up this desire to perform and to bring it to some sort of conclusion,” says Monroe. “Which Rob…resists, basically.”

Weiner is more concerned with the process itself than wherever the actors arrive at the end of that process — process over “product,” as Monroe puts it. There is a kind of vital creative tension, between the drive to “perform” and the imperative to focus on artistic fulfillment and craft and where those things collide.

Notably, once the play is “performed,” it is not a performance at all — a distinction made clear to me by every person I talk to. “Performance is such a final word,” says Susannah Lipsey, who has been involved in local theater with Weiner since 2011 and has remained in charge of email blasts to cast members. “And so I think the beauty of it is that we’re all just exploring something together. And we end when we think it’s time to end, but it doesn’t necessarily mean like, oh my god, we performed it perfectly — I think the beauty is the imperfection.”

Perfect or not, “performance” or “final rehearsal,” the result is a remarkable accomplishment. The play stretches on for four hours, beginning at 7 p.m. and concluding around 11. Those saddled with line-heavy roles — including Monroe and Hillman — deliver impressive recall. The seats on the dais are packed at Act I, and even as the crowd dwindles as the night wears on, many stay to the end, often erupting in laughter.

The beauty may be in the process, and in the imperfection of whatever end is reached, but it is also in the communal spirit of the endeavor, apparent on Tuesday night when the cast takes their well-deserved bows. “What you see on this stage is the best of Marfa,” says Weiner, addressing the audience. Then, somehow, the cast manages to coax him into being in their cast photo. 

I ask cast members what keeps them coming back: what keeps them coming to rehearsals for five years, what brings them back to Marfa to keep this play alive even after they’ve moved away. 

There is community, consistency, the joy of learning and understanding Shakespeare — and there is Rob Weiner, who fed them every Wednesday, who allowed them to explore a love of theater, who pushed them to be better. His name appears too many times in this story, but it would be dishonest to write it any other way. 

“It is thoroughly sustained by his attention and his energy and his devotion,” says Monroe. “And we’re all riding the wave of his enthusiasm. We couldn’t generate that without him.”

“He’s not going to want to take the credit, but you just have to give it to him. He calls this up in people. And what an incredible thing that is.”