The final session of the Shakespeare Workout was not as terrifying as I’d feared.
From day one, we knew would have to present our scene and monologue — memorized — before a small audience of well-wishers. The teachers, Jennie Israel and Paula Plum, refused to call it a performance. We’d just be “sharing.” Yeah, right.
When the fateful evening arrived, there were about 20 guests. Half were family and friends; the rest, unexpectedly, were members of the resident acting company of Actors Shakespeare Project.
It could have been worse. At some point, maybe three weeks in, Jennie and Paula, had relented about requiring us to memorize. “It’s the first time we ever did that,” Paula said, though she couldn’t say why.
Even so, on the night of the “sharing,” several of my young classmates stood up empty-handed and spoke, admirably, from memory.
Not me. I clutched those pages. But I had worked hard to memorize my King Lear scene so I was able to keep my eyes off the page most of the time. I did not embarrass myself.
In fact, I got laughs with my Troilus and Cressida monologue by making Cressida a southern belle with a full-blown Scarlett O’Hara drawl. That interpretation wouldn’t fly in a production of the play, but nobody could deny it was a legitimate reading of that bit of text.
My thoughts are like unbridled children, grown
Too headstrong for their mother. See, we fools!
Why have I blabb’d?…
Sweet, bid me hold my tongue,
For in this rapture I shall surely speak
The thing I shall repent ….
Stop my mouth.
Finally we toasted each other with sparkling water and Prosecco and I drove home feeling giddy and depressed, par for the course after a final performance. Most of my classmates were preparing for a next Shakespeare performance or program. I had no such next step. I hadn’t anticipated needing one.
I signed up for the Shakespeare Workout as a lark. I knew I was missing a lot when I saw the plays and this seemed like an enjoyable way to fill in some blanks. Besides, it was only six weeks. What the heck?
But at the end of those six weeks, I was gob-smacked by the language and the depth of the plays and enchanted by my brief immersion in play-acting, convinced that serious rehearsal is the best (if not the only) path to understanding Shakespeare. I could not go cold turkey.
So I decided to strike out and explore Shakespeare in the world only to discover that Shakespeare is a universe, as deep as the Talmud and as vast as Internet: the Talmud for the lively disputations about everything from punctuation to the meaning of life, the Internet for the hyperlinks and all-absorbing rabbit holes. So I filled my summer with (forgive me) Shakesperiences, barely scratching the surface, on page, screen, and stage.
Nothing Like the Sun is Anthony (A Clockwork Orange) Burgess’s historical novel about WS – which is how he refers to the protagonist/hero throughout. The book is florid and lurid, sloshing with strong drink, ripe with vivid sex scenes, and full of direct and indirect references to plays and sonnets that I missed completely.
In Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt writes that Shakespeare biographies are, of necessity, speculative; the material record is too thin for anything else. Greenblatt’s speculations are grounded in close examination of the historical context: genealogical, political, literary, economic, and religious. It’s 150 pages before we get to London, where the Bard’s career began, and I barely minded.
Hamlet’s Dresser is a memoir by Bob Smith, who survived a wretched childhood of neglect and worse with the help of a chance encounter with Shakespeare. “I think that the more confused you are inside,” Smith says, “the more you need to trust a thing outside of yourself. I was desperate to lean against a thing bigger than me, and it was clear that William Shakespeare understood what it’s like to ache and not know why.” As a teenager, he found his way to the Stratford (Connecticut) Shakespeare Festival where he became a wardrobe man and watched countless performances from backstage and became a non-academic expert on WS. Later in life, he taught the plays in senior centers, where his students appreciated “what Shakespeare understood.”
Downloads and DVDs make the whole canon available for watching.
Kenneth Branagh’s odd decision to set As You Like It set in 19th century Japan was almost redeemed by making the wrestling match in the first act into a Sumo contest. Who can resist huge, naked men wearing thongs stomping to the rhythm of iambic pentameter? And look! The romantic lead is the brilliant, classically trained David Oyelowo, who I met as Martin Luther King in the movie Selma.
The BBC’s first season of The Hollow Crown is based on the four history plays called The Henriad, a term I hope to use someday in a Scrabble game. I’ve heard complaints about how much was trimmed from the scripts, though at two hours each, this is hardly Cliff Notes. After these versions of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, (played by Tom Hiddleston: brilliant, classically trained, and nice pecs) I might be able to keep track of who’s who when I see them on stage.
Extra-canonically, my favorite small screen Shakespeare Slings and Arrows, a Canadian TV series set in a small Ontario town’s Shakespeare festival. Most of the action takes place backstage, which is populated by drama queens of all genders and orientations, egomaniacs, lovers, and bean-counters. There’s even a ghost/father-figure who haunts the show’s central character, the director, who struggles to stay true to the text puts him at odds with modern tastes, the bottom line, and his own psychic angst.
A moment of silence for the TV series Will, in which WS is too sexy for his doublet and the groundlings at the theater are covered with tattoos and do a lot of head-banging to what sounds like heavy metal. Anthony Burgess might have loved this. It was cancelled after one season.
May through August, I saw five plays brimming with music, swordplay, pratfalls, love, death, revenge, grief, puppets, low comedy, soaring speeches, wisdom and foolishness.
Actors Shakespeare Project’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream began with a magic spell. A white haired man dressed in a white tux played a white cello on a balcony 30 feet above the stage at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center. Disbelief was banished. Cue the fairies and pixies.
It was my 11th time at a Commonwealth Shakespeare production on Boston Common. This summer, I was one of 88,000 (!) people who sat under the stars and watched Romeo and Juliet fall in love on the balcony and die in the graveyard. At intermission I walked through the audience, which included people of all ages, backgrounds, races, and snack-food preferences, gathered for Shakespeare, no less. Made me glad to be alive and proud to be human.
American Moor, a one-man show written and performed by Keith Hamilton Cobb, reveals the micro- and macro- aggressions endured by this African-America actor throughout his career. The setting and prime example is an audition for the role or Othello, where an unseen director dismisses Cobb’s fierce and dignified interpretation of a scene and asks for a more “ingratiating” approach. In a short run at Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) Plaza Theater
In late August, I drove to Lenox, Mass to see two productions by Shakespeare and Company: Cymbeline and The Tempest, which was mounted in the company’s intimate outdoor venue. Several of the company’s actors played roles in both plays, 23-year-old Ella Loudon among them. One of the few actors without that Equity asterisk by her name, this was her first summer in the company. I watched her embody a thickheaded country boy in Cymbeline. In the Tempest, as Miranda, she seemed to own the enchanted island. Watching her, I felt that I was witnessing the early days of a brilliant career, which I plan to closely follow. “Stalk” is such an ugly word.
I played a small part during my summer of Shakespeare. I bought books, rented movies, paid for tickets, filled a seat and laughed, gasped, sighed, welled up, clapped my hands, and rose to my feet.
There is no role for “audience member” listed in any playbill. And yet, without us, there is no magic, no mystery, no Keith or Ella, and no living, breathing Shakespeare.
Knowing this, how could I possibly stop?