This whole Richard III thing has got me all jazzed up and put me back in touch with the intensity of my Shakespearean fangirl past.
I was an English Lit major at Northwestern and spent the first six years of my professional life teaching high school English. If I died tomorrow I might be most proud that I was the one to introduce the Bard of England to a certain small group of Minnesotan 8th graders in the early 1990’s. Shakespeare must be seen and heard, not just read! was my motto, and so I invited actor friends to appear in my classroom with scripts in hand and to launch into scenes from the play with no introduction. The students would file into class and Patty and Stuart would simply BE there, BEING Romeo and Juliet. In love, pining, swooning, and making sweet literary love. I was the Nurse once or twice, I remember, fussing after Juliet and worrying about her secret marriage. The kids were transfixed. No one was late to class during that unit of study: in fact, they rushed through the halls to get there on time.
Parents called me and said, “I can’t believe it. He’s in his room reading this thing out loud. What did you do?” I’d say, “I didn’t do anything. Thanks Mr. Shakespeare. He makes great reading.”
My own real introduction to Shakespeare was a baptism by fire in 1982 when I was asked to play Hermia for a summer production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I was 15, a sophomore in high school. The company was entirely student-run and featured the most precocious theatre talent I was ever to know including Jase Draper and Jim Lamb, both now deceased. Jase, a successful actor who had an agent from the time he was about ten and worked out of New York City, has assembled a group of ridiculously talented peers from Fairfield County, and imported a few from Northwestern University where he was a student (a freshman, I believe). They were an extremely intimidating crowd and I was scared to death to accept the role but too thrilled to have been asked not to. I saw myself as the weak link in the cast and spent hour after hour sitting on my bed studying the unfamiliar iambic pentameter so I wouldn’t make a fool of myself alongside the likes of Jim and Jase and the amazing Ellen Reilly who designed and made all our costumes in addition to knocking the role of Helena out of the park.
“Midsummer” remains one of the most personally meaningful works of art for me and believe it or not, I have always seen Bottom as one of the most poignant of Shakespeare’s characters. Poor guy, making mad, delirious love with the Goddess in one moment — divine rapture! waited on by faerie attendants! – and then waking in a field the next with nothing but a vague memory of ecstasy and a foolish sense of his own gross mortality. Dude, I know how you feel.
There is a video tape of our “Midsummer” production floating around somewhere. I’d love to see it. The composer Christopher Jeffries, also a product of that precocious troupe who was about 16 years old at the time, composed and arranged a gorgeous original score and I would dearly love to hear it again.
Much to my disappointment I never acted in another Shakespeare production again, although I crave the opportunity. I don’t know if I’m even capable of memorizing that volume of dialogue anymore, and I don’t know if I’m technically adept enough an actor to tackle anything but a very small role. But oh, how I’d love to try.
How many times have I sat in dark theatres with my mouth hanging open, completely unaware of the hours ticking by as I become utterly absorbed into the lives of Shakespeare’s characters? Watching Sir Ian McKellan’s Richard III, I don’t think I even breathed through the entire show. The Guthrie Theatre’s Henry cycle in the early 1990’s was — well, I’ve never done any psychedelic drugs but I can’t imagine the high could be any more mind-blowing than the way we felt after each of those. There was a harrowing moment at the end of “Richard II” as the spotlight closed around the imprisoned monarch (unforgettably rendered by Charlie Janasz) when I whispered to my boyfriend, “I feel like the whole audience should do The Wave right now.”
I can’t believe I found a photo of that exact moment. Thank the gods for the internet. Photo by Michael Daniel. “Richard II,” 1990. Guthrie Theatre.
I don’t know how many times I have seen “Midsummer,” and I’ll go anywhere to see a production of “Hamlet,” which I re-read about once a year and never get tired of thinking about. I was gobsmacked by Julie Taymor’s genius film interpretation of “Titus Andronicus” and totally enchanted by Zefferelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” as a kid. I have seen “Winter’s Tale” and “As You Like It” and “The Tempest” and “Much Ado About Nothing” (several times) and an atrociously bad production of “Macbeth” at the Edinborough Theatre Festival (with the same actor boyfriend who accompanied me to so many of the Guthrie performances when we lived together in Minneapolis).
I saw a student matinee of “Twelfth Night” at the Statford, Connecticut theatre in 1982 or ’83 and stormed out in rage when the audience became so rowdy that one of the actors broke character and started yelling at the students. I pushed open the swinging door into the lobby so hard that I knocked over the poor woman who was pushing her way into the theatre at the same time, sending her to the hospital in an ambulance. It was the artistic director of the theatre, whose name I have forgotten. SORRY!
I made pilgrimage to Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1989, the spring after my graduation from college, and paid homage to the Bard in my heart while grimacing at the cheezy tourist trap his hometown had become. In the summer of 2011 I fulfilled a lifelong dream of seeing a show at the Globe in London, which was being reconstructed in 1989. The show I saw was not a Shakespeare production but “Dr. Faust” by Shakespeare’s rival, Marlowe.
For the record, I don’t care who actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays. I am just incredibly grateful that we have them.
This Christmas, a friend gave me this book Shakespeare: Staging the World, , and I had just been reading it when the news broke about the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton. It’s a terrific book, a record of an exhibit of the same name that was put on by the RSC and the British Museum.
Thanks for staying with me for all this reminiscing. Before I went into ministry I applied for a master’s program in English Lit. There was a mix-up with my application (a letter of recommendation didn’t arrive) and the April acceptance period came and went with no word from the University of Minnesota. I was devastated. Although I dearly loved teaching English, I knew something was “off” about my life path, and it wasn’t until I got that “Oh, sorry, your application was never completed so we never notified you of your status” that I went into the tailspin of spiritual confusion and eventual surrender that led me to seminary.
In addition to being one of the great guiding lights of my life, Shakespeare represents the path not taken for me. Although I never regret for a moment the inescapable prompting that led me to ministry, it is a delight to be pulled back for a time into the literary passion that defined my life before I took that other road.