Twenty years ago, it was ten til curtain. We didn’t have dressing rooms, exactly, but the garden behind the fancy old historical registry house we’d made a stage of had enough twists and pockets that the boys and girls had their own places to get changed. I was just out of middle school and just getting started with the slow motion werewolf mutation called puberty. I had a pair of tights in my hands, rolled up into this tiny hoop of fabric that my entire legs would allegedly fit in to. It was our last night of Shakespeare summer camp, a performance of selected scenes from Macbeth.
I barely remember how the show went; I think I said everything in the right order. Before that happened though, I had to hide me in an arbor and figure out how to deploy a pair of tights for the first time in my life. I was embarrassed to wear something like that in front of everyone’s parents and grandparents, plus embarrassed to mention anything about that while we were finalizing costumes: ideal conditions for a tidy little fat kid shame spiral right before the show. Roll them down, step into the feet, roll them up, simple enough but damn. I remember being grateful to the tall shrubs and rose bushes on either side of the bench I chose. I remember all of a sudden realizing that I was simply out of time to give a shit about standing in the open in my underwear.
Twenty-two years ago, we were ten minutes into fourth period and five minutes into the first Shakespeare lesson of my life. I had made a more or less successful summer vacation identity pivot between sixth and seventh grades. This was the year where kids in my school district crossed Totem Pole Road – from the elementary and kindergarten building to the junior high and high school building. We would have lockers now. There would be sports. I reckoned the changeover was just as disorienting to my peers and that would give me cover, time enough to make some adjustments and go from Guy in Hammer Pants Who Knows Everything About Spider-Man to Guy Who Makes Jokes but Does Not Button His Patterned Shirts. Towards the end of sixth grade, I had noticed the bullying tapering off the more time I spent sitting in the back of the room and goofing on everything with the other fat kids. I would be god damned if junior high and high school were gonna go the same way elementary school went. Unbuttoned shirts, fat kid joke mafia – that was my way out.
So I must confess I can’t really speak with authority as to the quality of my first Shakespeare lesson. I don’t rightly recall how indepth Mr. Korsborn’s lecture on Elizabethan English really was beyond to say that it was brief, consuming no more than the preamble of the class period. Fourth period was one of those golden hours were I got to sit with Paul and Jaime: where all lecture points, comments and questions were straight lines for us. It’s a happy memory but we probably tried peoples’ patience pretty often. Korsborn was a good sport who played along and usually managed to flip our heckling back into the lesson, but we would get on his nerves from time to time. This may have been such a day because I remember the transition off lecture and discussion being swift and abrupt.
One minute we’re talking about William Shakespeare and how he’s a big damn deal and the next we’re cold reading Julius Caesar to each other, fumbling with the weird words and sentences that jump down to the next line in the middle whether or not the punctuation is convenient. No one knows who they are or what they’re saying. I’m Marc Antony. I understand him on a Bill & Ted level. I know that I’m speaking as an old, dead dude about another old, dead salad dressing dude but that’s about it. A quantum anomaly unfolded at our spacetime coordinates; a four hundred year lag between writer and readers that slowed the clock on the classroom wall to a near stop. Embarrassment mingled with the unsettling experience of learning new information and I decided my struggles with the material were Shakespeare’s fault, obviously – our inattention and tomfoolery were hardly relevant, how dare you. The odd summer camp or reading assignment aside, I would barely think about Shakespeare again until adulthood. Marc Antony was cool and all, but he was no Spider-Man.
Four years ago, it was Act Two, Scene One of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Anya, Zoe and I crouched behind the last rise in the trail out of the woods at Priest Point Park, wearing hides and plants and makeup. Brian and Bridget were onstage already and the crowd went clear up our small hill. A couple of kids watched from atop a tall bush. All of us grown adults and college graduates, all of us playing fairies in the woods for about as many people as the clearing could hold. With our cue approaching, we made made eye contact in character and I crouched to put my hands in the dirt. I decided I wanted to do shows for the rest of my life even if I never made a dime.
Based on an entirely non scientific and entirely circumstantial body of evidence I’ve gathered over the years, there seems be a certain overlap in the sorts of nerds who get way into Shakespearean theater and the sorts of nerds who really drill down on one or two dork-ass interests like, say, a jam band or Dungeons and Dragons or Spider-Man. It could simply be that Patrick Stewart brought a whole generation of nerds into contact with the Bard of Avon by unleashing his Royal Shakespeare Company skills on the bridge of the Enterprise, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. Maybe this stuff isn’t relatable to absolutely everyone and maybe that’s okay.
To get into theater, one needs a little baseline dork in them for starters. To get the most out of Shakespeare, you need to also spend some points in the History Nerd, Poetry Explicator and Story Obsessive skill trees. You need to spend enough time speaking and hearing the language that you realize, oh right, it’s English. One of the reasons I love characters like Batman is that he’s the synthesis of a vast array of pulp character notes connecting Victorian England to Depression Era Manhattan and has since had the benefit of 75 years of different creative visions for him and Gotham City. There’s a lot there to work with. What then of Hamlet and Elsinore, of Rosalind and Arden, of Proteus and Valentine and Julia and Sylvia and the anachronistic, mismapped northern Italy Shakespeare imagined them in? 400 years of work on these characters, four centuries of interpretations and deconstructions, an epoch spanning legacy for a handful of plays. It’s a cultural current bigger than any single show, player or company. Some nine actors have played Batman and it’s generally assumed he will live forever, but he’s no Marc Antony.
Like anyone who grew up in this culture, I received an unwitting education in hating myself so that assholes could profit off my entirely optional shame. Like anyone that has to make it through life on Earth, there have been times were my difficulties have seemed beyond my capacities and I would have very much appreciated the chance to be someone else, somewhere else and somewhen else entirely. Stories were rituals before they were entertainment. Symbols were revealed, arranged and destroyed in order to reveal, arrange and destroy our own ideas about the world and how to move through it. For my part, I don’t really care which gods are real and which ones are characters because if a story is real enough to someone that it makes a direct difference in their lives then it’s real in every way that counts. No matter what one does or does not believe about the metaphysics of all the world’s faith traditions, it’s plain enough that they all contain stories and they all contain shows.
I grew up a fat kid and am still the sort of grown man who will write paragraph about our shared literary heritage that mentions Batman twice but none of my friends seem to mind. To some degree, as a person I’ll probably always be working through some static between my self-perception and the way I’m actually perceived and that’s fine; that’s not unique. As an actor, I want to always be doing the most difficult thing I’ve ever done because my formal training was very brief and scattered. I went to college to become a teacher but came out a comedian so to learn how to act, I’ve had to make a point of trying a lot of different stuff and surrounding myself with extremely talented individuals so I could watch them closely and harvest their secrets.
Playing the unabashedly confident and apparently self-secure Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona has been a challenge for reasons that exceed even the TMI levels of this piece and of course, there’s always going to be a gulf between what an artist reaches for and what actually makes it to the stage so I don’t want to say too much about how this character came together for me other than that Shakespeare is always gonna leave you plenty of clues about how to proceed. Keep looking into the language he uses, the symbols he invokes, the parallels he creates and anyone can find something to grab hold of and use. In myth and legend, Proteus is the name of a water god that never lies but will only deliver true prophecy to someone who sees through his shapeshifting. That probably sounds intense for such a goofy character in such a silly show which we perform in the grass, but for an actor who once went to JC Penny when he was 13 to pick out and purchase a new personality, knowing that much was a good place to start. And if I ever catch myself indulging too much in nervousness and insecurity, knowing a little bit about the legacy of these shows is enough to cool me right off.
Four hundred years ago, it was ten minutes til curtain. The Chamberlain’s Men were a new company that just dropped a ton of money on their new space and things were already getting tense between their clown / only bankable star. They performed for a city that suffered regular outbreaks of plague and disease. If a fire started, it wasn’t a threat to one seafood restaurant or diner; it could wipe out whole districts. Their profession was considered barely a rung above thievery and prostitution. Satire or even historical dramatization pushed too far could mean fines or imprisonment, say nothing of the ruination of a career. But the shows went on and the rookie scribbler who wrote The Two Gentlemen of Verona would go on to lead a troupe of actor’s at the King’s own expense, to purchase a coat of arms and thus a little respect for his minor country family. Three hundred and twenty years ago, theater had been decriminalized but the Puritans were still sore about it. Women were allowed to act now; a woman could even write plays and run a troupe at the mere expense of perpetual attacks on her character and reputation. Some of them performed revival versions of Shakespeare’s work, remixed and rewritten to reflect these new realities, not to mention drum some revenue out of a nostalgic crowd. Most of these reboots are lost to history now but damn, it makes you wonder. Two hundred and fifty years ago, a colonial nation with no real cultural heritage of its own grabbed hold of the canon hard and made a prism of it through which to understand its own violent birth, expansion and developing identity. I’m not sure if we ever let go of them, or that process.
Shakespeare’s plays have held the stage in times of economic collapse, famine and world war. On balance, one actor’s mild and momentary insecurity, intimidation about a character or even struggles in his real life are not so large a thing. They’re barely a blip. The character will outlive one’s fear of playing him. And just like fear of the plague, the Royal censor or the Burbages’ creditors, one can send it through the forge of these immortal stories and pull it back out as a show.
Right this minute, it’s four hours til curtain. Animal Fire Theatre will perform the Two Gentlemen of Verona four more times, then never again. If you’ve joined us already, we thank you. If you haven’t made it out yet, we hope to see you soon.
This entry was posted on Thursday, August 7th, 2014 at 4:00 pm
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