One phrase I have recently adopted into my theatrical parlance is one’s “letter to the world.” Director Rebecca Holderness shared this with me. It’s the moment in the play when a character experiences a higher vision of self and finds the language to support that experience for the benefit of the audience. It’s a moment that can variously mean “And this is why I’m me,” “This is how I came here,” or metaphorically “This is what I can mean to you.” Or FOR you – as in, standing in for you and your dreams. At the very least as a director’s tool, it can encourage the performer to build critical connective tissue to the audience – directly. The set evaporates, the design holds still, the other actors stop and listen, the space supports you and your poetic moment is revealed.
I had this thought reading Misfit Inc’s AJ Leon as he sent this blog post to his list as a part of the ongoing Shakespeare’s Birthday Celebration. My readers will recall my own entry posted last week that can still be found below. But AJ’s story made me want to render it available to my list as well, so here it is, posted in its entirely and for posterity.
Here’s something you may or may not know about me.
The first company I ever started was in 2001. It was called Lancaster Acting Company. We were a professional Shakespearean theatre company. Our vision was to democratize Shakespeare. To bring Shakespeare “down” as it were, back to the groundlings, where I felt he could still lift people up.
I fell in love with Shakespeare when Mr. Spee introduced me to Prince Hal in 11th Grade. I was just some punk kid, who thought he was a badass because he could put a 9 inch ball in an 18 inch hole.
I remember Mr Spee throwing me a copy of Henry V, and telling me I didn’t “have the balls” to get on a stage. I’ve never much liked when people tell me what I can’t do. I acted in the damn play.
I still remember our very first practice. Knowing that none of us knew shit about Shakespeare, Mr Spee popped in Kenneth Branaugh’s Henry V. I will never forget the goosebumps that rushed down my arm when Henry, outnumbered and outgunned, delivers the St Crispian’s Day speech … “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers….” I remember when the Herald came one last time admonishing Henry to pay tribute to the Constable of France, promising they’d let them out alive. Henry glares back ” … Come thou no more for ransom, gentle Herald: They shall have none, I swear, but these my joints; WHICH if they have as I will leave em them, Shall yield them little …”
I remember thinking, “How the f*ck did I ever think this was boring”.
I remember back in 2003, when my friends and I rented out an empty warehouse bay in a very sketchy area. We spent one entire month building a 16 foot high Roman structure inside, with $100,000 of lights and sound equipment and special effects geared up everywhere. Our makeshift “theatre” only sat 75 people. There was no separation. There was no “you” the audience and “we” the actors. You were invited into a world that our young minds had created from scratch. You were not a spectator. It was a completely amorphous, theatrical experience, which was the whole point. We funded the whole operation by performing children’s theatre in the mornings. Melissa wrote an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. We worked 18 hour days. We never had an off day. And we loved every single second of it.
I remember the day we realized we couldn’t do this anymore without going bankrupt. I remember our last performance. I remember the emptiness I felt when I realized my life would never be “Shakespearean” again.
I remember the day I got a real job. I remember being really good at something I hated, which made me hate it even more. I remember missing Shakespeare, missing poetry.
I remember one sunny day in December, I grabbed my lunch down at Cafe Metro and went down to Battery Park. I sat there on a chilly day in the tall grass with a cold turkey sandwich and a tepid cup of chicken noodle soup. I remember just reciting my Shakespeare in my head. Closing my eyes and trying to remember my old theatre. To remember what it was like to make things. To cast people. To take risks. To dream. To build. To tear down. Then do it again the next night. To remember what it felt like to be counted. I remember what it felt like to have no money, but have more than anyone I knew.
I remember sometime around 3pm waking from the nostalgic remnants of a life that could have been, and taking a long, solemn walk back to the office. I got in the elevator to the 28th floor. Took the long way back to my office, closed the door, sat at my desk and just began to cry. I finally knew what Caliban meant “and then in dreaming, the clouds methought would open, and show riches ready to drop upon me, that when I waked I cried to dream again.”
Ninety-six hours later, in a brief moment of audacity, I left a successful career to start living a story that I would actually want to read.
What’s the point of this article? Nothing really. Except this. Let everything in. Shakespeare has had a profound impact on the trajectory of my life. I thank God for that moment when Mr Spee threw that tattered copy of Henry V at the 16 year old version of me. I still have it in a box back at my apartment in the East Village. The great poets and artists and muses of this beautiful world have been imbued with the power to lift hearts and steal spirits. Blog posts and e-newsletters and Seth Godin books are awesome, but there is nothing like getting lost in some Shakespeare.
Your Fellow Misfit,