Monday, April 25, 2011

Happy Birthday Week, William Shakespeare.

Today I am excited to be one of many bloggers from around the world that are involved in the Happy Birthday Shakespeare 2011 project. I hope you will click on that link in the coming days and read how the work of William Shakespeare has impacted the lives of those who populate the blogosphere. And you can start with me and my very own story.

Long before I became part of the theatre world as an actor, I had an eye for the dramatic, and an ear for the well constructed, poetic, or moving turn of phrase. I would spend inordinate amounts of time as a younger person replaying in my mind scenes from my daily life that had impacted me. An argument I happened to see break out in a store, or the interaction between two strangers as one helped the other with a door or a shopping cart. Occurrences that to most others would usually appear to be just part of the every day social fabric of a free society would often to me be for good or bad, microcosms of the human experience. The potentially mundane became noteworthy to me because of the humanity on display.

Of course, I didn't process it in quite those terms when I was a child. I knew only that sometimes a moment, a scene in the street, an encounter between two strangers in a bookstore, or a shouted conversation between two parties working unseen behind a counter at the super market seemed in some way more eternal when processed through my mind, than the same events would be to just about anyone else in all likelihood, including the "actors" in said scenes.

As I got older, the dissemination of things I had seen out in the world became a little more sophisticated. I'd wonder why any given party said what they said. How the sentence they used may have either begun or ended the scene I happened upon. And by high school I would often in my head "rewrite" the scenes, with alternate words, statements, or circumstances that I thought would have made things turn out in a more peaceable, interesting, helpful, or in the very least, dramatic fashion.

Knowing this, is there any wonder why I spend most of my time these days either writing or acting? You would think not, but for the longest time I only wrote casually, and I was not on the stage for the first time until college.

Yet before I got serious about either acting or writing, I was serious about the plays of William Shakespeare.

The first I read was the first that most people read. Romeo and Juliet, in the 9th grade. (Age 14 or so.) It was part of my English class, of course, and we read it out loud during class time, different students taking turns sputtering, fumbling, and hissing their way through their assigned character of the day. I was no different, at least at first. But I found myself going home and reading through speeches and scenes that we would be going over in class the following day. Reading them outloud over and over again until I could construct some semblance of speech, of conversation, and of course, of drama from what I was reading.

Not that it was being read 100% correctly yet, but I found myself wanting to sound like a person in a scene who was encountering other people experiencing something that was happening in a street in Venice. I was trying to make those scenes as real as the scenes from the streets of Frederick, Maryland where I lived, and grew up.

In the end I didn't care for Romeo and Juliet that much. I did not at the time see the hype of it. Nor would I even read it again until two years ago when I appeared in the piece as Friar Laurence. (During which time I developed a greater appreciation of the text than I had as a wee freshman.) \

Yet despite my lukewarm reaction to the overall arc of Romeo and Juliet after my first reading of same, I was already looking forward to future explorations of the world of Shakespeare. And that is because I was beginning to see in him another mind who could, and actually wanted to take even the simplest and briefest of scenes between two walk-on characters and turn it into a high flying and memorable journey through the English language. Like my high school self, the characters in Shakespeare, even the minor ones, strove to use language as their weapons. Their aphrodisiacs. Their calling cards. You may not like what they are saying, but you will love the way they are saying it. Even if you don't yet understand all of it. And in the process, the characters will be reflection of some near universal aspect of the human condition.

That use of language, turn of phrase, precisely timed come back, or searching monologue present throughout Shakespeare was the closest I had come to viewing people behave like they did in the re-imagined scenes from daily life that I played in the theatre of my brain. Every moment potent in some way, and usually thanks to language.

Later on in my freshman year, I enjoyed The Merchant of Venice far more than my first delving into Shakespeare. Language again of course, but to me a far more interesting plot. A court room even! It is hard to beat drama in the form of court rooms goings on.

And so it went throughout the years of my private high school education. Othello. Macbeth. I became one of the only students in my high school's history that actually chose Henry V from the long list of potential summer reading projects that were required. To this day in fact I am one of the few people I know that loves the history plays, though that is not surprising, given that they combine everything I have said about Shakespeare with my life long fascination with monarchy.

Then in 12th grade it was time. The moment I knew was coming for four years. Some dreaded it. Some didn't care. I myself realized it would be important, regardless. Because it was then that we read Hamlet. The play of plays. The one about which virtually anyone, anywhere of substance had commented at least once. The often quoted, borderline mystical piece that I already knew in the minds of many in the know transcended not only all of Shakespeare's other works, but perhaps all English works for the stage ever written.

By 12th grade I was more used to the language. Starting to anticipate the devices used by the Bard. I could actually on occasion read a smaller Shakespearean passage as though I were performing it. (This was years before I was an actor, keep in mind.) So the confusion and question and frustrations of reading the plays of the Statfordian had mostly vanished by now, and it was all about reading the story of Hamlet.

And what a story it was. The impact of Hamlet on my mind cannot be overestimated. Because while up until that point Shakespeare had created drama, characters, and speeches in a manner that gave birth to the type of drama I created in my mind, Hamlet was something even more profound; Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, was me. Fatherless. Intellectual to the point of paralysis at times. Surrounded by people who barely understood him, and a few who wanted him out of their lives. Denied what was his.

So for the first time, Shakespeare went from being familiar, to being personal. I was the only person in the Honors English class that seemed to think by the end of the semester that Hamlet was noble. A hero in a sense. A genius in others. Years and eight readings of Hamlet later, I am still one of the few people I know who raises Hamlet himself to such a lofty position of esteem. And I don't care. All the scholars in the world can write their essays as to why Hamlet is not noble in the end, and it won't change a thing for me. The same can be said on my views on the other plays, unpopular as they sometimes may be.

That is because I see Shakespeare's works as something more than a treatise. Something too masterful to be ignored, but too visceral to be dissected into oblivion. The works of Shakespeare manage to recreate the human condition with virtually every line.

Poetic elevation of the mundane into the realm of angels, as well as acerbic reduction of the momentous and ceremonial down to the bawdy levels of the "common" man. And the universal human drama that plays out as a result. This is what Shakespeare did for me from the first moment. This is what he does for me when I perform him on stage. This is what he continues to do for me to this very day. And there is no reason to believe he will ever cease to reflect the dramatics of the world I see in my mind. And he shall always do it through the use of the English language.

Happy birthday indeed to the Bard of all bards.


scannon said...

Well said. Just took an audition class to prepare for Macbeth. And in August I am heading down to Turks and Caicos to reveal Shakespeare to 12-18 year old actors. Good luck with your acting career. Hope to see you in a play around Philadelphia. - scannon

Ty Unglebower said...

Good luck with that, Scannon! If you think about it, come on back and let us know how it is going.

I don't see myself ever being in Philly for a play...but one never knows what may happen!