“News, madam; the British powers are marching hitherward.”
You won’t find these two lines of Shakespeare in any collection of quotes, part of any audition speech, on any T-shirt or coffee mug, or at the start of any essay, book chapter, or blog post except this one. As memorable Shakespeare goes, these eight words (out of a million that he wrote) are among the most forgettable. Can you even identify the play? Hint: the lines are spoken by a messenger to a young lady who has arrived on the shores of England at the head of a French army while her elderly father has been ranting and raving on a moor in the rain. Correct! The young lady is Cordelia and the play King Lear.
Not only are these two lines utterly forgettable, they are so completely inconsequential to the plot that they’re not even news! Cordelia already knows the British army is on its way. She waves off the messenger dismissively. With a bow, he leaves and the story hurtles on to its tragic conclusion.
The lines weren’t inconsequential to me, however. They marked the achievement of a personal goal: it was the first – and likely the last – time I would have the honor of speaking actual Shakespeare on stage as part of a professional production! My two-line “performance” as the insignificant messenger was part of a production of King Lear put on by International Shakespeare Center, here in Santa Fe, during September 2018. I also had the honor of playing one of Lear’s ‘bawdy’ knights, drinking from an empty goblet while being outraged by Goneril’s conniving accusations. Later as a soldier, I carried Cordelia’s dead body onto stage while King Lear howled with grief. Then I got to stand around and watch everyone die.
I loved it.
I was a “supernumerary” – which is a wonderful word that means “not needed” or “redundant” in a nontheatrical context. There were seven of us “supers” in King Lear, mostly parents of actor-children who happily volunteered to fill the shoes, literally, of the extras needed to round out the cast (as a band of soldiers, we were a sorry, over-the-hill lot). It also meant I had the honor of participating in some of the production’s busywork: moving props on and off stage, cleaning up spilled blood, fixing balky curtains, finding misplaced objects for actors, and generally trying to be useful. Gen was a “super” as well and during performances she helped run lines with an actor who suffered from a habit of skipping a few lines during a scene.
There was a dressing tent in the parking lot outside for us and one of my favorite memories involves sitting around with my fellow “supers” in our puffy pants, funny hats, and plastic tabards on gloriously warm September evenings, waiting for our brief turn on stage. During intermission, a few of the actors would join us and soon the air would fill with ‘shop talk’ about other productions, mishaps on stage, wry observations, and lots of joking. I’m in awe of actors generally (all those lines!) so it was a treat to listen to their stories. We “supers” often had to enter through the front door of the theater to reach our places and occasionally I’d run into a playgoer in the hall who would smile warmly at my theatrical regalia. It reminded me that theater is really just ‘dress-up’ for adults.
There was only one crisis in an otherwise well-run and very well-received production. On a Sunday matinee an actor overslept, requiring a panicked drive by the director to his apartment followed by a vigorous pounding on the door. The anxiety backstage was thick. The show opens with a burst of supernumerary action, so we all took our places and waited nervously for the actor to arrive. Stalling for time, Robin Williams, the ISC’s dramaturg, chit-chatted with the audience (a full house). She came within a minute of cancelling the show when the actor suddenly entered the theater, his eyes downcast as he rushed to the dressing room. Seconds later, the music started. We were on!
The first time I delivered my two forgettable lines on stage as the messenger, I nearly flubbed them. My role required that I bow twice to Lady Cordelia, once as I arrived and once as I exited. There is a proper way to do Elizabethan bowing that involves an unfamiliar coordination between arms and legs and we spent a fair amount of time practicing in rehearsal. Still, I nearly botched it in performance and almost forgot my lines as a result. I detected a sight smile on Cordelia’s face as I gracelessly left the stage.
The star of the show was Paul Walsky, a nearly eighty-year old neurologist and amateur actor. It was his life’s ambition to play Lear, he told us – and play it he did! Although physically frail (he required a staff to get around, a nice touch for Lear) he had a regal voice that filled the theater. He captured Lear’s mercurial moods perfectly and his grief at the end for the consequences of his vanity and bad decision-making felt real. The rest of the cast was also outstanding and brought to life a play that I have never liked very much, especially its grim and depressing conclusion (the original story has a happy ending).
Tragedy aside, the production was great fun and all of us we were sorry to see it end. Standing on the stage after the last performance I was struck by the ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ essence of theater. Books and movies and the written plays themselves can last forever, but a show dissipates into thin air, never to seen again. The laughter, the teamwork, the long hours, the intense anticipation of opening night, the great acting, and the satisfaction of the standing ovation at the end of each show all melted away into nothingness, leaving only memories. Mine were wonderful and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.
If my two-line performance was the culmination of a personal goal, it was also the climax of a deep immersion into Shakespeare and his plays for Gen and myself that began three-and-a-half years earlier when Sterling and Olivia, then aged sixteen, joined a theatrical troupe called The Upstart Crows. Recently arrived from Wisconsin and brilliantly directed and organized by Caryl Farkas, The Crows’ brave mission is to get teenagers excited about Shakespeare through performance. They put on three plays a year entirely cast with young people and employing uncut versions of the text (yes, you read that right). In addition to doing the backstage work, the kids also participate in workshops, pop-up performances, and even an occasional parade.
The Crows changed our lives. Joining the troupe almost on a whim, Sterling and Olivia quickly became full members. Their inaugural roles (as Lysander and Peter Quince) came in a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream held in the historic Scottish Rite Temple in downtown Santa Fe. And what a dream it was! Every part of the experience was new and memorable for all four of us. I was awed by the great energy of the young actors (verging on bedlam at times), the wonderful homemade costumes and props used by the troupe, and Caryl’s phenomenal patience. I loved the old-world beauty of the Scottish Temple theater (built in 1913) where Gen and I had the honor of carefully raising and lowering the painted scene screens for many shows. Most of all, I was impressed by the amazing performances of the actors, some of whom were only thirteen years old!
A cascade of roles for Sterling and Olivia followed: Sterling as Brutus in Julius Caesar, arguing with Cassius, played by his best friend Eli; Olivia playing the famous Roman dictator with purple hair and accidently leaving a blood stain on the carpet of the old theater; Sterling as the dishonorable king in The Winter’s Tale and an energetic Hotspur in Henry IV Part 1; Olivia as Falstaff (in a fat suit), a creepy Caliban in The Tempest, and her noble namesake in Twelfth Night (her first female role) while Sterling chewed the scenery as the clown Feste. There was lots of acting in between productions as well – workshops, fight training, school performances, parades, pop-ups, and a winter Youth Shakespeare Festival. Sterling and Olivia became apprentices and then assistant directors to Caryl, learning what it takes to herd theatrical cats.
As parents, Gen and I lived and breathed Shakespeare for two-and-a-half years. We ran lines with the kids at home, drove them to rehearsals, hauled props back and forth, made sandwiches for the Crows to sell at performances, volunteered backstage, and of course attended every show. We became collectively the “White Family” and any of the four of us could be found pitching in at any given moment. It was a deeply satisfying run, especially as Sterling and Olivia grew and blossomed. Painfully shy as a child, Olivia became self-confident and assertive thanks to the Crows. Everyone in the troupe became tremendously good friends, creating a positive theatrical experience for all.
Behind everything was Shakespeare. In Caryl’s philosophy, the Bard is NOT some intimidating, old dead white man whose beautiful words are too hard to understand or speak properly on stage. To her, Shakespeare lives and breathes – which is exactly what happened with the Crows. The teenage actors LOVED the plays and threw themselves into complex roles with gusto. It was extraordinary experience to sit in the audience watching a young actor play somber King Henry or wily Mark Anthony or cranky Prospero. Caryl encouraged the kids to analyze their roles, think about the text and the motivations of the characters, and apply what they learned to their performances. It was amazing. Anyone who says Shakespeare is too difficult for kids (or adults) didn’t attend a show by The Upstart Crows!
It all came together in late July of 2017 when Sterling and Olivia tackled Hamlet. Each played the daunting Dane in separate casts in a memorable Crows’ production of the famous play. The setting was the open-air amphitheater at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden, located in the foothills above the city. Each performance began in sunlight and ended in darkness, the final scenes illuminated by a bank of floodlights on the ground. As the young actors did their thing, wind blew, rain sprinkled, and lightning flashed in the distance. The steady descent into madness and tragedy in the story was mirrored by the steady loss of daylight. By the time everyone dies at the end, it was night. It was a truly unforgettable theatrical experience. In their final roles with the Crows before leaving for college, Sterling and Olivia brought the anguished Dane to life with inspiring and very different performances. The praise rolled in for weeks for both of them. What a joy – they got to play Hamlet! How cool is that?
Shakespeare soaked deep into our lives in other ways. In fact, we all became Shakespeare nerds. Gen and I had always been fans of the Bard, watching movies and attending many plays over the years including a hitchhiking adventure we undertook during college to see Macbeth at an annual festival in Ashland, Oregon. We never took a deep dive, however, until the Crows came to town. We started attending events organized by the International Shakespeare Center, founded by Caryl and Robin, which included lectures, workshops, and reading groups. We attended every adult production of Shakespeare in Santa Fe, of which they were many, and went twice to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder with Sterling and Olivia. Gen and the kids also went to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada. We watched live performances of plays at the Lensic Theater downtown and looked up all things Shakespeare on TV. And we read his many words – as well as the (too) many words of scholars.
Here are some of the notable highlights (for us) in the run from 2015’s Midsummer production to King Lear in 2018:
- Seeing an original First Folio (1623) at the New Mexico Fine Art Museum.
- Watching Olivia play Hermia in a professional production of Midsummer.
- Participating in both weekly and monthly Shakespeare reading groups.
- Watching a performance of ‘Dames of Thrones’ by the Ducdame Theater troupe.
- Reading scholar James Shapiro’s wonderful books on the Bard and his times.
- Attending two performance workshops put on by British teachers from LAMDA.
- Reading or seeing almost every play in the canon.
- Watching the three-season TV series Slings and Arrows.
- Watching the Crows hurl Shakespearian curses during a 4th of July parade.
- Working the sound board for a performance of Twelfth Night (in a pinch).
- Participating in a Shakespeare text editing workshop hosted by Robin.
- Watching pop-up Shakespeare on a train and in a mining shack.
- Marveling at so much academic analysis!
- Lastly, the ‘Year of Lear’ – which culminated with the 2018 production.
We watched the Hollow Crown on CD; shivered through an outdoor performance of Romeo and Juliet; analyzed the merits of an ‘original practices’ version of King John; suffered through two group readings of Merchant of Venice (a play I dislike); debated Shakespeare’s sexism in the context of the #MeToo movement; puzzled over the oddity called Timon of Athens; and laughed with the wonderful British sitcom called ‘Upstart Crow’ (and getting many of the wonky jokes). We rewatched classic film versions of the plays, including the amazing interpretations by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. We bought Shakespeare bling. We put posters on our walls. We read essays. Gen listened to podcasts by the Folger Library. I read all the ‘front matter’ to the Arden editions of the plays (and some of the Appendices too). And in an ultimate act of Shakespeare nerdiness, Gen and I finished one-two in a trivia competition that Robin organized based on the game Jeopardy!
But mostly we marveled at Shakespeare’s deep humanity and his phenomenal ability to create diverse, vivid, and mesmerizing characters. Personally, I am less enraptured by the speeches and soliloquies in the plays than I am by the banter and sparring between characters, which are more human than anything that comes out of a royal mouth, in my opinion. Shakespeare’s meditations on power, honor, succession, ambition, destiny, death etc are rightly celebrated for their insights but it is the drunks, wenches, knaves, jesters, nurses, fairies, tavern keepers, bawdy servants, pompous constables, philosophical gravediggers, hotheaded teenagers, rude mechanicals, and quarreling lovers that capture our hearts. The great power of Shakespeare is his unparalleled facility to populate his plays with characters of all stripes and make it work creatively.
Not that I don’t have a few complaints! In my non-scholarly estimation, the first halves of many plays are stronger than the second halves. Some endings feel incomplete, some are too contrived, and some have unsatisfactory elements. Macbeth dying offstage, for example, doesn’t give us the resolution we need. The intervention of the goddess Hymen at the end of the funny and down-to-earth As You Like It is bizarre and unsatisfying. Too often, Shakespeare employs an authority figure to resolve the conflict, such as Measure for Measure where the Duke wraps up the plot with a series of lengthy (and boring) orders. Some endings are simply objectionable, such as the horrible way Shylock is treated at the end of Merchant of Venice (to be fair, everyone treats each other poorly in this nasty play) or the way Petruchio treats Kate at the end of The Taming of the Shrew. Some plays speed to the end so quickly that I wonder if Shakespeare were writing to meet a deadline!
If we can learn from the flaws, we can also learn from the things that work in the plays. For me, Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer Night’s Dream are nearly perfect works of art. They are flawless in their construction, pacing, and emotions. And then there’s the language! The two Richard plays are beacons of greatness as well, for different reasons. Of course, Henry IV, Part 1 deserves its timeless reputation. As does Hamlet, in which Shakespeare gets huge marks for elevating his game – the mark of all great artists. Conversely, there’s Henry IV, Part 2, which is a stink bomb of a play. That’s not just my opinion. We read the play closely as part of our weekly Shakespeare reading group and unanimously thought it was terrible. Analyzing why Part 1 works so well while its successor does not might be useful to a writer, but it may not be worth the slog! In any case, among Shakespeare’s many, many innovations is his role as the dubious progenitor of a literary and movie staple: the ‘stinkeroo sequel.’
As an author, I find it difficult to tell where William Shakespeare’s influence begins and where it ends. After all, it is impossible to imagine the English language or the creative arts generally (Euro-western version) without Shakespeare, so deeply does he go. When I began to write my mystery novel The Sun in 2017, I deliberately constructed the story like a play, with Acts and Scenes, directly inspired by Shakespeare. In doing so, I came to appreciate an aspect of his writing that gets overlooked by the (many) people who study his plays: plotting. I don’t mean the sources for his plays (where the plots come from) but the way he moves through the story, the choices he makes about scene sequencing, and the conflicts and tension he employs to get the job done. Midsummer Night’s Dream (an original story, notably) is perfectly plotted, in my opinion. Other plays, such as the dreary Henry IV Part 2, suffer from having no plot at all.
Looking back, getting to know Will intimately has been one of the great joys of my life, even if I never get another opportunity to speak his lines on stage again or fumble my way through another royal bow. His inspiration has been profound. Hopefully, I speak for many writers when I say Shakespeare serves as a lofty target for our creative ambitions. Without him, I’m not sure where we would all aim.