Happy Birthday, Will!

Tuesday was Shakespeare’s “birthday”.

I put “birthday” in quotation marks because, much like most things Shakespeare, we don’t know precisely when the man was born.  Early modern birthing and burial practices being what they were, we can hazard a guess.  Since April 23 is as good a day as any, it pleases us to tell ourselves that this is the day upon which our Will was born and, as such, we should celebrate him on that day.

To celebrate, I was invited to speak on a panel by New Hampshire’s Seven Stages Shakespeare company.  The panel was held in the most adorable little bookshop in Portsmouth (Riverrun books) and consisted of a wide array of experts: Hope Jordan, the first official slam poet master in New Hampshire; John-Michael Albert, Portsmouth’s outgoing poet laureate; myself; and a much more senior Shakespeare scholar, Dr. David Richman.  Our conversation was focused on The Phoenix and the Turtle, the role of poetry throughout time and poetry in general, but what it really made me do was remember my roots as a Shakespearean.

I’m certain that by now anyone who follows this has 100% assurance of my devotion to Shakespeare as a lifestyle.  This life choice is a debt that I owe to my amazingly brilliant Grandmother who decided that no grandchild of hers would be bad-mouthing the bard and made it her business to forcibly subject me to well-performed pieces until I learned to love them.  Since then, I’ve used her method several times on others whom I’ve wanted to instill a similar Shakes-beat into and I’ve actually found that this is the best way to convert the unfaithful.  There is, without a doubt, something about Shakespeare that touches us as human beings and, while reading it can be dull and unfulfilling, seeing it performed by anyone who has an ounce of sense and talent is something the human heart can’t forget.  We’re beings of music and stardust, metaphor and poetry.  We’re beings of emotion: love and anger, jealousy and hate, yearning and hope.  It’s all in there; every last bit.  Anything you could want or hope to feel as a human is something you will find in the canon, it’s simply a question of knowing where to look.

It would be strange of me to try and explain how Shakespeare has affected my life since I live every moment with the man.  Would I have a life without Shakespeare?  Well, sure, but it would be a completely different life.  He’s managed to creep inside my soul and speak from the darkest places there.  But here’s the thing: the more I learn about Will, the more I realize this fascination isn’t one I feel alone.  Throughout history many great men and women have felt the same; I’m in the company of Goethe, Jonson, Müller.  I’m in conversations with John Quincy Adams, Isaac Asimov, and Neil Gaiman.  I’m haunted by Voltaire, Sarah Bernhardt, and John Keats.  Shakespeare studies is inclusive; it touches just about every other major course of literary study to some extent, and it’s written all over the history of the theatre.  Because of Shakespeare, I have something to talk about with most people in my extended field (both the arts and humanities).

Shakespeare’s the great communicator and the great equalizer.  When I need to say something but can’t quite find the right words, I often turn to him for help.  When I am feeling something overwhelming, I often remember how his characters dealt with similar feelings (…though generally refrain from enacting their often bloody and complicated solutions; I have enough trouble in my life without running mad, baking people into pies, or crafting over-engineered schemes to manipulate the people around me and then wondering why they don’t work/how they could have possibly worked so well).  Shakespeare’s there at my best and my worst and, these days, is often the catalyst for such moments.  I rely on him to be a constant source of inspiration; a heartbeat to my work.  He’s with me at every conference and he’s coached me through the end of every semester.  When I feel like giving up, he alternates glowering at me and encouraging me.  He keeps me motivated and excited.  He calls me back when I’ve wandered too far astray, and he tells me to play the field when I’m being too clingy.

Shakespeare, right now, is my life.  And I am so grateful to have the opportunities which allow this.

Here’s a few snippets of the panel.  Watch, enjoy, and bid a big happy birthday to my man Will.  Also, if you were interested in how some other internet denizens have chosen to celebrate Shakespeare-day, you should check out the e-card that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust put together with folks around the world (myself included) available here.

“It is my birth-day”

Today is my birthday.

In recent years, it has become harder and harder to be festive on my birthday. During my Master’s (when I realized that this academia thing might actually be a lifetime commitment rather than a passing fancy), I resolved myself to come to terms with the fact that, for the rest of my life, I would be stressed out, over-worked, and over-wrought on my birthday.

Some years this sticks, some years it doesn’t.

It’s funny because, as I understand it, on birthdays you’re supposed to think back across the expanse of the year and have some thought about things you’ve done, accomplished, follies, foibles, adventures, etc. And maybe when you’ve done that, cast another thought forward to the things that you might accomplish in this year next. Since I’m still in the phase of my PhD during which landmarks are fairly mapped out and planned, I have the good fortune to be able to predict, with some degree of certainty, at least some of the things I will do before the world comes back around to December 11th once more. I will pass my German qual exam. I will study for (and pass) my comps. I will successfully execute my oral exams. And, at this point next year, I will be sitting pretty, poised for dissertation planning, and may (for the first time in many years) actually be able to relax on my birthday.

This year is not that year.

Today, I have a meeting, student final projects to look at, library books that will go into arrears if I don’t return them today, an article to track down, and mountains and mountains of writing to do. I didn’t even have time to wake up early enough for a run due to the absolute insanity that was yesterday (I spent thirteen hours on campus yesterday, left at 11PM and am doing the eleven-hour turn-around and will be back on campus at 10AM this morning…. ah the glamorous life of a theatre academic).

But I did get to partake of my new favorite birthday tradition: birthday Shakespeare. Last year, as a birthday gift, my ever-wonderful Partner in Crime took me to see Hamlet at the Gamm. The production was meh, but the point was to be able to sit back and enjoy something I love rather than worry about deeper issues (…of course, I did worry about deeper issues, but that’s just the way I’m wired). Last night, the cast of Measure for Measure treated me to the first (rough) run of the show. Some really interesting things going on and, if they continue to grow at a good clip, I think the product will be well worth the ticket price. I even had a Shakespeare-revelation while watching (this happens to me sometimes; the text hits my ear in a different way and things click into place and suddenly I understand something new about the show). So; thanks, cast!

So yes, I will be spending the day working. A lot. But the way I see it, this is paying it forward. Next year, oh sweet next year, I may even be able to take the day off entirely.

And so, dear reader, I leave you with this: have a wonderful day, think about Shakespeare for me, and have a watch of one of my favorite Shakespeare mashups: the muppets, Christopher Reeve, and Cole Porter:

A Very Bardy Birthday

On Sunday, I turn 25.

This means a lot of things… the first of which being good god I worked so hard this week so that I can spend a weekend only thinking about my papers in passing.  With the realization that due to my life choices I will, without fail, be stressed out on my birthday every single year, I also made the decision that I will strive to give myself at least a day off to celebrate on the anniversary of my introduction to the world.  I only narrowly managed to succeed this year but thank whatever agnostic deity is listening it’s all settled.

A quarter century is an interesting time.  I can’t really term it a “long” time, but it sure seems like long enough when I think about the amount of stuff I’ve achieved (and the thought that most of these things had to wait at least fifteen years before I could properly achieve anything).

 I have to admit, my actor’s brain is slightly freaking out.  For an actor, getting older is a curse as much as a blessing.  Every year one grows this much closer to completely re-defining one’s career.  As you age, your type changes with you and (since type is so important to contemporary casting practices) this in turn shifts your capabilities.  Unless you are in an extremely unique situation, as much as we like to think that theatre is an art about creativity, more often than not it’s an industry of placing butts in seats.  What that means for an actor is catering to one’s physical traits with one’s acting style.

I, for instance, had a very difficult time getting work.  I was always told to wait twenty years because then I would grow into my type.

… they also told me to lose thirty pounds and move to Europe where I would surely be seen as a castable type…. There’s a reason I’m no longer primarily an actor.

My finals are tucked cozily into a nook of my desk where they will remain until Monday.  I’m putting them out of my mind. So here’s the crisis I’m going through now.

…what about the parts I’ll never get to play?

Women, especially, are subject to the tyrannical rule of casting-by-type and age has a great deal to do with the politics of casting actresses.  When I was training at the American Globe Theatre, my mentor there (Mister John Basil) gave us a chart breaking down these types.  For women, the chart looked something like this…

Ingénue – 14-20 (Juliet, Miranda, Lavinia)

Mistress – 20’s (Rosalind, Viola, Isabella)

Leading Lady – 30’s (Portia, Lady Percy, Lady Macbeth)

Dame – 40’s and up (Paulina, Volumnia)

Again, this is my approximation of John’s chart and his point wasn’t to say that these characters MUST be played by actresses in this age range, but if you were playing these characters you had better look like you are in this age range.

The other week, I was talking about monologues with an old friend of mine.  He mentioned that he was reviving some of him stuff because he had felt the need to work on it again.  I sighed wistfully and said, “I really should… I should have one from each of the major play types at least… there aren’t many good ones in the histories though.”  To this, of course, he replied with Lady Percy (who has some KICK ASS monologues, by the by) and I replied, “I’m too young.”

He looked me up and down and said, “…you may not be.”

I thought about that for a moment.  The prospect was slightly thrilling and terrifying at the same time.  After all, the last time I had worked on monologues I was firmly within the “mistress” range edging into too young for those… the last time I worked on monologues I was playing Phoebe and Julia, La Pucelle and Marianna, young women.  Lady Percy?  A widow (albeit before her time)?  My nineteen-year-old self couldn’t do it…. But my twenty-four-soon-to-be-twenty-five-year-old self?  Can I really play Lady Percy?

And then the sorrow set in.  Will I really never play Juliet?  Will I be doomed to never play the balcony scene, except when I recite it to myself in the shower sometimes?  Am I going to pass the benchmark for ideal age for my favorite Shakespearean heroine (Rosalind, in case you were wondering) before I ever get to play her?

Now admittedly, in order for one to have a stage career one must be auditioning (something which I have not done in many a year) so perhaps it’s unfair of me to be upset about these things.  It’s like wishing to win the lottery when you never buy a ticket.  And I did leave the realm of professional theatre for reasons (very good ones), so my melancholy has a certain amount of rose-colored glasses-wearing to it.

That said, I can’t help but be slightly misty-eyed at the thought that I’ll never speak the words, “O God, I have an ill-divining soul…” or “you kiss by th’book” in front of an adoring crowd of sighing theatre-goers.

…but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let it ruin my weekend.