On this day last week, I headed down to LA to attend Shakespeare & Company's Weekend Intensive. Here are some reflections from this bout of artistic bloodsucking...needless to say, I'd recommend the experience to any fellow Wall Climber. Check out shakespeare.org for more information on their company and top-notch educational programs.
We started by breathing, and walking, and looking into each others’ eyes.
Shakespeare & Company’s Los Angeles Intensive contained a lot of those quintessential acting class images - discussions of childhoods and bizarre ritualistic noises and earnest expressions of passion, each participant more eloquent than the next. Our instructor, Dennis Krausnick - wizened Shakespearean scholar and co-founder of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts - is a Dumbledore for the theatre enthusiast. His voice is deep and cavernous, his gestures illustrative and his wit keen. He’s largely memorized the fourteen different monologues that each actor had prepared and had probably already witnessed at least fourteen ways of doing each one. There’s an irrevocable peak of mastery embodied in his presence - gigantic and impassable. There was no charming or smiling one’s way around him. “This little girl routine,” he said to me, on day two, “It doesn’t work here.” How slicing.
But we started with breath.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the weekend was the range of human experience covered in such a short amount of time and with such an arbitrary collection of people. That is what made all the strange things we did with our voices and bodies - and the strain of yanking out sticky sinews from our personal lives and wrapping them with poetry - so ethically sound. We were baked in a cauldron of humanity. We oscillated between the fundamentals of survival - i.e. breath, and the specificity of the individual’s experience. My fellow students were born in the Middle East, the Philippines, Vietnam, Estonia, Cambodia. My 18-year-old body was flanked by 48 and 57 and 25-year-olds; our teacher must be in his seventies. Actors spoke of their multiple surgeries or their father’s murder or their husband’s service overseas. They spoke of hunger and other kinds of emptiness and want. When we walked about the space, with focus on our breath, and then halted face to face with a partner, we were asked to conceptualize: “How does this person you’re seeing carry his or her experience of beauty? Of silliness? Of naughtiness? Of loneliness? Of rage?” We were asked to reveal our heart’s desire for the outcome of the weekend, and I wished for some clarity regarding the intersection between my art and my life.
How does this person you're seeing carry his or her experience of beauty? Of silliness? Of naughtiness? Of loneliness? Of rage?
Needless to say, I now find them officially inseparable, and often interchangeable, in part. It’s something I’ve learned as an individual but never seen so strongly corroborated. This messy duality has never felt so imperative, so universal. For a second I didn’t feel insane.
In the email I received from Shakespeare & Company, confirming my acceptance to this program, I was told explicitly to choose a monologue with which I felt a personal connection. The notion of Shakespeare’s words ringing true within the scope of my experiences was already brewing before I arrived, and that’s why I ultimately chose Isabella’s speech in Act II, scene 2 of Measure for Measure. “So you must be the first that gives this sentence,” it reads, “And he that suffers. O, it is excellent/ To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous/ To use it like a giant.” In frank, unpoetic terms, Isabella is speaking out against poor leadership. You are not God, she’s saying to Angelo - the newly appointed leader of Vienna who wants to execute Isabella’s brother for fornicating. Just because you are “drest in a little brief authority” does not give you the right to determine another’s fate. Do not pretend you are stronger or more righteous or any less confused than the rest of us.
“So you must be the first that gives this sentence,” Isabella's speech reads, “And he that suffers. O, it is excellent/ To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous/ To use it like a giant.”
Beyond our mutual disapproval of Man Playing God, Isabella and I share something else - we are both grappling with choices that mark transitional periods in our lives. Before the play begins, Isabella has decided to leave the corruption and disorder of Vienna behind for a structured encasement as a nun. She is forming her identity through devotion to religion when she is pressured to vouch for her fornicating brother. She is straddling two worlds. Likewise, I’m trying to decide what my next step is - namely where to go to college - whether to uproot myself or continue to cultivate the identity and community I’ve delved into here in Southern California. Nuff’ said. I thought that, when it was my turn in the hot seat, this would be easy enough to express.
Even so, I rehearsed my vulnerability speech as a monologue before the monologue. I planned it out in my mind before I attempted to stumble through it aloud. That is a terrible recipe for spontaneity, and an excellent way to feel ambushed by Dennis Krausnick’s percipience. When the time came to comb through my monologue, four grown women had already cried, and then shattered glass with unmistakably sincere and venerable work. I felt roughly two feet tall and entirely unimportant.
We had to start by breathing in and out through our mouth before we spoke. We were then instructed to see every person we were going to be speaking to - really see them - individually, eyes on foreign eyes. Eyelashes, pupils, colors in combinations I’d never seen before. And then we breathed again. My fellow students’ faces were open and accepting but the back of my head shook with tremors that scrambled down my spine and out my feet, like all my nerve was escaping and slipping underneath the door.
After my first recitation, I described my release of emotions as “filtered.” Dennis called that “weak tea.” He told me to stop smiling. “You’re not actually happy,” he said. “You’re smiling because you’re hiding.” That’s when he made the comment about my “little girl routine,” and that’s when my innards were chopped into tiny, irreconcilable pieces and every section of my body shriveled up a little bit, shrinking. Nothing I was doing, I felt, had any resonance or power.
Nothing I was doing, I felt, had any resonance or power.
Earlier that evening, one of my fellow actors - a moderately-statured, fresh-faced young woman wearing athletic capris, sneakers, and a sweatshirt - delivered a booming rendition of Lady Anne’s speech in Act I, scene 2 of Richard III: “What, do you tremble? are you all afraid?” she began. “Alas, I blame you not; for you are mortal, / And mortal eyes cannot endure the devil.” I’d eaten dinner with this person on our break but an hour beforehand. She had perhaps a decade of experience on me, I estimated, but she was largely unthreatening, unassuming. Quiet. And in what universe do moderately-statured women in sneakers command the earth and heavens?
And in what universe do moderately-statured women in sneakers command the earth and heavens?
Dennis had her release her voice - and her booming, ricocheting power - by lunging in the corner of the room with her arms outstretched, hands pressed on either wall, willing the stone apart. She expelled primal, shattering noises and then launched into the pulsating rhythm of poetry. And I expressed, when the floor was subsequently opened for feedback, how I truly believed that the building we inhabited might have cracked under her reign.
So of course, Dennis had me do the same thing.
“What one must understand about Shakespeare’s characters is that when they command for the earth to gape open wide or the stars to shift positions, or make some other sweeping proclamation to the elements of the universe, this is not metaphor,” Dennis articulated to us. “They truly believe that the heavens will listen. It’s the kind of arrogance that I have respect for.”
For me, I think - and for many others, I’d venture - the nearly impossible part of embracing this concept is learning to stop envisioning oneself as small.
When I pushed those walls away and launched myself into poetry, my fellow students told me they saw someone they had not yet met. “That’s not the girl who doesn’t know where to go to college,” they echoed. “That’s not the ‘mousy’ girl we’ve talked to. That’s not the girl who got lost on the subway.”
And the best thing about it? That is the same girl. I can get lost on the subway and command the heavens on the same day - in the same hour. I can do both those things and more and still not be decided on a future for myself. I can, because I have power - because I have art. “Poetry,” voiced Dennis on the third day of the intensive, “cuts like the blade of a knife and is very dangerous.” I can identify with Lady Macbeth, for instance - the only Shakespearean role I’ve played in its entirety - based on a fundamental empathy for sleep deprivation, and based on the personal conflict - thoroughly infuriating and tumultuous - that has developed between my womanhood and I. I understand the rage that comes with being unable to produce something of value, despite having never struggled with infertility or lost a child. I understand what it is to feel ripped away from someone who fills voids in my body. And yes - I would take these feelings and these qualms to the heavens, and to the spirits that tend on mortal thoughts. I could see it. I would do it. And I’m still an 18-year-old girl born in Illinois. Talk about genius! Talk about transcendence. Talk about power.
The last profound statement that I recall Dennis Krausnick making about Shakespeare?
“The guy knew how to write,” he said. “Some of this stuff is gonna stick!”