NOBLE MINDS: The play and its purpose
My latest project, and my first piece of writing to be presented onstage - here's what it is and where it came from...Noble Minds - featuring Eliza Convis, Ava Lalezarzadeh, Luca Acero and I - will be coming to multiple different venues in the Inland Empire beginning this May; stay up to date with us Wall Climbers here in the coming weeks!
Noble Minds is a kind of collaboration between William Shakespeare and I, which makes my skin all kinds of tingly.
It chronicles the tragedies of three Shakespearean heroines - Ophelia, of Hamlet (Eliza Convis) Lavinia, of Titus Andronicus (Ava Lalezarzadeh) and Cordelia, of King Lear (Madeline Wall). Each girl steps into and recedes from the spotlight in turn, telling her story in her own words and then morphing into the supporting players in the other two's stories when her time has expired. The young women of today grapple with the tragedies of yesterday, and they enlist one boy (Luca Acero) to grapple alongside them, to listen to the musings and the questions that their narratives neglected in favor of violence and decay. "Where," the play asks, as the women's voices threaten to evanesce, "do all these noble minds go?"
So where did this come from?
Last summer, I attended a workshop at the New Swan Shakespeare Festival on the campus of the University of California - Irvine, and I did an acting exercise opposite a 70-year-old man. We stood a few feet from each other and spoke a single line back and forth: "Peace, Kent," we said. "Come not between the dragon and his wrath." It's a quote from King Lear.
"Peace, Kent," we said. "Come not between the dragon and his wrath."
The line can be seething, or noxious, or thunderous, or all of the aforementioned, but in any case, it is a silencing remark, dripping with power. It is spoken by the title character - the iconic King Lear, England's aging despot, the organ beneath his thinning white hair steadily disintegrating, but the scepter of his sovereignty still holding all in thrall. This is a role that the fellow opposite me could probably glide into, given the resonance of his gravelly voice, the stateliness of his stature, his age, his gender. It was his type of role.
But I was speaking the line, too - me with my ravelled fair hair and my unwrinkled complexion and the gentle curvature of my body. Me who was having trouble deciding whether or not to identify "the dragon and his wrath" as "the dragon and her wrath" - I think I tried both over the course of the exercise, trying to claim the line as my own.
Just after the workshop concluded, the gentlemen I'd acted with made a point to catch me on his way out the door. He pulled me aside and all he said was, "I'd like to see your Lear."
He pulled me aside and all he said was, "I'd like to see your Lear."
Of course, being impatient - and admittedly cynical - I found this statement more irksome than I should have. I was flattered, but I have no King Lear, I thought. When I look to the genre of Shakespearean tragedy - compelling as it is - I look for myself in leading roles, and I find old men. As an actor, I look for characters I can play, bodies I can step into, minds I can meld with. And in King Lear, I find Cordelia - the king's youngest daughter, and the one who illicits the wrath described in the aforementioned line by disobeying him. She has about one sixth the number of lines that her father has. In Hamlet, I find Ophelia; in Othello, Desdemona. There is no King Lear for the young woman; we have nothing that compares. In classical tragedy, young women are desireable virgins, pushed to the brink by unjust, male-inflicted trauma. Then we are brutally, poetically killed. All power we cultivate is done so subversively. All opportunities we are given to philosophize are fleeting due to our limited stage time. The young woman, in classical theatre, is more often than not a trope, rather than a demographic.
The young woman, in classical theatre, is more often than not a trope, rather than a demographic.
This is all permissable enough on paper. But then I played Wendla in Spring Awakening.
William Shakespeare wrote King Lear in the first few years of the 17th century. Frank Wedekind wrote The Awakening of Spring: A Children's Tragedy at the tail end of the 19th. Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik adapted Spring Awakening in the early 2000s. But when I played Wendla Bergman in the winter of 2016, I played Juliet and Miranda and Desdemona and Cordelia. I was a dreamer conned by shields of ignorance and betrayed by those who were meant to protect me. I gave my heart and body to and absorbed the sadness of a boy who perhaps didn't deserve it. I had a premonition of my own demise at the hands of a common parable and I bled to death after a botched abortion; I did not get to grow up wise, though I would have been magnificent old.
In Spring Awakening, Wendla returns briefly as a phantom and is gracious; she's a light. But Madeline
stood backstage each night before that final entrance and she fumed. She fumed for the boy onstage howling at the world and threatening suicide out of grief. She fumed for the audience who'd seen themselves in Wendla and her yearning and grown invested. But mostly she fumed for the girl with whom she shared a body. Beautiful dead girls are lyrical on paper but when it's your body to consider the mutilation of, it's different. It's unnerving. Why am I more beautiful when I'm gone? And why don't I get to return as a ghost and be angry?
Why am I more beautiful when I'm gone? And why don't I get to return as a ghost and be angry?
Why, in 2016, am I still playing this role - fulfilling this trope - in a story where violence against women is a satisfactory component for a poetic finale?
Now, this qualm does not serve to undermine Shakespeare and Wedekind and Sater and Sheik as artists - as genuises. But I cannot help but wonder how Ophelia and Desdemona and Lavinia and Cordelia's voices would have sounded, how their bodies would have been molded - and what the endings of their stories would have been - if any of the geniuses above had been women. And then how would my experience as an actress, pouring over classical texts, be different?
I in no way rank myself as a genius - I'll be candid about that. But I don't find any attempt to reclaim a distorted narrative above my stature and station. The simplest step forward is one I can make. I can reframe old stories. I can write new ones. Simultaneously, even. Perhaps. Come not between the dragon and her wrath.
(The dragon is The Wall Climbers Theatre Project; the wrath is Noble Minds).
Coming May 2016...