How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bard

With pomp, with triumph, with revelling.

Even though we’re not 100% sure, April 23, is the day we tend to recognize as William Shakespeare’s birthday. And this one is a big one.  The big 4-5-0.  I can only hope 450 years after my birth my works will be half as popular as Will’s is.

As clichéd as an actor/playwright loving Shakespeare is, I do.  And I don’t care that it is clichéd, because it’s also genuine.  And it also didn’t happen overnight.  I wasn’t huge on him during my formative school years.  We’re not taught true Shakespeare when we’re in high school (and sometimes even in college), because there’s not a lot of people who can do justice to the Bard.  So through my high school career, I read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and King Lear.  In college, I studied Othello.  I also studied, somewhat independently, but in a collegiate environment The Merchant of Venice, and Titus Andronicus.  There is still a lot of Shakespeare I haven’t read, but last year I made a goal to read it all (see Year of the Bard).  I haven’t gotten as far along in that list as I’d like, but I shall continue, and blog my discoveries.

How did I shift from Shakespeare just being some guy we learned about in school to someone I aspire after?  It’s hard to know exactly when it happened, but as I learned more about him, and how he wrote, and how we should (as actors) interpret sentences, grammar, etc., his brilliance shone through.  He’s affected me not only as an actor, but also as a writer.

Shakespeare as an Actor

Shakespeare didn’t have a lot of time between writing and acting.  There was no opportunity to “workshop” a play.  He wrote, they performed.  Sometimes within hours.  So how does one make sure all the nuances of the writer are communicated to the actor?   In the words of course.  We don’t have to dig deep to see what needs to be done directionally if we as actors really examine the words.  Don’t just act blankly, waiting for the director to mould you, but let the words form your character and the director work with that.  Not only is it easier on the director, but you can get a much richer and deeper performance.   I’ve said it before: acting is not just showing up and saying lines.  There’s work.  And it’s worth it.

Shakespeare as a Writer

My writing style has changed since learning about Shakespeare’s writing.  Punctuation means so much more to me.  I tell my kids in P.A.C.K (Performing Arts Classes for Kids) that when they get a script/monologue, to circle any and all punctuation.  The reason for this is two-fold.  I like using drama to teach other skills (for my younger kids, their reading comprehension always grows in the three month period).  I also want them to be aware of when a sentence ends, when something shifts mid-sentence, and when to be excited.  It’s easier for some people than others, and I invariably have some who just don’t know what to do when they see an exclamation mark.  I have my theories (and overuse/misuse is one of them), but I want my kids know what to do when they see a specific punctuation mark.  So writers who don’t have the opportunity to direct your work, how do you make sure your nuances are seen?  I believe a lot of it is in punctuation and sentence structure.  When I write, I don’t write like I would write an essay.  I write the way people talk, so it’s not stiff, so it’s lifelike, so it’s relatable.

Shakespeare as Human

Now I know this is going to sound hokey, but I allow myself to feel, to experience things more deeply, and Shakespeare is behind that.  He’s behind me becoming a better actor, and if I’m not afraid to feel all these emotions on stage in front of a million people (misnomer, more like 70 if I’m lucky), then I shouldn’t be afraid to feel these emotions in front of people I know and trust.

Shakespeare isn’t for everyone.  Someone may get the same results from reading a George R.R. Martin book.  That’s fine with me.  I certainly don’t mean to tell someone they’re not doing things write because they don’t like Shakespeare.  I will ask all who don’t like Shakespeare if it’s because they were forced to read in high school/college?  As we all know, it’s hard (but not impossible) to enjoy something forced on us in order to learn.   Shakespeare is more than a bunch of confusing lines, and words we don’t say anymore, he’s deeper, he’s fuller, and he’s wiser than we give him credit for.

To me, fair friend, you can never be old,

For as you were when first your eye I eye’d,

Such seems your beauty still.

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How Do You Support the Arts?

Every artist was first an amateur. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

What is art to you?

It could be a photograph, a movement piece, a song, a poem, a painting, a drawing, a garden, a novel.  The list can go on and on and we still would never see the end of it.  That’s the beauty of art.  It is all encompassing, surrounding us all, in all we say and do.  Art shows us our culture.  It reminds us of who we are.  It tells us what we are doing today, and who we can become tomorrow.  If we don’t have art, how can we as a people, know who we are?

In this age of grassroots movements, individuals and small groups are standing up for art and conveying it to the community at large.  There’s slam poetry groups, there’s art meetings, there’s community theatre, there’s writing clubs, and so much more.  They’re doing it because they are passionate about the medium, and their message, and they’re doing it so YOU will hear.

When then is it so difficult to find community members at these events?

Do you support the arts?  Sure, you may have voted for the individual or the political party who said they support the arts, but what about YOU?  Support is more than lip service.  Support is more than dropping some money at a fundraiser.  Support is going to the events, seeing what the artists have created, listening to their soul, and being a part of it all.  Maybe your life will be changed; maybe you’ll just have an an enjoyable evening with a friend or lover, or by yourself.

So where are you?

Where are you during local art gatherings?  Where are you during concerts held by local singer/songwriters?  Where are you during community theatre productions?  These people are telling your story.

We recently put on a show.  It ran for 3 nights and we didn’t break 70 people.  In a city of 50,000, we had less than 70 people show up.  Where were you?  Were you afraid about the content when you heard it was original?  Did you forget Shakespeare wrote original material for the Queen (and then King)? Did you miss news articles about the author being award-winning?  Did you miss the fact the author teaches drama to your children (and writes all their final performance pieces)?

What is holding you back from supporting your friends and neighbours as they pursue their passion?

This town is full of praise for the athletes who come from here, and rightfully so!  They have done great work and deserve our applause and our cheers.

So do our artists.  Artists invest just as much time and energy as our athletes; they sacrifice to create, they go without, they constantly strive for greatness.  And they achieve greatness.

Our artists work alongside other groups and charities, to use their talents to help with fundraisers, with awareness campaigns, with community development.  They are quickly forgotten in their own development.

Why is that?  Can anyone tell me?  Airdrie should have its own culture.  We have our own athletes making a name for themselves and Airdrie in the world.  Did you know our artists can do that as well? But we need the support of Airdronians to get there.

We are not just Calgary’s bedroom community.  We are our own community, with our own identity, and our artists are fighting against the stream to create a lasting memory.  Won’t you help them?

Support the arts, not just in words, not just in payments, but in deeds.  In attendance, in your time, in your life.

I close with a message from an audience member who came to see our show Saturday night:

I attended last night’s performance and I thought this play was great. The performers were wonderful. Airdrie you are fortunate to have such talented artists in your city. It is such a shame you do not support them. I live in Taber and we have the Taber Players here that perform twice per year. In a town of only 8000 people this group has a great following. Airdrie get out and support this talented group of play writers and actors. Volunteer some time and see what you have been missing!!!!!

 

 

 

Year of the Bard: The Comedy of Errors

Until I know this sure uncertainty, I’ll entertain the offered fallacy – Shakespeare

The Comedy of Errors was next on my Year of the Bard read list, and despite it being the shortest of his works, I had a hard time sticking to it.  From a reader’s point of view, it is very difficult to keep separate in the mind Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, not to mention their respective twin slaves, both named Dromio.  Now, don’t get me wrong, this type of humour is not lost on me generally.  This is part of the reason I loved Frasier so much – they did this type of comedy quite well.  It just reiterated that sometimes plays are meant to be seen and not read.  I’m quite enjoying this journey through Shakespeare, but until this play, I was content to see it play out in my mind’s eye.  I couldn’t manage it with this short piece.

It’s an important reminder that we don’t get the full picture just from reading a play.  Plays are meant to be seen: the characters are meant to come alive in front of you – living breathing pieces of literature for you to journey with.  You shouldn’t make rash judgements based on scripts alone – for the script is a one-dimensional piece of the three-dimensional world.  So much more is added by the actors, the director, the set, the props, and even the audience.  Directors are wonderful beings who can see the three-dimensional world in the one-dimensional script, and who can guide and shape actors to what they believe the writer’s vision to be.  We like to think actors are great and talented, and the show wouldn’t be the same without them, and that is true in part.  But we must never forget they are being guided by the director, who has patience and foresight to shape what the audience eventually sees.  As a writer who often gets to not only direct my own work, but also act in it, I get special insight not everyone does.  I know exactly what I meant when I wrote what I did.  I know the nuances behind it.  Sometimes I leave nuances alone, for the actor to discover as they develop their character, but the nuance is always there, waiting to be discovered, or perhaps molded in a different way.  Acting is great, and wonderful and is a passion of mine, but if it weren’t for words, all  we’re doing is mime.  Never forget the importance of what words are being said.  If it was important enough for the writer to put in his/her play, it’s important it get conveyed to the audience.

Year Of The Bard: The Tempest

Let us not burden our remembrances with a heaviness that’s gone. – William Shakespeare

Yesterday I finished the first play in my Year of the Bard challenge.  There is no major list I’m following; I’m just starting at the beginning of my Complete Works of Shakespeare, and going play-by-play until I’ve read them all.  First on the list: The Tempest.

Coincidentally, The Tempest was also the topic of the last episode of Shakespeare Uncovered, so some information was foremost in my head; namely, this was quite possibly the last play he wrote (himself), and he left London shortly after.  He died 2 years after writing this play.

With this knowledge, of course readers will look for signs of his retirement in his work.  High school and first-couple-years-of-college me would be flippant.  “Why do we always have to look for ‘stuff’ in novels, poems, and plays?”  Older, wiser me actively seeks them out.  Now that I can call myself a playwright when people ask me what I do, I realize more and more I do write things intentionally.  Drowning Ophelia was written to help me deal with a terrible time in my life where emotional abuse and manipulation ran rampant.  Empty Spaces was written to explore this need in society for people to reach beyond themselves and help, regardless of whether people would appreciate the help or not.  The Courtship of Sarah Chandler was written to help me elucidate how I felt about marriage, and whether I want to venture in (should the opportunity arise).  Just because Shakespeare is entertaining, and was written to entertain does not mean he didn’t write what he wrote for a reason.   For example, I believe Titus Andronicus was written at a time when there was an impending regime change (Elizabeth I was about to kick it, and she had no natural heirs.  Enter James I).

There’s some talk about colonisation, but I was hit more strongly by Prospero’s final address.  At first blush, it reminded me of Puck’s final address to the audience (“if these shadows have offended…”).

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,

And what strength I have’s mine own

Which is most faint.

 I found this most powerful if we think this is the last Shakespeare wrote.  Is he tired?  Had he grown weary of “city life”?

Prospero as a man had been holding onto a grudge for 12 years, only to suddenly forgive those who exiled him.  How exhausting would that be?  The 12 years would be exhausting enough, but to suddenly let go of such a driving force in his life would be like wind going out of his sails.  Everything he had done to that point had been in direct relation to how he was wronged.  Now that he has forgiven, what is he to do?  Despite Prospero and Miranda being “freed”, that is the plan at the end of the play is for Miranda and Ferdinand to be married, so they are no longer stuck on the island, Shakespeare ends the play with them still there.  Why is that?  Is it possible that after 12 years of scheming, there is nothing left for Prospero to do?  After all the years of creating plays, there is nothing left for Shakespeare to do?

 How empty it would feel if there was nothing else for us to do.

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Fear Not The Bard

He was not of an age, but for all time. – Ben Jonson

Last week I participated in Toronto Fringe’s 25-hour playwriting competition.  At 1:00 Eastern, they announced 4 themes each play had to have.  We had until 2:00 Eastern the next day to complete a one act (no less than 45 minutes).

I was eager for the challenge.  Usually when I’m not writing, it’s because I have nothing to write about.  This took that away from me.  As the time grew nearer, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to coherently use the themes they would choose.  And when I got the themes, I methodically wrote them down and actually brainstormed for a moment.  At that point, as it usually is for me, the play shaped itself.  I knew where it was heading, I just had to get it there.  I’m pleased with the results.  I won’t find out if it was a Toronto Fringe winner till Wednesday, but prize, or no prize, I have a new functional script, and plans to use it.

While I was writing, I had my TV on.  I’m not one for silence.  I’m sure I watched a few sitcoms, white noise and such, but as my to-watch list on my PVR dwindled, I saw that I still had most of the episodes in Shakespeare Uncovered to finish.  Prior to this, I had watched the one on Macbeth, and the comedies.  Ultimately, I believe the comedies to be my favourite episode, because it reiterated just how well Shakespeare, who couldn’t actually have women play the roles, wrote women.

But that’s probably a subject for another blog post.

Writing a play while learning how Shakespeare wrote, prepared, etc. was quite interesting, and eye-opening.  I haven’t done a lot of in-depth studies on Shakespeare, especially the writing aspect of it, but my class last year really helped me appreciate as an actor and a playwright just how bright Shakespeare was.  Every little thing he wrote meant something.  There was little to no “filler”.  Every punctuation mark meant something.  Every character was there to contribute something, not just to have a character there.

As a writer, that is something to aspire to.  I’m terrible at filler.  When I was in high school and college, 10-page papers were so daunting to me, because I always felt I could make my point in much less time/space.  Another negative aspect of filler is that your characters and your words need to mean something.  If that’s the service/ware you’re selling, you want to make sure every aspect of it is filling its purpose.

In my Shakespeare class last year, my main problem was lack of word-for-word.  I have a working theory that people who are more comfortable and confident in their improv skills will find memorizing scripts more difficult.  Not impossible, mind, but difficult.  Those people who aren’t comfortable and confident in improv have an easier time making sure every single word is memorized, in proper order.  Saying that, now that I’ve written more and more, and have been lucky enough to at least co-direct my own plays, I understand how important to a writer word-perfect is.  You’ve crafted these words, you know why the character is saying it the way he or she is.  You want to make sure the eventual audience will see what you saw in the character.  So actors: please, please, please, understand that directors and playwrights saying “word perfect” is only 10% OCD and 90% character.  Playwrights: know why you’re writing those words.  Know why your character is saying what they’re saying.  If you don’t know why, the director won’t know why, the actor won’t know why, and the audience won’t know why, and your point is lost.

I also see that some actors (especially hobbyist actors) seems to avoid Shakespeare.  Perhaps he seems too daunting with his tongue twister lines, and aged sayings.  He’s only as scary as you make him out to be.  Even if you are just a hobbyist actor, don’t you wish to be as good as you can?  We owe so much to this man, and he was really the actor’s playwright.  He would write scripts in the morning and give it to the actors in the afternoon.  He’s giving you everything you need to know in your script.  What’s not to love about that?

Playwrights, you must find your own voice, but if you don’t acknowledge, or dig even a little bit into what Shakespeare did, I truly believe you’re missing out on an opportunity to not only find your voice, but also to amplify it.

To My Friend

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

-Shakespeare

This week, my best friend and I are travelling down different roads that are remarkably similar.  Her due date for her first gaffer is the end of the week.  My show – the first show being performed on a non-festival basis goes up on Friday.

After initial similarities, our lives have gone down separate paths.  She’s married, a homeowner, and very, very knocked up.  I’m unmarried, a renter, and an avowed non-breeder.  But as I take the time to think back over the 9 months, and marvel at the way our different journeys are ending on the same weekend, I see the cosmic humour.

Drowning Ophelia was being written while Friend’s gaffer was early in the gestational stage.  As it grew in her womb, so too grew Drowning Ophelia.  Its characters came alive, life breathed into them by the actors.

As this new child is being brought into the world, so too is Drowning Ophelia.  It will take its first breaths on Friday, its mother waiting with bated breath to see how it is received.

I will never have children, and I will never have my innards make room for a weird space invader-type thing for 9 months and eventually push something the size of a watermelon through a very small hole, but I will create life.  I will create legacy.

And that dear Friend, is just another of our similarities.

Moving and Shaking

Defeat? I do not recognize the meaning of the word. – Margaret Thatcher

While some people keep their tissues close during movies such as PS I Love You, or Moulin Rouge, or Les Miserables, with the exception of Les Mis, I’m pretty stone hearted.  The movies which get my eyes to floweth over are biopics, the stories of people who are doing good work but are cut down in their prime due to disease or assassination.  Years ago, I watched a documentary on Freddie Mercury who is one of my musical heroes, and even though I knew how it was going to end, I could help but sit there sobbing as his friends and loved ones recounted his final days. When I watched Into the Wild, the tears didn’t start until Eddie Vedder began singing over the credits.  Sure, a lot of people may think McCandless wasn’t someone to be revered, but I believe he was in search of something, and before he could tell his family, his friends, and everyone else his revelation, he was gone.

Yesterday, I finally had the chance/desire to watch Jack, CBC’s biopic of the late Jack Layton.  Now there were a lot of things he did I disagreed with, but he was undeniably a champion for things I wish to be a vocal champion for.  I think with Jack at the helm, the NDP was the perfect Opposition. (Don’t get me started on Mulcair.)  By the last ten minutes, the tears were flowing.  You could imagine the ugly cry face when the last letter he wrote to Canadians was read.  “My friends, love is better than anger.  Hope is better than fear.  Optimism is better than despair.  So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic.  And we’ll change the world.”

I think all of us at one point want to be the one to change the world.  Some of us still think that, and it drives our actions.  Some of us having taken a step back from that line of thinking, and have allowed others to take the baton.  Then there are the very few who like to step on those people and grumble that it can’t be done so why try.  I’m not going to talk about those people.  They’re always going to exist.  I’ve only recently come into what I call my soapbox era.  There are a lot of things I see which I feel needs to be changed.  I’ve become a fan of revolution (funnily enough, that’s the part of Les Mis I cried at.  Not at Fantine’s death, but at the people fighting for which they believe in). I’d love to use my talent at creating change.  I may have had my tongue firmly in cheek when I wrote in #AmWriting, “You don’t have to agree.  My play will bring both sides of the argument together.  Create discourse.  Encourage change.  That’s what plays are about”, but I truly believe that.  With some exceptions, the plays I’ve written are meant to inform about what’s going on in society, whether I have the answer or not.  Drowning Ophelia, I’ve mentioned is about domestic abuse.  It’s about how I felt when I was being emotionally manipulated, and yes, emotional abuse is every bit as hurtful as physical.  The Courtship of Sarah Chandler (spring/fall 2014) works out my thoughts about marriage.  I don’t want it, but I understand why people do.  My latest play, for which I only have one monologue, explores this new yet old view of who women are in society.

There are a lot of things wrong in our society.  You can blame politics, religion, education, whatever, but blaming doesn’t bring about solution.  Identifying the problem is only one step.  Once it’s identified, work on finding the solution.  Some problems are less scary than others to fix.  Some require courage, and strength in your conviction.  My favourite M. Night Shyamalan film to date is Lady in the Water.  It inspired me to start to write again after a very long dry spell.  In it, there is a character: Vick Ran.  He is writing “The Cookbook”, which contains views and ideas which will inspire a future president, who will more than likely change the world for the better.  He learns that due to the controversial nature, he will be assassinated.

The nature of death frightens me sometimes.  I have a hard time dealing with it.  The idea of a living, breathing person turning into an empty shell just doesn’t mesh well with my thought cycle.  I don’t want it to hurt.  I want it to happen when I’m 125 years old and am just tired of living.  Movers and shakers rarely get that option though.  Perhaps that’s just what you sign on for.  I can’t sit idly back and not comment, not try to change.  Maybe down the line that’ll mean isolation, or worse.  To believe in something that strongly is appealing.  It gives my life purpose.  Who knows, maybe years from now, it’ll give someone else’s life purpose too.

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