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Shaking Spears in the Park

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that every budding actor wishing to garner experience in his field will (inevitably) end up doing a Shakespeare production so as to add it to his resume. I, being an amateur of said practice, with only a few high school gigs and some summer stock theatre under my belt, decided that the summer of 2013 would be best spent in a novel situation: Shakespeare in the Park.

The production was Romeo and Juliet. I had stumbled across an invitation to audition on Facebook from my first acting mentor, Bryant Turnage. It so happened that he was directing the show. With this news in mind, nostalgia kicked me in the ass and the imp on my shoulder suggested “Why the hell not?”

I auditioned. It was a nervous process, really. Quite embarrassing. I tended to whip into a nice Oxford English accent during the cold reads and was as interesting as a festering turd to watch when it came to moving my body around the space. It hurt knowing that, after three years of acting, I was so green at the craft. I had allowed myself to become lax–comfortable with the prospect that, in high school, I was usually handed a script for a lead role and never had to do much work. I wanted to rehearse primal scream therapy after the dreary twenty minute fool’s march concluded.

But Bryant was gracious. He was happy to see me at the audition and cheerily announced to everyone that I was his former student. Against my harsh self-critique, I was relieved to find that my teacher trusted me and, upon reading the posted cast list, learned that I would serve as Benvolio for his festivities. I allowed myself a deep breath at that moment, because the angel on my adjacent shoulder whispered the sweet nothings of huge responsibility into my ear.

Believe you me, that damned cherub wasn’t lying. The combination of working at a grocery store as a cashier (an office, I believe, that exists to soothe the freaky fetishes of extreme couponers) does not bode well with cramming loads of iambic pentameter into one’s brain. And as a cute touch, sleep escaped my capacity in the process.

Rehearsals were a frank b****. There were legions of bleeding bug bites for starters. I was being constantly tossed about a sea of indecision in regards to blocking and still felt like decaying fecal matter with my physical animation. Never was it so tedious a decision to figure out what to do with my hands as Romeo spouted out paragraphs of Elizabethan nonsense; furthermore, I discovered that thespians are a “touchy-feeling” bunch and had to get over certain parts of my anatomy being fondled, spanked, and spit on.

About two weeks before our run, I was ready to give up. I was weary of the damned thing. I was tired of getting chastising looks when I decided to light my pipe during my downtime and dreaded getting yelled at by Bryant for not being quick enough to cover for fellow cast members when they drastically flubbed lines. I wanted nothing more than to crawl into my hobbit hole, blow out the candles, and sleep.

Yet tech week brought out the magic of theatre for me. It seems that though a show may be shattered in a thousand pieces, left in a state of apparent disarray, then s*** and pissed on for good measure, there is one inescapable fact about the business: when the pressure of opening night shines in the camp, the soldiers assemble and draw arms.

By golly, I caught the fever and I began to confide in my fellow actors. Whether it was chewing theology with Tybalt, comparing Bill Clinton impressions with Gregory and Sampson, drinking Hippy Food with Mercutio, or talking about corn cob pipes with the Apothecary, I had inadvertently struck up friendships with people–once found annoying in my grumpy moods–and was better for it. We were not working together anymore. We were playing.

It felt damn good. Our opening night was killer as a consequence of our efforts. Even when the rain forced us to take our show inside, we still nailed our material to a tee. It became a joy to perform rather than a chore. By God, we were delivering theatre to the masses! (Feel free to slurp some tea and adjust your monocle at that last sentence.)

But one thing more about this theatre stuff. Perhaps a note I’ve learned with the spectator side of the sport that I feel compelled to share.

One night during a run I had finished my part in the show and decided to walk around the extensive grounds behind the stage and smoke one my Italian briars. Winding along the trimmed trails, I came upon an old man with an awesome snowy beard tossing a cigarette into a barbeque pit, only to promptly sit back down on a nearby bench. I was drawn to talk to him for some reason.

We exchanged the normal pleasantries of “good evening” and “how are you” quickly enough, and the man inquired about my pipe and complimented the room note of it’s combustion. Turns out he stopped by after a long day of work to take in our spectacle. He then started spinning several yarns, revealing himself to be a pipe smoker of thirty years, and learned me on the subject of Meerschaum pipes (they usually come from Turkey, made from fermented soapstone). He also lamented about his cigarette habit, and confessed a fondness for cigars. Dumbfounded in his recollection, I’d realized that I discovered a man after my own heart.

Then we began to talk about books. About Tolkien chiefly, then about C.S. Lewis. We mostly came to the agreement that, for people like us, it was a pleasant addiction to buy lots of books that will probably do nothing more than sit on your shelf. He gave me a sage warning: “Read them while you can, son–they’ll continue collecting dust on the shelf otherwise. I know it. I’ve gotta book from twenty-five years back–Walden by that Thoreau fellow?–and have yet to read it. I waste my time with dime novels. And there’s no greater shame or waste of money than that. Great stories are all we’ve got to keep us going, so read as many as possible.”

As our discussion went on, the sun waned to reveal its relative stars. I became aware I had to hie me hence to curtain call soon–else risk directorial scolding. So I parted with the man, told him that I enjoyed our interesting conversation, and then asked for his name. It was Dwyane.

And that was that. I haven’t seen the man since.

Anyways, I told that small digressive tale to say this: great stories, comprised of little anecdotes, matter. They are theatre. They draw us from abyss and heal our souls, every tear and chuckle at a time, carrying us to a haven that is heaven–humanity at it’s finest.

Dwayne showed me that people will take an excursion from a hectic life just so to catch a great story. Granted, I believe that Romeo and Juliet contains a tad too much angst than perhaps is necessary, but it’s still a one hell of a story. It’s what Dwayne needed for recuperation that night. And it’s what I needed.

When it all was said and done, the set and lights packed up, there was a certain emptiness that bore into me. I went to the cast after party and had a celebratory cigar. I said my goodbyes to these excellent people with whom I’d shared my life with for a solid month and half. The whole time in doing so, I felt like there was verbal phantasm still hanging in the air that remained to be uttered. All our hard work had fizzled out into applause, time disbanding us.

However, when Bryant came up to me that evening, gave me a hug, told me that he was proud of my growth as an actor, I felt encouraged. There was a look exchanged between us that said “This isn’t the end; the best is yet to come, friend.” Somehow, I knew in our parting that theatre never truly ends. There would be other shows.

You see, we actors are a funny lot. We’re never actually content with ourselves or our performances. We constantly strive to do something better than we have, and will die trying. Truth be told, we’re masochists and ascetics of the strictest sort. We whip ourselves bloody, admittedly, in making our lines flawless, but at that final instant in which the last syllable of our monologue has drifted to the back row, we feel the slightest relief from our condition. It is that minute epiphany of a “job well done” that we savor. Except we will eventually go to bed to mull over the night’s actions, ready to best them the next day. Some call it a vicious cycle, we call it the Circle of Life.

Running around in a silly Renaissance mask may not float everyone’s boat, but it surely has mine. It’s made me hope. I’ve proved to myself that I can improve in the heart of monotony. That’s a good thing, methinks.



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