My dear and brilliant friend Robin Lithgow has written a fascinating, well-researched book about education systems and Shakespeare titled Good Behavior and Audacity. In it, she writes about coming across Colloquia Familiaria by Erasmus. This is from her recent blog:
“When I started reading, I was astonished to find early models of the colloquial characters that I loved as a kid watching Shakespeare’s plays: the clowns, shopkeepers, thieves, schoolmasters, bar flies, prostitutes, etc. These were short scripts written forty years before Shakespeare was born, for schoolboys, to teach conversational Latin! … To me it is glaringly obvious that, as a boy, Will Shakespeare performed them at school. Characters, circumstances, even specific images and lines show up all over his early comedies….Something else that amazed me were all of the whip-smart women characters that Erasmus created! Shakespeare is often noted for his luminous and opinionated women, often outsmarting and out-talking the men around them. Hello!? Erasmus’ women were doing that long before Shakespeare!” – Robin Lithgow
So in October, in an informal salon setting, I read one of these whip-smart women in a colloquia with Robin’s brother, John Lithgow. Enjoy! And for more, sign up for Robin’s blog here.
If you are an actor who has performed Shakespeare fairly steadily, chances are good that you love it. I’d be willing to bet that you’ve experienced how the heightened language and given circumstances of the plays have expanded your range as a performer and deepened your level of empathy as a human being. And if you are that actor who has fallen in love with Shakespeare, then chances are good your family and friends have come to see you perform it. But would they attend that same play if you were not in it? If your answer is ‘yes’, that’s awesome. But that’s not my experience.
My family has seen me perform Shakespeare at various theatres over the years, and have been quite clear that they’d rather see me in a short, contemporary comedy. “We just like those better.”
What’s the resistance to Shakespeare? I’ve asked some of my non-actor friends, and their answer is pretty simple:
ME: Why don’t you go see more Shakespeare?
FRIEND: I don’t like it.
ME: Ah. Ok. (pause) Why’s that?
FRIEND: I don’t understand it….it’s boring.
FRIEND: It’s probably just me….I’m not very smart with that stuff.
Boom! And there it is. They don’t feel smart watching it. Who would want to sit through 2 1/2 or (God forbid) 3 hours of something that makes them feel stupid? And to drive there, and pay for it, too?
The truth is they are very smart. I have friends who are educators, writers, craftsmen, political activists, restaurant owners, scientists, IT whizzes, soldiers, business owners, you name it. Curious, Intelligent people smart enough to pick professions that have steady incomes and a 401(k), just sayin’. Brilliant, caring people who make the world go round. If these folks leave the theatre feeling “not very smart” then the fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves as to why. As storytellers of Shakespeare, are we failing to allow our audiences to feel smart?
Are we so unclear with the language and intentions that they just plain don’t understand the words? or are we losing them before the curtain even rises? Are we really clear on the need to tell the story?
The search for the necessity to hold the “mirror up to nature” is for me the most sobering part of being an artist. And part of the brilliance of Shakespeare is that he offers us the opportunity to explore that need again and again.
In the Shakespeare Gymnaisum, we ask why a particular narrative is needed at a particular time. How can the story open up pathways of communication? Can the language serve as a lantern, illuminating a way for the audience to join us on a journey of discovery? What’s in it for them? Are we willing and able, as actors, to reveal ourselves through the language, in such a way that the audience is excited to be drawn in? I find that when we sharpen our need to share the story, actors and audience members collaborate in an unfolding process of discovering why the story matters.
Perhaps now more than ever, I feel a great need to be a practitioner of the arts. Through a lot of my career, I struggled with its validity, questioning if my contribution mattered. It’s not curing cancer or eradicating poverty. True enough. But I’ve come to know that theatre and storytelling is vital, magical and transformative for individuals and for communities. When strangers gather together in a space, and are invited to peer through a different lens, they cannot help but glimpse a different perspective. And when they are invited to stand in someone else’s shoes, a powerful practice of understanding is activated. I’ve learned that storytelling through the arts is vital for the soul of a nation, letting us pause, reflect and hopefully heal in some small or profound way.
In the Shakespeare Gymnasium, we re-evaluate the need to tell the story and then practice the techniques necessary to activate the language to do so. We learn to listen to the text, letting it guide us to its fullest expression. At the end of the day, my hope is that both actor and audience leave the theatre feeling united…and just a little bit smarter.