A wise and venerable mentor of mine once said, “Performing Shakespeare and the classics is like lifting a one-hundred pound dumbbell, and after that everything else is like lifting a five-pound potato.” Bearing this inspiring and somewhat curious metaphor in mind I thought, “Bring on the dumbbells.”
It is no secret that the life of an actor is in many ways effortful, hard-won, and often dispiriting. I am reminded of the Chekhov short story, ‘In the Graveyard,’ where an embittered and dying actor visits the grave of the man who encouraged him to be a bit player many years earlier.
‘It was through looking at him and listening to him that I became an actor. By his art he lured me from the parental home, he enticed me with the excitements of an actor's life, promised me all sorts of things -- and brought tears and sorrow.’
Despite the long bouts with idleness, wondering when the next project will come, and the occasional reminder from mom and dad at Thanksgiving that you should have in fact gone to law school, the actors of longevity will tell you, there actually is a reason that we keep putting ourselves through this. After all, the saying in show business goes, “Nobody ever quits, they just give up.”
As a person of color there are impediments that I must face, both socially and personally. This is certainly no revelation and this categorically does not entitle me to anything I haven’t worked for. So perhaps you can imagine some of the bottlenecks with the career path I have chosen. It now occurs to me that I shouldn’t have mocked my high school guidance counselor.
Now enter Shakespeare. With all due respect to Oxfordians, I would argue that Shakespeare’s plays have opened up a world of thought, imagination, and consummation. And more importantly, Shakespeare saves me the discouragement of thumbing through every audition publication and seeing that I don’t ‘fit’ the role. I can accredit this to the basis that his productions are almost always done with colorblind casting. DOUBLE SCORE!
You can imagine my elation when I received the call to play both Benvolio and Paris in Curious Frog’s production of Romeo and Juliet.
“I’ll do it,” I declared. It was soon after my agreement that I was told, “And we’d also like you to be in our other production, the Greek comedy, Plutus.”
“But soft, two plays? And at the same time?” Remember the dumbbell reference I thought. Remember the dumbbell reference!”
“Okay, I’ll do them both,” I cried. Shakespeare and the Greeks? Does it get any better? All I really remember from the ancient Greeks is that they believed that their words held up pillars, which in turn held up the universe, and if your words weren’t spoken with enough resolve, purpose, and courage the universe would essentially collapse in on itself. Insert pressure here.
My attempts to not sound trite will fundamentally fail because nothing could prepare me for what lied ahead. There was the amicable tug-of-war between both directors as to when I should rehearse for their play. “To be Greek, or to be Elizabethan. That is the Queens or Manhattan question.” The generally low-pitched N train ride to Astoria for R & J, which introduced me to the beauties of Astoria and Off-Track betting I had forgot about living in Manhattan. There was a tremendous sense of community, family, and people in this part of New York, which often seems untapped. And who can ever forget the cast huddled around an air-conditioner battling a New York July, doing text work and scansion?
Then of course there was the other side of the Subway Series. Rehearsing for a twenty-five hundred year old comedy written by Aristophanes, who himself once wrote in one of his plays through his Chorus, "producing comedies is the hardest work of all." Rehearsals for this play often led me to a swanky upper-west side apartment, mostly due to remorseless rain. The slapstick comedic bits, underlining themes still relevant today, and the screaming…oh the screaming. “The people living next door are going to burst into this apartment and crack skulls,” I kept thinking to myself. Luckily for us, it never happened.
All of this rehearsing, running to and fro, and sweat led to the baptism of something I’d actually never done, performing in the park. There are few things in life more humbling and rewarding then performing in a park. First, there is the responsibility of gathering an audience. For without an audience there is no story to be told. Then, there is the unrelenting heat. Not to mention the animated running, bouncing, hurdling, and leaping in this heat, all while having to constantly change costumes. And lastly, there are the constant barrages. Shakespeare’s English battled plague, famine, and the French. Aristophane’s Greeks fought in the Trojan, Persian, and Peloponnesian Wars. Our wars though not as bloodthirsty, I would argue were just as dramatic.
I challenge any actor to attempt to perform in the midst of speed boats, Harley Davidson motorcycles, mosquitoes, the Acela Express, the occasionally aloof and apathetic soul wandering through the middle of the play, house music from an event that requested their park permit on the same day, and did I mention mosquitoes? All posed to be great tests, but forced all the actors to heighten their focus. I found the old Geraldine Page quote to be especially relevant: “If we could only listen to each other on the stage like the animals in the forests do-as though our lives depended on it.” I am convinced without a doubt that at some point Geraldine Page performed in Brooklyn.
There are no substitutes however to the fulfillment and wonderment you feel after a performance. The mother stopping with her children and informing them about what is going on, park goers enthusiastically promising to come back next week, applause somehow drowning out that Acela Express, and the reminder that this is in fact how Shakespeare and the Greeks meant for their plays to be done; unapologetically, dynamically, and with allegiance to nothing but the story. There isn’t a thing I would change. I think that Shakespeare would be appeased by the fact that his sword fights are still meticulously carried out, his words are savored, and people of all walks of life are still passionate about his stories. And I think the Greeks would be thrilled to know the universe is still being held up. It is with all this I take the N train back home, exhausted, clothes muddy and tattered, but some how with a smile from ear to ear. It’s because for the rest of the ride I can defiantly answer that burning question, “Ah, that’s right. That’s why I do this.”