Saturday, February 23, 2013

Field Trip down Memory Lane to 1984


When I think of Shakespeare I think of the tenth grade when some of our class took a bus up from Mannheim Germany up to Stratford upon Avon in England and spent part of a week there watching three of Shakespeare's plays in the town itself. I remember the bus trip up only because of the pictures the teacher took while we were there and on the trip back. It was 1983 or 1984. I have both years written on the backs of the pictures. The cold war was going strong. There were two Germanys. Maggie Thatcher and Reagan were best of friends in a weirdly successful three-way with Germany's Helmut Kohl.
What I knew about Shakespeare I'd learned reading Romeo & Juliet in the same teacher's class that was running us up to England to take in some more of the bard's work. I think we'd watched a movie of it, but it was the early 80's so Leonardo DiCaprio didn't feature at all.

The first play we saw was Taming of the Shrew and it was a very traditional version with period costumes and was exactly what I thought a Shakespeare place should be. I was part way back in the theater and could see the whole stage really well. I loved plays. I'd seen some in the past but nothing like this. There weren't mics. These people projected. They filled the entire theater with their voices and presence. When watching TV, as the show starts I'm aware of the edges of the television itself. If it's a good one show, I quit noticing the TV and my field of vision, my attention really, becomes just that little screen on the idiot box. This play was like that. I was hooked. We all were. The archaic words, the dated insults, they all washed over us and, like a riptide, pulled us back into them, into the play.

The next night was NOTHING like the first night. I'd never heard of the play showing the next night. It was As You Like It and I had no idea what it was about other than our teacher's synopsis. When we arrived at the theater our teacher went to the window and came back with tickets, "Want to move closer?" Of course I did! We wound up stage right in the second row. I could have reached out over the heads of those in front of us and touched the stage. They were, with the exception of the row directly in front of us, the WORST seats in the house. They were awesome! The play itself was completely different from a traditional performance. The costuming was all bright neons & shockingly garish colors. The sets were sparse, minimalist, and the play was carried by the language. At first I was appalled but then it happened again and the words reached out and pulled us in. I wasn't the only one that noticed this. We commented on how startling it was at first and then how we quit noticing the costuming and the lack of a set when compared to the comparatively lush set the night before.

What was most shocking to me was the amount of SPIT flying from these performers' mouths! They were projecting. They were reaching the very back rows of the theater with their voices and they weren't yelling. They were projecting! It's the first time I'd ever seen the difference up close, and seriously... it was close. And when they're projecting their lungs are really blasting out the air and carried on their wind was a copious amount of spit. It went everywhere and I had an excellent seat to see it spraying the stage and each other in the stage lights. All safely on stage right... they never looked at us to talk! The front row though? Yeah. They should have worn plastic sheets like at a Gallagher show.

The last play was Merchant of Venice and my seats weren't memorable and honestly, neither was the production. I was jaded by then, having seen two plays already. I remember only that they talked about a Jew a lot in the play and I was surprised by that.

That trip was where I figured out that the theater wasn't boring and that a good story wasn't about the sets or the trappings or the things around the story. A story, a good story, is about the words, the story, and interesting, memorable characters. Nothing else matters. I don't know if that's what they meant for us to learn while watching As You Like It but it is what I did learn. They'd done everything they could to make that play as un-Shakespearlike as they could without messing with the words, the story, the characters, and it was just as riveting as the more traditional displays.

I'm a writer now and I try and remember the lesson of that trip and focus not so much on the stage setting as on the words, the story, and the characters. Those are the things people remember. Those are the things that bring people back for more. I'm not saying I'm Shakespeare, but I am saying I could do worse than try and learn from someone who did an amazing job at making me forget that decades later while people messed with his sets & costumes it was his words that would transported me, us, to where he wanted us to go.

Oh, and this picture? Please... forgive the unfortunate hair. Really. I couldn't do a thing with it and didn't have a clue what to try.
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