Shakespeare’s Influence, Far and Wide

It’s April 23rd again, and that must mean it’s time for the Shakespeare Birthday Project. I’m pleased to once again be taking part in this celebration of Shakespeare’s life and the great joy he’s brought to so many people for so many years.

The thing of it is — I wasn’t quite sure what to write about this year. I’ve already devoted a post to how Shakespeare shaped my life path, and last year I discussed his inspirational power to teachers. Fortunately, circumstances aligned to provide me an avenue for discussion, because this year, Shakespeare’s birthday falls swift on the heels of an incredible eight-day stretch of OCS Education seminars. We began on Friday the 12th with our Spring Teacher Seminar, and that barreled straight into this year’s second annual week-long International Paper Leadership Seminar. Having these two events back up against each other allowed me to see the full spectrum of engagement with Shakespeare, from our super-excited educators, eagerly throwing themselves into immersion, to a group of business professionals, lawyers, and mill foremen, most of whom had little lifetime exposure to Shakespeare, and some of whom primarily spoke languages other than English.

There are ways in which our Teacher Seminars are like shooting fish in a barrel, because those educators (particularly those attendees who come multiple times a year) are always hungry to indulge their love of Shakespeare. That can be a double-edged sword, however, because it means I feel a lot of pressure to give them new, exciting material. So, for this event, I was pleased to be able to give them over to our Tempt Me Further tour actors for two workshops. I think they always get different insights from such active practitioners, even if they’re covering the same material that Sarah and I would. They also got to listen to a Master Minds lecture from an MBC graduate student and had the opportunity to discuss common misconceptions about early modern female performance with her. Best of all, though, they threw themselves willingly into every activity, listening attentively, offering their own viewpoints, and feverishly scribbling notes to take back to their own classrooms. Thanks to their enthusiasm and cheerful participation, I finished the weekend feeling, as I typically do after Teacher Seminars, more energized, rather than drained.

Our Leadership Seminars are a different animal, since the people we see for those typically come from well outside the world of Shakespeare or even of education. On the first day of this program, the International Paper coordinator asked the participants to rate their impression of Shakespeare on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning “would rather eat glass” to 10 meaning “have a secret crush on him.” We heard a few encouraging responses of 8+, but we also heard (not unexpectedly), a few in the 1-3 range — so we had our work cut out for us. We know that going in, though, and we’re always up for the challenge. 

The Leadership Seminar involves three major focus points: exploring Shakespeare’s examples of leadership through demos led by our actors and discussed by Dr. Ralph; writing and performing personal statements about a work-related challenge; and building short scenes in small groups through the use of cue scripts. Many of the challenge statements, perhaps unsurprisingly, focused precisely on the obstacle of communication — some of those quite literal, from those facing language barriers, others more abstract, as new leaders learn to negotiate team motivation or the transmission of information between departments. Others don’t feel like their team’s needs are always heard and recognized by those higher up in the organization. Our goal in a Leadership Seminar is to give participants the tools, using Shakespeare as inspiration and the vocal and physical techniques of the actors as a form to build around, to address these issues effectively once they return home. We examine both the technical construction of their statements as well as their presentation skills, adjusting each day. The difference from the start of the week to the end is always dramatic — and the great joy of it is getting to watch people get better at something through the coaching and exploration. We see the participants start to use their voices and their bodies to greater effect; we see them train themselves to plant their feet, stand up straight, and make eye contact; we hear them reconfigure their thoughts to be more evocative and persuasive.

What impressed me the most about our group from International Paper, though, was how game everyone was to try things out, even if they were uncomfortable, even if we were asking them to dig into something that was not their native language. It wasn’t easy work much of the time, but the participants were willing to engage and to make the attempt — and that makes all the difference. What they discovered was that Shakespeare is funny, moving, expertly constructed, and, the greatest surprise of all, often relevant to their own lives. The cue script activities taught them lessons about communication, leading by listening, and working as a team. The work they did showed the group that Shakespeare’s company faced many of the same basic problems they do in their positions. The demos, and the scenes themselves, often illustrated how those issues of communication, credentialing, and empathy speak across boundaries of time and language. Several participants ended up working Shakespeare’s lines, in direct quotation or in more oblique reference, into their challenge statements. Are all of these people likely to refer to Shakespeare often in their everyday lives? It’s unlikely. But they may think a little more positively about him — I think we converted some of those 1-3s into at least 5-7s by the end of the week, and we got at least a few lines into their mouths and into their brains. 

So, happy birthday, Mr. Shakespeare! Thank you for continuing not only to provide me with a career, but with the opportunity to share positive experiences with so many, so different people. May we continue to celebrate your natality for centuries to come.

My Birthday Tribute to Shakespeare

Today, bloggers from all over the world are celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday by sharing how Shakespeare has impacted their lives — Thanks to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for putting this project together.

My love affair with Shakespeare began at the age of eleven, when I picked up Romeo and Juliet on a whim. I was vacationing with my family on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, strolling through a shop that had a table full of “required summer reading” — encouragement for vacationers to get a start on schoolwork. Never one who needed much encouragement to read, I decided Romeo and Juliet looked like something worth trying, and my mother, far from expressing bemusement at my choice, agreed, saying she thought I’d really like it. I started reading my first Shakespearean play on the sandy shores of Corolla Light, and by the end of the week, I was standing on the back deck of our rental house, declaiming Juliet’s balcony speech in my swimsuit for the benefit of my parents and a gathering of seagulls.

And that was pretty much it. From then on, I was hooked, and I couldn’t get enough. My mother started searching out Shakespeare productions every summer, and we toured all across Virginia in pursuit of new delights. I appropriated my father’s Riverside Shakespeare and spent hours poring over it, stretched out on the floor of my bedroom, reading King John, the Henry VIes, and Troilus and Cressida, just because I wanted to. I begged my 8th grade teacher to let us read A Midsummer Night’s Dream out loud, and I thoroughly frightened all the boys in AP Brit Lit 12 with my perhaps over-enthusiastic rendering of Lady Macbeth. In 2004, I made my first trip to the Blackfriars Playhouse for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It wasn’t my first exposure to the company — I’d seen them as Shenandoah Shakespeare Express years earlier, doing Much Ado about Nothing in Charlottesville — but I was giddy at the realization that I could sit on the stage in such a gorgeous theatre. In college, I took up with an extracurricular Shakespeare performance troupe, which not only gave me the opportunity to act in and to direct some great shows, but which also introduced me to some of the best friends I’ve had in my life — amazing people I might never have met if we hadn’t shared a love for Shakespeare’s words.

Fourteen years after that first encounter on the beach, I live in what was once a dizzy daydream for me: I got my BA in English and History at William & Mary, I hold a Master of Letters in Shakespeare and Performance from Mary Baldwin College, and now I get to work for the American Shakespeare Center, where what I do all day long isn’t just a job, it’s a passion. I get up excited to go to work in the morning, and I’m happy to go to bed tired at night. I’m far from alone in this — I don’t know how many places there are where so many people voluntarily work so hard for so many long hours, just out of sheer love for what they’re doing. I feel so privileged to be part of a truly wonderful and dedicated community — and here again, as at William & Mary, I’ve made incredible friends, who are part of my world wholly due to our mutual love for Shakespeare.

With all of that, the impact that Shakespeare has had on my life is clearly huge. Shakespeare gave me not just a source of entertainment or a focus of study, but a career. My eleven-year-old self had no idea what she started when she opened up that text for the first time, and there are still some days I can’t believe my good fortune.

That impact goes far beyond my scholastic path and my budding career, though. I’ve come, over the years, to appreciate so much about Shakespeare — the wordplay, the rhetoric, his clever use of the space — but what attracted me at the first, and what still sticks with me more than anything, are his characters. Shakespeare populated his plays with such vibrant people, who are so real and so very human. Their words, their thoughts, and their emotions have thoroughly permeated my life. As a teenager, I looked to Beatrice, Kate, and Silvia for strength, for assurance that wit and spirit were valuable traits in a woman. I’ve long borrowed Helena’s words about Hermia to describe myself: “She was a vixen when she went to school, and though she be but little, she is fierce,” and the quote accompanying my picture in the yearbook as a senior in high school came from Beatrice: “But then there was a star danc’d, and under that was I born.” Last year, suffering from a broken heart, I took comfort from Adriana and Julia. In higher spirits in more recent months, the great queen Cleopatra has been my inspiration. I think about the rhetorical cleverness and persuasive power of Mark Antony and Henry V when I speak and write. These magnificent characters always have something to say to me, and there’s always something new to discover within them.

So, happy birthday, Bill. Thanks for bringing so much delight into my life, for filling my world with the most amazing people, both fictional and real, and for providing me with a passion worth giving myself over to. Here’s to your next 447 years.