It’s the week of final exams, and the university campus is filled with students struggling to recall that last bit of data, to demonstrate the knowledge they’ve acquired over the course of the term, and to survive on too little sleep and too much caffeine. Two such students sit in the campus coffee house – famous for its green goddess recognized the world over – and recognize their friend, who is waiting to order. As they reach for their phones to text a “hello”, their friend is approached by a handsome stranger, one with whom their friend appears to be rather familiar: in fact, their connection seems quite intimate. Has their friend been having a secret affair? Why have they heard nothing about him? As they sipped their coffees raptly, their curiosity grew … what was going on?? And then it happened: the phrase, the single word, the heightened moment: this was their friend, but this was … SHAKESPEARE!
On May 10th, 2012 students across Stony Brook University had similar experiences, and wondered as Macbeth had: Is this a performance which I see before me? The actors were performing their own final exam: a project devised from their work in “Special Topics in Performance: An Actor’s Approach to Shakespeare”. Over the course of the semester, the student actors felt as though their own relationship to Shakespeare had changed radically, and they wanted to evoke a parallel experience in others. They wanted their community to experience the same type of seismic shift, they wanted to introduce Shakespeare to them in a way that captured their imaginations, their attention, and their understanding – in the words of the great critic, Jan Kott (who was once Stony Brook’s critic-in-residence) they wanted to show them how Shakespeare was, indeed, their contemporary.
A group of eight students (Anthony Ali, Christopher Estevez, Shalonia Gardener, Caitlin Hodder, Jennifer Letwack, Adrienne Lojek, Diogo Martins, and Eliza Tunstall-Weiner) traversed the campus in a Guerilla Theatre style, performing in turn a selection from All’s Well That Ends Well, As You Like It, Measure for Measure, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We wanted our audiences to engage with the performances whether or not they were familiar with the respective plays – and even more so to have them engage and then discover that they were engaged with Shakespeare. Accordingly, our selections were based on the criteria that each scene was initiated whilst the action was already underway, that the characters’ need and conflict was clear and specific, and that the material would speak to the students’ own experience. The actors performed in a variety of indoor and outdoor public spaces on campus, and the company began to collect an audience following as they moved from one location to the next.
The performances were generous, exciting, refreshing, and inspiring to those around them. The actors invited their audiences to share their experience with Shakespeare – to reconsider what Shakespeare means to them, to enjoy how this brief encounter was a small notch in a long line of performances of these plays, and that when we engage with Shakespeare we come together in the here and now – whether we are a distracted barista, a curious friend, or a stressed out student (or faculty member!) we have a moment when we are all present together, listening and sharing the story that William Shakespeare left behind for us (thank you, Hemmings and Condell!).
As I watched one student exclaim to all around her “O wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful, wonderful, and yet again wonderful!” I thought of how this particular student sat in my office after the first class explaining why she was sure that she would have to drop the course because it was going to be “so hard”. I asked her to remain for one more session and told her she was then free to withdraw, if she felt she must. She blossomed, and so did her love and understanding for Shakespeare. Isn’t that what we hope for? Don’t we crave a chance to engage with Shakespeare without the baggage of our preconceived ideas? Don’t we long to find our own relationship with the Bard and discover what it means for us? O, wonderful … indeed.
Valerie Clayman Pye, PhD is a lecturer in Acting at Stony Brook University as well as a professional actor, director, and researcher. Her new blog Hearing Shakespeare looks at our aural relationship to Shakespeare and the idea of ‘blog’ as global stage. She can be found at: http://hearingshakespeare.blogspot.com/