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September 8, 2012

Living a dream

Workshop gives writer a chance to try out acting chops

By Shirley O'Shea
The Daily Star

---- — “And this weak and idle Theme

“No more yielding but a Dream.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V Scene 2

These were my final lines in the scene — actually a play within a play — from Shakespeare’s much-loved and oft-performed comedy, which our group performed in broad August sunshine on the grounds of the Cooperstown Theater Festival. I spoke them with as much feeling as I dared inject into that rhymed couplet by the master of all playwrights and writers, knowing that they summed up the heart of the play.

We were a small group of local folks who had signed up for the Smithy Art Center’s “Midsummer Madness,” an intensive weekend workshop that gave participants the chance to learn about Shakespearean acting from New York City acting coach Melinda Hall. I had learned about the workshop months earlier from the Smithy’s executive director, Danielle Newell, a former New York City theater professional. The moment Danielle told me about the workshop, which she had dreamed of holding in Cooperstown for two years, I knew I had to be a part of it, no matter what.

Writing is my passion and I don’t consider myself to be suited to any other kind of work. Yet, I’ve felt drawn to theater and acting since childhood, when I wrote and acted in plays for family and neighborhood kids. Acting, to me, is another way of telling a story, using one’s entire being — body, soul and mind. Acting allows one to take all of her joys and agonies and set fire to them.

At age 16, on a snowbound afternoon, I happened to tune into a PBS broadcast of “Ian McKellen Acting Shakespeare.” It was thrilling. His performance of a monologue by the deformed and villainous Richard of Gloucester, from “King Henry IV Part 3,” was particularly captivating. McKellen contorted his body and proclaimed these anguished words.

Then, since this earth affords no joy to me …

I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown

And whiles I live, account this world but hell

Until my misshaped trunk that bears this head

Be round impaled with a glorious crown.

I fell in love with the exalted language and world of feeling found in Shakespeare. And for years, I dreamed of the challenge of bringing it to life myself. 

So, at mid-life, my opportunity came.

The workshop took place Aug. 17 through 19. The first two sessions were at the Pioneer Gallery, and the last one, at which we mounted our production, in a gazebo backed by wild shrubbery and trees at the Theatre Festival. Both settings, it seemed, were apt. As Hall said at our first meeting, the 18th-century Pioneer Gallery was once a blacksmith’s shop, and the characters we would be portraying were all “rude mechanicals,” in the language of Elizabethan England — manual laborers, tradesmen. In other words, bumpkins and rubes. The bucolic grounds of the Theatre Festival, with its sweeping lawns, flowers, hum of crickets and monarch butterflies, would provide a suitable setting for our play within a play, performed for the King and Queen of Fairies on Midsummer’s Night.

I set off for the workshop from Oneonta feeling confident. I knew I could act, and all I’d ever needed was a chance to put my Shakespeare chops to the test.

I’d forgotten, however, what it feels like to take direction.

The few hours we first met were spent learning some basics of Shakespearean drama. Hall made something clear for me. Shakespearean acting is direct address. Actors speak to the audience. This contrasts with what Hall called “fourth wall” theater, in which actors perform without acknowledging the audience’s presence.

In our time, we are accustomed to fourth wall acting, largely due to our exposure to cinematic drama. There, we watch the characters go through their crises without any direct connection to the audience. Much of modern theater is also fourth wall, such as “Death of a Salesman,” Arthur Miller’s classic 1949 play about the slow and painful demise of an American striver. I have revered the play for all of my adult life as the ultimate dramatization of the American nightmare, and was surprised to discuss it with a theater professional who had a significantly different feeling about it and other plays of that era.

But that kind of acting wasn’t going to fly here. Long, meditative pauses that might arise from the method acting tradition would not work in doing a Shakespeare soliloquy or monologue. So when I came in the second day with a personally chosen monologue from “King Lear.” I did a read-through. My re-education in acting began. No full-stop pauses; Hall told me I had to drive through the lines. 

I had wanted to dive into Shakespearean acting. Instead, I was allowed to dip my toes in the water. I was assigned the role of Moonshine, the fellow who held up a moon by which two hapless lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, met to whisper through a hole in a wall. It was the smallest role in the scene. 

Taking direction, even in a small role, is a school of hard knocks. Artists who are worthy of the name put their hearts into their work, and to have it deemed less than perfect can be crushing and humiliating. One tries to hold one’s tongue, find out what the director is looking for, and try all over again, and each time summon the heart and energy to give it a full effort. It toughens one up very quickly, or it makes one decide to find a new way to spend the time.

And, very often, it means the actor stumbles into a whole new vision of the role and how it needs to be performed. Even though actors are known for outsized egos, a dedicated performer understands that ego must dissolve in the quest to realize a worthwhile vision.

So I found myself transforming my performance of Moonshine. At first I played him as a pompous fellow, very proud of his holding of the lantern over the histrionic Pyramus and Thisbe. Then I went home and thought it over. No, Moonshine was a hick, and so I decided to play him with a goofy down-home accent, alternately bored to tears and moved to tears by the melodrama in which he participated in mostly by sitting on the sidelines and talking back to the King and Queen of Fairies. I brought in my son’s Fisher-Price putt-putt dog, to accompany me as the companion of the Man in the Moon. It was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

On Aug. 19, after numerous read-throughs and rehearsals, we performed the scene to a small and supportive audience. I had hoped for more laughs, but I consoled myself by reflecting that I had given it my all, and in theater, there are no guarantees. At the reception afterward, a member of the Smithy’s board told me that he had really liked the dog. I’d been upstaged by Putt-Putt.

I will keep at it. I believe in artistic cross-fertilization, and that by participating in theater, my writing will get stronger. And I am grateful that I was able to realize my dream within a Dream.