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Posts Tagged ‘shakespeare’

Shakespeare continues to make headlines, working his magic on people from all walks of life — prisoners, refugee children, veterans, and more.

Recently, New York Times reporter Laura Collins-Hughes interviewed an Army veteran who found Shakespeare helped him over a trauma and who now uses the Bard to help other veterans.

Collins-Hughes writes, “Stephan Wolfert was drunk when he hopped off an Amtrak train somewhere in Montana, toting a rucksack of clothes and a cooler stocked with ice, peanut butter, bread and Miller High Life — bottles, not cans. It was 1991, he was 24, and he had recently seen his best friend fatally wounded in a military training exercise.

“His mind in need of a salve, he went to a play: ‘Richard III,’ the story of a king who was also a soldier. In Shakespeare’s words, he heard an echo of his own experience, and though he had been raised to believe that being a tough guy was the only way to be a man, something cracked open inside him.

“ ‘I was sobbing,’ Mr. Wolfert, now 50 and an actor, said recently over coffee in Chelsea. ‘I didn’t know you could have emotions out loud.’

“That road-to-Damascus moment — not coming to Jesus, but coming to Shakespeare — is part of the story that Mr. Wolfert tells in his solo show, ‘Cry Havoc!’ … Taking its title from Mark Antony’s speech over the slain Caesar in ‘Julius Caesar,’ it intercuts Mr. Wolfert’s own memories with text borrowed from Shakespeare. Decoupling those lines from their plays, Mr. Wolfert uses them to explore strength and duty, bravery and trauma, examining what it is to be in the military and what it is to carry that experience back into civilian life. …

“To Mr. Wolfert, who teaches controlled methods of accessing charged memories, the need to retool a lethal skill set for civilian life is a vital task that the military leaves people to figure out on their own.

“ ‘That’s something that we hold uniquely, I think, as veterans,’ he told [a] class. ‘We know what we’re capable of — even for the so-called peacetime or Cold War vets. The training’s still there. And I don’t care if you’re a clerk typist. You still fired a weapon at a human silhouette.’

“This, he believes, is where Shakespeare can prove an ally: as a means to understand trauma, and to start coming back from it.”

More at the NY Times, here. For more on Wolpert, check out a Shakespeare & Co. interview from last summer, here.

Photo: Folger Theatre
Actor Stephan Wolfert in 2014, performing his one-man show Cry “Havoc!” at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC. The line is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

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Actor Finn Wittrock wrote recently at the New York Times about helping to start a mini Shakespeare company in the 1990s to entertain his parents and other theater professionals. He recalls with wonder his young self’s confidence of success.

“I was born in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. I lived there until I was 6, then moved to Evanston, Ill., and later to Los Angeles. But every summer for most of my youth, I would go back East with my brother, my mom and my dad, who most summers was acting or teaching for Shakespeare & Company. I would often be cast as a page or an altar boy in one of the professional productions.

“I went in lieu of a summer camp; I went to romp in the Berkshires, see old friends, get out of the city. But mostly I went for the Very Young Company.

“Starting at the age of 8 and until I was 16, my oldest friends and I would get together every summer: Rory, Reilly, Wolfe, and later my brother, Dylan, and Wolfe’s brother, Tiger (yes, their real names) would arrange five or six scenes from Shakespeare, rehearse them on our own time in the sun-drenched Berkshire afternoons and perform them for the adult company after one of their Mainstage shows. We began the company ourselves and it ended when we were no longer ‘very young.’

“For a kid, it was an epic undertaking; an outlet for pre- and post-adolescent energies. We were totally self-motivated; nobody told us to do it, which was in itself an incentive. We’d choose a scene based on our own criteria: Had the company done it before? Could we make fun of them for it? Could we put Reilly in a wig and have him play a girl? And, most important: Did it end in a sword fight? …

Sometimes I yearn to have the boldness of one who knows nothing, who jumps onstage for no other reason than because he is young and has a loud voice.”

Later in his essay, Wittrock recalls something the celebrated director Mike Nichols once said about his own early years: ” ‘Why was I so confident back then? I had no business being that confident.’ And yet he attributed most of his early success to that unreasonable confidence. …

“No one gave us permission to do the Very Young Company; no one ordered us to do it, and no one had to boost our confidence to do it. We just did it. We were just kids howling Shakespeare to the Berkshire trees, and our readiness was all.” More at the New York Times, here.

At one point in my  childhood, I, too, was confident. I thought, if my parents would only call the movie theater and set it up, four of us kids — the Gordons, one of my brothers, and I — would be a smashing success performing our version of “Snow White and Rose Red” before the feature. The grownups didn’t quite believe in it.

Some neighbors and I did perform an original play about a snowman for family members. One of the actors returned a copy of the pencil-scrawled script to me at my aunt’s funeral in 2002, decades later.

Photo: Lauren Lancaster for the NY Times
Finn Wittrock, right, and Rory Hammond, enacting the killing of Lady Macduff and her son in a mini-“Macbeth.” The young actors formed their own company more than 20 years ago to entertain their parents and other professionals at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass.

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Our 5-year-old grandson’s friend had been planning to attend an American Repertory Theater musical with her grandmother today at 10 a.m. We decided to go, too.

The show was The Pirate Princess and was loosely (very loosely) based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It was a hoot for me, and the young man in the photo seemed riveted. But whether he could make head or tail of the  convoluted plot, I have my doubts. It will be interesting to see down the road what he remembers — and whether he wants to see more plays.

The plot involves a brother and sister who get separated in a shipwreck (in this case, it’s thanks to a monster called the Kraken) and have separate adventures with characters who later mistake the sister dressed as a boy for the boy and vice versa. (I kept whispering in my grandson’s ear, “The pirate thinks he’s the girl that he thinks is a boy”; “The Queen thinks he’s his sister but doesn’t know his sister is a girl.” My grandson didn’t respond.)

There were songs, musical instruments, fancy costumes, pirates storming up lighted platforms in the middle of the audience, sword fights, and imaginative special effects. I especially like the jellyfish created by glowing umbrellas with streamers, carried along the aisles in the dark. The Kraken with his many legs was pretty great, too.

After the show, we had hot chocolate and cookies at the Darwin on Mt. Auburn Street. I’m not sure what our grandson will be able to tell his parents about the madcap entertainment he witnessed, but bits and pieces will likely emerge over time. I myself saw Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland when I was four, but I didn’t become a theater nut until I was 10.

010216-hot-chocolater-after-theater

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Today would have been Shakespeare’s 451st birthday, and I am seeing testimonials all over Facebook and twitter. So it seems like a good day to write about the Sonnet Project in New York City.

Stuart Miller wrote at the New York Times about “an ambitious project to create a short film for each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, with each movie shot at a different New York City location.

“ ‘It brings Shakespeare to people who might not be in touch with it, and we can use social media like Twitter and Instagram to spread the word,’ [actor Billy] Magnussen said. The endeavor, called the Sonnet Project, grew from the work of the New York Shakespeare Exchange, a local theater group.

“The group, which started the project in 2013, just completed its 100th film: Sonnet 27, starring Carrie Preston, an Emmy award-winning actress, and filmed on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge [and premiering] April 8 on the Sonnet Project website and app. …

“Some directors found inspiration at the location where the films were shot. At Leidy’s Shore Inn, a 110-year-old bar on Staten Island, Daniel Finley, who was making Sonnet 19, filmed Laurie Birmingham, an actress who works mostly in regional theater, as a world-weary regular musing over her drink.

“ ‘We walked in at 10 a.m. and the regulars were there watching OTB and scratching their lotto tickets,’ he said. ‘We learned some of their stories and Laurie based her character on those impressions.’ ” More at the New York Times, here.

Photo: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
A crew filming Sonnet 108 at the John T. Brush stairway. 

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National Public Radio recently featured a story on the discovery of the skeleton of Richard III, the English king that Shakespeare fans love to hate. What does the unearthing of the king’s 15th century remains have to tell the 21st century?

The woman who found him, Philippa Langley, is decribed by NPR as “an amateur historian with a passion for Richard III. And one day, a good decade ago, her research took her into Leicester, and she had a kind of bizarre experience in a car park in Leicester, where she suddenly thought, for no particular reason at all, that she was standing on Richard’s grave. And at that moment, she just said to herself, ‘I just want to excavate Richard.'”

It was as if Richard III was sending a message.

“It happened in stages. The remarkable thing was that they actually found it on the first day of the dig. They were just preparing the ground and [archaeologist Jo Appleby] found a small bit of leg, a leg bone. So she carries on digging, and gradually she uncovers this complete curved spine, and it connects up with the neck, and she sits back and she looks at it, and she says to herself, ‘This is Richard III.’

“The statistical likelihood of them hitting the skeleton is zero — there were so many coincidences and chances that made this happen. …

“The radiocarbon dating showed the man had died at the right time to be somebody who had died at the Battle of Bosworth. The anatomy of the man matched very precisely the phyiscal descriptions we have of Richard. For example, he’s described quite clearly as being quite a frail man, and that is exactly how the skeleton is.”

Richard’s defenders have always said that Shakespeare may have written an amazing play, but he gave Richard a bad rap. Since I have a tendency to believe the truth of fiction more than the facts of history, I better stay out of the argument and let you read the rest of the story for yourself. More here.

Art: Richard III (Reuters)

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A Syrian actor who visited a refugee camp, felt compassion for the children, and returned to help them put on a play decided to start at the top. Only the best playwright would do.

From the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, NY Times reporter Ben Hubbard describes the scene: “On a rocky patch of earth in this sprawling city of tents and prefab trailers, the king, dressed in dirty jeans and a homemade cape, raised his wooden scepter and announced his intention to divide his kingdom. His elder daughters, wearing paper crowns and plastic jewelry, showered him with false praise, while the youngest spoke truthfully and lost her inheritance.

“So began a recent adaptation here of King Lear. For the 100 children in the cast, it was their first brush with Shakespeare, although they were already deeply acquainted with tragedy. All were refugees who had fled the civil war in Syria. …

“ ‘The show is to bring back laughter, joy and humanity,’ said its director, Nawar Bulbul, a 40-year-old Syrian actor known at home for his role in ‘Bab al-Hara,’ an enormously popular historical drama that was broadcast throughout the Arab world.

“Last year, he and his French wife moved to Jordan, where friends invited him to help distribute aid in Zaatari. …

“Children he met in the camp made him promise to return, and he did — with a plan to show the world that the least fortunate Syrian refugees could produce the loftiest theater. …

“The mere fact that the play was performed was enough for the few hundred spectators. Families living in nearby tents brought their children, hoisting them on their shoulders so they could see. …

“The crowd burst into applause, and a number of the leading girls broke into tears. Mr. Bulbul said they were overwhelmed because it was the first time anyone had clapped for them.”

More here, at the NY Times, where you can also see a slide show and watch a video about the refugee-camp theater initiative.

Photo: Warrick Page for The New York Times

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I’ve blogged before about programs that use theater for healing purposes and programs that use the arts specifically to help veterans.

Now Dana Ferguson writes at The Los Angeles Times about Shakespeare getting into the act and easing vets into the job world.

“Fifteen years ago former Pfc. and military police officer Jerry Whiteside had two masks tattooed on his left bicep, one smiling, one frowning. …

“Little did he know that more than a decade later, he would be symbolically reunited with the images imprinted on his skin.

“His journey began at the end of a 30-year struggle with drugs and alcohol, he said. Whiteside, a Chicago native turned Angeleno who had served in the Marine Corps from 1972 to ’76, sought help from the Veterans Administration in Los Angeles. He completed a detoxification program in 2011 and for this summer was referred to the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles to do various jobs on the set of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“Whiteside, 61, and some 30 other veterans of the Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam and the Gulf wars assisted in building the set and working odd jobs with the production, which continues through July 28.

“Shakespeare Center artistic director Ben Donenberg said employing veterans stemmed from another of the company’s outreach programs, Will Power to Youth, which hires young Angelenos to study and perform Shakespeare plays. After seeing alumni of the program serving in the armed services and later seeking jobs at home, Donenberg said, the company decided to extend its employment program opportunity to veterans, starting last year. …

“One of the things we want to do as a company is to ease the transition to civilian life, and part of that is on the civilians; there’s only so much the veterans can do,” [Chris Anthony, associate artistic director at the Shakespeare Center] said. “The rest of us have to see them in a different light. It’s something we need to work on as civilians.” More.

Photo: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times
Military veteran Jerry Whiteside passes out programs before each Shakespeare Center performance.

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