Baltimore's in love with the Bard - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Baltimore’s in love with the Bard

(Vince Eisenson and Joseph Grasso)

I’m a Brit in Baltimore and I recently toured with the amazing Chesapeake Shakespeare Company (CSC) around schools in Maryland with their spring production of Romeo and Juliet.

The kids in the middle and high schools really welcomed this show (they are studying the play) and their responses were fantastic. Sure, we got asked the obligatory questions ‘what’s it like to kiss on stage?’ and ‘are any of you dating?’, but also many of the questions were intelligent, thoughtful and thought-provoking.

When I first encountered the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company last year at their outdoor production of Taming of the Shrew I wrote this piece about them. I mentioned how ‘Initially my English ear recoiled at the American accents delivering my beloved Shakespearean lines, but after five minutes I forgot about the accents because the cast delivered the prose and verse so brilliantly with passion, meaning and a twinkle in their eyes. These guys loved Shakespeare.’

Claire McGill Lady Capulet

Claire McGill Lady Capulet

And now I’m acting with them. Interestingly, at the first read through of the play I was really conscious of my British accent, which sounded so out of place next to my fellow American actors, but pretty soon we forgot about that, and told myself that Lady Capulet (whom I was playing) was a Brit and thus must have traveled many miles to be with her husband. 😉

What really struck me about this cast and crew was how much love there was for ‘Willy Shakes’, the great British Bard. So I set about interviewing a few of them to find out how they first fell in love with him and why America is so in love with the dude with ruffles round his neck and a penchant for a good old double entendre.

Jenny Leopold, Director of Development at CSC

Shakespeare plays you have performed in:
Love’s Labours Lost(actor once, director once), Hamlet(three times), Coriolanus, Henry V, As You Like It, Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Cymbeline, Antony and Cleopatra, King Lear, Macbeth(three times), The Tempest, Twelfth Night (dir. twice), Romeo and Juliet (dir. twice), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (asst. dir)

How you discovered Shakespeare:
My mother was a Shakespeare scholar, so I grew up surrounded by the plays – we read them aloud at home, dinner-table conversations covered the latest topics in criticism and “scholarly intrigue”, and we were early subscribers to the Folger Theater (way before Michael Kahn grew that small company into today’s Shakespeare Theater).  One of my dearest memories from childhood was having a terrible ear infection, and my mother sitting by my bed reading all of Richard II aloud to me.  What a beautiful play!

Why Shakespeare appeals to you and why you think he and his plays are so popular in the States:
His plays are so amazing – even the ones I don’t love are beautifully written, filled with rich characters, and certain to make us see ourselves in a new way each time we experience them.  And the ones I love, oh my goodness, I don’t know if I return to them over and over because I love them or I love them all the more simply because I’ve returned again and again.

Lady Capulet

Lady Capulet

Historically, there has always been great passion for his works in the U.S., but it does seem like there’s a recent resurgence, and it seems to be among young people.  I think that has to do with how the plays are being taught.  More and more, and the Folger has a lot to do with this, teachers are getting students on their feet – speaking and moving – learning the plays the way they really were meant to be experienced.  The access to so many good films helps, too.

Top three reasons why Shakespeare rocks:
I have two different answers to this – but really they go together.  I’d say the language, the characters, and the stories; I’d also say his work is timeless and speaks to everyone everywhere.

P.S.
At CSC our mission is to continue the conversation about what makes Shakespeare so great – I love that.  There is no definitive answer – in fact, there’s even room to say he/his work is not great –  and it’s a conversation that can – and no doubt will – go on forever.

Stephanie LaVardera, Actress

Shakespeare plays you have performed in:

Romeo and Juliet (twice), All’s Well That Ends WellAs You Like ItThe Merchant of Venice, Henry VI Part 1

Stephanie (Juliet) gets a high school prom proposal.

Stephanie (Juliet) gets a high school prom proposal.

How you discovered Shakespeare:

I think I first discovered Shakespeare in when I was in middle school or thereabouts when I saw my first Shakespeare show, which was The Tempest at a local professional theater (years later when I was a senior in high school I ended up interning and performing with them). It was a student matinee that my school went to, and afterwards the actors did a workshop in Shakespearean language with us. I actually don’t remember a lot about the show (haha) but I remember being completely enthralled as they explained iambic pentameter and all the tools they used to bring the language to life. And then of course we read Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade, which I think was the first Shakespeare I read, and I absolutely loved it.

Why Shakespeare appeals to you and why you think he and his plays are so popular in the States:

For me, Shakespeare is the greatest playwright there has ever been because of the poetry of his language and the depth with which he understood the human psyche. I don’t think there has been anyone else who has been able to combine both of those things so masterfully. And I think that’s why his plays still ring true with us today. There’s so much there to explore, in the language and the characters. One of my grad school professors once said “Shakespeare didn’t write to make a point, he wrote to explore all of them,” and I think that’s so true, and why we are still so fascinated by his writing.

Top three reasons why Shakespeare rocks:

1. Romeo and Juliet

2. Twelfth Night

3. The Winter’s Tale

(Just three of my personal favorites, in no particular order 🙂

Gerrard as Romeo

Gerrard as Romeo

Gerrad Taylor, Actor

Shakespeare plays you have performed in:

Romeo and Juliet (twice), Merry Wives of Windsor (twice), Henry V, Twelfth Night.

How you discovered Shakespeare:

I was exposed to Shakespeare in school like I think most people are. We had to read Taming of the Shrew and Comedy of Errors in 7th grade and then Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar in 8th grade. Those were my very first experiences with Shakespeare and to be honest, I didn’t like it at all. I thought the language was antiquated and the plays were just too long. Then, I had a professor in college that talked about how Shakespeare was poetry and that it needed to be not merely read, but experienced. “Simply reading Shakespeare,” he’d say, “will give the same amount of pleasure as seeing a Picasso in black and white or reading the lyrics to your favorite love song without every hearing the tune.” It was this class that introduced me to Shakespeare in Performance and I was immediately enthralled by the movement of action in the play. The words had transcended there denotative meanings and had become tools the actors used to invoke a visceral response in their audience. That is when I fell in love with Shakespeare.

Why Shakespeare appeals to you and why you think he and his plays are so popular in the States:

Shakespeare appeals to me personally because I think anyone can relate to a Shakespeare play. He talks about basic human emotions and actions that appeal to anyone regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic standing, religion, sexual orientation, etc. As complex as we make Shakespeare in literary criticism, he really is talking about very simple things; revenge, love, family, and loyalty just to name a few. He’s accessible to a broad range of people and I don’t think there are a lot of playwrights that can say the same. Some of my other favorite playwrights include August Wilson, Athol Fugard, Arthur Miller, Tony Kushner, and Tennessee Williams but they wrote for a very specific demographic and I think people outside of those demographics have a harder time empathizing with the content and themes of the play. Shakespeare, for whatever reasons, reaches beyond our 21st century demographics and speaks to a wide range of people.

I think that may have something to do with how frequently he is being produced in the states. But I also think there’s a lot of practicality to doing a Shakespeare play in today’s theatre society. The casting can be flexible. You can have very large casts or smaller casts with one actor playing multiple roles. You can cast the plays blind to race and gender. There are no issues with rights. You can cut whatever you want out of the play and still call it a Shakespeare play. You can do whatever you want with the set, whether it be in a proscenium theatre, outdoors, or even at a bar. I think that the ease of flexibility in doing these plays are attractive to American producers and audiences. You don’t need a big budget to do a Shakespeare play and thus the Renaissance of these plays I think largely came out of a necessity of doing theatre during one of the most difficult economic time periods in U.S. history.

Kecia as the nurse

Kecia as the nurse

Top three reasons why Shakespeare rocks:

1. He wrote 38 plays (give or take 1 or 2)!!!! That’s got to be a record.

2. His plays are almost 500 years old. Respect!

3. His poetic imagery is among the best of any writer ever.

Kecia A. Campbell, Actress

Shakespeare plays you have performed in:

Merry Wives of Windsor (twice), Romeo and Juliet

How you discovered Shakespeare: 

I loved books and reading as a child and still do.  I had thoughts of being a librarian growing up!  In middle school, my older cousin, who was a senior English major in college, gave me a box of course books that she wanted to discard. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare was in the box. I didn’t understand the language totally but the parts of the stories I could understand, I fell in love with.  I thought they were fascinating, funny and interesting.  I carried that book around for a long time in school. I was a nerd (odd bird) in middle/high school.

Why Shakespeare appeals to you and why you think he and his plays are so popular in the States:

The stories are universal and relatable to all. Maya Angelou’s words from Shakespeare Was A Black Girl resonated with me as well.  “The poetry you read has been written for you, each of you — black, white, Hispanic, man, woman, gay, straight.”

I have Sonnet 29 memorized and I used to recite as monologue in auditions often. 🙂

Top three reasons why Shakespeare rocks: 

1. Compelling and timeless stories;

2. Unique phrases/words;

3. Wicked Sense of humor

Touring Romeo and Juliet

Touring Romeo and Juliet

 P.S. My favorite Shakespeare play, growing up was Taming of the Shrew. Now it’s Twelfth Night.

Joseph Grasso, Actor

Shakespeare plays you have performed in:

Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Henry V, Merry Wives of Windsor.

How you discovered Shakespeare:

I discovered Shakespeare in 9th grade English class when I first read Romeo and Juliet. We read/performed the play to better understand it (this was the first time I played Tybalt)

Why Shakespeare appeals to you and why you think he and his plays are so popular in the States:

Shakespeare has a timeless quality despite its dated language and verse. It appeals to the visceral part of our being. Speaking in verse is akin to singing. These characters are so possessed by what they are saying that regular language simply will not do and they must touch a higher plane to express themselves. This language hits us very directly in our souls and affects us quite a bit and that’s why I think it has stood the test of time. And of course, there is a great deal of stage combat in Shakespeare which keeps me working 😉

Top three reasons why Shakespeare rocks:

Visceral experiences, Stage Combat, and 400 theatre that is still thoroughly enjoyed.

Vince Eisenson, Actor

Shakespeare plays you have performed in:

Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Merry Wives of Windsor, As You Like It, Taming of the Shrew, Antony and Cleopatra, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Richard III, Midsummer, Richard II, Merchant of Venice, Cymbeline, Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, Henry V, Macbeth.

How you discovered Shakespeare:

I vividly remember watching the Jimmy Cagney/Mickey Rooney Midsummer in 8th grade.  I wasn’t exactly motivated to be a classical actor at that point, but I thought Jimmy Cagney was incredibly cool.  He showed me that these characters didn’t have to be stodgy and declamatory.

My high-school drama teacher worshipped Shakespeare, and had developed a board game based on his plays.  I never played the game, but he cast me as the lead in Measure for Measure and I had a blast.  That’s probably the point where I realized how cunning and calculating the characters in Shakespeare’s plays can be.  That’s what I like most about them, and why I think actors love playing these parts.

Why Shakespeare appeals to you and why you think he and his plays are so popular in the States:

Well, I jumped the gun on the first part of that question. But I’ll add to it:  once you crack the verse “code”, it’s just so much easier to learn than modern dialogue.  Also, Shakespeare provides more given circumstances than almost any playwright, and that is immensely helpful to actors.

Shakespeare has always been wildly popular.  Edwin Booth, John Wilkes, Paul Robeson…we have a long tradition of really famous actors who made their names performing great Shakespearean roles.  I’d wager that most Americans were more familiar with his works in the 1800’s and 1900’s than they are now.

That aside, as major cities add theatres, there will be more Shakespeare.  He’s got a full canon to choose from, his stories are timeless, his characters cover every archetype known to man, and you don’t have to pay royalties to do his shows.

Matt after the show.

Matt after the show.

Top three reasons why Shakespeare rocks:

Damn, I keep jumping the gun!  One more reason – he lets you be incredibly, mind-numbingly dirty without using profanity.

P.S.

I wish more theaters would do all or part of Henry VI.  Many actors I know share this wish.

Matthew Ancarrow, Actor

Shakepeare plays you have performed in:

I’ve performed in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Demetrius), TAMING OF THE SHREW (Tranio), ROMEO AND JULIET(Benvolio), HAMLET (Rosencrantz), MERCHANT OF VENICE (Salerio)

How you discovered Shakespeare:

I got interested in Shakespeare as a young hopeless romantic kid who tried reading ROMEO AND JULIET at age 11.  I didn’t get far and also didn’t realize that it was poetry so I gave up before Romeo even entered the play.

A few years later I read MACBETH in high school and that was the one that hooked me.    Or if nothing else, it was (and is) my favorite Shakespeare play to read.  I’ve been a fan of horror movies for a long time and I think what drew me in so deeply to MACBETH was the horror, the insanity, and the dark passion of it all.  Lady MacBeth is one of my favorite roles I’ve read in literature.

Lady M’s “Come, thick night, and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell” line is one of my favorites in Shakespeare.

Why Shakespeare appeals to you and why you think he and his plays are so popular in the States:

Shakespeare appeals to me not only because a majority of my work as an professional actor has been through Shakespeare’s plays, but because its so timeless.  Audiences have been flocking to see Shakespeare before it became a sure-fire hot ticket for theatre companies to add to their seasons.  The love, the sex, the violence, the comedy,  the deception, the torture, the horror… These are some of the most compelling elements of any art form and some of the more fun to see come to life on stage.  It’s not at all surprising to me that Shakespeare still has a solid place in live entertainment and the big screen.

Top three reasons Shakespeare rocks:

1. Some of the best insults ever written that won’t get you fired or suspended from school if you repeat them.

2. All the great characters!

3. The tights.  Seriously.  I love wearing the tights.

To see the Chesapeake Shakespeare company’s new season and to be part of this love fest for the Bard, check it out online.

The CSC also is nearing completion of its new theater in Downtown Baltimore that will allow the company to create a second home indoors and significantly expand its operations. With this new property, they will be able to present an eight-month season of productions and extensive after-school and weekend educational programs indoors. The building is the landmark 1885 Mercantile Trust and Deposit Company building located at 7 South Calvert Street on the corner of Calvert and Redwood, just two blocks from Baltimore’s celebrated Inner Harbor. But don’t worry, outdoor Shakespeare fans! They will continue to perform a full summer season in our outdoor home at the PFI Historic Park in Howard County.

I’m sure I’ll see you at one of their incredible productions soon!

Ciao!

 

 

 


About the author

Claire Bolden

Claire Bolden McGill is a British expat who lived in Maryland for three years and moved back to the UK in August 2015. Claire wrote about her life as a British expat on the East Coast and now works in travel and hospitality PR in the UK. She still finds time to blog about her repatriation and the reverse culture shock that ensued - and she still hasn't finished that novel, but she's working on it. You can contact Claire via twitter on @clairebmcgill or via her blog From America to England. Contact the author.
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