I’ve been letting my Shakespeare class creep under my skin this semester. My Juliet, my Portia, my Nurse… their stories and their words, but also the way I feel in playing them, in “walking with them,” as Patty Clarkson said. There is resonance. There is depth.
“Acting is uniting energy with breath.”
Below are some of my thoughts from the semester, quotes from class and from life that have spoken to my work in Shakespeare this semester. I have always been a Shakespeare obsessive, but more than any other time in my life, with the space to fail (no grades), the ability to shine (alum in a student class), a relationship with the professor, and the ability to do the class while not playing a lead in a show and struggling with the first steps of recovery… I think Shakespeare has taught me more about myself than he ever has.
“Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscings.” –Sigmund Freud
In Juliet’s first monologue in the play, “Thou knows’t the mask of night is on my face,” she’s struggling for the right words to say. She’s stumbling over phrases and and the explosion of emotion from the carapace of knowledge.
THIS is what acting is. Having the logic and the structure– the lines, the blocking, the story–and, in the playing of it, allowing the id, the truth, the feeling, the reaction, to bubble out. And, too, isn’t that what life is? At least mine. I set up my life– my tasks, my schedule– but the chaos inside still bubbles out, must bubble out. It’s messy, but it’s honest.
“The play is supposed to be a comedy, but today I’m a tragedy.” That’s life. That’s the work.
“Comedy is life invincible.” –Joseph Campbell
When L was first diagnosed with lymphoma, I spend four or five days with her, going from appointment to appointment so her doctors could gather more information. On the morning of the day L would be admitted to Sloan Kettering, I accompanied her to get an “echocardiogram,” essentially an ultrasound of her heart. While L lay on the exam table and the doctor began to move the sensor around her chest and back, I watched on the monitor as each valve in her heart beat in perfect time. I twas remarkable. I felt myself catching my breath, suddenly terrified something would hiccup, beat out of tempo, even stop. Of course, it didn’t stop. And it never beat out of tempo– dun DUN dun DUN dun DUN. In perfect iambic pentameter. “in SOOTH i KNOW not WHY i AM so SAD.”
But what really struck me about it was the constancy, the simplicity, of what gives us life. Our hearts are muscles, but we don’t muscle them– we can’t. We simply live, move through our days and despite the chaos of it, our existence is predicated on a simple, rhythmic thump. This is Shakespeare. For all its complexities, scholarship, and performance, Shakespeare creates a reliable, beating heart upon which we build these stories. So too with the breath,the pure, simple in-and-out is all that’s required to live in Shakespeare’s world.
That’s how I came at Portia, from the steady beating heart and the pure flow of breath. Allowing the muscle to do its work without muscling. Allowing the terror of “what if it stops,” “what if it stumbles,” to fade, bravely trusting the internal and unconscious to keep going, keep beating, keep breathing. It’s scary for me to do that– to trust myself (my heart, my breath, my voice, my body, the language) to be enough to keep me floating.
At this moment in my life, I am seeing every day in myself and my friends, the necessity of surrender, the trust in self.
I AM ENOUGH to survive cancer.
I AM ENOUGH to bear the never-ending rejection of this business.
I AM ENOUGH to have great friends, to be loved, to live the kind of life I’ve chosen, 3,000 miles from home.
In letting Portia let go of her fears, of her status, her inhibitions, her blood, to simplyreach Brutus, I am rehearsing my own letting go, trusting the da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM– the constant, regular heartbeat– that is enough to build an entire life on.
“Thy life’s a miracle.” —King Lear
“You acted the SHIT out of that play.”