Wednesday, April 20, 2011

My Hamlet can beat up your Hamlet

I go to a weekly workshop in downtown Manhattan called The Shakespeare Forum. It's a group that formed about two years ago, as an open arena for actors or Shakespeare-nerds of all shapes and sizes to come and play. Every Tuesday night actors stand up in front of their peers and show work - a scene or a monologue - and receive feedback - mediated by its creators, Tyler Moss and Sybille Bruun, as well as resident artists - from everyone watching. Afterwards everyone goes out to a bar.

It's an incredibly generous, supportive atmosphere, frankly more so than my very expensive undergrad conservatory training (not to rain on that parade, oh parents-who-paid-for-this-education-and-also-read-my-blog - I don't regret that training and I learned a lot, but we all know I spent a lot of time being unhappy). These are genuinely good smart people.

More importantly, they're good smart teachers.

This is something I've been grappling with for a while: a huge proportion of teaching and/or notes from directors and civilians, not to mention lengthy reviews by critics, respond not to what the performer was doing, but to what he wasn't doing. Too often, criticism and critique come from a preconceived notion of what the role or interpretation should be, rather than actually trying to grapple with what it is. Everyone knows how to do it better, how to do it correctly, and they're not afraid to tell you.

But that's not what happens at the Forum. And this is what I truly respect, and am grateful for - they are able to see the potential, to see who each actor is, what he's trying to do - and help him do that better. Help him be more of what he wants to be. They recognize that what makes each actor different from his compatriots is exactly what he needs to expand on and truly own, rather than squelch down and cram himself into a cookie cutter shape.

Because - especially with Shakespeare - it's all been done to death. It's been done every which way it can. What makes your Hamlet a special and unique snowflake? The fact that you're the one playing him. To boil it down to a Hallmark-style expression, YOU are what makes you special.

This is the secret they didn't tell you in middle school. This is the secret they still don't tell you in drama school. And this is the secret they'll keep forgetting to tell you for the rest of your life.

And - here's the truly magic thing - it works.  I watch in amazement, every week, as over the course of fifteen minutes a performer and his relationship with his piece grow and blossom into something full of color and life, something real and true and his own. Every week.

I wish this kind of joy and support and growth on every artist, in every medium. This kind of community effort, that we're all working toward the same goal, rather than in competition for the last magic bean, is what leads to a thriving artistic renaissance. Because there is room for everyone at the table, and we're all here to play. It's not here yet, but we can get it.

Today you are You! That is truer than true!
There is no one alive who is You-er than You. - Dr. Seuss