Best known for the Off-Broadway musicals, "The Last Session," "The Big Voice: God or Merman?" and "New World Waking," a song cycle for peace and justice.

Monday, September 16, 2013

USNY: Shakespeare Update "The Hollow Crown"

In this blog, I'm going to plug a PBS show and a new book about AIDS research. I hadn't actually planned it that way. Just wanted to warn you in advance.


The University of Steve in New York is what I call my current self-generated (bonus round) plan to learn everything in the world there is to know and write one of everything that can be written. Part of that education are the Shakespeare Studies, an inadvertent course (correction)

It happened after I was invited to participate in Andy Gale's advanced scene study acting class after having worked with him and the students at Manhattan School of Music. BTW, Andy doesn't have a website and he doesn't go on Facebook. Currently, however, he's performing in a production of "Fiddler" out in Portland, since, aside from being one of the best acting coaches in the City, he's also a working actor and singer. He mostly works privately with a great number of stars whose names you would know. The class I entered is filled with amazing actors. Young and old. Mostly unknown, but really talented.

Since I had never been to an acting class in my life, I felt a bit unprepared. I thought, it's absurd to be taking an acting class and not know anything about Shakespeare. That's like a music scholar never having heard any Beethoven.

So, acting as my own curriculum counselor, I assigned myself the task of reading all the way through Shakespeare and memorizing at least one speech from each play that grabbed me for whatever reason.

For more info, I recommend
this book by Perry Halkitis.
(I'm doing this, also, as a cognitive exercise because, as I spoke about previously, longterm AIDS survivors (The AIDS Generation) are facing not just an unknown future, but an unknown present. How do you know when or if your brain starts going wacko? And what do you do after you know it's started? It has driven more than a few people mad.)

And Jim is always looking at me as if I've lost my mind. But then, he always did.

I say all this because every action I take in life right now has to be weighed as to whether it's healthful for me or not. To not be actively engaged is not healthful.

I read Twelfth Night and enjoyed it because it was much sillier than I was expecting. You go into Shakespeare thinking it's this impenetrable wall of  intellect. You know. Boring. Serious.

Then, I read Merchant of Venice and Hamlet, like taking a tour through all the greatest hits. There was a familiarity in them in that I have sat through movies and some productions of Shakespeare and stuff, but if you had asked me what either of those plays were about, or what happens in them, I wouldn't have been able to tell you.

They didn't stick. It felt more like the first part of an investigation where I was gathering facts.

If I was going to find my way in, I had to find my own door.

I read them using "No Fear Shakespeare,"  (another plug) where Shakespeare's language is set alongside a modern language translation. And I suppose it was like learning a new language, in a way. Not just many of the words, but the arrangement of the nouns and verbs, which is more like Spanish, which I know from having spent a summer in Monterrey, Mexico as a Baptist missionary among the heathen Catholics.

It was Richard II that got to me.

I knew zero about this play. Nothing.

I had learned a speech from Merchant -- which I can't even remember right now -- and it got me very excited. I had learned my first monologue, realizing I could do it. Several times in class, I pulled it off. But, since this is all really new to me, mostly I was over-acting. I could tell. But I did it! And it felt great!

I thought, screw this reading through them all. I'll just google Shakespeare monologues and find one I like.

I came upon the "hollow crown" speech from Richard II. And I fell in love. It's about having nothing left. Being totally at the bottom and remembering that, for all our pretensions, we're all just human beings.

The speech possessed me for weeks. I would recite it while riding the bus to Brooklyn on Sunday morning. I would walk around the City, reciting it. Wouldn't that be cool if a whole City walked around quoting Shakespeare?

I didn't even read the play! I just needed that speech, about how death sits in that crown, keeping court and laughing at pomp and ceremony.

And I thought, Yes! In the bonus round, you sit and laugh at how frail and stupid and unkind and sick and silly and smart and all full of ourselves and lost we all are. Whether we're the ruler of some nation or a lonely guy sick in bed, the rock star of the moment or living in a war zone, the movie star or the teacher or the student or a child.

There the antic sits.

Ben Whishaw as Richard II in "The Hollow Crown"
And there Richard sits. If he's King, he's still in prison. If he's a pauper, he's still in prison. And yet he is God's chosen! But whether Divinely-annointed or not, his fate is the same: death.

I remember when I had accepted my own death, it was like the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders. There he sits. Hello, death! Nice meet you. How warm your embrace almost was. How not scary you were when I met you face to face.

When I read about this BBC/PBS co-production, and that it's called "The Hollow Crown," where they've filmed all the history plays beginning with Richard II, and that Ben Whishaw is playing Richard, I about felt like I did just before the Super Bowl back when I lived in Roger Staubach / Tom Landry Dallas.

It is a miracle to me, having grown up pre-Internet, that I could so easily find all this great wealth of our civilization, and usually for free. What a time we live in.

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If you wish to join me and attend the University of Yourself, by the way, there is no tuition. And everything you need to learn is on the Internet.
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