“Are you the lady from the newspaper?” a student shouted and pointed as I entered the high school auditorium.
She was the first student I met on that first day; she sat alone on the edge of the stage and dangled her feet into the area used as the orchestra pit. Behind her, at the far corner of the stage, a small group of students huddled together to play a theatre warm-up game. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a tight circle. Then, one student raised her hands and clasped them above her head. “Ugh,” she bellowed, slowly dropping her hands as though throwing her words to another student in the circle.
“Ugh,” the next student shouted, letting the exclamation echo in the auditorium.
Just a few weeks before this, I sat at my desk in the newsroom where I covered education for a small community newspaper and stared at a blank document titled, “Story Ideas.” My fingers tapped the mouse, keeping time with the blinking cursor, when I remembered the high school Shakespeare troupe I had written about a few times and opened a new email.
“Dear Sue,” I typed, addressing the teacher. “I would like to write an in-depth piece about your class.”
“I’ve been thinking,” she responded after a few days, “the only way you’ll really understand what we do, is if you do it with us.”
And so there I was, almost 26-years-old and taking a high school Shakespeare class.
Sue clapped to start the class warm-up, and the students assembled in a large circle on the stage. I stood along the edge, clutching a notebook tight to my chest until Sue held up her hand and waved for me to join them.
“8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1,” the students counted down in unison. They shouted each number as they shook their right arms, held high above their heads, then their left arms, then their right legs, extending them in short, quick kicks from the knee. I flicked my wrists, held level with my shoulder, and silently mouthed each number. Instead of kicking, I flexed each foot in rapid succession, eight times, constrained partly by the high heels I had worn, partly by my naturally inhibited nature.
I had not known what to expect on that first day. Most of my high school lessons on Shakespeare had been conventional—lectures on Shakespeare’s life and work and studies of his most famous plays: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Hamlet. My high school classmates and I dressed in uniforms and raised our hands from desks arranged in straight, neat rows. But Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed, Sue, who had discovered these performance-based techniques years earlier at the Folger Shakespeare Library, said. Teaching Shakespeare through performance, she explained to me, gives students a chance to add creativity and fun to material and language that most, at least initially, find difficult.
“And for some reason,” she added, “I think it lets us live in the moment a little bit more.”
When I arrived in class for the second week, Sue smiled. She had warned me that this type of work could be addicting.
Throughout that year, the weekly schedules I handed my editor listed the same thing: Wednesday, 2 PM, CHS, a notation specific enough to remind him of my project, yet vague enough that he did not press me for story copy, photographs, or sidebars. Each week, I slipped out of the office at 1:30, always with a pen and notebook, allowing enough time to get to the high school, sign in at the office, and arrive on time for the class’s 1:51 PM start. I had originally planned to spend one day per week with the class, although my visits soon multiplied to two, sometimes three a week, as I enjoyed the supportive environment more than the performance work itself.
Just before the Christmas break, I sat on the floor, legs crossed, with a group of students as we discussed Act I, scene ii of The Tempest, a moment when the previously obedient spirit Ariel rebels in search of freedom. To stage our scene, the students wanted one person to play Prospero while the remaining performers, shackled together to represent a different side of Ariel’s personality, would play the nymph. Prospero would be one voice on the stage, addressing an Ariel who answered chorally at some moments and solo at others, depending on the spirit’s mood. Before they assigned roles, the group turned to me.
“We were talking,” someone said, “and we think you should play Prospero.”
“I thought Matthew was going to play Prospero,” I said. Matthew, a junior and one of the few males in the class, was the obvious choice for the role. His natural presence and booming voice commanded attention.
“It’s because you’re old,” a student named Lauren said frankly.
“No,” another student, more gentle and maternal, said. “It’s because we think you have so much life experience, and we think you could bring such depth to the role.”
I looked at Matthew, and he nodded in agreement.
“Sure,” I agreed.
I was flattered and almost thrilled, a reaction not unlike one Prospero may have had. A great magician and former duke, Prospero was overthrown by his brother and cast out to sea with his daughter and his books. Desperate for control, and perhaps even revenge, he conjures the storm from which the play takes its name.
“Did the kids tell you what they wanted to do with the scene?” Sue asked, smiling when she caught me after class.
“Yes,” I said, and in my voice, I heard a half-eye roll, half-smile, as if to say, “those kids.”
“They’re so sweet,” Sue said, and I nodded.
In March, I accompanied the troupe on a field trip to the Folger Shakespeare Library, and I observed the students gathered on a street corner in Washington, D.C., drinking coffee, talking, and laughing.
“Are they much different outside of school?” Sue interrupted as she watched me watching them.
“No,” I answered.
“Yeah.” Sue smiled. “This is a group who is pretty comfortable with themselves.”
On a few occasions, Sue told me how her students had influenced her. After spending so much time around teenagers, she felt she dressed in a style younger than her fifty-some years; after hearing some of her students play the guitar, she thought of taking lessons herself; after listening to one student’s recitation of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” monologue, she began to think about death in a new way. After a few weeks with the troupe, I, too, found myself charmed by the students and inspired by their youth, their energy, their sincerity. I came to love the students, and to know them as I did was a privilege. I knew very little about their friends, their dreams, their lives. I saw them only as the creative, self-assured students of my Shakespeare class. It crossed my mind, once or twice, that their sure-footedness could be just another performance. If so, it was a very convincing act.
By mid-spring, I had memorized my lines. During our first rehearsal, the students and I gathered in the center of the stage; the Ariels clustered at stage right, and I stood across from them. Looking into the near-empty auditorium, I suddenly felt the vastness of the theatre. Staring out at row upon row of green-upholstered seats, my 5’2” frame a mere speck on the stage, I realized how tiny I must have appeared. I gripped my script, gazing down at the small type periodically, and began.
“Hast thou, spirit, performed to point the tempest that I bade thee?”
“Lose the script,” Sue interrupted from her seat in the audience. “You know the words.”
I tucked my script into my back pocket, suddenly aware of my hands and unsure what to do with them as I spoke. Had I uttered these words in real life, I would assume the gestures would come more naturally—I would shrug my shoulders and open my eyes wide. On stage, however, I stood motionless with my arms bent slightly at my elbows, stiff at my sides.
A high school friend who performed in school plays and community theatre productions once told me she loved acting because it provided a chance for her to become someone else. I didn’t realize that acting would require so much of myself. So much digging into my own past, emotions, and motives so that, through me, the audience may feel something, too.
“How now? Moody?” I continued. “What is it thou canst demand?”
“You need to yell at us,” a student named Sydney said. “Get mad.”
I looked at the students’ eager faces nodding in agreement and laughed. “I don’t think I would ever be mad at you guys.”
“Pretend that we’re people you would be mad at,” Sydney advised. “Like, do you have kids? Or a husband?”
I bit my bottom lip and shook my head, “No.”
“Just try yelling,” Matthew said, his eyebrows raised with a hint of mischief. “It’s fun.”
While I had never before acted on stage, I suppose some of my behavior could be construed as performance. On Friday nights when I was in high school, I donned a cheerleading uniform and pranced before the crowd at football games, perky and self-assured. Come Monday, I hunched my shoulders over my desk, diligently taking notes and avoiding eye contact. In college, I exuded confidence as an anchor on our campus news program. Yet, at bars or parties on weekends, I clung to the wall and held onto a plastic cup filled with water, a prop meant to convince others that I, too, belonged in that scene.
It surprised some people when I decided to pursue a career in journalism. “You’re so quiet, so shy, so reserved,” they said, and I knew they imagined me challenging a prominent leader or entering a war zone. I found, however, that being a good reporter required that I blend in, observe, and try to understand someone else’s experience.
When I landed my first job at a newspaper, a former professor extended both his congratulations and a warning: “That’s great,” he said. “Remember, you’ll write a lot of stories, and not all of them will be winners.” I’m not sure if his sentiments addressed my nature as a perfectionist or just the nature of small newspapers. Each day at my newspaper, a small editorial staff took on the tremendous task of reporting, writing, editing, and laying out the paper. My professor’s words were a comfort to me on the occasions when I sent a story to press that could have been more developed. Within a year, those same words had become an excuse for subpar, unenthusiastic work.
“Well, I guess this one’s just not a winner,” I sighed to myself more and more frequently as I typed canned quotes into a document or transcribed strings of declarative sentences that I had scribbled in my notebook during a meeting or composed in my head while driving back to the office after an assignment. At the end of each day, I gathered my belongings and trudged to my car.
Very few days passed that an editor did not criticize, sometimes harshly, one of my colleagues, leading to eye rolls or sighs or tears while the rest of us continued to type in the quiet, open office.
“What is it thou canst demand?” I wanted to ask when my turn came, and my supervisor summoned me to the conference room. Instead, I silently lowered myself into the seat across from him. My exact offense escapes my memory, although I would guess that I had challenged a headline, an edit, or even an assignment.
“What are you afraid of?” He shrugged his shoulders and placed his hands on the table in front of him. “That these people on your beat will be mad at you? They’ll get over it. They’re actually used to it.”
I had the sense that the majority of our readers viewed our publication alternately as a rag or a joke. I am still not sure which I deem worse. Not being taken seriously is both exhausting and humbling, but even humility brings with it a certain sense of defeat.
“When you first started, we all thought, ‘she’s so nice. I wonder how long she’ll last,’” a colleague once confided in me.
“You’re a good person,” someone else said. “Maybe, though, you’re just not a good reporter.”
Why, I wondered, can’t I be both?
Eventually, I left the newspaper to pursue my graduate degree and a teaching career. When I ponder why I quit, I hesitate to offer that I was “too nice” or “not edgy enough” for the job. The former negates the fact that many of my colleagues and editors are some of the finest people I know. The latter makes me sound weak. My fatal flaw, I eventually concluded, was that I became too attached too easily. I could not bring myself to publish a quote that would make someone sound foolish; I directed my headstrong defiance towards my editors rather than my reporting. I felt such inner turmoil trying to be loyal to both those I wrote about and the publication I wrote for that I became increasingly irritable, lost weight, and had trouble sleeping.
And now I found myself marking syllables on a transcript of The Tempest. It was ironic that the students had asked me to play a character as angry and vengeful as Prospero, and I questioned the experience they thought I could bring to the role. I also waited to see what the role might bring out in me: what would I glean from delving into a character whose personality was so unlike my own?
“I’m glad you’re doing this,” a friend from college said during my year with the troupe. “It will be a good story, but I think it’s good for you, too.”
Sue decided I could benefit from resistance work, an acting technique in which a performer is placed under physical stress so that she will forget to think about her lines and bring only her instincts and raw emotions to the role; it’s most effective for situations that place a character under pressure. So, one afternoon, Sue and I met in the auditorium and stood at opposite wings of the stage to prepare.
We shouted to each other, repeating the same sentence at an increasing volume.
“I am Sue,” Sue began.
“I am Erica,” I echoed tentatively, uncomfortably.
“I am Sue,” Sue said, with greater volume, power, and authority.
“I am Erica,” I repeated. I made an effort to mimic Sue’s confidence and certainty but only ended up reciting the words in my own flat tone.
“I AM SUE,” Sue shouted this time.
“I am Erica,” I repeated, my level of embarrassment the only thing actually increasing as I spoke.
I did not know how I would describe Sue when it came time to write about her in my feature. She dressed simply and dyed her short, pixie haircut brown, except for the two small patches of grey at her temples. She began as a character in my story, but became my friend. If I wrote that she kept the hair at her temples grey, would she be embarrassed? If I mentioned her kindness and strength, would I be editorializing? To describe someone’s physical appearance seemed invasive and somehow wrong. To intuit a person’s identity and character, even a small aspect of it, seemed presumptuous. Even interpreting Prospero’s motives from just a few lines of dialogue made me feel uneasy, as though I could assume too much or be incorrect. Yet, when Sue and her students did that exact thing to me, I liked it. It was comforting to feel known and understood.
As Sue locked the auditorium that day, I asked about her own experiences with acting.
“Oh, I took one class in college, but I’m pretty sure I was stiff as a board,” she said. Then, she smiled and pointed to me playfully. “I’m like you.”
I simply smiled back and followed her into the hallway.
The following day, I arrived at the auditorium to do my resistance work with the class. I knelt down on the ground as the students positioned themselves around me, holding me by my shoulders, waist, knees, and ankles. This time, only one student played Ariel. She stood in front of me, taking a step away each time I lunged forward to catch her.
“Thou, my slave, as thou report’st thyself, wast then her servant,” I said. As I spoke my lines, my voice strained with struggle, and my thighs burned as I rose to a near-standing position.
Just a day earlier, as I had recited those same words to Sue, my voice sounded monotone. As I spoke, I thought only of my script, marked and scribbled with notes: which words had I decided to emphasize? Which lines had I wanted to shout? To whisper? When it came to performance, I excelled at the preparation. I found memorization and recitation easy and having a script to dictate what I should say and how I should respond reassured me. Yet, in the execution, I needed to express myself with conviction, to react to the situations presented in the drama immediately, a task that was no easier for me in a scripted world than in reality.
With the students hanging off of me, however, all I could think about was freeing myself and catching the little Ariel, mocking me just out of my reach.
“Stop for a minute,” I yelled at one point, re-orienting myself to the auditorium and the circle of students surrounding me. “I forget the rest of my lines.”
After I finished speaking, the troupe fell silent. Then the student who had greeted me on my first day raised her hand.
“There were like seven of us on you, and you almost got up,” she said. “You’re, like, really strong.”
Toward the end of the school year, Sue asked if I would perform as Prospero during a small festival to be held one morning at the high school.
In the days leading up to the performance, I found myself torn between wanting to experience a live performance and wanting to keep my work with the troupe confined only to moments in class. When I tried to back out, Sue told me that performing was like running a marathon: the preparation is the important part, but I would have to run the race to realize that. Plus, I thought to abandon my Ariels after all their work would be mean.
At the start of our scene, the spotlight illuminated the stage to reveal the Ariels, dressed in black and huddled together, sleeping. They had painted their faces with masks of red and teal stars that seemed to burst from the corners of their eyes and trickle down their cheeks. They had tied pink and green fabric around their wrists to bind them to each other. I stepped out of the wings and walked slowly towards them, my silver sandals making a soft patter as I moved across the stage. I wore white jeans and a white shirt. I had pulled my long hair into a low bun at the nape of my neck; a cluster of small stars also decorated my face, shooting from the corner of my eye to my temple. In my right hand, where I had once clutched my script, I gripped a staff. My fingers curled around the smooth wooden stick, from which flowed the same jewel-toned fabric that bound the Ariels together. A few pockets of people sat throughout the nearly empty auditorium. Once on stage, though, I could barely make out their shadows through the glare of the spotlight.
When I reached the spot where the Ariels rested, I hit the stage with my staff, letting the echo reverberate through the theatre, as my Ariels roused from sleep, lifted their faces, and turned their heads toward me.
“Hast thou, spirit, perform’d to point the tempest that I bade thee?” I spoke sternly, with pointed pauses between each word.
“To every article,” they replied in unison. “I boarded the king’s ship; now on the beak, now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin I flamed amazement.”
I raised my eyebrows with exaggerated delight as they regaled me with the report of the storm.
When the Ariels requested their freedom from my reign, I turned to face the audience, extended my hands in front of me, and then quickly spread them to reach my full arm span, knocking each Ariel to the ground.
“Dost thou forget,” I said with a lowered voice and clenched teeth, “from what a torment I did free thee? Thou dost. And think’st it much to tread the ooze of the salt deep, to run upon the sharp wind of the north, to do me business in the veins o’ the earth when it is baked with frost.”
At the end of the scene, I promised the Ariels freedom if they would aid me in one final plot.
“What shall I do?” they begged. “Say what; what shall I do?”
I turned toward them and motioned for them to come closer. All at once, they leaned forward.
“Go make thyself like a nymph of the sea,” I whispered.
Performers, scholars argue, love Shakespeare not for his plays, but for his characters, for the depth and breadth of emotions one person can communicate in one role. “The great thing about Shakespeare,” Sue once marveled, “is that he understood people. Not one type of person, but all people.” I thought of Prospero—bitter, powerful, and humbled. And I thought of my Ariels, at once rebellious and loyal. And I thought of the students in the troupe, who were bursting with so many thoughts, emotions, and experiences that they could not be contained, and so they took to the stage.
When my last day with the class arrived, the students presented me with my staff as a memento of the year we spent together, and I felt very much like a student about to graduate: sad to leave, but ready—aware that I no longer belonged with the troupe.
When the story ran—on the front page of a Sunday edition of the newspaper—Sue wrote to thank me, as did some other teachers at the high school and parents whose children, at some point, had been part of the troupe.
Many times since, I have wished I could have stayed onstage for longer than our ten-minute scene from The Tempest, a few brief moments when I owned my own power, anger, and excitement. But even at the end of The Tempest, a humbled Prospero relinquishes his staff—and his powers—in exchange for a life less magical. “What strength I have’s mine own,” he says, and then he exits.
I have not acted in the years since I left the troupe, although I have returned to the auditorium to watch later performances. From my place in the dark audience, I can feel the troupe’s joy and energy in the spotlight. When I return home, I find the staff resting against the corner of my bedroom, its jewel-toned fabric vibrant against the white walls, as it was against my white outfit on the day of the performance.