Once upon a time, long ago, there was a wee girl who hated Shakespeare. Well, perhaps we should put this differently. She didn’t so much hate Shakespeare as she did not understand Shakespeare as a concept. It was strange to her that at the mere mention of some man dead for over three hundred years the world got down on its knees to worship. This guy wasn’t even all that original. After all, he stole every story he ever wrote! What did he do so much better than everyone else which caused him to be elevated to godly status while mere mortals scuttled about the earth below him?
But this wee girl had a grandmother. And this wee girl’s grandmother recognized that what the wee girl felt was not hate but in fact a failure to connect with the material presented to her. It wasn’t the wee girl’s fault. After all, most people didn’t really get Shakespeare. More importantly, most teachers didn’t know how to teach Shakespeare. If the wee girl had only experienced Shakespeare via the public school system, how could she possibly understand the glory and splendor that was the great bard?
And so the wee girl’s grandmother took her to a wonderful place. A magical place where Shakespeare came alive. A theatre company in the mystical land of Western Massachusetts. And the wee girl saw. And the wee girl knew. And lo the glory of the bard shone down into that holy place. And the wee girl loved.
….what I’m really trying to say is that this week marks the 2010 edition of my family’s annual pilgrimage to Shakespeare & Company. This is a yearly tradition and has been carried out (as the story suggests) since I was too young to understand its importance. Thanks to the diligence of my grandmother and some extremely talented individuals who work at said theatre, the company and this treck may be single-handedly to blame for the course of my life.
Being at Shakespeare & Company is a strange experience for me. I have trained there twice for prolonged periods of time; the first for a summer, the second for six months. The first experience was amazing beyond words, the second just as miserable as the first was amazing. I have spent enough time there to know the place and its regular cast of characters, but not enough that I am confident in them remembering me. It is a place of in-betweens, it floats in my sphere of existence as a constant in my ever-changing life which swirls around it. I know I will continue to come back, and I know that every time I do it will be a different me who walks through the doors of the main stage.
Over the years, I have watched it grow from being a company performing out of a borrowed barn, to a company with their own single stage, to the two-stage monster-training-program beast that it is today. In a lot of ways, my feelings about the company are similar to my feelings about being in an English program. I am a privileged observer. Someone who has been in the inner circle, but doesn’t necessarily belong there. At the same time, I have grown up on Tina Packer’s hand-picked stock. It has, in some years, been the bread and butter of my existence. The things I have learned from Shakespeare & Company (both as an observer and an insider) continue to shape who I am today. I can honestly say that not a week goes by without some bit of my Shake & Co training kicking in (be that piece random Linklater technique, self-discovery factoids, or revelations I’ve made about the canon while sitting in Founder’s).
So this week’s jaunt was another dose of that. Another trip to Canterbury. And, reeling still from the amazing production we saw as well as the circumstances surrounding it, somehow my mind dwells on what Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary on the 9th of May, 1934 in regards to her trip to Stratford:
“All crabbers be damned – it is a fine unselfconscious town, mixed with eighteen-century and the rest, all standing cheek by jowl. All the flowers were out in Shakespeare’s garden. ‘That was where his study window looked out when he wrote The Tempest,” said the man. And perhaps it was true. Anyhow it was a great big house, looking straight at the large stone windows and the great stone of the school chapel, and when the clock struck, that was the sound Shakespeare heard. I cannot without more labour than my road-running mind can compass describe the impression of sunny impersonality. Yes, everything seemed to say, this was Shakespeare’s, had he sat and walked, but you won’t find me, not exactly in the flesh. He is serenely absent-present; both at once, radiating around one; yes; in the flowers, in the old hall, in the garden; but never to be pinned down. And we went to the church, and there was the florid foolish bust, but what I had not reckoned for was the worn, simple slab, turned the wrong way, “Good Friend for Jesus sake forbear”- again he seemed to be all air and sun, smiling serenely; and yet down there, one foot from me lay the little bones that have spread over the world this vast illumination. Yes, and then we walked round the church, and all is simple and a little worn; the river slipping past the stone wall, with a red breadth in it from some flowering tree, and the edge of the turf unspoilt; soft and green and muddy, and two casual nonchalant swans. The church and the school and the house are all roomy, spacious places, resonant, sunny toady, and in and out… - yes, an impressive place, still living, and then the little bones lying there, which have created: to think of writing The Tempest looking out on that garden; what a rage and storm of thought to have gone over any mind; no doubt the solidity of the place was comfortable. No doubt he saw the cellars with serenity. And a good deal of parrot prattle from the old gramophone discs at the Birthplace, one taking up the story from the other. But isn’t it odd, the caretaker at New Place agreed, that all the rest, books, furniture, pictures, etc., has completely vanished? Now I think Shakespeare was very happy in this, that there was no impediment of fame, but his genius flowed out of him, and is still there, in Stratford. They were acting As You Like It, I think, in the theatre.”
I suppose, allegorically, Shakespeare & Company is my Stratford. That, to me, is where the American Shakespeare lives. Serenely absent-present, ever-watchful, ever-waiting in Lenox, Massachusetts.
....as the title of this post suggests, we saw The Winter's Tale. Review to come.