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If We Should Fail
Taking the L. Elsewhere Macbeth tour.
Elsewhere is producing a mini-tour of Macbeth in October to celebrate Spooky Season. We’ll be performing at Progression Brewing in Northampton MA on Sunday 10/15, at the Shakespeare Forum in East Harlem on 10/16, and at Eventide Brewing in Atlanta GA on Sunday 10/22.
Atlanta Shakespeare is doing a staged reading of my first play, The Killer of Camp Arden, a horror-comedy retelling of Shakespeare’s As You Like It on Wednesday 10/25.
My Elsewhere co-founder Hilary Dennis has started a new exciting immersive theatre project in the wooded space behind her home called Junkyard Shakespeare.
I spent July in the Czech Republic doing Prague Shakespeare’s monthlong intensive. It is hard not to compare it with the program I did at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox last summer. If anyone is considering one or the other, I would highly recommend doing PSC’s program.
If We Should Fail
It seems fitting that after failing to send out a newsletter for five months, my next newsletter should be about failure.
I took a major L recently, and that experience has me meditating on Shakespearean failures — both my own personal failures, and the failures of characters within the plays. I also reached out to some of my successful friends to ask about their failures.
Undoubtedly my most embarrassing Shakespearean failure was my attempt to ride my bicycle across the country, going from Shakespeare theatre to Shakespeare theatre. Although that project failed through no fault of my own, it was such a stupid idea from its inception that I don’t even know if I would be any less embarrassed had I actually done it.
The idea came from the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference. My mentor, Jan, encouraged me to start attending the annual conference of Shakespeare professionals in 2017, and while STA has since become the highlight of my year, it kicks my impostor syndrome into overdrive. I’m a white trash high school dropout, why do I get to be in the room with leaders in the field? What’s my resume? What do I bring to the table? I thought — like I often do — that a single absurd gesture was the answer. Rather than putting in the long hard years of working and learning, I needed a shortcut, or at least, a head start.
I spent about a year planning the trip. I did research and trained on my bike, riding 50-100 miles a day. I promoted it tirelessly on the internet and reached out to all the theatres I would visit on my trip. I saved my own money and fundraised, convincing my friend Evans’s company to sponsor the trip. I bought a new bike and quit my job. And finally, on open night of the 2018 summer Shakespeare festival in Richmond, I rode my bicycle across the stage and out to the road.
I rode 100 miles across the Blue Ridge mountains to my first stop in Staunton, VA: the American Shakespeare Center. I arrived at my friend Matt Davies’s house, ate dinner with him and his wife, and went to sleep in his guest room.
The next morning, I woke up with a fever and a blinding headache and promptly threw up the previous night’s dinner. Despite being deathly ill, I dragged myself to the ASC’s Macbeth and Shrew over the next few days, watching both productions delirious with fever and unable to follow the actors’ voices over the enormous mallet pounding into the back of my skull.
Matt drove me to urgent care twice that week, and the only information the doctors could provide was that I lost six pounds between my first and second visits.
I began to worry about whether I would be strong enough to continue my trip after a week of subsisting on electrolytes and iambic pentameter. I also began to worry that even if I was able to continue, what might happen if this mysterious illness returned later when I was camping in the middle of nowhere Kansas instead of crashing in my friend’s cushy guest room?
After a week of feeling worse each day, I decided to give up. I was sick, weak, and scared. My wife rented a pickup truck to come pick up me and my bicycle from Staunton. I was sick for another two weeks. I have never been so sick in my life before or since. I had to convalesce like a girl in a Victorian novel.
After recovering from weeks of being sick, I decided to rent a car and just drive my dumb ass across the country. The cross-country road trip that resulted from my failed bicycle trip ended up being one of my happiest memories. I was able to visit more places and see more shows with less chafing, and my wife was able to join me for my adventures. But I knew that my fun vacation was a poor substitute for what I hoped would be the impressive accomplishment I had hoped for, which was itself a poor substitute for patience, real work, and study.
Years later people still occasionally ask me, “Didn’t you ride your bike across the country? How was that?” and I have to explain that I got sick and rather than abandoning the trip, I just rented a car and drove. “Must have been a lot easier!” they usually say, which always makes me feel worse.
My experience with BardCycle has made me pathologically circumspect about not overhyping projects or promoting myself, which is exhausting for anyone who collaborates with me. Dr. Ralph Cohen, when I gave him a copy of my self-published book on Shakespeare, called it “the most self-effacing book he’s ever seen," because he had to actively look for my name anywhere on it.
Instead of swinging the pendulum from one extreme to the other, I should have found a middle course. Instead of trying to find a shortcut to recognition, I should have put in the years of unsung work.
Instead of trying to find a way to stand up next to my heroes at STA, I should have taken Kendrick Lamar’s advice, “bitch, sit down; be humble.”
Die All, Die Merrily
My favorite Shakespearean failure is Hotspur, Harry Percy, the rebel leader in Henry IV, pt 1. He is heroically single-minded and grand in a way unequaled in the canon. Most characters who try to topple a king do so through treachery — assassinations and lies. Those that wage open civil war commit war crimes — they torture children or kill civilians. Hotspur may be grouchy and impulsive, violent and arrogant, but he’s also idealistic bordering on naïve. And who wouldn’t be arrogant in Hotspur’s shoes facing down the Prince of Wales? You’re a battle-hardened soldier and your enemy is a 15th century Tucker Max.
Most people can empathize with the feeling of watching other people succeed where you’re failing and not understanding what they’re doing differently. As a literary character, Hotspur can watch his rival Prince Hal in the third person omniscient partying with Falstaff instead of training and strategizing and fighting. After being killed in battle by that hungover frat boy, Hotspur can watch him over two more plays go on to become king and win his greatest victory by disregarding reinforcements and rushing into battle against a superior opponent — lauded for the very “mistake” that lost Hotspur the battle at Shrewsbury.
Hotspur is one of my dream roles in Shakespeare, but although I love him, I cast someone else when Elsewhere was planning a production of Henry IV, because I didn’t think I was capable of failing that gloriously. That production, scheduled for April of 2020, failed to happen at all. When we do get around to mounting it, I hope to take on the role. I’ve certainly learned a lot about failure since then.
I failed the ninth grade, then I failed the tenth grade, then I dropped out of high school at 17. A year later I got my GED and enrolled at the local university. But after three semesters in classes that felt mostly like high school all over again, I dropped out of college too.
In spite of my academic failings, I’ve managed to carve out a life for myself in the world of Shakespeare. It’s small and it’s peculiar and it’s not profitable, but it’s a life driven and guided by love. I’ve been a dramaturg, teaching artist, actor, writer, and even a university lecturer, all without graduating high school. But I have found doors that are closed to me. I’d like to go to grad school, I’ve given thought to teaching full time, but these are walls that no amount of love can o’erperch. The older I get, the more daunting is the prospect of taking on student loan debt to spend four years in gen ed classes with 19yos. So I felt stuck.
I have a good relationship with two professors at the University of Richmond who for years would bring me in to talk to their classes about Shakespeare. UR is a good school with generous financial aid and professors who know my work. Maybe getting my undergrad there wouldn’t be so bad?
I applied, making sure to get recommendations from my colleagues in the English department, and namedropping them in my essays, just to be sure. I had no doubt that I would be accepted. Sure, I’d dropped out of high school, but that was over a decade before. In the meantime, I’d written educational material about Shakespeare for PBS, attended professional conferences, and lectured in their very classrooms.
When the rejection came, the only person more flabbergasted than me was the professor in the English department who’d first invited me to speak there. He went down to the admission office and argued on my behalf, and in an uncharacteristic moment of not accepting defeat, I emailed the admissions office to protest. They wouldn’t budge.
It was crushing to realize that in the eyes of the folks who make those decisions, my fitness to study literature and Shakespeare was decided before I was even an adult. That all the work I’d done in the last dozen years meant less than four years of doing homework in high school. That they had more confidence in the intelligence and work ethic of a random 17yo fresh out of high school than they did in me.
I thought I would be lowering myself to suffer through a perfunctory undergraduate degree before I moved on to bigger and better things, only to find out that I should have taken Kendrick Lamar’s advice, “bitch, sit down; be humble.”
Our Pleasure to Fail
It’s gratifying to hear about the failures of successful people, not necessarily in a hater-schadenfreude way (although I’m guilty of that), but because especially in the age of social media, it can be tempting to compare your bloopers to other people’s highlight reel. So I asked some of my successful friends about their failures.
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“I played Claudius in Hamlet successfully in grad school, but when I played him again four months later in a summer stock production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead – wearing the same costume! – I totally failed to satisfy the director. Somehow my 25-year-old bearing failed to impress, as I remember him wasting an inordinate amount of the 10-day rehearsal period trying to get me to affect the same regal attitude he’d convey if only he were playing it!”
—Austin Tichenor, co-Artistic Director of the Reduced Shakespeare Company
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“My big fail was actually the first time I directed Shakespeare—this was 15 or 16 years ago. Jeff [Watkins, the artistic director of Atlanta Shakespeare] asked me to direct a remount of The Tempest (he was Prospero) that had not really gelled with the first director or the first cast the season before. I needed to recast two roles at least- Sebastian, the younger brother of King Alonzo, and Antonio, Prospero's brother who usurped his Dukedom. I had two actors ready to go so I assigned them—of COURSE I thought I knew the play and characters well enough to start directing.....The failure was that I cast the older and larger actor as the "younger brother" of Alonzo, and the petite and much younger man as Prospero's brother. Jeff is 6'3'' at least, and that young man didn't look like he could usurp a dinner party, much less a Dukedom! The visual was completely Laurel and Hardy. Yikes.”
—Laura Cole, Director of Education and Training at Atlanta Shakespeare
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“Out of hundreds of school performances, the only time I had to stop a show was at an alternative school in Merced, California. These students were unruly – and I’ve worked with unruly students before. I’ll never forget, I asked, ‘Y’all ready for another one?’ and a student yelled, ‘No!’ and all the students starting laughing and I immediately stopped, and I gave them a five minute speech that they were taking me for granted, and that a lot of people don’t want to visit that school for that reason. I let them know about their reputation. That was a free show. I wanted to go there because it was a school that coudn’t afford extracurricular activites. I could have substituted that school for another school that would’ve paid me well. It was gut-wrenching to hear black and brown students that I thought I connected with shout during the performance that they weren’t feeling what I was doing. I told the principal, ‘I’m done.’ I got sympathy applause, and I did one more song, but I was already checked out. That one really hurt. That was the only time that that has ever happened to me. I wanted to visit a school that I believed needed to see a familiar face and feel loved because they were isolated from activities that other schools got and it was upsetting that they weren’t gracious or grateful for it.”
—Devon Glover, The Sonnet Man
Good Tickle Brain by Mya Gosling
My dear friend Mya who publishes the Shakespearean stick-figure webcomic Good Tickle Brain has given me permission to use some of my favorites from her archive. To honor our theme of failure, here is a comic inspired by a hilarious story of failure from Geoffrey Kent.