In Part II of my feature honoring William Shakespeare on his 450th birthday, I ask the young actors of Inner City Shakespeare Ensemble what they think of Shakespeare’s plays. Some of their answers may surprise you. They are a wonderful group of young professionals who will be presenting A Midsummer Night’s Dream throughout L.A. in the coming weeks in locations like Ladera Park, Grand Park, Third Street Promenade, Monteith Park and Athens Park. Bring your family and catch a free performance near you.
I spoke to two alumni who are returning for Midsummer and asked about their first impressions of Shakespeare and why they keep coming back. Juvanie Hildreth, a football player from South Central, says that studying Shakespeare has been “a great learning experience” for him.
“I was never shown anything like this before,” he explained, “but it was the language that hooked me. I did not understand it – at all – but working with the mentors and Dr. Andrews, it began to click. And then, going from Twelfth Night to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I started to pick up words I said and I heard in the first play that I understood better in the second right from the start. What I like about the characters I play is that neither of them is like me in real life so it was a big challenge for me. I played Antonio in Twelfth Night and now I’m playing Oberon…and I’m having a great time.”
Another returning actor, A’Donus Gillett, started with the company in its very first production, Romeo and Juliet, in which he played Tybalt. Gillett had seen productions before and had always wanted to audition so he eventually got up the courage to try. “My audition was horrible but they still gave me a chance.” He laughs when he remembers how they all began. “Starting off it was really bad. Everybody stuttered over every single word but with more and more time and Dr. Andrews’ direction, it started to get better.”
He stays because he loves it adding, “It’s something that I’m really passionate about. It’s a part of me.” This time around he plays Theseus and, like Hildreth, he also says he can understand a little bit more. “If I honestly take time and read it word for word I can really come to the revelation of how to say it and when to say it and the emotion I’m supposed to give.”
I asked him if Shakespeare has helped in his everyday life and this bright young man, who is currently studying at LA City College to be an animator, said something profound. “Honestly, it brings me peace because it helps me slow down and see things for what they are instead of jumping to bad conclusions, even though that might be my first thought. I stop and I think about what the person is actually saying and what I’m trying to say.”
Then it was time to watch them perform scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the production they are currently rehearsing. After seeing their delightful work I asked the rest of the cast why they wanted to study Shakespeare and again, they offered some thoughtful responses. Without exception, it was the language; that “unique, pure, awesome language” that attracted them.
Jazmin: I first heard about Shakespeare in seventh grade as an assignment. I had to read Sonnet 18 in front of the class, and it was so different from anything else I’d ever read, and at the same time, it was captivating. It’s so beautiful.”
SLA: Has it changed any of you?
Connor: Yes. I used to not write poetry and now I do
SLA: Had you been interested in poetry before now?
Connor: As a lyrical artist, yes, but not physically; just for the sake of writing poetry.
SLA: Why did that change after you started studying Shakespeare?
Connor: To be honest, iambic pentameter changed my life.
SLA: In what way?
Connor: A lot of people say free writing poetry is the best way to go. I disagree. Being able to follow a structure and make it just as creative is, in my opinion, a lot more impressive.
SLA: What do you like about the structure of it?
Brighid: It helps you focus more as opposed to just writing. You get to really get into it.
SLA: Does it change when you work on it as an actor? Because you’re working on a kind of verse that’s not typical for modern people to speak.
Brighid: It does change. It’s a lot more fun to step in and get involved with. That’s why I like Shakespeare; because it’s a lot more interesting. It’s not just saying lines. You have to understand them, just like in regular acting.
SLA: How do you understand the language when it is so different to begin with?
Marcos: Look at the images. I feel like when I read Shakespeare there’s so much imagery captured in those words because rather than just saying something like ‘hello’ they say ‘hark, who goes there’ and you can see that person carrying the lantern and the dark night. It gives it a bigger emotion and there’s a color to what you see and what you’re reading. The Shakespearean language is so beautiful and floral. It’s like poetry in action.”
SLA: To which one of the girls adds, “…which is funny because Shakespeare is talking about real events. Even though there’s magic and even though there are these royals and everything, it can be applied to today.”
Alejandro: I’m here doing Shakespeare because I feel like it’s a great experience to learn more language. The language is so difficult and it helps you with your vocabulary.
SLA: Did you know any of these other actors before you got here?
Alejandro: No, I was a stranger.
SLA: So this was a great way for you to make friends.
Marcos: When you’re doing a project like this you build friendships that last a lot longer than normal friendships do.
SLA: And another other young girl echoed that “one of the greatest parts about this program is that you get to meet other people who are just as interested in studying and are so similar to you and your interests. You get to know people and to be friends with people you might not ever meet otherwise.”
Erin: I think it’s more freeing because there are so many different interpretations of Shakespeare so you can go so many different ways with what you’re doing.
SLA: There’s no wrong way to do it, is there.
Erin: Exactly. The audience might think so but as an actor you have so many different ways you can approach it and there are so many ways it all meshes together with the different interpretations of each character. It’s just magic.”
SLA: Has anything changed from the way you worked on your first play to how you’re working on Midsummer now?
Erin: I’m more aggressive with it because this is my second time playing a boy. It changes the physicality of it. We get into a fight and there’s no way that would have happened if I was playing a girl. The dynamic is different. I’m not a very girly girl but I’m not a tomboy and to see the flip side of how men would have to act in this situation really broadened my horizons. Now I’m dropping my voice and I’m doing all these things that a guy, if he had a higher voice, would have to do.”
SLA: What is it like for you younger ones studying Shakespeare?
Izabella: (rom Australia) I feel more graceful when I’m saying Shakespeare rather than just talking to my friends. I feel more flowy.
Stacy: I like Shakespeare because you have more vocabulary in your brain than what you already had and I think that’s really cool.
Ashley (from Torrance and San Diego) It’s a classic. More people older than our generation know it so it’s really cool to know it too.
Theo: I think Shakespeare is almost like learning a new language. It’s like you’re traveling back in time; you’re visiting another world when you’re doing Shakespeare. It’s fun seeing how the circumstances would be in that actual place and it’s more exciting in Shakespeare because the language and the circumstances he uses in all his plays are very centered and to the point.
Valdi adds, “It’s really fun to get to know a language we don’t speak all the time. I just love doing Shakespeare.”
So Happy Birthday Mr. Shakespeare. These kids are doing you proud.
For more information about Inner City Shakespeare Ensemble, visit www.innercityshakespeare.org.
Click Here for Part I of Shakespeare’s Legacy.