In A Mood
In two days, 20 actors for Bards of Birmingham, ranging in age from 4 to 68, will take the stage under my direction to perform Shakespeare's Henry V. The leading role of King Henry is being played by a high school junior, 17-year-old Sara Bateman. Sara and the rest of the cast learned how to perform Shakespeare convincingly, execute stage combat flawlessly, perform live music, and become enmeshed in their characters. They did all of this in spite of the fact that conventional wisdom says that Shakespeare is too difficult for most people to grasp, and definitely too hard for small children.
Stark Newton, who just turned 6 and is the youngest cast member with a speaking role, was asked by an NPR reporter a couple of weeks ago what he thought about Shakespeare being too hard. Stark looked incredulous at the idea. "I don't know," he said. "Shakespeare seems pretty easy to me."
The glorious thing about this is that Stark is never, ever going to think for one minute for the rest of his life that Shakespeare is hard, let alone too difficult for him to comprehend. And maybe, just maybe, when someone tells him in 10 years that calculus is difficult, he'll remember how some people think Shakespeare is hard and he'll disbelieve that assessment of calculus as well.
I started this nonprofit theatre company, Bards of Birmingham, just under 10 years ago because I was in a mood. For me, in a mood usually means that someone gave me a solid "no, you can't" and I'm feeling pretty determined to prove to them that yes, I can. This sort of mood explains most of my major life decisions, including getting my master's degree, and may in fact be the easiest way to understand my entire motivational schema.
10 years ago I was a minister of children and youth at a small church in North Shelby County, and I'd started staging Shakespeare plays in a desperate last-ditch attempt to keep my extremely troubled youth out of prison and/or early parenthood (spoiler: it didn't work).
I was insanely bad at it. Like, literally the worst. I had no theatre background or training AT ALL and I wasn't even conversant with basic theatre terms. All I had was a bizarre passion for Shakespeare, a love for kids, and a basic expectation that everything that needed to be learned could be gleaned from a library book. And I could sew costumes, and had a best friend (still my best friend) who is really good at everything else artistic.
The biggest victory in the first play that I directed was that the kids all knew their lines. Literally, memorization was my highest aspiration. They wandered on stage, not especially acting, because I didn't know how to teach them how to act, and said some stuff, and then wandered off without any particular motivation or skill. I didn't really know how to fix that. I still remember there was one actor who didn't know how to make a fist - as in, he put his thumb on the inside of his fingers. I didn't really know how to fix that either.
The stuff I didn't know about what I was doing would fill volumes, and has.
But after that first play, I started to educate myself a little, and then I cast and directed a second Shakespeare play. The first play had garnered some minor community participation; the second play pulled in lots of community youth.
This felt disruptive to the people in charge of the church. Staging the plays was chaotic and unpredictable. The median age of the church members was 58; having the kids cascading into the operation felt disruptive to the status quo.
The church board told me the second play was my last. They said, no, I couldn't do Shakespeare with youth anymore.
This put me in a mood.
I resigned my position at the church and started my own non-profit theatre company. I still didn't know what I was doing, at all. I had never started a non-profit organization on my own before. I assembled a board of willing victims, I mean friends, and we did a turkey raffle in order to raise $80 to put on our first show. We were so broke it hurt, and I still wasn't very good at directing, even though I had finally realized how ignorant I was and set about trying to fix that.
Slowly, I started to accumulate knowledge and experience. I began to recruit people who knew how to do important things, like a software architect with acting experience who had just moved to Birmingham - Steven Cullen, who would eventually become my Board president.
I made incredibly painful mistakes, and lots of them. I wasn't great at managing relationships either between cast members or with our host facility. I started out allowing parents to come to rehearsals, which was a colossal error, as parents saw this as an opportunity to openly coach their own children (and everybody else's) in complete contravention of the structure we were trying to establish. I didn't charge for participation, which led participants to believe the experience was largely worthless, and they treated it accordingly. I was learning about theatre as fast as I could, but it wasn't fast enough. There were tears. There were sleepless nights. There was the first time I had to fire a teenage actor for being lazy. There was the first time I had to fire a child actor for being physically violent. There was the first time a 12-year-old decided to share some wildly inaccurate but sexually salacious information with all the little kids backstage. I had to deal with my first screaming parent, my first kid with debilitating stage fright, my first self-important diva. I cried more, and slept less.
And I learned. Thank whatever gods may be, I learned.
Now, all these years later, there are systems within systems. I learned what acting was, and how to teach it. I learned all the theatre terminology, and how to use it effectively. I figured out how to get young actors to tap into their incredible intrinsic genius. I don't deal with difficult parents or self-important kids anymore because we weed them out early and rehearsals are closed to parents. I figured out how to navigate relationships - something that was at least as important as knowledge of Shakespeare. I learned how to have fun with it. I learned how to help my actors have fun.
And now we're about to do this play, this final production before we go on indefinite hiatus, and the quality of the production is light years beyond that first struggling effort.
BUT. None of that would have happened if I hadn't stepped out, and if others hadn't stepped out with me.
I think of me not knowing what I didn't know, of having a lot of misplaced confidence and a stupid amount of belief in things working out as I filed the federal paperwork to apply for non-profit status. I think of Stark with his absolute lack of understanding that Shakespeare might be hard, and his belief that the lines and the story are easy for him to learn.
And I can't help but wonder - what are we holding ourselves back from doing because we believe it will be hard?
I don't necessarily recommend my approach of idiotically believing I could do something that I had literally no training for or background in and then jumping in with both feet. That may be stupid. But then again, it worked. So maybe it isn't the worst approach.
Maybe the worst approach is to be so cautious of potential risks or areas of ignorance that we don't do anything at all.
At the beginning of this rehearsal process, I asked my actors, "Who's to say that this can't be the best production of Henry V ever staged?" I looked at Sara, who carried the heavy burden of playing the king. "Who's to say that your Henry won't be better than Kenneth Branagh's, or Tom Hiddleston's?"
"Well, it won't be," she said.
"Why not?" I asked. "Because you're 17? Because you're not a professional actor?"
"Yes," she said. "Both of those things."
"Just because you're young and you're not established doesn't mean you can't be the best," I told her. "Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer with a debut nonfiction book when she was 23. There may be people all over the world just quietly being the best without international acclaim for it. In fact, there probably are."
What are we holding ourselves back from doing, thinking, or becoming because there's a part of us saying, You aren't good enough, or Who are you to assume you can achieve this?
Who might we be if we just assumed, like Stark, that everything was "easy to me"?
What might we accomplish if we thought, There's no reason at all I can't be the best?
I'm not saying that everyone should run out and start a theatre company because they're in a mood. Although, if that's your dream, maybe you should run out and start a theatre company, whether you're in a mood or not.
But maybe you should go back to school. Or learn yoga, even though you're not at all flexible. Or climb that mountain. Or apply for that job. Or take those voice lessons. Or write that novel.
Audition for that play.
Go out on that first date.
Break off that toxic relationship.
Start your online Harry Potter jewelry shop.
Sign up for that 5k.
Launch your advocacy group.
Run for office.
Maybe today you're feeling like all of these opportunities have passed you by, that it's too late to get your law degree or be a Senator find the cure for cancer. But it isn't, I swear it's not. If you're alive - and I'm assuming everyone reading this is alive - it isn't too late. It is never, ever too late.
If I can start a theatre company with absolutely no experience and stupid optimism where knowledge should be, I promise you can do anything. I am not special. I am not uniquely gifted. I was just willing.
And if clueless, talentless me can do that, I can't even imagine the outrageous wonders you are capable of with your expansive heart and outrageous talent.
I may make big changes in my life with insane ripple effects mostly when I'm in a mood.
But you can do it for whatever reason you want.
In the semi-immortal words of Nike's ad campaign, just do it.