Expressive 2010 Honorable Mention
Professor: Joy Sterrantino
Sixth grade was the peak of my elementary school cliques and insecurities. It was also the first time I’d ever acted in a Shakespearean play. While Shakespeare and elementary school popularity don’t seem like they have anything in common, in my experience they did. Now when I encounter Shakespeare, I usually flash back briefly to this year in school. By the end of my involvement, I viewed Shakespeare as a confidence booster and a social equalizer. I liked Shakespeare, not because I relished the complex writing or detailed plots, but because he helped me grow and overcome fears.
First of all, let me set the stage with my sixth grade social standing. Simply put, I was not one of the cool kids. At that point in time I had a few strikes against me. My mom taught at school, and as much as I love my mom, she wasn’t exactly the Ms. Honey of Matilda’s time or the Hilary Swank of “Freedom Writers.” Even if she were, by the last year of school most sixth graders disliked all authority (and therefore my association with it), preferring showing off instead Second of all, I was a nerd. I didn’t keep up with the popular TV shows, I read a lot more than an average kid, and I worked hard for perfect grades. Combine these factors with severe shyness, and the result left me dreading social interaction. Meaning I usually spent recess reading and avoiding the occasional kickball aimed at my head.
Normally my introvert tendencies steered me away from performing, especially in front of large crowds. But when my school announced the upper grades were putting on a “mini Shakespeare festival,” my interest was piqued. As tryouts approached, I realized that I actually wanted to participate. My confidence came from previous exposure to Shakespeare’s plays. I had watched both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado about Nothing with my family during the Shakespeare Festival in Cedar. I’d also helped my local church group put on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I felt comfortable with the language, the blocking; I knew this stuff. I knew I could act out the parts, and act them well. Socially, I was motivated by an opportunity to step outside my current boundaries. I knew a lot of other kids were trying out, popular or not, and I hoped to make more friends. Plus, I viewed theater as a very “cool” thing to do. After all, my older brother (an almighty high school man) participated in theater, and he was, in my opinion, the coolest person I knew. I secretly dreamed of a performance amazing enough to propel myself into higher social standing.
So I signed up for a time slot and prepared lines from a list of suggested monologues. Actually, I felt such excitement that I prepared two. I knew most people planned to use Puck’s lines, probably because they were the easiest to understand and perform. But for the first time in my life I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing. I was so certain of my acting ability that I wanted to stick out from the crowd. I picked different monologues, with more difficult language, in the hopes that my obvious talent would be recognized. I memorized my lines, coordinated movements, rehearsed them in front of my family, and, this time, instead of turning me into a nerd, my academic drive paid off. As I watched some of my peers try out, I remember feeling secretly superior, even smug. Most hadn’t even looked at their lines, let alone memorized them. I performed my pieces and walked off the stage feeling comfortable and happy.
The performance was to be a combination of Shakespeare’s works, condensing some plays and including random scenes from others, all performed by a supposed Shakespeare troop for the amusement of Queen Elizabeth. As I anxiously waited for posting of the final casting list, I looked at the directory of plays planned and possible characters. I decided that I’d be comfortable in any role, except for Juliet’s I was terrified of people thinking I actually liked the boy playing Romeo, and teasing me about it. This was sixth grade after all, when secretly liking boys started to happen, but actually admitting it felt embarrassing, even humiliating. Yet that’s exactly the part I received. I was devastated. The entire week after trying out I had repeated to everyone that listened, “I’ll be happy with anything, except Juliet.” It practically became my mantra, and only in some sick irony would I receive the only, ONLY part I didn’t want. Apparently I lived in a sick irony. Adding to my troubles, I really disliked the boy cast as my lover. Even though I lived at the bottom of the social ladder, I judged as shallowly as the next kid and viewed Luke, the slightly effeminate crybaby of the school, as embarrassing. I didn’t want to associate love with him of all people. Somewhere between half laughing at the odds, I think I burst into tears. How was I going to fix this?
I started by pulling a classic twelve-year-old move; I made my mom talk to the director. During the conversation they repeatedly assured me that I’d given the best performance at the tryouts. Romeo and Juliet was the longest play, and consequently they needed a strong actor (me) to play this character. Finally, after the coaxing and ego-stroking, I made a slightly more grown up move and decided to perform anyway, finding a way to work with Luke. And surprisingly, I stopped disliking him. In a less important situation I might not have spent the time to get to know him. But as we worked in a quiet darkened auditorium, I found myself appreciating his understanding for Shakespeare and how quickly he memorized his lines. Although I’m sure I still turned an intense red every time we touched or held hands, I learned to stop judging Luke by the surface. Shakespeare transformed us both, first into characters, but then into normal people, almost friends. Though we never turned into best friends, I, at least, learned to look past surface appearances.
I built another relationship working through Shakespeare. Alena Gibb was one of the most popular girls in school. She was also, in my opinion, incredibly intimidating. Having hit her growth spurt much earlier than anyone else in the grade, she stood taller than most girls. Although that might have embarrassed some, she carried herself with confidence and wasn’t afraid to voice a different or uncommon opinion. To me she looked completely untouchable. This changed when she was cast as Queen Elizabeth, a role that required her face to be covered entirely in white makeup and her neck wrapped in something akin to a tutu. I don’t know exactly how she felt about it; she hid any embarrassment with her usual humor and poise. But now the playing field appeared leveled. Suddenly she didn’t seem so superior, because for my role, I got to wear a long Cinderella-like dress, my hair done-up, with real lipstick on my lips. Now I felt like the tall admirable one. I was the one voicing a contrary opinion: Juliet, choosing to love whomever she wanted, despite discouragement and prejudice from everyone around her. Once I felt on more equal footing with Alena, we started talking. Granted, she mostly humored me at first, but the relationship that began with Shakespeare lasted through a carpool, junior high, and high school. Like my relationship with Luke, once we got past the mandated cliques, we saw each other as people and became friends.
My first big experience with Shakespeare didn’t exactly leave me feeling a great pleasure or appreciation for his writing. But I gained a lot of other things instead. By the end of the play, I viewed his works as a way to pull people out of their respective comfort zones and grow personally. I gained a brand-new confidence from realizing I understood my lines easily and could turn those lines into a story. After working with Shakespeare, I never feared the archaic language of his plays. Once rigid lines between social groups relaxed, I learned to not use those lines as rules for assessment. I faced an uncomfortable situation, worked through it, and found more good than bad. Though only in elementary school, Shakespeare helped me mature and begin the pattern of closing social rifts and finding confidence that I followed for the rest of my life.