Friday, May 10, 2013

To Be.

It's not an exaggeration to say Louise Fishbein changed my life. I was 8 years old, and she instilled in me the seed for what would become a lifelong passion, obsession, and career. Louise was my fourth grade teacher; and while many other educators have made an impact on my life, Louise is my favorite. She is solely responsible for my initial love of Shakespeare.

In the fourth grade, you don't expect to learn anything about the Bard. That's supposed to be left to high school drudgery, assigned to be read in silence, and tested with essay questions. But Louise, God bless her, decided to not only study, but full-out perform a Shakespearean tragedy with her class of wee ones, and she selected Julius Caesar. Yes, the play where a mob of concerned citizens knifes a public official in broad daylight and attempts to take over the government, with disastrous results. Perfect for eight- and nine-year-olds.

I had already been bitten by the acting bug, performing for my parents and neighbors and anyone who would pay attention to me for more than 30 seconds. I wrote and performed a sketch for the PTA when I was six years old, and directed my sisters and all the neighborhood kids in a masterpiece of my own design entitled "The Peppermint Puppy," I believe, when I was about seven. But a WHOLE play, especially a "real" one, was too exciting for me to bear. I promptly got sick on the day of auditions.

Mrs. Fishbein had no choice but to cast the play without me. But, sensing my distress, she told me she had a very important part for me: that of the Stage Manager - which, at that age, pretty much involved being the prompter and Universal Understudy. And an amazing thing happened - far from being bitter at watching my friends and classmates deliver, "Friends, Romans, Countrymen...," I ate up the challenge of memorizing the ENTIRE play. Every part. I knew every line, every cue; if one of the actors stumbled, I was right on it to help them get back on track. To this day, whenever I'm doing a show, I can pretty much recite each play word for word in its entirety, which is amazingly helpful if a castmate skips ahead or misses a feed line or some snafu occurs with the set. (Some people find this incredibly annoying.) I credit this all back to Julius Caesar.

We also had the thrill of doing a few scenes from JC in the Folger Shakespeare Theatre's Elementary Shakespeare Festival - in my mind, I can still see the contact sheet from the black-and-white performance photos taken there - my friend Lisa in her toga, her blond hair braided and cross-crossing her head to make a brilliant Mark Antony. That image, in particular, has stuck with me all this time.

I had Mrs. Fishbein again the next year, and we performed Macbeth, with me playing his doomed Lady, wandering around glaze-eyed in a nightgown and taking very seriously the idea that I was washing invisible blood off my hands (and getting to say "damn" in school. Tee-Hee!) I also got to play Petruchio to my friend Laura's Kate in the wooing scene from Taming of the Shrew. And you know what's really incredible? Not once did I ever think of Shakespeare as "hard." It never occurred to me that others might find Shakespeare intimidating, because Mrs. Fishbein never did. Speaking Shakespeare was as easy as breathing. And a lifelong love of language was fostered, as well.

Fast forward almost 35 years. I've performed all over the country and in Europe in over 50 productions of 24 of Shakespeare's plays, including three years touring exclusively Shakespeare. I co-founded a Shakespeare company in Cincinnati that is still running strong after nearly 20 years. I've taught elementary, high school, and college-age classes in Shakespeare; I coach other actors in their Shakespearean monologues; I geek out at every Shakespeare meme and new film adaptation (Hello, Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing!); and I'm highly critical and protective of my favorite playwright. The chance to perform his words, even for five minutes in an audition room, is a complete joy and thrill. All because a teacher took a chance on a group of students who most people would think too young to appreciate or understand the complexities of Shakespeare's work.

In this Teacher Appreciation Week, I want to reach out and say, "I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks; and ever thanks," to the woman who turned my life in this amazing direction. Mrs. Fishbein, I have already begun to recite Shakespeare to my 9-month-old.

And it's all because of you.

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