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badass bardTheatre’s obsession with Shakespeare, coined ‘bardolotry’ by George Bernard Shaw, has always escaped me. While Voltaire called his work “an enormous dunghill”, my aversion to Sir Will is far less eloquent. Not knowing my First Folio from my “What ho Malvolio”, I’d quipped “I hate Shakespeare” in defense. “You don’t know what the hell he’s saying, he takes too long to say it and you know what’s going to happen in the end”. But truth is truth… it’s personal.
When I was a student at the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting in New York City, I was enrolled in the requisite Shakespeare class. Our teacher heaped praise upon the European students, fawned over the Renaissance Faire maids as they flitted twixt texts, winked at the tinfoil swords and paper crowns, taking delight in our dalliances. He found the good in everyone’s work… everyone but mine. It seemed that no matter what scene I chose or how long I’d rehearsed it, I’d leap “Once more unto the breach” to a tragic ending. I can’t tell you how many times I rushed out of the building to hail a taxi and hide my tears, or how much it cost in cab fare to sob my way home to Tribeca, but it felt like a pound of flesh. As this wasn’t the case with my other acting teachers, I was left to assume at Shakespeare I sucketh.
Being Stratford-upon-Avon challenged, I’ve managed to work around my shortcoming and carve out decades of work on stage, in film and on television without ever trodding the boards for the Bard. Until now.
I was at Water World when the call came in. It was the Denver Center Theatre Company with the offer of a role in “Romeo & Juliet”. I snorted my slushy out my nose, choking back surprise along with terror. “Me?” I asked. “Are you sure?” They were, revealing I’d be playing Lady Montague. “Is that Romeo’s mom?” I asked, trying to recall the Franco Zeffirelli film I saw at the drive-in lo these many years ago. “It is.” came the reply. Hmmmn. The play is’t called “Romeo’s Mother” so I can probably pull it off, I figured. Some rhyming verse, a ruffed collar and losing my metaphorical maidenhead beside men in pumpkin pants made it too saucy to resist. “Why not?!” I blurted out before they could catch their mistake.
There must be a million things we’ve held ourselves back from over some misconception of our youth, Brussels sprouts for example. Schoolyard taunts and misspoken remarks of friends and lovers twist the view we see in the mirror. I’m sure my teacher had no idea the lasting effect his critique would have on me, but I made the choice to break up with Billy Bardy, didn’t I? Shakespeare, like the bitter cultivar, may be an acquired taste but so is the taste of freedom from all that crap. Maybe, in spite of the Mayans, life goes on, stretching itself out to give us the time to circle back to find the sweetness in what was sour and to savor it.
Sitting at the rehearsal table with a talented group working through the script I find myself thinking… This guy’s pretty good. This guy’s badass, even if I do know how it ends.

Romeo & Juliet runs January 25-February 24, 2013 at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

The years that followed moved between triumph and tenuousness like the tide: constant and somewhat soothing in its constancy. The devil I knew was the one I knew well.
I am loyal by nature, a stoic by necessity, in denial as an act of mercy; traits which have kept me alive and would have been handy as a member of the Donner Party. Thankfully I’ve not been driven to eat my young… yet. But who knows when the shoe drops?
As my husband picked up the pieces, adjusted the meds and found gainful employment, I continued writing, submitting and getting response. We were now in the early single digits, Saints & Hysterics was being produced and (W)hole was being work-shopped for a staged reading at the National New Play Network Showcase. The story was still young, as uncertain of what it was as a teenage girl, but there was a continual stream of interest. Whether they found the concept intriguing or it was the morbid curiosity of watching a train wreck, there was momentum. There were some shamans along the way, each with variations on the same message: “Intriguing the characters are, clarify the plot you must”,
And so I continued, researching quantum physics and color theory, took the scenes out of order, put them back differently, added capers, alien abductions, and a musical number (Bold-faced a lie that is), and took them away, tossing them in the ‘dramatic ARC’ bag as I learned to trust and to listen.
Focusing on the story was a welcome distraction from all that was only held together by duct tape. Late nights at the computer was the place of calm in the tempest, the only place I felt fully alive. As a mother, an understudy, and the wife of a man struggling with sobriety, I was invisible, dutiful and achingly lonely. Like Carla. She sprang forth when I began working as a personal assistant to a friend. Once my student, I was now one of her ‘people’. I was intrigued and mortified by this turn, but the money was good and sorely needed. Alcoholics are not known for their financial savvy, as the disconnected phone and the car missing from the driveway would attest.
Things falling apart, picking up the pieces, shattering and sweeping up after; these were the days of our lives. Struggling to be seen and bursting at the seams, something had to give. It was the acting. The one thing in my life that I’d always held as the sacred expression of my soul no longer had a place. I could not bear the process, of needing to be “picked” in order to create, and that’s what the audition process is really. To be any good at all you have to open up, invest yourself you have to fall in love, and lay yourself bare. And then you have to deal with every manifestation longing that goes with unrequited love. After long walks, streaming tears and railing at god on the Highline Canal, I made the decision to gave it up. (Which is very different from giving up.) At that point, I had no idea who I was;I was letting go of what had defined me for decades. In this act, I learned to trust.
The play was what I had left, and no one had to give me permission to create it. It was the quilt I could stitch together from whatever pieces of myself I had left at the end of the day. It was also the only time I could finish a sentence. There is an exchange in (W)hole between Carla and Ames where Carla says, “You saved my life.” Ames “Yes, and now I’m responsible for it, how does that work? I’ve never understood how that works.” Guess I was talking to myself again. But now I was listening.

Actor Paul Page and me in Telluride


This is the question slated for the Telluride Playwrights Festival Open House on Thursday, and a conversation that circulates through the theatre community like a five dollar bill. I’ve popped this and a few other questions to some of the TPF participants. Grabbing a post-rehearsal snack at Smugglers with director/playwright William Missouri Downs, in from Wyoming to direct Telluride Rep actors in Phillip Gerson’s This Isn’t What It Looks Like. A prolific author and playwright, Bill has eight upcoming productions around the country and just closed the Denver hit, Books on Tape.

T- “Why do you think we keep asking this question?”

B- “To justify our existence.”

T- “Do we ask if new songs should be written, or if fashion should be recreated seasonally?”

B- “Good point. There’s been so much talk over the past few decades about theatre being dead or irrelevant. And with the Internet, we’ve got so many forms of public dialogue and expression.”

T- “Yes, but it’s not in 3-D.”

B- “We’re the original 3-D. If for no other reason than the disconnect of the internet, we’ve become more relevant. Those who want to participate in the intimate reflection of life that only theatre offers crave it. We are like books printed on paper, and campfire stories; not commonplace as the world changes, but essential nonetheless.”

T- “Like art museums. People still go to them but now they take a picture of the art and move on to the next masterpiece. We exist for those who actually stand there and look at the painting.”

B- “Theatre has got to tell stories which are universal, I believe that more and more. When your medium is about being physically in a room with a group of people for a shared experience, the observational story is less effective. Save that for film and television. Just the fact that you can’t talk in the theatre changes things.”

T-“Really, you’re not supposed to talk? What about texting?”

On the gondola with Denver actor Paul Page. “What do you like about being in Telluride?” I asked.

P-“It’s really exciting to be involved in the thought process of a new play. I’ve done many world premieres with script tweaks and changes before opening, but this is a much more raw discovery of the characters as the playwright is solidifying them. The festival really gives the script and the artists a chance to incubate.”

T-“How do you like the play you’re working on?”

P-“Oh god, it’s fascinating. James Still has created these really interesting characters and put them in a highly charged situation. We’re working through the script slowly, moment-to-moment, asking questions of each other in a process of discovering what the play is.”

T- “Plays do write themselves at some point. If you let them.”

P-“And James is so open, so talented. It’s great to work with artists from other markets. After New York I’ve spent the past twenty years in Denver.”

T-“Working constantly.”

P- “Well, yes. But it’s nice to shake it up a bit.”

We’re only a third of the way through the Festival and the energy is building steadily. Hunkered down in our rewrites and rehearsals, meeting up for dinners graciously hosted by TPF supporters, eyeing the mountains for a chance to hike, my experience of Telluride is always a balance of risk and safety. I feel held, which gives me the power to create. And I feel that is terribly important.