Aspen Ideas: Adventures in Shakespeare
They dressed me in chain mail. They gave me a sword and a script.
World leaders and giants of industry were discussing big ideas across the Aspen Institute campus and here we were — 14 of us, in a semi-circle beside the Marble Garden — costumed like a pack of Renaissance Fair rejects, looking nervously at our pages, mouthing our lines in preparation.
The occasion was Carol and Ken Adelman’s “Taking Shakespeare from Page to Stage” session at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Friday, part of the welcome addition of participatory learning to the 2015 festival that also included ukulele lessons, improv classes and coding workshops.
Ken — the neocon diplomat, former Donald Rumsfeld hand and author of “Shakespeare in Charge” — and Carol had 50 minutes to turn us into Shakespearean thespians. None of us are likely to hit the stage at the Globe Theatre anytime soon, but the crash course offered an irreverent, silly opportunity to better understand the bard.
The Adelmans opened by having an actor perform Hamlet’s speech to the players (“Speak the speech I pray you…”), which was meant as a guide, Ken told us, not to overdo it in our performances.
John Doerr, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist, donned a king’s crown and velvet robe and performed Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 — the one about love being blind that opens “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…”
A long-married couple did a scene from “All’s Well That Ends Well,” in which a courtier attempts to convince the maiden Helena to give up her virginity.
“Too late for that!” quipped our Helena before her performance.
For my part, as Dick the butcher from “Henry VI,” I had a single line: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” My scene partner, playing Jack the rebel, was at the festival representing the U.S. Air Force Academy. He had many more lines than I, and despite my crowd-pleasing material, I don’t think I managed to upstage him. Adelman introduced us by explaining that the “kill all the lawyers” line is one of the most misunderstood in Shakespeare’s work and that, in context, it’s actually a compliment to attorneys for bringing order to society. Carol instructed me to wave my sword as I performed my line. I did. Our scene drew polite applause.
Television director Jay Sandrich (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Cosby Show”) offered us notes on our performances — he was refreshingly, if insensitively, blunt about our collective amateur skill level.
“You’re just reading the lines,” he explained. “That’s not really acting.”
Maybe not. But our brief and embarrassing adventure in Shakespeare offered some unexpected laughs and insight on this Ideas Fest afternoon.
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