An Open Letter to an Audience Member
For the purposes of this letter, I’ll refer to the addressee as Mr. Barnes.
Dear Mr. Barnes,
Since yesterday was the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare, I thought it appropriate that I write to you today. But as the man himself said, “brevity is the sole of wit.” I’m sure you can appreciate that, and I’ll not test that sentiment. I shall with this letter, be brief, as was our only encounter in life.
It was after a performance of a play I was in. You were in the modest audience for the first full-length production I’d ever been in. (I’d only been in one acts before that.) More importantly, if was my first ever Shakespeare performance.
Well, it was a quasi-Shakespeare performance. It was the parody, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged. But there were enough legitimate passages of Shakespeare in our rewritten version of the script that I still consider it my first experience with performing the Bard’s work.
That was an exhausting, frustrating yet ultimately rewarding and exhilarating experience for me. But as you were in one of the earlier audiences there at my college, things hadn’t totally warmed up with the show yet.
Plus, I was often at odds with my cast mates, or in the very least my director, about how to interpret any given passage of Shakespeare. Convinced that I was just as right as some the others, I nonetheless at times allowed my confidence in the Shakespeare parts of my performance to wane. The goofy comedy and parody parts I was all over, but the real passages? I felt hit and miss.
That is until I met you after the show.
Still in costume, as per the custom of that theater at that time, the cast stood in the lobby waiting to greet audience members as they exited. Invariably certain members of the cast were approached right off. Not being the flashiest, most handsome or goofiest member of the cast I tended not to get specific attention from audience members after the show most nights. But when you came to me and shook my hand telling me, “You were a good Puck,” I felt redeemed. (I closed out the production each night by reciting Puck’s famous “If we shadows” speech straight, with no jokes involved.) It was quite a salve to some of the sore spots within me that still remained from a trying writing/rehearsal process that had been months long. By then I had befriended and appreciated my cast mates and enjoyed every minute of being in the show, but some bruises remained from the days when my “legitimate” Shakespeare prowess was left in doubt. You helped removed those doubts.
You did so not simply because you enjoyed my Shakespeare passages, (thought that helped), but by telling me that when you were my age, (I guessed you to be around 70 or so), you read a Shakespeare play every week. That did and still does impress me, as I don’t think I could get through even the plays I have read a dozen times in a single week. But more significant to me than your speed was your layman’s experience with Shakespeare. As far as I was (and am) concerned, having read that much Shakespeare out of pure love for that long a time, you were just as entitled to judge my performance as anyone. And you’d told me I had done well with it. If someone like you thought well enough of my Shakespeare to go out of your way after the show to say that to me, I must have been doing something right. Always able to improve, I nonetheless realized during those brief moments chatting with you that I had within me what was needed to present Shakespeare to an audience in a memorable way. The rest of the performances went all the better for me after that.
From thent on, Mr. Barnes, despite some disagreements with others over interpretation or delivery of any given Shakespeare line, I knew that in the long run I was capable of it. I’ve grown in confidence with my Shakespeare since then, having appeared in three pure Shakespeare plays between then and now. I’m even writing my own one-man show based on some of his speeches. I still have much I can learn, but I know I am a legitimate Shakespearian these days. It just takes enough rehearsal time.
Would I have come to recognize my own talent in performing Shakespeare eventually, even without meeting you? Perhaps. Probably. Yet who can say? And why should I try to determine that? The fact remains I did meet you, you did say what you said about my Shakespeare abilities, and at the start of each Shakespeare project I undertake, I think of you and what you said to me that day in the lobby. Most of the friendships from that play have vanished over the years. But your praise has remained a beacon within my memory, drawing me back to the realization that even from the beginning, I had it in me to, “do Shakespeare”.
I’m sure it’s not the most important contribution you ever made to the world, sir. But to an actor and writer such as myself, confirming Shakespeare talent is high praise indeed. And so, Mr Barnes, “I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks.“
I’d cite that, but being a man of Shakespeare such as yourself, you already know where it’s from.
sincerely, Ty Unglebower
This post is part of the Open Letter Continuum.