From Playing a Forest to Playing in the Forest (of Arden): My On-and-Off Life in Shakespeare
“Mr. Vesbit! You’re dead! So, why are your feet moving?”
It’s the day before opening night, and things are not going well.
“Mr. Vesbit! Your feet!” again yells Mr. Rose, my high school play director, from somewhere deep in the darkness of West Catholic’s cafetorium.
It is the very first play of my high school career. Three weeks ago, I auditioned for the Fall play on a lark. It was Shakespeare, and I was cast in two non-speaking roles: a soldier in Birnam Wood, and later, a dead soldier on stage during the final fight.
Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy! “This’ll be a hoot-and-a-half!” I said to myself, and for the next few weeks I continued to treat it that way; chatting it up with fellow Birnam fern-holders, lounging near the vending machines drinking berry Propel, and boasting that I (a Freshman) might in-fact talk to the Senior girl playing Lady Macbeth. I was having fun! That is, until the night before our premiere, and the reality of facing a real audience was finally starting to sink-in... big time.
“Mr. Vesbit, can you tell me what’s happening in this scene?” Mr. Rose asked me, now emerging from the shadows of the cafetorium.
“There’s a battle, and I’m playing a dead soldier.” I told him from my prone position on the stage.
“And why is there a battle? Why are you dead?”
It was obvious, so I told him, “because somebody on the other side killed me.”
“But why?” he asked.
Hesitating, I looked around to my fellow castmates on stage for support. There was none to be given.
“Have you even read the play?”
I stared blankly back at my director. I prayed his question was rhetorical.
“Mr. Vesbit,” Mr. Rose said, “you are done for tonight, and please do not return until you have read the play, and can tell me who your character is, and why he has been killed.
“But tomorrow is opening night.”
“I suggest that you better start reading then.”
A chilled silence enveloped the room. It didn’t take another beat for me to realize that he was serious. I picked myself off the stage and walked to the back of the room where my script was crumpled deep in my backpack, untouched from the first week. I pulled it out and began to read William Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play”.
The lesson for me was a big (albeit obvious) one, and I am grateful to have learned it early. I read Macbeth in-full that night, and came back the next day with answers. During the run of the show, I watched the play from backstage, and became engrossed with the story. By the time I was on stage donning foliage in Birnam Wood, I understood what was at stake, and later, what my representation of a soldier's corpse symbolized for the story. It was impactful to me (and I hope to the audience) and from that moment I took my work as an actor more seriously.
The next Spring, I was cast in my first speaking role, and was fortunate to have appeared in three more Shakespeare productions in high school, including as Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet my Senior year. Speaking with Bob Rose many years later, he confided in me that I was one of the only students in his decades of directing at Catholic Central to ever request additional one-on-one time to discuss character with him. He had noticed my growth as an actor in those four years, and it had evidently left an impression. I was humbled by his memory.
My creative path took many different turns during my college years, and I did not return to Shakespeare until graduate school at Eastern Michigan University where I was privileged to be cast as Antonio in Merchant of Venice, and also concurrently wrote a loose adaptation of Titus Andronicus entitled Andronicus Bound for a small theatre company in Ypsilanti. Those were Bard-infused days, and I treasure them. Lee Stille, my mentor and advisor at EMU, developed a curriculum of classes for me that was very Shakespeare-heavy. He devoted me to research and dramaturgy emphasizing for me again the importance of realizing every aspect of a play in order to enhance my performance.
I took a break from Shakespeare once more following grad school, and spent a few years in New York City with my wife (and fellow cast member), Lauren Vesbit, while she pursued her education at The Actor’s Studio. During that time I became a patron of the arts, and discovered new forms of Shakespeare: from Sleep No More, the dark and wordless interactive adaptation of Macbeth, to a storefront production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, to engrossing trips to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Canada. These were years of reflection for me, a time to study Shakespeare as an observer, and it was very cathartic.
I am at a point now in my maturity that I am beginning to see the works Shakespeare everywhere. Lauren noticed my ongoing affection for Shakespeare, and encouraged me to audition with her for Pigeon Creek’s As You Like It. I am grateful to her. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to return to acting. Despite working on several educational projects with GR Civic’s Academy of Theatre Arts, I hadn’t actually appeared on-stage in four years. When I was cast in AYLI, some of that old fear from my early days in high school theatre returned. But once rehearsals began I dug into my character and the story, all my love for Shakespeare, and the process once more settled in.
I can comfortably say I am once more a big fan of playing around in Shakespeare's forests, and As You Like It is no exception. In the words of Celia: “I like this place, and willingly could waste my time in it.”