28 October 2008


Friday, 24 October 2008

There are moments in each person's life that on the surface appear ordinary and mundane to others, but for them hold the significance of finding the Holy Grail, or like Frodo finally being able to let go of that blasted ring! The D.E.B.’s wise, sage older brother, “The Guru,” refers to such moments as “passing through a doorway.”  Yesterday, I passed through just such a doorway.

I delivered the “Thursday Seminar” lecture at The Shakespeare Institute. This was the most significant lecture of my life.  More than any snarky conference, or snarly gathering of surly scholars in New York City, this lecture at the Institute meant everything to me.  I was a student at The Shakespeare Institute some 12 years ago. And I as said to the assembled scholars and students, back all those years ago I never ever imagined that I would ever even finish my Ph.D. successfully, let alone become a “Shakespeare scholar”, nor could I have dreamt that I would have my Ph.D. research published, and certainly never fathomed the possibility of returning to my alma mater, and being invited to give a guest lecture there.

The big day came and went, and not without much trepidation. I procrastinated for weeks, uncertain as to what I should speak on. My goals were quite simple: I wanted to impress, and, I didn’t want to be publicly humiliated. My NYC chums: “Boy Genius Playwright” and “She Who Must be Obeyed” emailed me routinely to remind me of the importance of my recent experience with Shakespeare in Alaska, and how I should speak on that. They were of course absolutely right.

Last April, I went to Alaska in search of Shakespeare. (A recurring theme in my life.) I was teaching an undergraduate seminar on Shakespeare in America, when I came across details about a provocative, touring production of Othello in Alaska, wherein the play was being re-visioned with Othello as a Native Alaskan. Before I knew it, I had written the theatre company a letter, and booked a round-trip (return) ticket to Yakutat, Alaska.

In Yakutat, I re-discovered Shakespeare. But not only this, I was adopted by the Eagle clan of the Tlingit tribe; and met the most amazing people on the planet, who I am proud to call much beloved friends. How could I not talk about this? How I could not share this with the Shakespeare community here in Stratford-upon-Avon? How could I doubt this? Quite easily, actually.

I panicked. I doubted the “scholarly worthiness” of what I had to say, then, two days before my lecture, I had a rather unfortunately conversation with a leading Shakespearean who off-handedly dismissed the Alaska production I’d intended to speak about as, “absurd.” More panic.

I fretted, I sweated, I cried. It was too late to switch, and develop another topic. I considered my options, I could feign illness and cancel, or, I could feign illness and cancel. There was no way I could cancel, so I resigned myself to the fact that it was too late, I had see this through as I had planned, come what may. I sent out frantic SOS messages to my friends in NYC and to my friend/mentor/hero, Cicely Berry.

On Wednesday evening, the D.E.B. rushed home from work to cheerlead me through the eleventh hour. After the lovely dinner he prepared, we sat at the table, and I read my lecture aloud to him. Darling English Boy that he is, after I struggled through and finished reading, we both fell silent. He took a deep breath, gathered me into his arms, and said softly: "Darling Girl, I don't know whose voice that is, but it's not yours. Just talk to them. Tell them what you saw." I, of course, reacted just as one might expect: I flipped out, burst into tears, and went to bed.

The wee hours of the next morning found me laying on the bathroom floor and dry heaving into the toilet. And I wasn't hung over. I have never, ever been dizzy like that, even when I have been hung over! It is completely ridiculous that I had gotten myself into such a state over this lecture. On the bright side, I thought, I did now have a somewhat plausible excuse for canceling…

The D.E.B. helped me back to bed, and I did sleep for a short while. He woke me before he left for work, and left a card for me on my bedside table that said: "I am always so proud of you. Just be yourself.”

I slept for a few more hours and was then awakened by the phone. It was Cicely Berry urging me to remember that Shakespeare can and does change lives, regardless of what some scholarly-types would like to think. Then, I checked my email, more messages of support...and then, BANG! The clouds broke, and with new zeal and fresh resolve I shouted, well, swore, actually, very loudly. I grabbed my laptop and started lacerating my lecture. I cut pages and pages of academic crap. I re-typed the entire thing. I was still re-typing my lecture up to the moment that the D.E.B. came back home to drive me into Stratford-upon-Avon for the lecture.

With guns a'blazing I walked right into The Shakespeare Institute, and yes ... I ROCKED, THEIR, WORLD!

I finally realized I had nothing lose. So, I went for it. And the response was overwhelming positive. I had to, in the words of Polonius, be true to myself, and to my friends in Alaska (who are getting quite a beating in the world press just recently, due to their controversial Governor).

In many ways, my talk was just an open love letter to them, and to Alaska. Amazingly, after a night on the town to celebrate my success at surviving my lecture (which included a dinner of Fish’n’chips from my favo(u)rite “chippy” in Stratford), when the D.E.B. and I made it home, we discovered that a parcel had arrived for me earlier in the day. It was from Alaska. A care package from Yakutat.  My dear, dear, cheeky friend, Kris, had filled a box full of (would you believe it?) Tylenol!!! Benadryl and…Nyquil (oooooohhhh!!!!). God, bless her! There were Snickers bars, granola bars, assorted other American goodies, and a freshly canned jar of Nagoon berry preserves. (That smells and tastes of Alaska.) I could not help but see this precious gift as a great reward for holding faith with the remarkable work that I had had the good fortunate to experience in Alaska.

I spent the rest of that blissful, victorious night, strung-out on Nyquil and chocolate, and high on a post-traumatic-stress adrenalin rush. Before bed, I checked my email, and found another incredible reward. An email from my Tlingit Eagle clan sister—who had had no foreknowledge of my intended talk, nor the angst I’d experienced around giving it. She wrote:

“Hello my dear friend. It is so cold out. As I was walking home, I looked up in the sky and saw a young, graceful eagle soaring in the sky, so lovely and free. It reminded me of you.”

(Cue soundtrack: "Theme from the film 'The Magnificent Seven'")


Elizabeth Harper said...

Oh..you made me have a little tear of happiness for you and I don't even really know you..yet.

Congratulations on a job well done!

My curious mind would sure like to hear that lecture.

Shakespeare seems almost like a distant memory having barely cracked the pages of his plays since picking up my theatre degree while six months pregnant. That little baby though carries a reminder of my days and nights spent with Shakespeare. While owing her name in part to a ghostly character in a book authored by my Aunt, who wrote loads of children's books in the 60's, and 70's, I was certainly aware at the time that the earliest known use of Miranda was in the Tempest. My baby is 21 now.

I hope you'll share more of your Alaska experience as well. I have a sister living in Alaska and having been there before have an image in my mind of how a performance of Othello might look there.

Again, I'm so pleased for you...

An American Girl in the UK said...

How lovely that your daughter is called Miranda ("the admired one"/"one to be admired")! That's the D.E.B.'s top girl name choice for us! :)