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Summer School: How (not) to perform Shakespeare

A woman with long hair smiling.
Maren Spillane, Courtesy
Vermont actress Maren Spillane, who recently performed Viola in a production of "Twelfth Night" at Unadilla Theatre in Marshfield.

Maren Langdon Spillane got her start in acting as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz at Rumney Memorial Elementary in Middlesex. She went on to study acting, and worked professionally in New York City for about eight years, before returning to Vermont with her family and starting Dirt Road Theater in Northfield.

As part of our Summer School series, reporter Erica Heilman sat down with Maren to learn how to perform Shakespeare, and more importantly, how *not* to. And learn why we might all want to teach ourselves to go out to live shows again after a long, lonely pandemic.

Find our full Summer School series here.

Erica: "'I left no ring with her what means this lady? Fortune forbid my outside have not charmed her. She made good view of me indeed, so much that me thought her eyes had lost her tongue.'"

Maren Langdon Spillane: "Okay, I'll stop you. So, I would say to me that this sounds like you're bored. Really bored."

That's Maren Langdon Spillane critiquing my Shakespeare. A couple of weeks ago, I saw her play Viola in a production of Twelfth Night at Unadilla Theatre, which is a theatre that lives right in the middle of a field of Scottish Highland cows in Marshfield.

The show was great, and she was exceptional. But the truth is, I never would have gone if my friend Jesse hadn't been in it, which got me thinking about how out of practice I am going to see a Shakespeare play, or really going to see anything at all out in public. A lot of us have lost the habit of getting together for live performance, which is something we've done since around the fifth century BC. So it seems like there must be something we get from it that we need.

I asked Maren to teach me about Shakespeare, and why we go see his plays, and about what can happen when we go to the effort to be actors and audience all in a room together, all at the same time.

"I think giving Shakespeare too much reverence is dangerous. And that can manifest itself in many ways."
Maren Langdon Spillane

Erica: "Can you articulate all the ways in which Shakespeare can be done badly and is done badly?"

Maren Langdon Spillane: "I think giving Shakespeare too much reverence is dangerous. And that can manifest itself in many ways. So like heightened speaking, because it's poetry. 'She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word, tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time.' Too much even for Macbeth, right? He's, he's, he's going through some things, but I don't buy it.

"And that could be like a British accent, you know, or like people, I've seen people actually accidentally do British accents and then be like, 'Was I doing a British accent?' So any kind of like, 'This is Shakespeare and it's beautiful and I'm honoring the language,' can be painful to see. I'm guilty of that sometimes for sure."

Erica: "But the nature of the language is always a kind of puzzle. So how does that become natural? And why is that a useful pursuit?"

Maren Langdon Spillane: "I think these are good questions to ask. The characters are so beautifully drawn, and their feelings — and I'm all about feelings onstage and offstage, probably — so it's like a fast track to humanity. Everything is so raw. They say exactly what they're thinking. And if they can't, they go off and they soliloquize about it. We watch them struggle and change and grow and pine and sometimes die. And Shakespeare, if we allow it to, if we, as performers, as audience members, as readers, as students, if we allow it to enter into our systems, it just feels really good, because it is so big and true."

More from Vermont Public: Summer School: How to keep a history

Erica: "What can happen in a room in live performance that is sublime?"

Maren Langdon Spillane: "I have these surreal moments of being onstage and thinking, ‘I am a fully grown adult person, pretending to be somebody I'm not, with lines that I have memorized. I'm wearing clothes that I don't wear, and all these people are sitting in the dark and watching me, and they know I'm pretending.' But I have to try to convince them that I'm not pretending. And also I have to convince myself that they're not there.

"So it's a very strange phenomenon. But I think the reason that it's magical is because it — we all agreed to do it together, the performers and the audience. It's the willing suspension-of-disbelief thing, where we all come together and say, ‘We know the deal. We know what reality is. And we're going to just put it aside for a little while and share this experience together.'

"And I think for the performers and the audience, there's something so special about knowing that what you're seeing is a one-of-a-kind moment, it's the only time this exact performance will exist. And you get to be part of that. You get to be part of every flub, every new discovery, every everything. And I think it's a gift that actors can give, and a gift that audience can give to listen."

"I have these surreal moments of being on stage and thinking, ‘I am a fully grown adult person, pretending to be somebody I'm not, with lines that I have memorized. I'm wearing clothes that I don't wear, and all these people are sitting in the dark and watching me, and they know I'm pretending.'"
Maren Langdon Spillane

Erica: "It's this exceptionally strange, magical opportunity to experience a thing together, right?"

Maren Langdon Spillane: "Right. And we don't have a lot of those opportunities, especially after however many years of pandemic. We don't have a lot of communal experiences built into our everyday life. And so as theatergoers and theater makers, it is this moment to just come together and say ‘We're going to leave the other stuff at the door. And we're going to be here right now, all physically together in this space.'

"Which is uncomfortable for some of us after the last couple of years. Whatever happens happens, we're here for these two hours, we're in it together. Shared experience is just such a gigantic part of what we crave as humans. That feeling of all being on the same page for a little while, no matter where we're coming from, or why we're there."

A square illustrated logo with an apple of a school chair in some grass with headphones and a curled cord leading from them, with the words "summer school" below
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public

All summer long, Vermont Public reporters are learning how to do something. Have an idea? Send it to us here.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or tweet us @vermontpublic.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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