Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Night I Fell in Love with Shakespeare

   I was eight years old when I experienced my first Shakespeare production.  My mother covered theatre and the arts for a small newspaper in Boulder, CO at the time, and she took me and my older sister to the opening night of a production of Romeo and Juliet.  I have a vivid remembrance of that night and the production we saw.  The show was set in modern day, 1984, and the rivalry was between two punk gangs, complete with torn up denim jackets and colorful mohawks. 
    They set intermission just after Mercutio and Tybalt are killed and Romeo is banished, and I remember sitting on my mother's lap in the theatre lobby, sobbing and sobbing onto her shoulder.  She told me we hadn't even reached the saddest part yet, and explained what the 2nd half entailed.  She asked me if I wanted to leave and I said no, I wanted to see the rest.  I wonder now if my mother was being judged by anyone witnessing my despair - if any of the other mothers who left their kids at home that night passed us by and shook their heads thinking, "I would NEVER bring a child so young to see Romeo and Juliet!  What is that woman thinking?"  Well, without consulting her on this before writing this blog post, I can probably guess what she was thinking.  She was thinking I was ready to experience art of this caliber and intensity; she was thinking that I was ready to learn a thing or two about the human condition; she was thinking that Shakespeare would introduce me to a world view I hadn't seen yet; she was thinking it would change me somehow.  I don't mean that she actually sat down before hand and weighed the pros and cons of taking me to the theatre that night and that these were her intellectual conclusions in these specific terms.  But this belief about art was so ingrained in my mother's thinking as I was growing up - when we visited art museums and saw violent depictions of historical events or nude portraits, when we went to the opera, and when we saw theatre - that I doubt it even crossed her mind to question taking an eight-year-old to a Shakespeare tragedy in which many character die horrible, violent deaths.  If anyone would have questioned her on why she would do such a thing, I believe she would have said in complete earnestness, "Why ever not?"  My mom always had a way of giving me complete artistic transparency. When it came to art, she never hid anything from me or thought I was too young to experience it. 
    Little did she know on that night in 1984 what this production of Romeo and Juliet would actually do for me and the depth to which it would sink into my being.  Yes, I cried for those characters out of sadness, but I remember so much more than just the crying.  I remember something brand new and wholly thrilling awakening inside me, like a curtain being drawn back from an open window and showing me a brand new magical world - a world in which art could make me FEEL.  This was the first time art took me out of myself and made me feel something so deep and visceral; this was the first time I truly felt the pain of another person as if it were my own pain.
    I may have turned out to be the same person I am today if I hadn't had that exact experience at that exact age, when I was in the active process of learning to become a compassionate, empathetic person, but I'm not so sure.  That experience was the flame that lit the fire.  That was the night that set me directly in front of my future - a future grounded in Shakespeare.  Here's what the last 30 years of living inside Shakespeare has done for me:
  • Shakespeare's plays have taught me to see all sides of an issue because he so clearly presents each side of whatever issues his characters are grappling with.
  • Shakespeare has taught me to see myself in everyone because he so masterfully shows us what it means to be human, so that we see ourselves reflected in his characters - from the kings and queens, to the soldiers and servants.
  • Shakespeare's plays have taught me to see light and meaning in even the darkest places, because his darkest places are never devoid of light and meaning.
  • Shakespeare's plays have taught me to see how seductive evil can be, and the consequences of being seduced, because his characters are often seduced by, but never recover from, evil.
    My mother may not have known on that night in 1984 that she was showing me my future, but she knew that children need to be exposed to great art in all its forms, in all its genres.  Art teaches us critical thinking, creative problem solving, empathy, and that there are whole universes outside ourselves.  Children need to be given every opportunity to learn compassion and to learn that there are creative solutions to every problem.  Children need to be given every opportunity for awakening. Children need art.

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