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Shakespeare & Beyond

By the triple Hecate’s team: Engaging Shakespeare as actress, director, and novelist

young Black woman
young Black woman

Whenever I engage with Shakespeare, I do so as a lifelong fan. Way back in my elementary school years, my Saturday mornings were dedicated to watching Shakespeare: The Animated Tales, the 25-minute cuts of the play perfect for a little, story-loving girl. Middle school saw me enrolled in the TWIGS afterschool acting program at the Baltimore School for the Arts. One of the first things we worked on as sixth-grade actor hopefuls was the iconic “If I be waspish…” scene from The Taming of the Shrew. Even then the language came easy. No, the hard part was getting up the nerve to slap my scene partner in the face—a reaction I see now was completely natural because 1. We were ten years old and 2. There’s never a reason for real hits onstage. High school me broke down The Winter’s Tale in contemporary terms for my entire honors English class and braved walking pneumonia to see the same play live. Such was, such is my love for Shakespeare.

I’m sure that kid would be thrilled to see where I’ve landed alongside The Bard today: releasing That Self-Same Metal—a fantasy novel with Shakespeare as a major character, directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream for The NOLA Project here in New Orleans, and preparing to play Olivia in Twelfth Night with the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival. I can hear her ecstatic screams because they are my own and I thank that precocious kid for diving into a passion that has flowed into three methods of artistic expression. One of the most delightful discoveries of navigating this path is how much one feeds into the other and especially how my acting and directing helped me write the book sixteen-year-old me would’ve devoured in one sitting.

fantasy book cover for That Self-Same Metal featuring a young Black woman holding a sword and dressed in Elizabethan clothing

I’ll Call for Pen & Ink & Write My Mind

When I sat down to write That Self-Same Metal I had two absolutes in mind: the main character fighting the fae would be blessed with control of iron by the West African Orisha Ogun and there would be a battle during a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It took me a while to get the story where it is now. I started with the base ideas back in 2016. With each bit of refining, I found Shakespeare and his acting company taking larger and larger roles until now he serves as a mentor to our teen heroine while she maintains swords and choreographs fights for the King’s Men. It led to me channeling my two acting passions into my writing: Shakespeare and stage combat.

I’ve spoken at length about how my stage combat training has helped me write strong fight scenes but to summarize, I’ve learned how to use violence to support dramatic storytelling. That knowledge is as essential onstage as it is on the page. With writing Shakespeare, the world he lived in, and the performance of his plays I found myself drawing on my acting for understanding and context and my directing for placing characters in space and giving them appropriate actions.

Triple Headed Hecate

I doubt most people would find the path from actor to director to novelist the straight line that I do. I find the skills and practices of each profession feed the other. The actor pulls a living, breathing person from words on a page. The director visualizes an entire world from text, guiding actions and interactions to deliver a story. But where both of these are pieces working together in this invocation, the novelist casts a near solitary spell in reverse.

The writer must take life and distill it into a series of sentences that allow the reader to feel, see, smell, hear, and even taste the phantoms of true being. As with directing, you must know your cast of characters, your setting, and your purposes better than any other. You must shape their individual and collective actions to serve the story you seek to tell. It is the painter’s task. Paint your audience or readers a picture, but where the director has lights and sounds, actors and properties, the novelist is limited to black slashes arranged in uniform lines across a white page. Does that sound difficult? It is, believe me it is. Each of these professions is extremely hard, particularly when we engage with this playwright across a chasm of more than four centuries. Thankfully, my initial approach to Shakespeare was through the positions that he wrote to specifically: as audience and as actor.

The play is the thing

Performing Shakespeare is thrilling. The text sings, its musicality directing thought and emotion. Merely riding the verse allows you to give a sonically pleasing performance. Sitting and listening to that percussive iambic pentameter can feel like listening to a perfectly produced pop song track. It is, after all, matched to our heartbeat. I often think about the mostly illiterate audiences Shakespeare wrote for lining the yard of the Globe listening to words they never expected to read. There’s something true in the hearing of it. But a good actor always dives deeper.

Opening yourself up to the shifts in your breathing and the shapes the words contort your mouth into can trigger feelings in the body in real ways. Shakespeare left us notes and stage directions in his words—even with so few literal stage directions. The text provides so much but the passage of four hundred years transforms language in immense ways. That shifted context and lost history is essential for an actor to make sure they understand their text so the audience will too. To be a Shakespearean actor is to also be a historian.

Speak the Speech… As I Told It To You

When I’m contextualizing Shakespeare for modern audiences, I try to understand three layers of history: the world in which the play is set, the world when the play was written, and the world of the time where our director has placed us. This investigation isn’t just informative, I find it extremely fun. I thrive on random factoids—I’d probably slay at trivia if I’m honest. All those bits of collected history rattling around in my brain mix and mingle and multiply until I’m an excellent party conversationalist, an even better actor, and a director and novelist who can approach Shakespeare with a clear working vision.

I was ten years old when I decided I wanted to be an actor and perform Shakespeare as my profession; I never expected my path would broaden as it has. But as I approach the three months before me with a novel released, a play directed, and a play performed I cannot imagine my aspirations developing any differently. I have to thank that kid who found something she loved and dug so deeply she’s now struck gold, silver, and platinum.