Not many 16-year-olds have a bookshelf with the complete works of Shakespeare. How did this happen to me, you ask?
Today I’m a professional playwright, but back then I wasn’t even a theatre nerd. Back in the mid-2000s, I attended a not-so-artsy high school, but we had a healthy extracurricular drama department and student-run Shakespeare troupe. Sitting in the darkened theater during the Folger’s annual Secondary School Shakespeare Festival, I watched an actress sporting an enormous hat and petticoats drawing numbers from a raffle.
“Here!” my hand shot up, my lucky number drawn.
“And you win the complete works of William Shakespeare!” she boomed.
I received a hefty plastic bag filled with 33 rainbow-spined paperback books. My classmates, fresh from performing in the festival, ooh’d and ahh’d over the collection.
Each year, our high school troupe would put on a comedy, a tragedy, and a “Froshfest,” the latter being a performance where every person who auditioned would be cast. We designed and built our own sets, created our own playbills, rehearsed and directed, and held our own pre-show rituals on that black proscenium. Script analysis was done in rehearsal or English class, and as far as I knew, none of us were writing our own plays.
The complete collection of Shakespeare was an educational and scholarly addition to a library—and a reference for the original sources of the abridged plays we’d eventually stage—not necessarily inspiration for a career path, writing or otherwise. The purpose of theatre, as far as I was concerned, was for the pure and simple joy of loving my friends and the creative freedom we had to follow our intuition and show it to the world (i.e., our school and parents).
And then in 2008, I saw Folger Theatre’s Macbeth, a co-production with Two River Theater Company that was directed by Aaron Posner and Teller.
Alive onstage, the Scottish Play intrigued me like never before. The idea that the political world was suffused in dark, violent forces beyond one’s control echoed the political situations in my immigrant parents’ home countries and regions. What was this thorny forest of ambition and violence where destiny and agency grew in twisted vines? Teller and Posner could show you.
Years later, after writing my first play, co-producing it, and dabbling in DC theatre while working full-time in a non-arts job, I decided to apply to grad school for playwriting (a story for next time!). In response to a question about my inspirations, I wrote:
The image of a Weird Sister, bearded and bedecked in a wedding dress, floating down the aisle and speaking in a deep voice, is burned within me, reminding me I must evoke images and movement as much as words.
The terror and uncanny forces manifesting themselves as witches and blood were not only the fodder of nightmares. They transformed into potent metaphors for my own growing creative vocabulary around what I found compelling as an audience member—and eventually, as an artist. With this production in my memory and mind’s eye, I write my own impossible stage directions and trust that they can be realized. I write characters pushed to their extremes under dire political circumstances, knowing that the magic, darkness, and weirdness can be physically manifested.
Meanwhile, my Shakespeare collection has continued to travel with me wherever I’ve lived. The Folger editions made the cross-country move to Los Angeles, becoming the bookshelf elders in a growing neighborhood of plays of various time periods, countries, racial backgrounds, and styles. Once during grad school, stuck in the dreaded land of writer’s block, I rifled through my favorite Shakespeare play (yep, McB). Frustrated with narrative structure, I had been writing long introductory scenes, concerned that short snippets were too cinematic or gave too little context.
But there it was: the entire scene on the page. The introductory stage direction: Thunder and lightning. Enter Three Witches. A mere thirteen lines of dialogue. And we’re off into the danger and darkness.
That scene became more than the introduction to my favorite play. It encouraged to try something new, move away from writer’s block, and rethink Shakespeare’s words as a template for experimentation.
The Shakespeare collection as a whole is a constant presence and reminder of a playwright and theatremaker’s journey. They have a special place in my heart as the first plays I ever owned. And I marvel that they came to me by chance, not as textbooks or required reading. Through them, I return to those high school days of discovering what joy meant to us. What it could mean to follow one’s creative impulses. With these little tomes, I see Shakespeare not just as a historical figure or a lofty literary author, but an artistic colleague.
And his works? An invitation to make more of the kind of theatre that I want to see.
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