How Shakespeare Changed My Life

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 95

Hear Sir Ben Kingsley, Earle Hyman, Liev Schreiber, James Earl Jones, Stacy Keach, Estelle Parsons, and others open up about their experiences with Shakespeare’s plays. Actor/director Melinda Hall interviewed these actors (and others), as well as writers, directors, linguists, and even a Holocaust survivor for her web-video series How Shakespeare Changed My Life. On this podcast episode, Melinda talks about the origin of the series, what she’s learned from it, and where it’s headed. She is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Watch Melinda’s videos at the Willful Pictures YouTube channel. Melinda is also the creator and producer of the Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam in New York’s Central Park.
Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published April 17, 2018. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, Mine Honor, Yea, My Life Be Thine, was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer.

We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Deb Stathopulos at the Radio Foundation studio in New York. The interview was recorded by Paul Luke and by Ben Ellman.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: There are lots of ways you can be touched by Shakespeare. For some people, it can touch you so hard, you quite literally fall over.

SIR BEN KINGSLEY: I was watching an extraordinary performance by Sir Ian Holm of Richard III. And I was so captivated by -- I realized later -- the verse. You put a hypnotic character on the stage, and you hypnotize your audience with the language and your audience wonders what's going on. I wondered what was going on to such an extent that I passed out.


From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s Director. The story you just heard was Sir Ben Kingsley talking about the way Shakespeare changed his life. In his case – after he was revived – he watched the rest of the play and then begged members of the Royal Shakespeare Company to let him join.

That story is just one of dozens on the exact same subject – told by actors, directors, writers, soldiers, a Holocaust survivor – in a new web-video series titled, appropriately, How Shakespeare Changed My Life, gathered by actor/director Melinda Hall. Melinda came into the studio recently to talk about the series – where it came from, what she’s learned from it, and where it’s headed.

We call this podcast Mine Honor, Yea, My Life Be Thine. Melinda is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

BOGAEV: What a dream job you have, talking to all these famous actors about Shakespeare. And I’m thinking, a lot of these people are not easy to nail down for an interview. I know that from personal experience, so it made me think that whether Shakespeare somehow opens doors in a way that other topics don’t and what it would be about Shakespeare that makes hard-to-get celebrities come to the table.

HALL: Yeah, it’s funny, it’s sort of—there’s a Shakespeare hook when I send the pitch, like the one-liner about what the project is. I’ve never had anyone say no.

BOGAEV: That is amazing. Really?

HALL: Not if I’ve communicated with them directly. Liev Schreiber said that not a lot of people ask him what he thinks about Shakespeare, so for him, he really wanted to get some things off his chest and, you know, participate.

BOGAEV: Oh, that’s interesting. And he does get a lot of things off his chest, and we’re going to talk about it in a moment.

HALL: Okay, cool, yeah.

BOGAEV: I mean, first I just have to ask you, how did all of this start? What was the original idea and how did you get it?

HALL: I’d say there are several things that coalesced to allow me to start this project. One was how Shakespeare changed my own life, and then the other was, I just happened to be at some dinner a few years ago, quite a few years ago, and I was there with Patrick Stewart who was being honored, and he spoke about this early experiences that he had with Shakespeare, living in Yorkshire, and, I don’t know, I guess he changed the way I imagined Shakespeareans came to be, because I thought, you know, from my American standpoint that everybody had a great education and parents who were into it and all this, but Patrick Stewart did not.

BOGAEV: Right, they were very poor and they didn’t even really value education. Kind of low expectations.

HALL: No, no, and he said that there was, right, so he said that there was a Complete Works that he had gotten ahold of and his brother had read it to him, and that, in his brother’s accent, he thought that Hamlet was saying, “shoveling off this mortal coal,” because they were from coal country. And he said it wasn’t until years later that he realized it wasn’t “coal,” it was “coil.” Anyway, so, I didn’t ever interview him or I haven’t interviewed him yet, but that sort of spurred me to the idea of, wow, I don’t know how people got started in Shakespeare and I have assumptions that are probably incorrect and I would like to learn. I would like to know how somebody came to meet Shakespeare, and did it change their life?

BOGAEV: I think that assumption is so common. We recently had Derek Jacobi, the British actor and the guy known for I, Claudius on the podcast and I was surprised myself that someone who played so many kings in Shakespeare and was I, Claudius actually came from a very humble East End, lower middle class family. I mean, it was East Enders… about his background and it’s so naive. But it’s interesting, you said your own story of how Shakespeare changed you?

HALL: Yeah, absolutely. So when I had graduated college, I was working as an actor and then I happened to go see Earle Hyman play King Lear at the Dallas Shakespeare Festival, and he did such a magnificent job, and it was the first time I ever saw anyone actually play a Shakespearean character believably, that I believed King Lear existed.

BOGAEV: And Earle Hyman, we should say, he played Othello just hundreds of times and he was also an unforgettable stage actor in other roles and on TV he was Cliff Huxtable’s father in Cosby.

HALL: That’s correct, yeah. And he was in Thundercats.

BOGAEV: Oh, yeah. Let’s not forget Thundercats [LAUGH]

HALL: He is very proud of being Panthro. So what happened was the play finished, everyone’s packing up and leaving and I was glued to the bench. It was this outdoor festival, and I was just glued to the bench. And I didn’t know what happened except for, I wanted to learn how Shakespeare came about, and why we’re all sitting there, and why we’re still watching it, and what’s in there, and why we’re so interested in it. And anyway, so Earle’s performance definitely changed my life, and then when I lived in New York City, he happened to be standing in front of me at the dance bookshop, which no longer exists at Lincoln Center, and I said, “Hey, I saw you in King Lear last year and I’m here in New York and I decided to come study Shakespeare, and yeah, thank you.” And he said, “Well, I’m in a play at the Public. Give me your phone number, I’ll call you, and I’ll get you a ticket.” And I thought he was just being very nice and I didn’t really believe that he would actually call me, but, sure enough three weeks later he did, and I went to see his play, and we were friends for the next 27 years after that.

BOGAEV: Oh, that’s that Shakespeare club, network thing at work.

HALL: It’s this weird family, you know, part of the Shakespeare family mafia thing, I don’t know.

BOGAEV: And you talked to Earle Hyman, you have an episode with him, which is wonderful. Tell us about his story.

HALL: Oh, yeah. Oh, yes, okay, so he originally was from North Carolina, but then his family had moved to Brooklyn, but then in the summers he still went back to North Carolina, and this was the time where, well, black people weren’t allowed in public libraries, and so in his town in North Carolina they built a community center where black people were allowed to go.

 [CLIP of Earle Hyman]

So, I remember one day I went in and I asked the lady sitting at the desk, (the librarian) and I said, “What is the largest book you have here, the biggest book?” Thinking in the biggest book, I would find the most knowledge. She said, “Well, I guess, Mr. Hyman” she called me, although I was not that old. You were a Master down there until you were a Mister, and you were a Mister when you were 13 and then you could put on your first pair of long pants. But anyway, that’s not Shakespeare. So, she said, “I guess that would be the Complete Works of William Shakespeare”. I said, “Well, could I take that out?” She said, “Yes, you may.” And I took it out. 

BOGAEV: And he spent the summer reading Shakespeare in his underwear, right? That’s how he describes it.

HALL: Well, you know, North Carolina summers are notoriously hot. [LAUGH]

[CLIP of Earle Hyman]

Those long summer afternoons, when my parents said, “You and your brother, go and get up on your bed, take off your clothes except for your underwear ‘cause it’s too hot to be out there playin’ in the sun.” And sure enough we would go up there, my brother we would strip down to underwear and he would lie on his bed and I’d lie on my bed but I had the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I was fascinated.

BOGAEV: It’s so wonderful. It’s such a wonderful image, or metaphor I guess. Shakespeare, the Complete Works was the biggest book, the book with the most knowledge.

HALL: Yeah, and also his desire to learn never stopped. I mean, he recently passed away, and I would go visit him in the nursing home, and when I would walk in, he would be still reading King Lear.

BOGAEV: Oh. James Earl Jones was another interesting episode, and similarly he talked about the incongruent way that he heard about Shakespeare. He talked about, he was hoeing in the fields as a child, right?

HALL: Yeah.

 [CLIP of James Earl Jones]

Hoeing is when you, after you plant, when the plants come up and the grass starts competing with the plant, you gotta go out and take a hoe and chop away the weeds in the grass so….

BOGAEV: So he’s out there in the fields and suddenly hears, “I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”

 [CLIP of James Earl Jones]

…we chopping, we were hoeing away. Suddenly I hear, “I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him”. What is that? It’s my Uncle Robert, Robert Walker. Reciting an oration of Anthony. Uncle Robert was a fan of Shakespeare. And that was the first taste of it I ever heard of one of the most famous speeches. Probably the most effective speeches in terms of what politics is about.

BOGAEV: He does say in that episode that he didn’t talk himself. He said, “I didn’t talk myself. “

HALL: That’s true. He had a traumatic experience and for many years as a child he did not speak. And then when he did speak he had a stutter, which he overcame, and turned his weakness into his greatest strength.

BOGAEV: It’s wild. I notice, you know, quite a few of the actors you talk to do talk about their lives but they also talk about their craft. You wanted to find out what brought people to Shakespeare, that was the initial impetus for this series, but what did you ask about acting that would get them talking about craft, and if you didn’t ask pointed questions about it, how does it keep coming up?

HALL: I did not ask anything about acting. I’m an acting teacher myself, and for whatever reason I never ask about someone’s technique or anything like that. I do ask about style, because I’m very interested in style of Shakespeare, meaning the actor at any time can talk to the audience, meaning there’s the actor that we accept, we accept that Liev is playing Macbeth.

BOGAEV: Liev Schreiber?

HALL: Right. And so we go into the theater saying, okay, he’s playing Macbeth, but we know it’s Liev Schreiber, and so at any given point there’s this triangle relationship between the actor, the character, and the audience, and I think in Shakespeare’s time that was way more fluid than it is now.

 [CLIP of Liev Schreiber]

Direct address really, really goes for me hand in hand with playing Shakespeare and soliloquy. The funny thing is it’s served me on so many levels. At first, I think it’s a very compelling relationship with an audience because part of what it says is, I’m not denying the fact that I’m an actor. I am who I am right now but that doesn’t make what I’m saying any less compelling and can you relate to it? Me as the character, me as the actor, you as the audience, all of those things. Can you encompass all of those things in this moment? And I think that’s a very profound relationship to have to a play and to an audience.

HALL: There’s a lot of fourth wall acting where, you know, unfortunately we put the audience in the dark and then the actor-character talks to himself, which was not the style in which Shakespeare wrote. Shakespeare wrote that the actor-character would ask the audience questions, like, you know, Juliet at the potion speech, you know, saying, “If I drink this and it doesn’t work, am I going to wake up and have to marry Paris?” That was a direct question to the audience. She wasn’t talking to herself. So unfortunately I think since we started putting the audiences in the dark, it’s become more voyeuristic and less communal.

BOGAEV: Well, speaking of Liev Schreiber, he talks about breaking down one of the speeches from Macbeth and he’s pretty funny about how actors go off the rails that way.

 [CLIP of Liev Schreiber]

It can be really, really excruciating. I’ve sat through really, really long, bad productions.

HALL: We want to understand every word, but that doesn’t mean that you act every single word. [LAUGH] Know what I mean?

BOGAEV: Beat the word to death. [LAUGH]

HALL: Yeah, because then by the middle of the sentence the audience is saying, wait, what are we talking about? Yeah.

[CLIP of Liev Schreiber]

What you see a lot of is “If it were done, when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly. If th’ assassination could trammel up the consequence and catch with his surcease success…” And now, you can see the actor there is working all of the ideas in every word. “Surcease” is a difficult word, “trammel” is a difficult word. And you see the actors in those situations rush to go “trammel up”—I’m going to show you a net, I’m catching fish. And “surcease”—I’m going down, I’m dying. The problem is that, as an audience member we have to follow all of those cues and it becomes really labored. Whereas, if you follow the structure of the verse line, which in a ten-beat verse line it kind of ascends at the end, you get a deeper sense of the thought.

But it’s hard to teach that to people because then they have to trust this instinctive thing of, “oh, just go up at the end of the line and move quicker,” which isn’t entirely true. A better way to tell them, is to say, “Where does the thought end?” and “What is the thought?” So that then you could put the line, if you can figure out a line like “If it were done, when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly”—is that the end of the thought? No, ‘cause it goes “if th’ assassination could trammel up the consequence and catch with his surcease success that but this blow might be the be-all and the end-all here”—and then what’s the next thing? “Here upon this bank and shoal of time, we’d jump the life to come.” That’s the cherry on the sundae, that’s the end of the thought. In contemporary English, that would be “God, if we could just get though this, wouldn’t it be great?”

Ironically, what we try to do it we try to over-specify the line, whereas it’s just a beautiful way of saying that thing, but longer. And because it’s longer, it allows for more emotion, because there’s more time. But that means you have to move through the thought quicker so that it becomes “If it were done, when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly. If th’ assassination could trammel up the consequence and catch with his surcease success, that but this blow might be the be-all and the end-all here.” And it leaves you in this shuttering place of potential as opposed to if you labored every line “If it were done, when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.” And the audience becomes agonized.

BOGAEV: Well, you’ve talked to how many actors now?

HALL: Well, it’s combo of actors, directors, writers, linguists…

BOGAEV: And specifically looking at the actors, you talk to British and American actors, of course, this is Shakespeare. How did the American actors compare to the British ones in what they want to talk about in their story?

HALL: Correct. Yeah. I would say, from the British actors I did talk to, it is in part of their education way more than it is part of the American education.

BOGAEV: Well, yeah, I mean I think it gets to this issue of American actors feeling like we don’t have the inheritance of Shakespeare. We don’t deserve to do this, and so what about the American actors, who comes to mind?

HALL: Oh, Stacy Keach is a fantastic Shakespearean actor, can do anything, and has done since he was in his 20s.

 [CLIP of Stacy Keach]

I remember my drama teacher in high school asking on a test, “Who is the most famous Shakespearean actor?” I had no idea, I mean absolutely no idea. It was Laurence Olivier. That was the answer, and I had never heard of Laurence Olivier. But from that moment on, Laurence Olivier became like a fixation for me, and I went and saw all the movies that he made. And he became my God…

BOGAEV: Well, Stacy Keach, in his episode he talks about growing up thinking that Olivier was God.

HALL: Yeah, he’s not the only one. Americans still do that. They want to present that special sound that they think is the way Shakespeare’s supposed to sound.

BOGAEV: It is interesting who actors see perform roles and that inheritance that they have. I think Earle Hyman saw Gielgud, or Olivier, and Stacy Keach saw Olivier and somebody else. Liev Schreiber talks about, or did see, Raul Julia playing Othello in Central Park, and F. Murray Abraham also…

HALL: Yes. Yes.

 [CLIP of F. Murray Abraham]

And when I did my first, worked on my first Lear, it was Morris Carnovsky, and I loved Carnovsky in the part. It’s said that that’s, that’s actually a Jewish play, that Shakespeare’s written a family tragedy, and he’s the tyrant father and he would do this stuff and these gestures and I loved it…

BOGAEV: And just his personal route to his sound and his personal attachment to Shakespeare.

[CLIP of F. Murray Abraham]

You can absolutely rely on him. Just stick with the words. He knows more than you do, and he’s written this for you. This, he had you in mind when he wrote this. It’s hard to conceive of that but I completely, I gotta tell you, when I did Bottom, I said, “He wrote this for me! He had me in mind, what an amazingly smart man he was!” (laughs)

BOGAEV: It’s funny, this is a really interesting idea that other actors pick up on, too. Liev Schreiber, he’s describing playing Hamlet and that the tragedy of that is that you can’t possibly play Hamlet because the whole audience is Hamlet.

HALL: Yeah, which I thought was actually quite eloquently said when he said that. I do think it’s true, I think there’s an ownership, and a lot of the interviews talk about the personal relationship people have to the Shakespearean characters. They have a specific way that they think it should be performed or produced, and it should satisfy their personal relationship with what they think of Hamlet or what they think of Beatrice or Benedict or King Lear.

BOGAEV: And what do you think that is, then? And I’ve asked this with a number of people on this podcast—what is it about Shakespeare that allows the plays to function as a mirror for people? I mean, that is the goal of all great art.

HALL: Yes. I think that people are endlessly curious about themselves and when they watch Shakespeare they see a part of themselves that they need to see. And those representations are very important. There’s a part of everyone who is Hamlet who is a young person who feels wronged. There is a part of everyone who is King Lear who makes a stupid mistake and has to pay for it. Then there’s a part of everyone who’s Benedict that completely refuses to think that he could be love’s fool, and then turns out to be love’s fool.

It reminds me of what I learned recently at the Folger, which was the origin of the word pupil. Now we think of that to mean “student,” right? But it actually comes from the Latin pupa, P-U-P-A, meaning little doll. And what that comes from is, in early modern times, they believed that when you look at another person, you don’t see the other person, you see yourself reflected in their pupil. You see the little doll of you in their eyes. And so I think that Shakespeare does that, it reflects us back to ourselves, and we’re very interested in ourselves.

BOGAEV: Then does that mean that we go to Shakespeare seeking that experience?

HALL: I think we go to Shakespeare to see us, yes.

BOGAEV: So unconsciously we go to it as if to a mirror, because we do know the plays. Most people encounter Shakespeare, know maybe the plot outline, so you’re not looking to, you know, what happens next?

HALL: Right, so someone like myself, why have I seen, oh, gosh, Twelfth Night 18 times? Why have I done that?

BOGAEV: Right, why, Melinda?

HALL: Well, I guess I’m looking for something. I’m looking to learn something, I’m looking to see myself up there as whatever character I want at that moment. Viola that has to go undercover, or of seeing a Sebastian that’s confused, or seeing an Olivia that is twitterpated or something, you know? Perhaps there’s all of me in the characters that I want to see.

BOGAEV: One of the things I want to pick up on is one of your interviewees who really stood out for me, Estelle Parsons, and to remind everyone, she’s a Broadway actor, she also won an Oscar for best supporting actress in Bonnie and Clyde, and she said that there’s a curse about the way Shakespeare’s done in America, from her point of view.

[CLIP of Estelle Parsons]

You know there’s a real curse about the way Shakespeare is done, I think, in America. It seems to have been some kind of thing that followed a tradition of, I don’t know what, not theater.

BOGAEV: What was she getting to with that? What was she getting at with that?

HALL: I think her experience was, she probably would have liked to play more Shakespeare, and had been able to tackle some of the traditionally male-gendered roles in Shakespeare, because she is a strong actor. But at the time, the females that were playing, you know, in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s even, the females that were playing in Shakespeare were more, you know, kind of ingénue types, and she has said that she’s never been that.

[CLIP of Estelle Parsons]

Well, I’ve had a rough time with Shakespeare because nobody ever wanted to hire me for it and if I did ever get an audition for it I couldn’t figure out what on earth it was all about.

HALL: So everybody, you know, there are a lot of players, many, many, many actors out there that want to break the mold, and I’m talking about people who identify in a non-binary way, they want to break the mold. I’m talking about female-identifying that want to play traditionally male characters or male-identifying that want to play traditionally female parts, and have it be presented—which is great that we’re at this place now because when the plays were written, as you know, the young boys did play the female roles. So now if we could just balance it even more, where women or women-identifying can just play whatever they want, that would be brilliant.

BOGAEV: And certainly, there have been all-female productions of Shakespeare and this has happened, but it’s still this hurdle you always have to get over.

HALL: Yeah, it’s not interchangeable. So what you just said is, yeah, you can do an all-female cast, or an all-male cast, but what about a King Lear, well actually Glenda Jackson did it, so I don’t think that was all-female. So yeah, what about…

BOGAEV: But she’s Glenda Jackson. [LAUGH]

HALL: [LAUGH] She is. She is.

BOGAEV: I think Estelle Parsons is saying even those of us who aren’t Glenda Jackson should be able to play Lear.

HALL: Yes, well, Estelle could definitely pull it off.

BOGAEV: Yeah. Who did you want to talk to but you weren’t able to get? And you said everyone you’ve asked so far said yes, so who’s your dream?

HALL: Oh, well, like the big stars. Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren or Glenda Jackson, that would be amazing. Or even someone who’s not such a big star but that has a pivotal moment when Shakespeare literally changed their life.

BOGAEV: And in the series so far, which one is closest to your heart in terms of that, someone who’s a non-actor?

HALL: So there are some people I’ve interviewed that are outside of the entertainment business. One is a Holocaust survivor, her name’s Eva Rocek and she is living in America now but she was originally from Czechoslovakia, and she got deported to Theresienstadt when she was a teenager, and she was with a group of young ladies that they came to and they said, “Who wants to be gardeners?” And she says, “Okay,” but they took the young ladies out to the middle of nowhere, and they had them start digging mass graves. And so it wasn’t for gardeners, it was for gravediggers. And so when Eva was there working, one of the guards who was patrolling overheard her because she started speaking Titania’s lines in Czech.

And he understood and he pulled her aside and said, “You know, tonight you and your mother, you need to run because this crew is, it's over.” And he meant that they were about to be executed the next day. He then yelled at her to pretend that she was doing something wrong, and she went back in the line and her and her mother that night, with a couple of friends ran away, and she felt that had he not overheard her speaking Shakespeare, he would never have told her to leave.

BOGAEV: As if that’s what jogged his humanity?

HALL: I have no idea, but luckily it happened and she went on and she and her husband who is also a survivor went on and had kids and then they moved to the U.S. and taught science at a university in the Midwest.

BOGAEV: What an amazing story. It makes me think of what so many of our guests on the show have talked about, how Shakespeare has a global reach. It transcends nationalities or language or political divisions some way.

HALL: Yeah, and when she was a teenager, the reason why she learned Titania’s lines was… the people in her ghetto were going to do a little Shakespeare play, and there was no other girl to play Titania, so she started learning it. But the play never got up because everybody had gotten deported to the concentration camp.

BOGAEV: This is one of those middle-of-the-night questions, but if you could talk to Shakespeare for the series, what would you ask?

HALL: Oh, I want to take him to a Shakespeare play today and ask him what he likes about it and what he doesn’t like about it. I want to know if any of the characters resembled real people that were in his life, and I want to know his friends that he was in the company with. Did they write together, did they criticize his lines when he, you know, brought in lines from rehearsal? Were there actors in his company that said, “I’m not saying that”? You know, does he face the same things that contemporary writers face? Yeah, I have a lot of questions. I think that interview…

BOGAEV: It would be a very long episode, yeah.

HALL: Yeah. I’m going to record it though. [LAUGH] And I would maybe ask him what I ask the other people I interviewed is, “Do you have a favorite line?” And I wonder if he would be even concerned that we all know those lines. [LAUGH]

BOGAEV: He’d be very irritated by that question I bet. [LAUGH]

HALL: “You still know my lines? What, what are you talking about?” [LAUGH] You know, like, ‘to be or not to be’?Oh, what? You guys still know that?”

BOGAEV: “You cared about that? I thought that one was a dog.”

HALL: Oh, no, no, no. Oh, no, no. Go to King John, that’s where the great lines are. [LAUGH] That’s a Shakespeare nerd joke right there.

BOGAEV: I recognize it. [LAUGH] So it definitely makes sense that actors would be drawn to this, but I am curious, who do you think you’re making the series for, or who are you intending it for? What kind of audience?

HALL: Well, believe it or not, the series right now has a following of a lot of students that get assigned to read Shakespeare but then they want to know more about people’s personal connection with Shakespeare. So there’s some university people out there and some high school teachers and even some middle school teachers that follow the series and they’ll just, you know, have the kids watch a few episodes. So that’s actually very significant for the way that I started producing it because originally this started as a feature film, and then I wanted it to be a real series.

But then everything changed with streaming and the Internet and YouTube and then I decided “okay, I’m just going to throw it out there and do it in short form, and so people can just take what they need from it, and keep going.”

BOGAEV: Before you go, I do want to ask you about another Shakespeare initiative you’re involved in. It’s the annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam in Central Park. And first, for people who have never attended, what is it?

HALL: Okay, so I created and I produce this event in New York City where I ask 154 people of all ages and abilities to come to the Bandshell at Central Park and speak all 154 Shakespearean sonnets back to back.

 [CLIPS of readers at the Shakespeare’s Birthday Sonnet Slam]

No more be grieved at that which thou hast done.
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud;
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.

Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war…

Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse,
Making a couplement of proud compare
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems…

Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory…

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

HALL: It’s wonderful to have just the reader and Shakespeare alone up on that stage, even if it’s only for a minute, because most of the people are not actors, they’re just people who want to get up there and do a Shakespeare sonnet, and so the sonnets are assigned randomly and they can register in advance, they can study their sonnet, or they could just come and read it off of a piece of paper. It doesn’t matter to me how they perform it. And also, it’s a unique event in that, you don’t really get to hear all 154 sonnets back to back, and the audience is pretty interested.

BOGAEV: This has been so much fun and I’ve enjoyed the series so much too, and I can’t wait to see who you talk to next. Thank you so much.

HALL: Thanks Barbara.

WITMORE: Melinda Hall is an actor, writer, and stage director. She created the web series How Shakespeare Changed My Life for her company Willful Pictures. You can watch Melinda’s videos and get more information at the Willful Pictures YouTube channel. And if you’d like to be part of the Sonnet Slam, you can register at: She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Mine Honor, Yea, My Life Be Thine was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer.

We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Deb Stathopulos at the Radio Foundation studio in New York. The interview was recorded by Paul Luke and by Ben Ellman, who made a point of telling us after we were done that his life was changed in high school when he first read Shakespeare, using the Folger Editions.

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