The sporadic ramblings of Emily C. A. Snyder - devoted to God, theatre, writing, and much randominity.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Artistic Director and Co-Founder of TURN TO FLESH PRODUCTIONS. | Author of "Nachtstürm Castle," "Niamh and the Hermit." | Playwright: "Cupid and Psyche," "Math for Actors." | Classical director and educator.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

As You Like It: Why I Love It

As many know, I had the opportunity to play Rosalind (in part) when I was in England in August of 2000. It was a heady experience, even with just a taste of what it means to play this character. Every night I read all of her scenes to better understand her. Various other folks on the tour with us, old stage folk, lent me books by the great British actresses discussing what it meant to play Shakespeare's heroines. I practiced my lines constantly, looking for nuances, making sense of the smallest turn of adjective. I performed in Hyde Park, using a large oak tree as my scene partner - onlookers be damned.

My directors were brilliant - very kind, very precise and yet also open to experimentation. I was one of the few who came to England with my lines actually memorized (in part because I'm That Student, in part because I couldn't believe I wasn't cast as Maid/Dowager #37) and I remember what Vivien said to the other students (legit actors all) at the end of our first session: "If you want to see someone really enjoying herself in a role, look at Emily." I'm going to sound a lot like so many of the young ladies I've talked to over the years regarding significant theatrical roles: I was worth looking at (something I never was in college acting class).

Nothing was EVER said about my actual look. This is something that's terribly rare in American theatre and (seemingly) par for the course in England: if you're cast, and you're doing the job, it's presumed that You Can Do The Role, looks be damned. Which is why they have the brilliance of Emma Thompson and we have Blonde Girl #734821923735986021.

At the end of it all, after our performance catty-corner to Shakespeare's birthplace, in front of folks who'd seen The Greats perform this role and so many others, I remember sitting at the hotel bar with everyone else, celebrating. I found myself next to Vivien and she said to me that I'd done a really great job, that everyone else was very impressed (and you must remember that the folks I'd performed in front of had just a day before walked out of a Stratford performance of AYLI by the end of the second scene; these were folks who'd seen Dame Maggie Smith perform the role...And Were Still Talking About It). She also said, and this blew me away, that my Rosalind was very sweet, and "very sexy." My head was reeling from this so much that I actually missed whatever compliment Homer, our tour leader, tried to give me (I'm still kicking myself about that - stupid, young, shy Emily!).

Now, I write all this because as much as I've wanted to put on this play for 10+ years...I haven't done so, precisely because I had such a profound experience with even the barest HINT of Rosalind, that I was pretty sure I wouldn't do justice to the play, or I'd try to make the actress playing Rosalind play MY Rosalind, or something equally stupid. I still worry about that. But with these summer shows, I "go with my gut" as to what show is right for the actors I probably have. And the cosmos, God, serendipity or what you will, nudged me on the shoulder and said, "As You Like It. That's what you're supposed to do."

And then I had this idea about boxes and prisons (thinking how Rosalind/Hamlet are ying/yang and my next Hamlet is probably going to be focused on being boxed in and insomnia)...and then I thought, as always, of Richard II that I saw on that same trip to Stratford and how they repeated the strongest speech in part time and again (in AYLI's case "All the world's a stage"), and I thought of Branaugh's way of showing the usurpation, and about how Sam West's version (of which I've only read reviews) really delved about the different hats we juggle in life....

Then while driving back from the desk job I had in September, I was listening to this song "Shattered" (which I am totally using as the theme for my next Hamlet) on repeat, because cubicle-world is soul-sucking. So I was totally living with my next Hamlet beating against the clear box he'll be put into while people do scenes around and on top of him. However, I wanted to get out of that funk, and the next song the iPod played was Pink Martini's cover of "Que Sera Sera"...which suddenly made the opening of AYLI spring to life:

What are the boxes we are put in (usurpation), the boxes society puts us in (Rosalind's awesomeness stifled = Victorian clothing in my mind), the boxes envy can put us in (Orlando being stripped of his rights) - and then Jules added that sometimes even when we're free, we put ourselves into boxes rather than face freedom. E.g., Touchstone might make a cardboard box for himself to live in while he has the whole woods to inhabit.

Suddenly, I realized what brought this summer's As You Like It together: freedom and what we do or DON'T do with it. When we're given the opportunity to sever ourselves from everything - even from our own identities - how do we cope? What do we become? Do we lose ourselves (as Rosalind nearly does), do we tether ourselves to something else just to be tethered (Touchstone), do we find freedom to reveal who we are (Orlando), do we seize the opportunity to reinvent ourselves (Oliver/Celia) or do we find that we were never really bound (Jacques)?

I love As You Like It. I love that it's an imperfect play, structurally. There's all this plot upfront...and then from Act II on it's Elizabethan vaudeville. It was written hand-in-glove with Hamlet, like Midsummer Night's Dream is the comic look at Romeo and Juliet. As You Like It asks the question: What if all of the folks from tragic Denmark were forced to LIVE? I love Rosalind. I love that she deals with what it means to be a woman, what true love - not just fanciful love, but true, honest-to-goodness, thick-and-thin LOVE - is. I love that it's a gentle story of redemption, of civility existing even once - or especially since - it's the end of the world as we know it.

I love that it's about change, but instead of copping out and saying that All Change Is Good Because All Change Is Good (cult of progress), or saying Only Backwards is Forwards!, or The World's Screwed Up: Let's Redefine It...As You Like It looks life square in the face and says, "Change is change. Once it's happened, you have to deal with it and decide what's worth saving and what's worth fixing and what you should apologize for and what should be abandoned from our time within the woods." Liberty is not an individual thing. Liberty is to live not just "as thou likest it," but as YOU, the whole society, needs it. Liberty is the freedom to do what is right, not just what is convenient. From true liberty comes true happiness, and true happiness is, frankly, how I'd like it.

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