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Posts Tagged ‘theatre’

One of the things I’ve missed during this pandemic year is collective experiences: the chance to be among a group of people, enjoying the same thing at the same time (and not through a screen). I particularly missed live theatre, so I was thrilled that Shakespeare on the Common is back this year.

My guy and I made a midweek date to see The Tempest – which we had both read in high school, but not really interacted with since then. I met him after work and we picked up a feast from BarTaco, which does delicious tacos and salsa with flavor and heat.

We arrived early and snagged a good spot with a view of the stage – though I’d definitely bring or rent chairs next time, as the ground gets hard after a while. But it was a perfect, clear evening, and we settled in to watch the cast (including John Douglas Thompson, whom I remembered seeing in Carousel on Broadway a few years back).

Both the men who taught me Shakespeare – Mr. Walker in high school and Dr. Wade in college – used to insist, I think rightly, that his plays are meant to be watched, not read. The story has so much more power (and the jokes are so much funnier) when you’re watching it unfold in real time. I had forgotten, or perhaps never realized, how much of The Tempest is about power: who has it, who ought to have it, what it means to have (or choose to give up) authority over another person, or to assert your own.

Of course there’s the love at first sight between Ferdinand and Miranda, and Prospero’s schemes to ostensibly keep them apart. There’s the bumbling pair of jokers from the shipwrecked crew, and their plot to overthrow Prospero (not very well planned). And there are Ariel and Caliban – who are treated very differently by Prospero, but are ultimately bound to him until he sets them free.

We laughed and clapped and marveled at the cast’s artistry, and savored being together. An entirely joyous experience, and a wonderful return to live theater.

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katie lin-manuel miranda interview microphone

It’s been ten days and I still can’t believe I get to say this: I got to interview Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I do not, generally, get starstruck very often. The exceptions to that rule tend to be the authors I love (like Alice Hoffman, who was very kind when I spoke to her on the phone last fall). But I am a musical theatre geek from way back, and I have spent untold hours over the past two years listening to Hamilton.

So when I found out Lin-Manuel was coming to speak at the Harvard Kennedy School (where I work), I just about hit the ceiling. I know for a fact I wasn’t the only one.

Lin-Manuel flew in for a Thursday evening to kick off America Adelante, a conference for Latino students and leaders. I begged everyone I had to beg – namely, my editors at the Harvard Gazette and my colleagues who organized the conference – to let me be the one to write the story. I’d have begged Drew Faust herself (Harvard’s president) if I had to.

All I was expecting was a seat at Lin’s keynote – a literal seat in the room where it happened. I did not dream of what you see above: ten minutes, give or take, with the man himself.

I’d scribbled notes all through his keynote, which was fantastic, then listened in as my colleague Matt interviewed him for the HKS podcast. When he turned to me with that grin after wrapping up with Matt and said, “Who are you writing for?,” I nearly lost all my words. (But I managed to recover a few of them.)

katie lin manuel miranda

I asked him first about democracy. Hamilton is the origin story of democracy, and some of Lin’s prolific activism on Twitter is about urging people to get involved in democracy today: registering to vote, calling their reps, making their voices heard. “We’re seeing such an accumulation of ordinary voices,” he said.

We talked, too, about art and activism: both are vital parts of his work. He mentioned being inspired by the Parkland students, and making “the Marvel/DC crossover” with Ben Platt of Dear Evan Hansen to encourage them. (Their collaborative song, Found Tonight, gives me chills.)

I admire Lin’s creative genius, but I also love how generous he is, how much he cares about making a difference in the world. He was funny and engaging, and even though I’m sure he was tired, he really listened to my questions and offered thoughtful answers. (And he talks with his hands! So do I.)

katie lin manuel miranda hand gesture

My favorite question was the last one I asked: “What’s the last great book you read?”

He paused – “Ooooh!” – then admitted, “I’m sort of in a prison of my own making.”

The reason? His New Year’s resolution was to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and “I’m so behind,” he confessed. “I’ve had a busy few months!” That was the understatement of the night.

But then – then! – he waxed eloquent about reading the sonnets, and “the freedom he [Shakespeare] finds within the form.” In classic Lin fashion, he concluded, “Reading the sonnets was pretty dope.” I nearly died of English-major nerd bliss.

I’d forgotten my copy of the Hamiltome, but I asked Lin to sign my journal, and he graciously complied. The inscription, under my name and above his signature?

“See you in the room where it happens.”

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Heartened

red gold leaves ground

By the brilliant, joyful student performance of In the Heights I saw at Berklee College of Music on Friday night. And the powerful, lovely original song the cast performed after the curtain call (written by Zaid Tabani, who played Usnavi and is wicked talented).

By the wise, thoughtful voices of faculty members at my workplace, who are drawing on their expertise and experience to help make sense of what happened and what is next.

By conversations with friends and strangers, and the quiet sense that we are taking care of each other in small ways.

By the gentle, steadying atmosphere at my local yoga studio, where I have been showing up more frequently this month.

By the conversation I overheard the other day between two young men, one of whom is a playwright, about the responsibility and power of art and artists at a time like this.

By the friendly, supportive, determined conversations on Twitter and elsewhere that have helped me process my feelings and also figure out a few practical things to do. (First and foremost: so much listening.)

By the oak leaves in every shade of gold, red, russet and deep brown. I was afraid we wouldn’t have much color after a dry, hot summer, but the trees this fall are stunning.

By a brief conversation I had with the mayor of Providence, R.I., about the good work being done in government at the local level. (He was visiting campus for a conference, and probably has no idea how much his words encouraged me.)

By the spindly, twinkly “giving trees” on the steps of Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, covered in messages of hope. (And this separate message of hope, below.)

refugees welcome sign trees

Nearly two weeks post-election and it still feels like a new, fragile reality around here. We are heading into the holidays, which I love, but also into the shortest and darkest days of the year, which are hard for me. (I have never been more ready for Advent, which, for me, is a way to look the darkness steadily in the face and then light candles against it.)

I am still sad, frustrated and heartbroken, but I’ve also found myself heartened by the glimmers of hope I shared above. We have – I keep saying – so much work to do. As we move forward together (and head into Thanksgiving week here in the U.S.), I’d love to hear what is bolstering you up, these days.

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peter and the starcatcher set

The curtain goes up,
The curtain goes up,
It’s a wonderful moment,
When the curtain goes up…

—Maud Hart Lovelace, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown

On Friday, the hubs and I met up downtown after work, to catch the Lyric Stage Company’s opening night performance of Peter and the Starcatcher. It’s a fast-paced, witty, hilarious prequel of sorts to Peter Pan, and we loved every second of it. Elaborate wordplay, swashbuckling fights, wildly colorful mermaid costumes, and a story with friendship and magic at its heart. (Because you can’t have Neverland without either one, really.)

I didn’t know much about the play beforehand, but I knew that the Lyric Stage puts on fabulous shows, since I took my parents to see their production of My Fair Lady last fall. That show is an old favorite of mine – my dad and I can quote Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering for hours – and their version felt both familiar and wonderfully fresh. Both nights reminded me of something I often forget: how much I love live theatre.

my fair lady set

Aside from a drama class in ninth grade and a few church plays, I don’t have much acting experience. But I love the immediacy of live theatre: the way it binds audience and actors together in a vital dynamic. In this age of carefully produced everything – Instagram filters, sharply cut films, painstakingly edited music – live theatre still holds the potential for surprise.

I know it takes a lot of work to get to opening night, and I know these actors and crew members spent weeks perfecting the set, the lighting, the lines and the blocking. But after all that preparation, each performance – the thing itself – is a glittering, singular entity all its own. Telling stories and listening to them is a deeply human act, and live theatre brings stories into the open, in all their glorious particularity.

There wasn’t an actual curtain on Friday night: the Lyric Stage space (see above) is small and intimate, and the audience simply waits for the lights to come up. But I still felt like Betsy Ray in the Deep Valley Opera House, alive with anticipation:

It’s like Christmas morning,
Stealing down stairs,
It’s like being hungry,
And saying your prayers.

It’s like being hungry,
And ready to sup,
It’s a wonderful moment,
When the curtain goes up.

Betsy, as usual, had it exactly right. As the cast came bounding onstage for the first scene, my eyes filled with sudden tears. This is what it means to be human: telling each other our stories, and delighting in them. (And maybe catching a few stars along the way.)

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christmas book stack charlie brown

The reading is haphazard this month. But it’s happening. (Above: the Christmas picture books I put out every year.)

 An Appetite for Murder, Lucy Burdette
When aspiring food writer Hayley Snow follows her new boyfriend to Key West, she falls in love with the island – and gets dumped. When her ex’s new girlfriend turns up dead, Hayley decides to investigate. A light, well-plotted cozy mystery.

Topped Chef, Lucy Burdette
Hayley Snow gets tapped to judge a foodie reality TV show. When one of her fellow judges is murdered, Hayley starts sniffing around for clues – hoping she isn’t next on the killer’s list. The mystery was a little thin, but I like Hayley and the cast of supporting characters.

Act One, Moss Hart
Moss Hart tells the story of his struggle to become a playwright – from working as a theatre office boy to directing theatrical summer camps, and finally his first hit. Warm, witty and big-hearted. Bought at Three Lives & Co. on our NYC trip.

Shepherds Abiding, Jan Karon
This Mitford Christmas tale makes me cry every year, as Father Tim works to restore a battered Nativity scene as a gift for his wife. So sweet and hopeful.

The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit, Helena Attlee
Attlee tells the long, convoluted tale of citrus production in Italy, covering its history, cultivation, connections to the Mafia, and unbeatable flavor. Fascinating, though a little dense. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 5).

Letters from Father Christmas, J.R.R. Tolkien
I’m a longtime Lord of the Rings fan, but this collection of handwritten, gorgeously illustrated letters is new to me. Tolkien wrote to his children as Father Christmas from 1920-1943 (with notes from his assistant, the North Polar Bear). Hilarious and inventive. Found at Blackwells in Oxford.

The Blood of Olympus, Rick Riordan
“To storm or fire the world must fall” – and a group of demigods must prevent an all-out war, before Gaea wakes. Fast-paced and fun, with lots of zany jokes and surprising depth.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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stone soup books interior camden maine

Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater, Michael Sokolove
Touted as the ideal suburb when it was built, Levittown, Pa., is today a depressing, dead-end place. But in its high school theater program, generations of students have come alive under the direction of Lou Volpe, theater teacher extraordinaire. The author, a former student of Volpe’s, returns to his hometown to observe Volpe in action and watch his students develop several challenging, powerful shows. Fascinating and fun; took me back to my years watching all my best friends perform in high school plays. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 26).

Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home, Susan Hill
While searching for an elusive book on her shelves, novelist Susan Hill encountered dozens of books she’d never read or wanted to reread. This collection of bookish, quirky, opinionated essays is a wonderful, often nostalgic tour through her shelves and her reading life. Catnip for fellow bookworms like me – so much fun.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg
Sandberg’s memoir-cum-business-book needs no introduction from me. I found it chock full of great stories from working women (Sandberg and others) who have struggled to balance career, family, and the ever-present guilt that comes from even attempting the balancing act in the first place. Sandberg freely admits her own privileged status, but I found many of her insights applicable to a broad range of women and workplace levels. A quick read, but deeply thought-provoking.

Songs of Willow Frost, Jamie Ford
In Depression-era Seattle, William Eng lives at the Sacred Heart orphanage with other children whose parents are dead or unable to care for them. While attending a movie (a rare treat), he sees a Chinese actress who looks like the mother he remembers. Is Willow Frost, the actress, really Liu Song, William’s mother? He embarks on a quest to find out. Shifting between the 1920s and the 1930s, Ford’s narrative exposes the often difficult lives of Chinese people in the Northwest at that time. Heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful – though the ending felt a bit abrupt to me.

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links.

What are you reading?

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Recently, J and I hopped down to New York for a long weekend. I didn’t visit the city for the first time until about three years ago, and I find it endlessly alluring, no matter the season. It’s fast-paced, but there are pockets of quiet even in such a teeming metropolis. And there are a seemingly infinite number of historical landmarks, dazzling theatrical shows, delicious restaurants, fascinating bookstores, charming cafes…the list goes on and on.

We rented a lovely little third-floor walk-up apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, complete with wee kitchenette (and teakettle!):

teakettle stove kitchen

On our first evening, we wandered the neighborhood and visited, among other spots, the Greenlight Bookstore – a light-filled space packed with fascinating books of all genres. (I snagged Ruta Sepetys’ new novel, Out of the Easy – wonderful young adult fiction set in 1950s New Orleans.)

greenlight bookstore brooklyn

greenlight bookstore interior brooklyn

After some (rather disappointing) Italian food, we headed to the Chocolate Room in Park Slope, because chocolate cures many ills:

chocolate room brownie sundae

That’s a delectable brownie sundae, and we both ordered hot chocolate to go with it.

chocolate room spiced hot cocoa

Warm and woozy from our dessert coma, we headed back to the flat and fell asleep.

The next day, we did a “vertical tour” at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, in Morningside Heights near Columbia. Madeleine L’Engle, my heroine, was the librarian there for many years, and I’ve always wanted to see it.

st john the divine cathedral nyc

We walked up (and up and up) a staircase that took us to the top of a buttress, eye-level with gorgeous stained-glass windows, and eventually up to the roof:

st john stained glass

After a stroll through Columbia’s campus, we settled on lunch at Deluxe, which we finished by splitting a strawberry milkshake:

milkshake

We then headed down to the Upper West Side, popping into Book Culture on West 112th on the way:

book culture shop interior nyc

A chill wind and tired feet led us to stop for tea and a muffin at Arte Around the Corner:

NYC 069

Refueled, we wandered over to the Museum of American Folk Art near Lincoln Center (a fun, quirky little find), then ate some delicious Indian food on the West Side and bought a few Insomnia Cookies to take back to the flat.

Sunday morning found us wandering the Brooklyn Flea, housed for the winter in the beautiful old Williamsburg Savings Bank building:

brooklyn flea nyc interior

Then we met our friends Duncan and Allison for brunch at Whym in the West Fifties. This was my choice – mixed-berry stuffed French toast, with raspberry curd. Heaven.

NYC 077

We spent the afternoon seeing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a hilarious musical adaptation of an unfinished Dickens murder mystery. The audience gets to vote for the killer! Campy and fun, in the style of Clue. Afterward, we headed to The Little Pie Company for fresh berry pie and tall cups of tea.

NYC 082

The wind had kicked up by then – it was too cold to walk around, but we weren’t hungry for dinner yet. Allison suggested the Harry Potter exhibit at the Discovery Center in Times Square. It’s a little pricey, but such fun for Harry Potter nerds – it showcases props and costumes from the Potter films, including Quidditch gear, robes and wands, Hermione’s textbooks, several Horcruxes, and a huge glass case of sweets from Honeydukes and Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes.

hedwig harry potter nyc

We shivered our way down to Don Giovanni’s for some yummy pizza, a glass of sangria, and some truly delectable chicken noodle soup, with spinach and tomatoes. Perfect for the bitter weather.

Our bus left on Monday afternoon, so we spent a leisurely morning strolling Park Slope (popping into cafes for tea when it got too cold). An utterly charming New York weekend. (Though I hope the weather’s warmer next time I go.)

brownstones brooklyn nyc red

What are your favorite NYC spots, if you’ve been there?

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Like millions of fellow fans, I recently saw Les Miserables in the theatre. Despite a few flaws, I loved the film – I teared up half a dozen times, and both my husband and I wept at the end. (I fully expected to do so, but he never cries at movies.) But as I stood in the darkened theatre afterward watching the credits, I was thinking about Kate.

les miserables 10th anniversary concert soundtrack

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Kate lived down the street from me when we were growing up, and she and her big sister, Brooke, introduced me to (among other things) Ace of Base, Rent, Chinese food, and Les Mis. When Kate played Brooke’s copy of the soundtrack for me one day, I was enthralled by the story of Valjean and Fantine and Javert. I begged to borrow the double CD, and kept it for weeks, even taking it on the youth group ski trip over Christmas break. I spent hours on the bus with my Discman in my lap, staring out the window, absorbed in the music, swept up in its power.

Later, I bought my own copy of the soundtrack: the same version Brooke owned, the 10th anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall. (This means I was thrilled to see Colm Wilkinson, who plays Jean Valjean in that performance, reappear as the Bishop in the film.) During my first semester in Oxford, two girlfriends and I squeezed into a box in a London theatre and watched the stage musical, leaning over the edge to catch every word.

The story of Les Mis is powerful in its own right. But it takes on additional significance when I remember how I came to it in the first place, who introduced it to me, the memories associated with hearing and seeing it for the first time. It’s inextricably tied up with dear friends, a city I love, and that delicious sense of discovering a story you can live in.

Not all my favorite stories have such specific memories attached to them: many of them simply came to me from my parents or were discovered at school or in a bookstore. But I’ve talked at length about how Valerie was responsible for my introduction to Harry Potter. My dad, and the first brilliant film, catapulted me into a deep love of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I found an advance copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in an Oxford bookshop, before I really knew what advance copies were and before the book became a fan favorite. And a dear friend handed me Winter Solstice at just the right time, six Christmases ago.

When I write my frequent book roundups, I find myself noting where I discovered a book, or who told me about it, or whose review convinced me to pick it up. I believe those “origin stories” can deepen our enjoyment of books and films and music, while we still appreciate the things for themselves. My attachment to Les Mis began, and has certainly been enriched, because of Kate and Brooke, and that long-ago afternoon lounging in Kate’s room, listening to the people sing.

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We saw The Fantasticks on our trip to NYC in early October. It’s one of the longest-running shows around, but I’d never seen it and wasn’t familiar with the music. After seeing it, though, I bought the soundtrack, and have been humming “Try to Remember,” the theme song, ever since.

Image from Wikipedia

The Fantasticks is a small-scale show, with a cast of eight (and one of the roles is a mute). The “set” is a curtain, plus a cardboard circle that serves as sun and moon, and a trunk to conceal two traveling bums/actors who pop up when needed. On one level, the story is simply a charming take on the star-crossed young lovers trope. (There’s a wall between their houses, but it turns out their fathers put it up to encourage them to fall in love. Reverse psychology!)

The plot includes a staged abduction (which allows the young “Romeo” to be a hero), several arguments, and plenty of bumbling fun from the traveling actors. The narrator, El Gallo, as wickedly handsome and wryly humorous as Captain Jack Sparrow, spends half his time addressing the audience and half his time acting as chief bandit/architect of the love story.

Part of me is tempted to dismiss The Fantasticks as merely a frothy, whimsical, sparkling piece of musical theatre. There’s a lot of exaggeration and then lampooning of musical-theatre stereotypes (the young lovers, in particular, are so wide-eyed they’re a bit annoying). The dads are highly amusing, with their sly wit and irritable tempers. There’s only a little “real” violence, and all’s well that ends well. Simple, right?

Not quite. The plot’s deeper meaning has nothing at all to do with falling in love, or reverse psychology, or the questionable morality of staging your daughter’s fake abduction. It hides in plain sight, and it only comes to light near the end, when the narrator explains why he pulled the puppet strings to separate the young lovers for a while:

There is a curious paradox that no one can explain:
Who understands the secret of the reaping of the grain?
Who understands why spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain,
or why we all must die a bit before we grow again?

I do not know the answer; I merely know it’s true.
I hurt them for that reason, and myself a little bit too.

El Gallo would never admit it, but he’s a little sad to end up alone, as he has been the whole time. He’s a romantic but lonely figure, riding off into the sunset. However, he’s stumbled on a bit of wisdom, which reappears in the final song and takes on a new gravity after the lines above: “without a hurt, the heart is hollow.”

While I don’t believe in a narrator (or anyone else) pulling my strings like a puppet, I do believe this: sorrow can deepen us, make us into better, braver and more compassionate people. When I was a college student grieving the loss of a friend who had died suddenly in a car crash, one of my professors put it this way: sorrow digs a well inside us.

The young lovers, before their struggle, were sweet but shallow: they needed the separation to make them appreciate one another, and to draw on their own reserves of courage and strength. (After they’re reunited, El Gallo urges the fathers not to take down the wall. One set of obstacles is gone, but others will remain.)

The Fantasticks isn’t a morality tale, and it would be dangerous to view it as a blueprint for life. But these lines about grief and love have lodged in my heart, and I think the show needs this bittersweet reminder. There must always be some darkness to balance the light, a bit of grief to balance out the joy – even in the world of musical fantasy, where anything can happen.

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Last week, my book club met to discuss The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown’s lovely debut novel about three adult sisters who return to the small Ohio college town where they grew up. Their father is a Shakespeare professor, singularly focused on his topic, and as a result the entire family (and the book) are steeped in the Bard.

Eleanor generously offered to join us via Skype (though she was traveling and also fighting a cold – what a trooper!). We talked about siblings, birth order, family dynamics and writing in first-person-plural voice. She confessed that while she did a ton of research for the book, she’s not a Shakespeare buff – in fact, she didn’t “get” him until seeing several of his plays in England while she was in graduate school.

“When I taught English, I refused to teach Shakespeare,” Eleanor added, “because I didn’t want to be the one who ruined Shakespeare for these kids.” That remark prompted a slew of reminiscences (and eye-rolling) from all of us about being forced to read Romeo and Juliet in ninth or tenth grade. (My college Shakespeare professor, on the first day of class, proclaimed, “We are not reading Romeo and Juliet. I hate it, and besides all of you have read it already!”)

We also talked about odd Shakespeare productions, referencing a very funny scene in The Weird Sisters in which the family discusses crazy productions they’ve seen, including an all-nude version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which, fortunately, Eleanor said she made up). Abi recalled seeing a 1970s-themed production of Midsummer as a high school student (which, given the content of the play, actually worked). I remembered a decidedly strange production of Macbeth, set in what I think was 1950s Deep South America, at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. (Shotguns, suits and rotary phones. It was bizarre.)

But my first encounter with Shakespeare came long before I ever saw him on stage – before I had any idea how famous he was, before I even knew his plays were set in verse. I discovered Shakespeare during long Ohio summers, sprawled across one of two beds in the upstairs room that was once my mother’s, languid summer breezes stirring the thick, humid air outside, box fans whirring in the windows. I discovered him through pen-and-ink illustrations, tinted with orange and jade green, through mischievous fairies and rollicking amateur actors and a sprite who had more energy than sense.

midsummer night's dream fairies titania my book house

Titania sleeps in a flower bed

midsummer night's dream bottom donkey fairies my book house

Bottom and the fairies

I’ve written before about the My Book House series – a treasure trove of folktales, nursery rhymes, Bible stories and adaptations of classic stories from around the world. I especially loved the middle books in the series, stuffed full of fairy tales, and I came back to this simple prose version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream every year. (And then – a wonderful bonus – turned the page to read about Felix Mendelssohn and how he composed the musical score after reading the play as a teenager.)

felix mendelssohn music midsummer night's dream my book house

Felix and his sister Fanny

I came back to Shakespeare years later, in school, reading Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Hamlet, Macbeth and some sonnets. I acted in a production of The Rude Mechanicals (a crude adaptation of Midsummer) in ninth grade; the acting was pretty terrible, I admit, but we had fun. I took the aforementioned Shakespeare course in college, and saw a half-dozen summer Shakespeare productions put on by my college’s fabulous theatre department.

I don’t consider myself a Shakespeare buff – the Bard’s plots are often confusing, his language ornate and sometimes outdated to my ears. But I admire him deeply, the beauty and power of his words and the way his work has endured over centuries. And I’ve had a soft spot for this particular story ever since I was that little girl reading about Titania and the fairies on those long-ago summer days.

fairies midsummer night's dream my book house

When and where did you first encounter Shakespeare? And what’s the weirdest Shakespeare production you’ve ever seen?

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