Shakespeare / Photo by Peter Wood

Shakespeare in the Dark

A Birthday Memory

In the summer of 1993 I worked as an intern at Colonial Theatre in Westerly RI. Living in a room that was roughly eight feet by four feet and getting paid an insult to a pittance, I built sets, hung lights, ran errands, operated the light board — this was back in the days when board ops did things instead of just pushing a “go” button on computer boards — and hung out with a number of fabulous actors, including Bud Thorpe, who’d spent a decade in Europe performing Beckett plays directed by Samuel Becket himself. This was the summer of vodka and tonics made with vodka from Maine that cost $9.99 for a gallon. Whenever the bottle ran low, someone would replace it, always with the same brand of cheap, really quite awful vodka. That summer was also the summer of my favorite birthday. A July 8 that combined theatre, wonder, generosity, and companionship in a unique and wonderful way.

That weekend was the final weekend of our production of Thornton Wilder’s By the Skin of Our Teeth, and that night was also the opening night of our Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of As You Like It that was being staged in Wilcox park. The cast for our second mainstage show that summer, Italian-American Reconciliation had arrived a few days before to start rehearsals. The theatre and the building that housed the offices, interns, and some of the actors were full of bodies and noise and energy. Our production of Skin was excellent and I was totally in love with the show and the cast, sad that it was coming to an end, and proud of my part in making it all happen.

The day of my birthday began with a morning visit from my parents who wanted to drop off a cake for me, knowing that I was going to be busy building sets during the day and running lights during the night. Which is pretty much what happened.

Until the lights went out.

In all of Westerly RI.

The third act had just started. For the first few minutes we all just waited. The small theatre with its old church-pew seating lit a dim red by the emergency exit signs. Five minutes went by. Ten. Someone told the stage manager that it wasn’t just our building or street, but that all of Westerly had lost power. Fifteen minutes.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are going to have to cancel the rest of tonight’s performance due to the power outage. There are some seats available for tomorrow’s final matinee, if you are interested, please leave your name with one of the staff at the door. We sincerely regret the inconvenience.”

Summer in Westerly RI does not attract the youngest, hippest of crowds. Summer stock theatre in Westerly RI doubly does not. Needless to say there were a lot of older people in our audience. When I say all the lights were off, I mean all the lights. There was no moon out (though I cannot remember if it was cloudy or just that the moon was already set or yet to rise or just a new-ish moon), and the streets of Westerly were dark. So I, along with the other interns, grabbed flashlights and escorted audience members to their cars. Luckily most were parked together in the church parking lot across the street, though making sure that none of them got separated from the pack or tripped on a curb made the going a bit slow. When that was done, and all our patrons were safely driving home, we figured that the Shakespeare-in-the-Park people would need similar help as they had a bigger audience who would have parked all over the Main St. area of Westerly. So we headed into the park. As we came closer and closer to the performance site, I began to hear voices. Not, however, the milling sounds and confused hubub I had expected. The voices I heard were reciting Shakespearean dialogue. I remember thinking to myself, they are doing the show? They are doing the fucking show?!

As I rounded the bend in the path that revealed the performance space, I saw a group of about twenty people with flashlights sitting near the playing area and lighting the actors as they came front and center to deliver their parts. No action, no staging, just committed actors and a language that remains, in the right hands, stunningly poetic. When done right, and if you give it your full attention, Shakespeare’s poetry is not something that you merely listen to. Like all good poetry, it reverberates in your muscles, your gut, your heart. Here, on that dark summer night and in the dark lit feebly by twenty flashlights, were actors stripped of all artifice and amplification, but committed fully to the lines because, behind that thin semi-circle of light were 200 or so people…and they were listening. Never before or since have I experienced an outdoor performance with an audience that intent, that silent, that focused.

I went to the front of the audience and added my flashlight to the scene and watched the final scene of the show, feeling the energy and focus of the audience like a laser beam on the actors and their lines. I thought to myself, This is the best birthday present ever.

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