New York, August 15th 2014 | Andre Holland
When Danai first approached me to lead a Shakespeare and August Wilson acting workshop in Zimbabwe, I was equal parts thrilled and terrified. My career thus far involved mostly working as an actor, and my teaching experience was minimal. In preparation, I scoured through all my old acting notes and brushed up on the eight plays we would cover in class. More than anything, I wanted our group of actors to feel and function like a true ensemble in our two weeks together. It was vital that every person feel empowered, speak their mind, and make bold choices while also supporting the work of their comrades. Though I was asked to teach this workshop, it became quite clear that I would be learning a great deal myself. ”
The Shakespeare was a real challenge for us. As Shakespeare’s plays are rarely performed in Zimbabwe, most of the students only knew him from school books or YouTube videos. In our first read-thru of the scenes, most of the language was extremely unclear. We discovered that we only ‘kind of’ knew what we were saying. We found that we needed to be much more specific. It was then that we all agreed to eliminate the phrases, ‘kind of’ and ‘sort of’ from our collective vocabulary and commit to pursuing clarity with a fine-tooth comb. Then, the real fun started. We began to play.
One of our biggest challenges was finding the balance between honoring the playwright’s words while also making our scenes personal and immediate. Most of us, myself included, have a tendency to fall into playing the general sound or ‘style’ of Shakespeare (whatever that is) and forget that we are allowed, indeed compelled, to bring all of our idiosyncratic selves to the work. Our ensemble agreed that we would challenge each other to keep playing from an honest place and whenever we sensed inauthenticity or a general Shakespearean sound, we’d stop and try again.
That’s one of the many things I came to love about this extraordinary group of artists their willingness to challenge one another. For example, very early on we got into the famous Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet. The actor playing Romeo was having a difficult time with the first speech. As agreed, our group stayed on him and kept signaling that they didn’t believe what he was saying. Then, something opened up for him and he suddenly sounded like himself and moved as he moved and seemed to be thinking real thoughts! The speech was simple and beautiful and uniquely his. After the scene, we asked him about his experience and he said that he had been feeling like he had to put on something extra in order to be this character. He told us that he had watched YouTube clips of the scene and felt that he had to do a version of that in order to be good. Though the pursuit for authenticity was grueling that day, this brave actor taught us that we have within us all we need to play these parts. There is no need to pile and put on any of the received ideas we have about Shakespeare. ”
We continued to explore the need for specificity and imagination in our August Wilson scenes. While some of the actors had once encountered Shakespeare, I don’t believe any of them had read or seen August Wilson. While working on a scene from Seven Guitars, I asked the actress to go back and really make clear for herself what it was that she was saying. Up until that point, the short scene had felt light and funny providing us with expository information. But when she took her time going through it, she found something in the words that moved her to tears. The moment changed the air in the room. The scene went from being a casual chat about love to a deeply personal exchange about disappointment, heartbreak and hope shared between two friends. I feel so very fortunate that I was there to witness this moment. She had such power and vulnerability and desire. It was magical! She was our teacher that day.
In addition to working in the classroom, I spent some time in the Harare community. The Almasi staff and I visited a number of places sharing some of our work with other artists and members of the community. Fortunately for us, the HIFA arts festival was taking place so we also got to take in some amazing performances. A dance troupe from Zimbabwe called Tumbuka really knocked my socks off! Their commitment and passion for what they were doing was palpable and was, again, a lesson for me. One of the most difficult and also rewarding days I had in Harare was when we visited an orphanage just outside the city. We spent the afternoon there with the most beautiful, resilient, joyful children. We talked together, played games together, and then had ice cream together. It touched me very deeply.
Danai told me that this workshop would be life-changing and she was absolutely right. The actors I worked with were brilliant! I cannot overstate just how special they are. In our short time together we taught each other to be brave, to be vulnerable, to be honest and to be more compassionate towards one another. And we developed for ourselves a way into these plays that felt authentic. It was all that Danai had said it would be and much more. The experience truly was an exchange of artistry, ideas and culture and I’m certain that I got the better end of the deal.