“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.”
“Twelfth Night” (Act II, Scene V)
Several years ago, the company formerly known as North Coast Shakespeare Ensemble moved from an archaic venue on Cleveland’s east side to downtown’s state-of-the-art Hedley Theatre, expanded its offerings from all things Shakespeare and renamed itself North Coast Theater. Its season now consists of a musical and two modern plays to go with two Shakespeare productions in an effort to attract a larger pool of potential subscribers and challenge the company’s core of classically trained performers.
I fear Shakespeare. Actually, I have what my friend Larry – a soft-spoken UC Berkeley-educated therapist – described as an “irrational, mind-numbing neurosis.” I am not alone in my trepidation. An entire book series called “No Fear Shakespeare” was created to decipher Shakespeare’s plays for the flustered, fearful, floundering masses. The website eNotes.com offers a page on “How to Read a Shakespeare Play” that opens with this consoling tidbit: “Admit it. You’re a little bit scared of Shakespeare. It’s a completely understandable response because his plays, after all, are the Mount Everest of English-language literature.”
That sounds about right. The air gets thinner when I read or see a Shakespeare play. My brain spins as I try to decipher incomprehensible Elizabethan text that at once seems so enticingly familiar yet remains so foreign and at a distance – like Mount Everest’s peak, which exists 8,848 meters above sea level. I know this because my friend Larry suggested I try to visualize my fear of Shakespeare as a way of conquering it, like patients battling lymphoma. My fear is ice-capped and as expansive as the Himalayan mountain range that straddles Nepal and Tibet. I am a mess.
In a few months, North Coast Theater will hold auditions for the musical “Sweeney Todd” and I propose my participation to the theater’s producing artistic director, Andrew Ganz, in his ninth-story corner office in The Arcade, within walking distance of the Playhouse Square theater district. The room is so cluttered with resumes, discarded scripts and theater memorabilia that there is scarcely room for the two of us.
Andrew is a tall, lean drink of water with a full head of wavy, insolent light brown hair that manages to find its way into one eye or the other so it can be dramatically swept away. He loves the idea of an embedded critic and the promotional value it would generate. But he informs me that, as a partnership organization that shares production costs and performances with another theater, “Sweeney Todd” will open at the Taos Shakespeare Festival in New Mexico before coming to Cleveland. Andrew looks down at the production schedule and sees that a show earlier in the season, a comedy, would be staged and open in Cleveland and there were plenty of small roles that I could audition for. Would I be interested? “Perfect,” I tell him, “let’s do this.”
We shake hands on the deal and Andrew says that the play is Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”