Posted October 07, 2016 in Articles
Author: Finn Wittrock
Wolfe and I can hear the audience gathering on the hill, but we are busy in the Rose Garden, choreographing our sword fight with fresh sticks we’ve procured from the woods. “Head, leg, leg, stab, spin move,” Wolfe says.
“Yeah, I know, try it again,” I say, and swing my stick toward his head.
He blocks, then head, leg, leg, stab, spin. We high five; this fight is looking sick!
A panicked Rory breaks the moment, running toward us: “Guys, they’re asking where you are.” Wolfe asks: “What is it, 15 minutes?”
“No, it’s places!” Rory yells. Wolfe and I turn to each other in panic: “Places?!”
We sprint to the dressing room, throw off our Vans and put on Elizabethan boots, toss tunics straight over our Nirvana T-shirts, and run around the woods to make our entrance on Shakespeare & Company’s verdant outdoor stage in Lenox, Mass.
The lights go down, and the company’s 1998 production of “The Merchant of Venice” is underway. I make my cue by a hair’s breadth. The crowd members needn’t worry that night. They will indeed be graced by Leonardo, Bassanio’s page, uttering those immortal words: “Yonder sir, he walks!” (And those words retire the great part of Leonardo).
I was born in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. I lived there until I was 6, then moved to Evanston, Ill., and later to Los Angeles. But every summer for most of my youth, I would go back East with my brother, my mom and my dad, who most summers was acting or teaching for Shakespeare & Company. I would often be cast as a page or an altar boy in one of the professional productions.
I went in lieu of a summer camp; I went to romp in the Berkshires, see old friends, get out of the city. But mostly I went for the Very Young Company.
Starting at the age of 8 and until I was 16, my oldest friends and I would get together every summer: Rory, Reilly, Wolfe, and later my brother, Dylan, and Wolfe’s brother, Tiger (yes, their real names) would arrange five or six scenes from Shakespeare, rehearse them on our own time in the sun-drenched Berkshire afternoons and perform them for the adult company after one of their Mainstage shows. We began the company ourselves and it ended when we were no longer “very young.”
For a kid, it was an epic undertaking; an outlet for pre- and post-adolescent energies. We were totally self-motivated; nobody told us to do it, which was in itself an incentive. We’d choose a scene based on our own criteria: Had the company done it before? Could we make fun of them for it? Could we put Reilly in a wig and have him play a girl? And, most important: Did it end in a sword fight?
The actors and crew and most of the company would stick around after the Mainstage play on the chosen evening, and having imbibed considerably during the 45 minutes it took us to set up, would become a raucously enthusiastic audience for us. This may account for the nausea-inducing camera movements visible in recordings of Very Young Company performances.
Back then it was pure excitement, pure enthusiasm — a purity of energy I still chase to this day.
True, we were childish. Plenty of the language was half-understood. We played for laughs. We played for what we’d seen before, either in mockery or adulation. We played for the thrill of it, for the sake of it, and for no other reason.
Now, roughly 15 years after the final Very Young Company performance, I’m going back to Shakespeare & Company to do a reading of “Hamlet.” As I think about the part’s long shadow, the countless examinations over the centuries, I am forced to recall those days of liberated crazy kid-enthusiasm, when any opportunity to be onstage would have been met only with pure unquestioning exuberance.
I’ve studied acting at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and at Juilliard, and have been given the gift of collaborating with heroic actors, directors and writers who have taught me wonders just through their work. Most of my life has been dedicated to the study of acting, and I count myself blessed for it.
But sometimes I yearn to have the boldness of one who knows nothing, who jumps onstage for no other reason than because he is young and has a loud voice. All that education can make the task of reading “Hamlet,” preparing to play the part, feel daunting.
I played Happy in Mike Nichols’s production of “Death of a Salesman” a few years ago on Broadway. I remember Mike, referring to the unabashed chutzpah of his youth, saying with bewilderment, “Why was I so confident back then? I had no business being that confident.”
And yet he attributed most of his early success to that unreasonable confidence.
In a way Hamlet is facing his own crisis of confidence. “I am pigeon-livered and lack gall,” he laments. It takes the entire play for him to build the self-esteem to face his task head on, and this is met with the newfound credo “the readiness is all.”
Just like I am, Hamlet seems to be summoning the guts to play Hamlet. I’m sure that’s a wildly oversimplified version of the task at hand, but maybe it’s a decent place to start.
Lately I’ve been quick to remind people who ask about my return to Lenox for “Hamlet” that “it’s not a big deal — it’s just a reading.” Would my 9-year-old self ever utter such a disclaimer? I think not; he would leap up and exclaim: “Yes I am doing ‘Hamlet.’ And it’s gonna be awesome!”
No one gave us permission to do the Very Young Company; no one ordered us to do it, and no one had to boost our confidence to do it. We just did it. We were just kids howling Shakespeare to the Berkshire trees, and our readiness was all.
Finn Wittrock, an Emmy-nominated actor, will appear this season in “Othello” at New York Theater Workshop and in “The Glass Menagerie” on Broadway. He returns to Shakespeare & Company for a reading of “Hamlet” on Saturday.
(A version of this article appears in print on October 16, 2016, on page AR9 of the New York edition with the headline: ...I Started a Theater Company)
Photographs by Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times