Through the English-Speaking Union (ESU) National Shakespeare Competition, students read, analyze, perform and recite Shakespearean monologues and sonnets in three qualifying stages: at the school, community and national levels. Approximately 2,500 teachers and 20,000 students in nearly 60 ESU Branch communities participate each year. In 2018, Julia “Jules” Talbot placed third in the national competition, winning a full tuition scholarship to a session of the ASC Theatre Camp. As we approach the final round of this year’s competition (held in Lincoln Center Theater on April 29), and Jules — now a freshman at NYU — prepares to return to Staunton as a Production Intern for ASCTC 2019, she takes a look back on her experience last year as an ESU competitor and an ASC theatre camper.

In the annual National Shakespeare Competition, twenty thousand high schoolers from across the country perform a sonnet and monologue of around twenty lines from the canon, and the final fifty-five compete at Nationals in New York City. The ESU (English-Speaking Union) releases a selection packet of performance materials a month before the preliminary round. Picking your sonnet and monologue is a careful, even tactical undertaking. Aim for something unique, but not unknown—not Mark Antony, but maybe not The Abbott of Westminster, either. Then, consider the likelihood someone else will perform it—this is mostly guesswork, but an entertaining, if futile, hypothetical exercise, and a great way to procrastinate actually rehearsing. When I competed last year, my choices, after rereading thirty-six plays and attempting to predict the trends, were Sonnet 129 and Richard from Richard III, 5.3.189-213.

That monologue is Richard’s sleepless night before his death in the Battle of Bosworth.

It’s an identity crisis, spiritual reckoning, dissociative episode, or, as I read it, a sort of psychological cannibalism. Having betrayed everyone else there is to betray, Richard’s treachery turns upon the last man standing, himself: “Alas,” he realizes, “I rather hate myself.” It’s a rather dramatic monologue, involving a fair bit of screaming, writhing around in spiritual agony, wrestling with the depths of a tortured subconscious, and the like. I rehearsed every Thursday after school with my English teacher. At first, the wails in the school corridors of “Give me another horse!” and “Bind up my wounds!” attracted the occasional concerned guest into classroom B221, but by the second Thursday, alarm was replaced by unconcerned acceptance. Teachers floated in to remark on the day’s screaming: “It was better the other day,” or “Nobody give you that horse yet?”

Actually, the only reason I entered the competition was because Mr. Bowen-Flynn, the English teacher informally coaching me, competed in it when he was in high school, advancing all the way to Regionals with Sonnet 130 and a Hotspur monologue—and, because he gave me an A- on what I maintain was a fantastic Hamlet presentation, I intended to best him. Never did the possibility occur to me that I might actually succeed beyond my petty revenge. But by what felt like a series of oversights, I kept advancing, and advancing, and advancing in the competition: from the School round, to the Branch qualifying round, and then to the Branch Competition, until of ten finalists in Massachusetts, I was the one on a Peter Pan bus with an overnight bag and an annotated copy of the Folger Richard III, heading to New York City to represent the Boston Branch at Nationals.

 

Semifinalists gathered at Lincoln Center in NYC for the final round of the 2018 National Shakespeare Competition.

 

Nationals were at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater in Lincoln Center on April 23rd, the day of our Bard’s birth. The 23rd was a Monday, but most of the finalists arrived at the ESU’s Manhattan headquarters on Sunday morning. Fifty-five teenage thespians, overcrowded on settee lounges, convened in a foyer with a cardboard cutout of Shakespeare. Lots of the finalists knew each other from previous years, and a few I recognized from YouTube videos of past competitions. Some of them had ranked in the top ten before. I had no idea what to expect from them: would they be students from performing arts academies, or seasoned veterans of nationwide acting competitions? Would there be rivalry? Strife? Perhaps sabotage? Would actors mysteriously die in ways that eerily mimicked their characters’ fates, like a Shakespearean Clue? Actually, what I encountered was the opposite: a group of young people who, despite meeting under the circumstances of a competition, were uniquely welcoming, and diversely gifted. What surprised me most was the astounding ease and friendliness with which they carried themselves: a casual self-assurance. The competition, rather than being divisive, was bringing people with a common interest— a relatively uncommon common interest, at that—together.

My anxiety didn’t stem from any desire to win; I was just scared of embarrassing myself. Rehearsing one monologue for so long—the School Round of the competition was in January, and Nationals in early April—is unlike any other type of rehearsal. Four months in one moment of a character’s life. Four months of the same twenty lines. Four months of one hundred and fifty-nine words. Four months of minutiae (is this a surprised “alas,” or a disturbed “alas”?), of decisions and revisions (perhaps it’s a perturbed “alas”), of microscopic attention to punctuation (how does one perform a semicolon? Is a semicolon about the same length as an em dash? Should the actor clearly discriminate between semicolons and em dashes, and if my semicolon has the duration of a colon, instead, will the judges deduct points?), of second-guessing basic assumptions about the text, of overthinking, and of increasingly overwhelming feelings of inadequacy. Maybe I’d read the play incorrectly. Maybe I’d misinterpreted Richard completely. It seemed the more I read this text, the less I knew about it—Shakespeare is like that.

Semifinalists warming up before their performances.

That night at the hostel, unable to sleep, I mouthed Richard’s monologue for hours: “Give me another horse …,” and another horse, and another. Sometime in those a.m. hours, I was suddenly compelled to rehearse in the hallway. Whenever the elevator dinged, I scrambled to hide: a teenage Richard III in her pajamas, crawling around a Manhattan hostel at 3:19 a.m. At 6:00 a.m., I still had not slept, and went blearily to a catered bagel breakfast; at 6:30, on the bus from the hostel, I ate my bagel with great solemnity, anticipating doom; and by 7:00, the finalists were assembled at Lincoln Center.

Audience members sat in the semicircle orchestra of the Mitzi Newhouse, a theatre in the round. The performance order was random, three sections of about twenty, and between every section, actors had ten minutes to prepare onstage—ten minutes of frantic, cacophonous rehearsal, snippets of all of Shakespeare’s canon simultaneously. Ten minutes of Act Three of As You Like It, and Act Two of Julius Caesar, and Act Four of The Merchant of Venice. Ten minutes of characters, who would never share a stage under any other circumstances, standing elbow to elbow: Falstaff and Hamlet, Romeo and Tamora. That’s the strange thing about plays, dramatic events reenacted again and again, and the characters who inhabit them: we resurrect these characters again and again in performance, their lives ending and unending and restarting in perpetuity with every actor. When the last section, my section, went onstage, I practiced writhing in Richard’s spiritual agony (“Alas, I rather hate myself …  Alas, I rather hate myself … ”) as I had practiced for months, and all at once the beautiful absurdity of the scene washed over me: dozens of strangers pacing in circles, repeating themselves. I almost felt bad for our characters, who will never escape their stories: Richard has died, is dying, and will die again at Bosworth, forever.

The winners of the 2018 National Shakespeare Competition with ESU Board Chair Dr. Paul Beresford-Hill.

Out of fifty-five finalists, I placed third.

Maybe I should’ve played Richard II.

The day after Finals, a Tuesday, a morning announcement on the Medford High intercom proclaimed my victory. Mr. Bowen-Flynn high-fived me; he did not seem particularly bothered that I had bested him. There was no more screaming in classroom B221. And that was mostly that. An aptitude for Shakespeare, like most inclinations of the geeky sort, doesn’t really have much utility in day-to-day high school life; sometimes, as much as I loved it, that love felt superfluous, unnecessary, even embarrassing. That weekend at the National Shakespeare Competition was one of the first times that my talent, or more importantly, my interests, felt truly valuable. But the only lasting documentation was a YouTube video, t-shirt, and an engraved ESU plaque. Frankly, it didn’t feel real. It was Cinderella’s ball, an excursion away from real life. And if it was real, my success still felt entirely by accident, a series of random and unearned events.

A few weeks after the competition, the ESU contacted me with an opportunity: a scholarship to the American Shakespeare Center’s Theatre Camp, ASCTC, in Staunton, Virginia. I’d never been to The American Shakespeare Center; I’d also never been to Virginia. I said yes, but admittedly not without reservation. A summer camp? I’m a counselor at a summer camp; the last time I was a camper, I was fourteen. I’d be eighteen that summer. Wouldn’t I be awkwardly overgrown? Wouldn’t the whole National Shakespeare Competition backstory come across as hyper-competitive and overbearingly hardcore, which I absolutely am not? Maybe the staff, campers, or random passers-by on the streets of Staunton would realize that I’m a bad actor and report me to the ESU, and the ESU would confiscate my beloved plaque.

ASC theatre campers [including Jules, center] get “Ralphed” by ASC co-founder and Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen [far left].
I packed my overnight bag and my copy of Richard III.

On the first day of ASCTC, after arriving in Staunton, campers gathered in a Mary Baldwin lecture hall for an orientation. It was a lot like that first day at the ESU’s headquarters, another cascade of new faces and names of actors who already knew each other. Who were these people? Why were they hugging me?  Who was this indomitable woman with a pixie cut saying camp was “magic”? My first instinct was to hide: for the first few weeks of camp, I retreated to my dorm room immediately after rehearsal. I was overwhelmed by the friendliness of camp—more than friendliness, the enthusiastic embrace. Maybe counterintuitively, I started to do theatre in the first place because it provided anonymity. Theatre was an escape from my intense self-consciousness: I wasn’t myself onstage, but a character, the mutual creation of many imaginations, the director’s and the playwright’s and every audience member’s. Onstage, I am my most invisible. But then, these people seemed to like me when I wasn’t in character.

Plus, the beauty of the American Shakespeare Center itself was astonishing: a recreation of the historical Blackfriars, where cast members wear doublets, breeches, and jeans, and sing before every performance, and shout “Prithee!” when they forget their next line. It was the most vibrant Shakespeare I’d ever seen. At the ASC, they’re actor-scholars: the Blackfriars is not only a theatre, but a research hub for Elizabethan drama. Actor-scholar. I assumed those professions were one-or-the-other, either-or: theatre or academia, art or scholarship, performance or text. But the ASC offered both at once, a joyful synthesis, all of that intellectual rigor and explosive creativity happening simultaneously onstage every day.

It’s hard to explain the Camp effect—“magic” might actually be it. It’s an alternate reality where everyone wants to play Mercutio. Also, they’re all really friendly, and play Secret Sonnet, and card games like Bards Dispense Profanity, and talk excitedly about scansion, and make awful puns on the titles of plays, and will agree to write Hamlet fanfiction in the common room on a rainy day. Beyond Shakespeare, campers have so many other talents, too. Campers are musicians skilled in one, two, eleven instruments; they’re creative writers, singers, gymnasts, acrobats, and licensed fight choreographers trained in Denmark (what?). They’re ASCTC old-timers and fresh-faces; they’re freshmen in high school and graduating seniors. Passion, and the unabashed display of those passions, is part of daily life at camp—it’s cool. But even though it’s so different from everyday life, it’s not really noticeable, because it just feels right, a feeling so novel there that it took awhile to even name what it was: belonging.

Jules [center] in rehearsal for the ASCTC 2018 production of PERICLES with director Marshall B Garrett [left].
It’s hard to adequately express the enduring impact that the ESU and ASCTC have had on me artistically, academically, and personally, introducing me to new communities, possibilities, and even ways of viewing myself—with confidence.

After my first semester of college, I returned to my recent alma mater for the school round of the 2019 National Shakespeare Competition—presumably, as an audience member, until Mr. Bowen-Flynn slid a scoring rubric across the desk and said, “Help yourself,” and as of that abrupt promotion, I became a judge.

To be honest, being a judge instead of a competitor, observing rather than acting, at first stirred up a bittersweet ambivalence. I felt—however unfounded the feeling was—possessive of my experience, reluctant to relinquish it to the next person. That memory was mine. Richard was mine. Could I pass them on?

When the first actor performed, that reluctance evaporated.

My view of theatre used to be pretty dystopian: Richard dying and un-dying and re-dying. But this was different. This was a type of regeneration. We chose this year’s Shakespeare Champion of Medford, Massachusetts, and the ESU Boston Branch chose their 2019 Representative to send to New York, and Finals at Lincoln Center are once again approaching, and soon another student will win another scholarship to ASCTC. There will even be another Richard III. I hope that he relishes that monologue, and scaring teachers in adjacent classrooms, and rehearsing in a Manhattan hostel. I hope that he meets lifelong friends at camp, and also plays Bards Dispense Profanity in the Mary Baldwin common room. I hope he benefits from everything I benefited from: the kindness, generosity, and opportunities offered by the ESU and ASCTC. I hope he finds that belonging, too.

And I hope somebody will finally give him that horse.

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