Thursday, January 8, 2015


Our doubts are traitors
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.
Measure for Measure Act I, Scene IV

2014 was an important year for me, with the publication of my memoir, Teaching Will: What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me That Hollywood Couldn't.

I began 2014 filled with resolve and a serious resolution defined by one word: ease.

I was well aware of the mood swings and pitfalls the publishing business could throw writers into and I was determined to avoid that angst. I would meditate every day and do yoga five times a week. I would flow like a river over any bumps or disappointments. I would sustain a giggly joie de vivre and not let that other stuff get me down. No, sir.

Ease. Ease on down the road. Oh yes.

Here's how that went:

I failed. Miserably and consistently. It got to me. The disappointments and the scary what-if-the-book-flops scenarios plagued me daily and the only thing that improved as my moods sank were my headstands. I did so much yoga that I'm as much at home upside down as I am right-side up.

However, around the house, my husband noticed that I'd stopped humming. That there was barely anything or anyone that escaped my scathing criticisms. I'd read the morning news and make catty remarks about politicians, entertainers, and all those other writers getting top-notch press. I'd pick out typos in the newspaper and snarl. Worse, I'd gripe at my husband for tiny infractions. I was not my best self and certainly not someone you'd describe as "at ease with herself."

Here's what I learned in 2014: When I feel inadequate, when I think that I'm a loser and see myself as a junk heap, I'm intolerable and I pick fights.

And I'm not alone in this. When many of us believe that we are less, we take it out on the world. And when those signs show up, there are only a couple of ways I know of to end the grouchies. Starting with: Talk about it and declare what's going on in a solid voice: "I feel like a pile of rubbish."

Working with kids I often heard:
"Ms. Ryane! He's picking on me!"
"Ms. Ryane, tell her to stop!"
"Ms. Ryane, Ms. Ryane, he's bugging me!"

And I get it. Someone's not feeling so good about themselves and acting out. If it's taken me into adulthood to piece this together, what do we expect of children?

It's not enough to yell, "Stop it. Cut it out right now!"

No one can give someone self-esteem. None of us can repair others' damaged psyches. But we can talk about it and get them to talk about it. Out loud. In solid voices.

Generosity is often born of a sense of well-being, but that state can be fleeting. The other solution for grumps is to act benevolent even on days when we feel like crap. Taking even one step to aid another can levitate our sorrow. This, too, we can help kids learn.

So, here we are in 2015, in fine fettle because it's all so new and fresh and possible. I've downgraded my resolution to something more reasonable: Use less water.

Somedays I fail.


I learned that I can do anything I like I can be anyone I want I learned that I can do Shakspear.

Well when I was performing in Shakspear I was nerves and scared my fingernails were sweting and I when I saw all the students I was scared. I didn’t think I could do the hole play and when I did my part my legs were shaking and I though was not gowing to live.

Well when I was scared up there I just went for it and did my best I was proud of my self when I did my lines.

—Celia, 5th grade

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Finding the Light

'Twas a rough night.
Macbeth Act II, Scene III

An acquaintance recently told me she and her family were off to Ohio for the holidays. They hadn't been home for Christmas in nine years. This is in keeping with recent surveys telling us that holiday travel is up this year. Trains, planes and automobiles are gassed and ready to go.

I wonder why. The economy hasn't improved that much, and yes, oil prices have dropped, but airline tickets haven't. What gives?

This is only speculation, but I suspect it's because 2014 was a pretty crap year. You were there, you saw the headlines and the heartbreak. Much of our world mayhem was human-made but, of course, Mother Nature kept up her share of the calamity. It got to the point that opening my laptop, unrolling the newspaper or clicking on the TV would cause my stomach to clutch. Every day I brace for more horrible news of devastating illness, missing planes, acts of terrorism, more guns fired, bone-chilling cyber wars, or all those hurt children. As a global community we are walking around in a near constant state of dismay.

Maybe this is why we want to gather and return to the familiar. To hug a little closer and laugh a little louder. Maybe we need to share delicious food across tables with those we know and recall sweeter times.

I can't wait to say "So long!" to 2014.

So what to do? How can we hope for better in 2015? We seem to be in a battle of mythic proportions between light and dark — and dark is taking the lead. This is the base camp of our deepest fear, that the light will lose to the dark.

Let us gather and celebrate our Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year's Eve with the familiar. Let us find strength and fortitude, then let us branch out. Perhaps if we move into the unfamiliar and challenge ourselves, we can fan the light.

I was recently told this: Neuroscientists say one of the best things you can do for your brain is step out of your comfort zone, generating new brain circuitry and nourishing healthy neuro-plasticity.

It can start small. Read a book to a kid you don't know, praise a stranger, carry a grocery bag to somebody's waiting trunk, I don't know, I'm spitballing here — but I do know this, there is a fountain of youth and well-being in the act of reaching out. I can tell you firsthand that the more difficult the undertaking, the greater the reward. It should be a little uncomfortable to climb a new mountain.

I wonder if more of us did more good for more strangers that we could whip up the embers of light and win.

I wish you a tender-hearted holiday season and a new year of health, adventure and giving.

It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. 
It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.
—Anne Frank, July 15, 1944

last photo from Gulfport Sunrise

Thursday, November 6, 2014

An Age-Old Story

Stop me if you've heard this:

An elderly parent, quite possibly losing his faculties, engages in domestic discord with his offspring. The adult children quibble with the parent and each other as property is divvied up and brain marbles plop out and roll across the shiny floors of a manse.

It's almost impossible these days to avoid news articles on Alzheimer's, dementia, living wills and how to have "that talk" with an aging parent. As it turns out, the Elizabethans dealt with similar issues and our old pal, William Shakespeare, wrote it down in King Lear.

Of course, the Bard being the Bard, he escalates the plot to dizzying heights. Sisters fight over a lover, spike drinks with poison, send old friends into the stocks and yank out eyeballs. As with all of Shakespeare's tragedies, the audience is left to count up the bodies.

It's great fun to watch other families handle their business so errantly.

I had the pleasure of attending opening night of the Globe Theatre's production of King Lear at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. In keeping with the original style of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre — which, by the way, burned down because real cannon fire was used in the war scenes — this production is set on a rustic stage without lighting changes. The actors and the audience are lit as if they are all gathered on a sunny day in London circa 1607.

This production of King Lear was directed by Bill Buckurst, with only eight actors playing all the parts. I applaud the sheer energy and imaginative approach of this production. Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia, is all one hopes the character to be in the hands of Bethan Cuillinane. Astonishingly, this same actor takes on the task of playing the Fool. With vocal and physical changes she clambers all over the King, teasing and pulling off some very tricky Shakespearean jokes.

Her duplicitous sisters, Goneril (Gwendolen Chatfield) and Regan (Shanaya Rafaat) gambol about the stage singing, playing musical instruments, and additionally taking on many male roles.

Bill Nash, as the loyal Kent, is committed to giving his all, as is Daniel Pirrie, having a whale of a time as the evil Edmund. These actors also play multiple roles, with the slipping on of a hat, cloak and dialect adjustment. They are matched equally in skill and with a brazen attack on the text by Alex Mugnaioni as Edgar and John Stahl as the tragic and blinded Gloucester.

Topping off this adept and gifted cast is Joseph Marcell as the lord himself, King Lear. Marcell embraces the madness of a man losing his mind, his family and his royal status. His constant swerving and surprising choices had me agape and transfixed. Where would he go next? What would he do now?

No acting decision Marcell makes is expected, right down to his skewed and oh-so-human entrance carrying (spoiler alert!) the dead Cordelia. She is splayed in his arms as if he'd seized her off the floor in a moment of emotional reckoning.

A signature scene of King Lear is the storm sequence, and we're used to seeing this with all the high-tech bells and whistles modern theatre can provide. Not here. Not for the Globe Theatre, no siree. Every actor participates in creating the sounds of rain, thunder and swishing gales — yet I'm pretty certain I saw soaking-wet, windblown characters. Magnificent.

This acting ensemble provides universally strong performances, which is no mean feat because they are asked to do so much. Opening and closing the show, the actors joined together in a rousing, foot-stomping song that had me feeling transported through time as a likely groundling cheering for more blood, guts and family wrath.

The production runs until November 16th. The Broad Stage offers a 20% discount for weekday tickets: code LEAR.

photos by Ellie Kurttz

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Everybody Has a Story

I have a confession:

As autumn and winter settle in and early darkness descends, I enjoy evening neighborhood strolls because I spy. Yes, with my little eye, I spy.

Sometimes a family shouting over each other as they gather for dinner, or a lone fellow plucking strings on a guitar, or a couple in their armchairs watching a widescreen TV spilling images of the day's news. And I wonder about these people. I wonder if their dreams are fulfilled and if their disappointments are bearable because I know they each have a compelling story.

Recently, I guest taught a Shakespeare workshop to eleven-year-olds at an elementary school. Two sixth-grade classes gathered in a single classroom to participate. There was one teacher present. I began by storytelling Hamlet and his need for revenge. Once I'd completed my synopsis I said, "Pencils up! Five minutes, write about a time when you wanted revenge....Now, go!"

And they did, fast and furious, scribbling away as the minutes ticked by. Then I extended an invitation for them to share their writing aloud. You can imagine there were lots of BFF betrayals, and many sibling grievances, and terrible parental misunderstandings, all wholly unfair and deserving of revenge.

Then there was Alisha. A dark-haired girl in a yellow T-shirt with her tentative arm raised.

"Would you like to read what you've written?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, looking down at the paper clutched in her fingertips. "But I might cry."

"Okay," I held up a tissue box. "I'm ready, if you are. Go for it."

Alisha's sister had died. And Alisha wanted revenge on the drunk driver who killed her sister.

The tears came. The kids stared. The teacher was frozen in place because this wasn't her student, she did't know this girl and hadn't heard this story.

I moved toward Alisha with a handful of tissues and an arm ready to pull her close.

Are teachers trained for these moments? Are there practice sessions for such unexpected, shocking tales? I was thrust into a scenario of "Think fast and don't mess up!"

With my arm around Alisha's shoulders, I addressed the class because, above all, a teaching moment had presented itself. The kids' eyes were wide; they weren't sure what to do with this very real-life story.

"Alisha has demonstrated huge courage and we understand why she would want revenge."

What I witnessed next was a wave of empathy rising, en masse, from Alisha's peers.

"And here's the thing about art, " I continued. "Every dancer, singer, painter, musician, writer or actor has to have courage because their work carries their personal story. We don't just play Hamlet like he's some other guy. We play him as if he is us. We have to identify with his pain, his anger and his desire for revenge. Not everyone can do this. That's what makes the artist unique. The courage."

The tears were wiped, the nose was blown and a friend of Alisha's took her to the bathroom. Other children read their revenge stories and my hour with them came to a close. As I was bidding farewell, Alisha and her friend returned from the bathroom.

I took Alisha's face in my hands and said, "I wonder if you noticed that when you shared your writing, how much power you had? I wonder if you noticed that everyone listened and everyone cared? Your courage and your power will always stand by you, Alisha."

Yup, everybody has a story.

Shakespeare just wrote them down. Really, really well.


My characters name is Lord Capulet and he lives in Verona. He wants his daughter Juliet to mary a man named cout Paris. In the end the gangs learn a lesson. They learn the violence is rong.

This is my second year in the Shakespeare club. I'm not as nervous about the performance as I was last year because I am experienced and that will help me with this performance.

Many people have heard of the story "Romeo and Juliet" but most people don't know what the story is about. And it's mostly kids that don’t know. So the Shakespeare Club gives the kids a chance to perform real plays written by William Shakespeare.

—Cole, 5th grade

1: Recentering El Pueblo; 2: JoelMontes (Creative Commons BY-SA)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Book Is Born

In 2006, I wrote a memoir about my first year creating and running the Shakespeare Club at a Los Angeles public school.

In 2007, I met a literary agent who read my manuscript, called me to say it was "fresh, solid, original and delicious" — who the heck doesn't want to hear that? — and said she wanted to represent the book to publishers.

In 2008, the Great Recession hit and the book was not picked up by any editors.

In 2009, my agent suggested I start a blog — this very site — and I did, publishing posts about my fourth, fifth, and sixth years of running Shakespeare Club.

In 2013 — wonder of wonders — a publishing house wanted Teaching Will: What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me That Hollywood Couldn’t.

In 2014 — on August 12 — that book is born.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Julius Caesar Act I, Scene II

I'm not claiming to be remotely close to the genius of Shakespeare, but we have at least one thing in common: He had to bide his time, and I identify. He started as a water boy in the theatre. He had to run around doing errands for the higher-ups, all the while watching and listening to the works of others.

Then the Black Plague hit, theatres were closed and he holed up in a turret, writing poems for cash. William Shakespeare kept writing while he was forced to be patient. He honed his craft and we reap the benefits. I wonder...I wonder if he knows that over 400 years later, how many of his plays are on stages all over the world, every single minute of every single day?

I hope he does.

Shakespeare is fun. I like it because Shakespears words are so so pretty. I also like the plays romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Misdummers Night dream. Shakespeares words are so butiful and pretty did I mention that already. I joined the Shakespeare Club for two years because the shakespeare club sonded very fun.
—Emilia, 4th grade

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Juliet of the Subway

It happened this week.

It happened this way.

So I'm told by my friend, the writer Heather Summerhayes Cariou ("Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister's Memoir").

Heather was on a NYC subway train, seated near two middle-school girls. The teens were huddled together and poring over a book. One girl read aloud to the other. This alone was a sweet picture, but what were they reading with such intensity?

Heather leaned forward, hoping to glimpse the book's cover. Writers do this. We live, in hope, that our book may be the one in hand. We live, in hope, that any book will be in hand. As more and more commuters read Tolstoy on their smartphones, it becomes more difficult to gauge what the public is eating up word-wise.

Heather was delighted to see the girls gobbling up a modern adaptation of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Their interest made sense since Juliet is close in age to these teens, and Juliet is crazy in love with a teenage boy, and Juliet's parents would flip right out if they knew of her crush. Yup, there's a lot going on there for a couple of New York City teens to grasp.

Maybe Heather sat back and recalled her own discovery of Juliet. Heather might have been remembering her days in theatre school working on the role of Juliet. She may have smiled to think of how easy it was to identify with Juliet's passion for the boy Romeo since Heather herself had gone a little cuckoo for a certain tall young man.

In the confluence of a heart's memory on a city train and a young girl spouting the story to her friend, Heather slightly lost her mind. As the train neared her stop she stood, faced the girls, and said:

Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Heather told me this story and described the middle-school girls' dropped jaws at this middle-aged American woman briefly transforming into a teenage Italian girl in love. With perfect timing, Heather finished the speech and stepped onto the platform as the subway doors shooshed and closed behind her.

"It was like you were with me, Mel," Heather told me.

"And now you know the feeling," I answered. "Oh yes, kids get Shakespeare, all right."

After Heather told me her story I imagined those two girls rocking on the subway train, wondering if their Romeos would ever show up. And I imagined my friend wending her way home with thoughts of how many Romeos it took to find her one true Romeo.

Oh, William Shakespeare, here's to you at 450 years of age, continuing to entrance and inspire everywhere, all the time.

What I learned today is that Romeo didn't want the name Romeo Montague because he liked Juliet Capulet and the Montagues and Capulets had war.

The prince said "We must stop this fighting".

The Capulets and the Montagues fighting remines me of my mom and dad.

William Shakespere was telling us about themes because people just can fight and fight until their son or daughter dies.

My character is Juilet. She lives in a castle.

—Belinda, 3rd grade

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

I Get It

A few years ago I strolled past a fourth-grade classroom where a word had been tacked up:


with little kid essays hanging below.

I stopped cold because I hadn't learned the value of this word when I was nine. Oh no, I didn't learn the value of this word until I was well...well into adulthood and my therapist pointed out I was lacking in empathy.

"But my yoga handstand is improving..." I argued.

She delivered the steady gaze all psychotherapists must practice in therapy school.

In the lower-middle-class suburban home where I was raised, empathy was not on display. Instead, we lived with these behaviors:





Sympathy showed up in our household in chats about the circumstances of a neighboring family struggling more than we were. We felt sorry for those people. We grimaced at their lot. And we stayed distant as if touching would be contagious.

This is not empathy. It's not even good sympathy.

Empathy evokes compassion. Empathy is putting ourselves into someone else's shoes. Empathy is the kind ear of identification.

Maybe these words are a road map to empathic behavior:




Here's what that fourth-grade teacher knew:

We are never too young to reach beyond ourselves in empathy.

Here's what I know:

We are never too old to reach beyond ourselves in empathy.

Here's what we both know:

Empathy can and should be taught at every age.

I feel lonely at home then I read a book then I feel more lonely.

The meaning of lonely is being somewere without people talking to you, not being with you, and most of the time when you are lonely you are sad.

—Kate, 4th grade

Saturday, January 25, 2014

And a Child Shall Lead Them

I've been to my share of school meetings led by union presidents, school supervisors, politicians, principals, teachers and parent leaders of booster clubs.

I've heard my share of the rally cries, and those cries are more often than not:

"It's all about the kids! We must keep our focus on the children!"

Yippee, right on, you bet, and down with the sourpuss who doesn't agree with and espouse this credo, this battle cry for change and advancement in all aspects of educating the next generation.


That's me clearing my throat.


That's me shaking my head.


That's me with a sneeze and a thought.

For many years, when I ran The Shakespeare Club, filled with eager-beaver kids willing to leap the high bars of the Bard, our club was bullied by a teacher who, for whatever reasons, devalued our work.

This teacher did lots of things to stand in the way of our efforts and I'm not going to whine on and on to promote sympathy because that's not the gist of this story.

I will tell you one of this fellow's habits: his practice of delaying students for 30 to 40 minutes after class. He specifically liked to hold back the ten Shakespeare Club members on our meeting days.

Now, I only had 18 weeks of Shakespeare Club meetings per year and each meeting only lasted two hours, so if you added it up I was losing a lot of time with these children, they were losing a lot of their rehearsal time, and other members were losing their acting partners.

Of course, I tried with Mr. Teacher. I flattered, I made deals, I begged, I stood at the class door while he (with his feet crossed on his desktop) shrugged, smirked and said, "They like me!"

I pled with parents, the principal and the booster club for help. I suggested they form an army and stand outside the fifth-grade classroom at 2 p.m. every Wednesday and usher the students out.

"Because," I argued, "isn't it all about the kids? Isn't everything we're doing here about advancing education, encouraging maturity, awakening awareness? Shouldn't we teach the importance of commitment to the team?"

The kids...isn't it all about them?

Here's the irony.

During my last year with this school, as the club neared Performance Day and a huge chunk of the fifth-graders' practice had been eaten up by this teacher, I looked up one Wednesday at 2 p.m. to find all the fifth-graders walking into Shakespeare Club on time.

"Whoa...hey...great to see you guys," I said. "What happened?"

"Well, Ms. Ryane," said Ellie, who looked to have grown an inch or two that week, "we just said, 'We have to go now.' We just said, 'It's Shakespeare Club, Mr. Davis, and we have to leave.'"

"Then what happened?"

"Nothing. We're here is all."


Shakespeare is fun. I like it because Shakespears words are so so pretty. I also like the plays romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Misdummers Night dream. Shakespeares words are so butiful and pretty did I mention that already. I joined the Shakespeare Club for two years because the shakespeare club sonded very fun.
—Emilia, 4th grade

1st photo from Seeds and Fruit

Friday, December 20, 2013

Book It

Way back in 2005 I started an after-school Shakespeare program for little kids. The idea grew from two sources:

1. I was disturbed at high statistics of kids dropping out of school because they couldn't read;

2. I was creatively starved and needed a place to be.

By 2006 I'd written a memoir of my first year with The Shakespeare Club.

By 2007 in a heady swirl I was signed by a New York literary agent.

And then....

I ran the Shakespeare program for six years, I started this blog in 2009 to chronicle my adventures with the kids and I waited and waited as a recession took grip of the economy and my book didn't sell.

I learned for the billionth time that nothing happens in our time frames.

I kind of forgot about the book. I kind of gave up. I kind of moved on.

Last August while in New York City I met my agent for dinner.

She said, "I have some interesting news."

TEACHING WILL: What Ten Kids Gave Me That Hollywood Couldn't sold in August 2013 to Familius Press with a planned release of autumn 2014.

I'm currently waiting for editorial notes. And waiting for two of my novels to sell. And waiting for Santa to come down the chimney.

Note to self: NOTHING ever happens in your time frame. Give it up.

But kind of hang on too.

I would like a life of peace. Because my mom always says that she wants peace. When she gets her peace she feels better. I also want peace because I want a good job, a good family, food to put on the table and I want to be able to pay my rent. Most of all I love Peace. I like me too! Me me me me me Peace peace peace peace me me me me peace peace peace peace me me me me

I learned things while being the narrator. One thing I learned was that when I am on stage try not to laugh at the people who are acting funny parts. Another thing I learned that don’t be jumpy be centered. Ms.Ryane says that is cheesy. Before we did our last performance Ms.Ryane had us say "I am centered I am focused."

—Belinda, 4th grade

typewriter photo from The Classic Typewriter Page

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

From the Galaxy: Quvenzhané Wallis

This sometimes happens. A breathtaking talent sent from the stars to become a star among us. A supersonic arrival delivered to shake us up and make us wonder if, indeed, reincarnation exists. Because this child, this actor, this wonder landed on our movie screens full to the brim with something to say and the instrument to say it.

As if she'd burned up the stages of Europe in another era and wasn't finished. As if she demanded an encore and, five years after being (re)born in Houma, Louisiana, shouted, "I'm ready. Bring it on. I'm taking on the Western hemisphere."

Quvenzhané Wallis is the star of Benh Zeitlin's visual jewel BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. It is inconceivable to imagine the film without her. This is not to say she's not surrounded by talent — to be sure she is, most notably in a performance by Dwight Henry as her father — but it's this child's ferocity and immediacy that hold each frame in place and hold our hearts tight.

In an interview, Henry claims she would give him direction on the set. "Do it this way," she would say, then show him. In an even slightly older actor such behavior would be conduct unbecoming, but from a tiny girl one can forgive and be amazed.

I'm ambivalent about Wallis receiving an Oscar nomination. On the one hand, of course she deserves the honor and the red-carpet attention for her work. On the other hand, I fear for her future in the hands of Hollywood handlers.

This gifted actor was born for center stage with qualities that are unteachable. It's impossible to teach an actor to have an emotional instrument. It's there or it isn't. It's impossible to give an actor timing. It's there isn't. However, these qualities in her are still unrefined. If this bundle of talent sets sail without developing her craft, it would be heartbreaking. And there's the rub.

Hollywood is about profit. Wallis is now nine years old and a commodity. Hollywood managers, agents, directors, producers and studio heads tend to think, Don't damage the goods. There's an archaic view in the industry that raw ability will lose its punch or spontaneity in an acting class.

This opinion is infuriating. First and foremost, because she'll need the armor of craft to see her through a career. There are too many working directors who don't actually understand what an actor does or is capable of doing because they've never studied the craft. She'll need to know how to play her instrument like the Stradivarius it is. She'll need technique to give her backbone, to hold her strong and steady in the heady clouds of the Hollywood Hills.

I wish we could collectively embrace her in a blanket of protection. I hope she's being advised by one of the few smart ones in this town. I want her to fly as an actor for years and years, not just this year or next.

Quvenzhané Wallis is already gold. She doesn't need the statue. Not yet.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Free to Leave

Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action....
Hamlet Act III, Scene II

2012 marks the seventh season of The Shakespeare Club and the first year of the club without me.

I watched from the sidelines as Rachel, who had assisted the club for three years, took the reins and hit the trail. I helped where I could from my new position in the background. I gave Rachel a weekly curriculum with the admonition that she should tweak and toss as she saw fit. I gave her templates for letters to parents, teachers and the principal. But mostly I gave Rachel encouragement to venture forth into the role of director because I knew she would succeed.

On May 24, 2012, I attended two of the Shakespeare Club's performances of "Much Ado About Nothing."

It was, I promise you, much ado about something. My eyes teared up to see little actors wrestling with big text. My heart leapt as they discovered power. And I sighed with the surety that the club can and will go on.

The Shakespeare Club was an idea formed in 2005. A thought, a musing and an experiment...but it was never mine to keep. It was a seed meant to grow.

And it has. This was a relief. It can blossom anywhere, under different auspices and different leadership. This is most heartening.

At the end of last year I told the children I was leaving to travel and write. I have spent 2012 doing exactly that.

To sit in the audience and bear witness to the club flourishing was pure satisfaction. The kernel of an idea that popped into my head in the middle of the night seven years ago was worth pursuing, nurturing and passing forward.

When Rachel ran onstage after the final performance to embrace her cast and crew, I recognized the enormity of their pride. Olympians, all of them.

Here's what it took:

  • 1. Community support.
  • 2. An adapted script.
  • 3. Will.

That's all: Teaching Will.

You can do this.

Yes, I fifilled my goal because even though I didn't get the part I wanted to, the part I got I made him into a real person. I learned that Shakespeare was a grat person that wrote plays and was married and that he had kids. I also learned that Henry the 8 had 6 wives and remember all 6 I did, Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.
—Kamili, 5th grade

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

An Open Book

O, cut my lace in sunder, that my pent heart
May have some scope to beat....
Richard III Act IV, Scene I

In addition to gathering critical acclaim, the AMC series "Mad Men" is introducing a new generation of women, many of whom loathe the moniker feminist, to the lives of women in another time.

And as "Mad Men" is to advertising, so Janice "Jenny" Van Horne's memoir, "A Complicated Marriage" (Counterpoint Books), is to the mid-century era of modern American art.

I am crazy about this book. What young person leaping into adulthood doesn't wonder Who am I? and What's going to happen to me? Jenny Van Horne took me on a adventure that recalled my own questions and my own search. I was with her all the way through both the pain and exuberance of life in the city, in the country and coast to coast.

In compelling fashion, Van Horne takes her readers by the hand and, beginning in 1955, leads them decade through decade on a fascinating odyssey of time, place, culture and a marriage as modern as the art on the walls.

Jenny arrives in Manhattan as a Bennington graduate and at a cocktail party meets Clement Greenberg, the man who would become her partner and husband — and pariah to her anti-Semitic family.

Greenberg, an art critic many considered the best of his generation and perhaps of all time, was the man behind the artists who drove American modern art on to the world stage. These artists exploded like rockets into the stratosphere, and holding tight to their tails were their wives.

Quiet women at the ready to prop up their geniuses as the Scotch and vodka flowed and self-importance rattled forth. One of these wives took to humming as the men jabbered. Was she quelling her own madness?

In an ironic turn, many of these artists' wives have found their power as artists' widows. They are now the guards at the gate and the curators of the work. Now they can be heard. Now they can be respected.

Jackson Pollock

Van Horne quietly slips into the milieus of Greenwich Village, East Hampton and Provincetown. Jammed into the smoky atmosphere of Pollock, de Kooning and Kline, she paints delicious verbal pictures for us. We join her in tasting, hearing and feeling the silent desperation of a woman in search of purpose.

Once engaged, Clem informs her they'll marry "as long as nothing changes" and announces they'll enjoy an "open marriage." Of course, everything changes, and the concept of an open marriage is as foreign to this young wife as are the dazzling paint splashes of Jackson Pollock. Small wonder that "Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes..." became their song.

At acting classes at the HB Studio, then under the prickly scrutiny of Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, Jenny Van Horne finds her voice. As ensemble theatre takes hold, with actors and audience grappling in drug-induced protest against the war in Vietnam, she finds place. Change happens. Clem introduces the freedom of that open marriage and Jenny follows with her own experiences and unearths self.

Morris Louis

Jenny Van Horne's roles as wife, mother, actor, singer, writer, editor and witness transport us from the fifties through the nineties and into a new millennium, where introspection and forgiveness are offered.

Van Horne and Greenberg marry, divorce and marry again. Whatever drew them together in 1955 anchors the twosome to the end. It can be a tricky business to grow as an individual within the institution of marriage and I can't say this book convinced me that an open marriage is the ticket. However, I was left with the sense that Jenny and Clem knew themselves, respected and accepted each other and nurtured a deep affection...over a very long time.

On completion of this vivid read I wondered, "What now, Jenny Van Horne?" because I wanted more. More words, more pages, more people....What now, Jenny Van Horne?

She may well whisper, "Live your own life." And this too is the signature of a good book.