Have been considering for years if I wanted to sit down and write a "How To Direct Shakespeare" guidebook. I have also mulled over the possibility of doing a general sort of a podcast. Instead of one or the other, welcome to the Backstage At Upstarts podcast, where I roam around with my phone before rehearsal and give the listener some insight into my creative process, where the production is at the moment, what I plan to discuss with the cast, what has caught our attention, snatches of scenes or songs and possibly, a movie or book recommendation. It's a good way for me to focus, as well as get my very strong opinions on how to approach Shakespeare, comedy and leadership out there. Tune in.
Howdy, Michelle here with a quick update. Really quick, like a brisk run out into the cold air to get some sun, then sprint back in for tea.
No big news yet, as we are ALMOST ready to announce audition dates and locations for The Merry Wives of Windsor, and a space for most of our rehearsals. We are also working on our next fundraiser, a Kickstarter to raise money so we can stage The Merry Wives of Windsor this summer. Thanks to your support we have $500 in the bank, which is about 20% of what we are likely to need. What would you like to see us offer as rewards? Show shirts, picnic dinners, rehearsal in your backyard?
This is usually the time of year I hibernate and prepare to do Lunar New Year art. Instead, we've been busy behind the scenes, talking to insurance agents, friends, contacts, spreading the word about Upstart, researching things like Benefit Corporations and rediscovering important pieces of the recent past -- did you know I used to make stop motion animated films with puppets?
We will be announcing audition and rehearsal space information in February, with a Kickstarter soon after. Get excited for 2018. We are.
I think it is about time to meet Ashley Pierce, finally. So, I am Ashley, but before I begin to tell you why I love Shakespeare and Acting and Upstart and well all the amazing people you are going to read about, I need to preface something. I have feelings about Shakespeare…strong ones…sorry. Now that we got that out of the way allow me to tell you a little more about me and how I fit into this crazy puzzle known as Upstart Arts.
I cultivated my love for the Bard young, like when I first started to read young. My mom purchased me a copy of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. For those of you who do not know this publication it is in essence a handful of Shakespeare’s plays formatted in narrative stories. I read it in one day, probably less since at the time I just learned to read on my own and had a severe addiction (which never went away). Once done I went to her and asked for more. I was so enthralled with the tales and characters that I could not get enough. So, at the tender age of roughly 5 (mom was a kindergarten teacher so we did things early in our house) my mom purchased me my first Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night. I can still remember the first time I saw his writing style and how it didn’t seem hard to me to understand his meaning. Research actually shows introducing children to Shakespeare when they are first learning to read is the best way to help them comprehend the language. I devoured that play and asked for seconds, it wasn’t too long before I had read every play and knew I was hooked for life.
Shakespeare has become so much of who I am as a person that I decided to become an Actor. I have been performing in his works for over 19 years (off and on). I have performed in most of his plays, some plays multiple times, and have been cast as males and females throughout his cannon of work. My first play was Romeo and Juliet and I have performed in that work over 8 times. Shakespeare is so much a part of my life that I went to Graduate School and hold two Master’s degrees in Shakespeare and Performance.
All of this allowed me the opportunity when I was in high school to discover Theater Under the Trees, an outdoor touring Shakespeare show in the parks of York, PA. This is where I met all the amazing people who now make up Upstart Arts. I worked with them off and on since 2005, a few years I was out of state and could not perform with them. However, I always come back (they fed me once and now can’t get rid of me). So, when Upstart Arts started this year I knew I would do everything and anything I could to support and continue to work with these amazing, talented, intelligent, and wonderful people. (Plus, I keep trying to get them to give me the name of Supreme Overlord of Shakespeare).
I am looking forward to this upcoming season and the chance to start something new and wonderful with Upstart Arts, as we continue to bring theatre to York, Pennsylvania and the surrounding areas.
So who is this Michelle Denise Norton? And what is this Upstart Arts? You will find more answers to both of these questions as we progress, but for now, we'll dive into a quick primer.
I am Michelle Denise Norton and Shakespeare has been a part of my life since somewhen between the ages of 8 and 10, when Love burns with a pure fire, when I first read A Midsummer Night's Dream and wandered into a wood of magic and mischief and mystery, with such beautiful, beautiful words. Of course, I wanted to be Puck, who wouldn't, racing around, playing pranks, prancing hither and yon, teasing and taunting. Perfect for an active tween. And for 20 years, I directed Theatre Under The Trees, a program that gave youngsters the chance to discover the joy in Shakespeare before they were taught the fear. The only real requirement for participating in TUTT was a willingness to love the language, have fun and work to the best of your ability, whether you were 8 or 80...we had both ends of the age range over the years.
In high school, there was Portia and dreaming of being a lawyer, Rosalind and bending everyone to your will while wearing comfortable clothes (no heels)...in college, I should have sensibly and officially created an ad hoc degree, blending studies in Shakespeare, comparative literature, linguistics, and English history. Instead, I did it unofficially and relished pulling every Shakespeare related book off the Northwestern Library shelves I could find. One class spent an entire quarter on Hamlet. We read Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and spent a class discussing how you would dress Hamlet based on what kind of a melancholic he was represented as. On my shelves now, there is a translation of the essays of Michel de Montaigne from the 17th century, because it's in language William Shakespeare would have read. I saw a production of Julius Caesar set in Nicaragua in the 80's where the director had everyone die in Christ poses, arms and legs splayed out. I saw Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company do an incredibly stripped down Midsummer, dominated by a Puck who jumped in and out of a circular pit. And then all that reading and watching steeped for awhile. I moved to York, Pennsylvania, and began the apprentice part of my theatre education, doing every job I could for every show I could schedule until I was experienced enough to direct. And then I fell in love again, with that feeling, of having a vision and seeing it come to life on the stage.
Soon after, I began Theatre Under The Trees (I will tell that story another day) and I discovered directing Shakespeare is different than reading or even performing Shakespeare and that Twelfth Night is practically flawless comedy, Olivia is an amazing character and Shakespeare is really, terribly awful at Act Vs. And I kept going, because I was learning and because people would show up at auditions, wanting to try acting, or needing to return to Shakespeare or just to brave. And they inspired me. So over the years, Theatre Under The Trees became more of an 'us' and less of a 'me,' which surprised me, because I am notoriously private and chary, but I've realized the collaboration process is like surfing, but with art and words, you have to be skilled enough to ride a wave of collective energy you have no control over. Success leads to exuberance and a thrill that can't be replicated without the uncertainty and the challenge.
Upstart Arts is the next evolution in my relationship with Shakespeare, theatre and collaboration. A group of us aren't done staging Shakespeare in public spaces. Our first step is bringing The Merry Wives of Windsor to life next summer, because the world will always need more laughter and more Shakespeare. And I wanted a play new to me, to push my skills again, to take another step into this wood of words I've been wandering.
So welcome to the beginning of a continuing adventure. We'll be introducing you to some of the other artists involved, as well as sharing more stories. Stay tuned.