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.