What a fabulously audacious statement. Who dares to write “I am Shakespeare?” What does it mean, and why should anyone believe it?
I saw that phrase on the cover of a published play, one of a few items for sale at a Broadway’s Belasco Theater’s “gifts” counter. The show I had come to see (in 2014) was Mark Rylance in Richard III (and the next day: Twelfth Night, both in repertory). The play I held was written by that same brilliant, renowned actor of both stage and screen. Of the few people (living) who had the “street cred” to write a play titled I Am Shakespeare, Rylance certainly was one. After all, for several years he also had served Shakespeare’s Globe (theater) as its first artistic director.
How could I not buy Mark Rylance’s play? I was feeling a bit audacious myself, as an American woman writing a debut historical novel (A Man of Honor, or Horatio’s Confessions) based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet and narrated in a first-person male voice.
During intermission I read the introduction and parts of the play I had bought. It was a modern-day script that pressed the continuing debate about Shakespeare’s authorship of the works attributed to him. How could I resist asking Mr. Rylance about I Am Shakespeare after that evening’s performance?
Outside the theater Rylance signed playbills and chatted with student actors. He was personable and gracious to all. When my turn came, he signed my copy of I Am Shakespeare and I asked him questions about what it was like to put-on the play while the script was still unfinished, whether the play ended up being what he had hoped when he began writing it. After we talked about that, I asked what he hoped people would think of the play.
“That it’s fun,” he said.
Rylance’s point about entertainment was a crucial reminder. We writers try so hard to craft something “right,” we can forget to let the process or the drafts amuse us. Simply, isn’t joy the root of “enjoyment?” And isn’t that a seedling from the tree of life?
Of course, there is more than fun in I Am Shakespeare. There is encouragement. For all artists wondering if we have what it takes, if our hope that someone will care about what we “say” through our creations will be in vain, Mark Rylance sets aside the critic’s voice and gently suggests that everyone has the right to try. We should not be afraid to swim in the creative wake of “the greats.”
The phrase “Who’s there?”—often repeated throughout I Am Shakespeare—hints that if we take the question seriously, we may be surprised that the answer may not be “Shakespeare” but rather someone else—ourselves, perhaps—who surprises and entertains us. Better, if we hear the joke implied in the question, our relaxing laughter may rattle our inner critic and ease open creative force locked within our DNA. We might even give other human beings such as our super-successful YouTube and streaming media stars, and even Shakespeare (or the Earl of Oxford, Walter Raleigh, Emilia Lanier, or whoever wrote The Bard’s plays and sonnets) a run for their money.
If you need help to take that first creative step, look for your nearest community. (For writers in the Washington, DC area, check out the Writer’s Center, and if near Richmond, VA see James River Writers.) You have nothing to lose in starting and staging your performance even while revising and honing your script. Isn’t that what we do every day in life?