Ian McKellen | Writings | Activism | The Hobart Shakespeareans

July 2008 | How I Met
The Hobart Shakespeareans

December, 1983: I was onstage at the Westwood (now the Geffen) Playhouse with my solo entertainment “Acting Shakespeare.   From the nearby UCLA campus there were students amongst the dedicated theatregoers whom Shakespeare attracts worldwide.  The show had some audience participation.  Early on I would ask the audience to name all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, me counting and encouraging from the stage.  But it wasn’t bright English majors or teachers or Shakespeare stalwarts who shone at the matinee before Christmas.  The modestly shouted list of all the obscure plays came from the front two rows where Rafe Esquith’s kids sat on a school outing.  Nine-or-ten-year-olds piped up: “Timon of Athens!”, “Two Gentleman of Verona!!”,  “Henry 6th part 3!!!”  

My encore was the unfortunate actor playing Henry 5th on the battlefield who is handed a blank sheet of paper instead of the written list of the French dead which he is to read aloud.  (This happened once in Stratford-upon-Avon according to the late Tony Church.)  I mimed the actor’s dilemma and then hazarded: “Beaujolais, St Emilion, Pouilly Fuisse, Nuit St Georges and Beaune etc”   This had always gone well, but that lovely afternoon with the help of The Hobart Shakespeareans I improvised an improvement which I used thereafter.  I invited them to join me onstage to play the dead soldiers, whose names Henry has trouble remembering.  I whispered instructions and at a signal they all dropped dead, to the amusement of the audience.  When  I came to “Chateau Neuf du Pape” they resurrected for the curtain call.  

Afterwards they showed me a book of hand-painted portraits of Shakespeare characters, each with its own sonnet written by one of Rafe’s class.  I was invited to visit Room 56.   The children mostly speak English as their second language and the welcome as I climbed the concrete stairs and knocked on the door was a non-verbal shriek and prolonged squeal of delight.  I hadn’t yet played Gandalf and they knew me only from my show where we had made friends.  

There is a lot of love alongside the disciplined hard work that Rafe insists on.  Maybe 600 square feet of utility classroom has the forms and little chairs you would expect, but in the corners there are musical instruments propped and on the walls mementos of Shakespeare and the performances he inspired.  Also there are pennants from the colleges attended by the alumni of Room 56.

I’ve been fortunate to see a 12-year-old Hamlet and King Lear.  Once I asked Rafe why he was presenting one of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays Measure for Measure.  “Because,” he said “the play is about injustice and hypocrisy in high places and these kids live in Los Angeles.  It’s a play about their own lives.”  

Each participant, playing the lead, walking on in a supporting role, singing or playing an instrument, knows every word, so if an actor stumbles over his part, everyone else can prompt him.  This is a communal exercise, joyful and shared.  

Rafe takes his charges on school trips, once to the Globe theatre in London, after which they came to my house for tea by the Thames.  I have, with A Knight Out, helped raise funds for the Shakespeareans’ extra-curricular activities.  Hal Holbrook is another actor who enthuses about his visits to Room 56.  Rafe has attracted the support from on high, including Great Britain where he is an honorary OBE.  If you read his books or visit www.hobartshakespeareans.org I hope you may want to help too.

-- Ian McKellen, July 2008

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