The Play’s the Thing
An Actor’s Memories
Talented Michael Ellis-Tolaydo, stage name of Michael Tolaydo and St. Mary’s College of Maryland professor of theater, film, and media studies, has strode from behind the curtain of theaters in every state in the nation, including on- and off- Broadway, and the Shakespeare Theater at the Folger, the Source, and the Studio in Washington, D.C. And – of course – he has often played a Shakespearean character – Prospero in The Tempest, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Richard in Richard III. In fact, it was in high school while acting in a small role in Julius Caesar that he knew he was going to be an actor in the first place. Below are some of his memories:
Citizen, Strato (Julius Caesar)
– I was born in Kenya and went to high school at the Oratory School in Woodcote, about 60 miles north of London. It was an all-boys English public school and where I first tried my hand at Shakespeare. At the Oratory, you were accepted by your peers if you were successful in either academics or sports; drama was a place for most of the misfits in the school. Fortunately, I had made the rugby team and the cricket team, so my drama activities were not made as much fun of as they could have been.
Our director, a language teacher who was passionate about theater, believed that Shakespeare’s plays should not only be experienced in a classroom, but also on a stage through performance. I played a citizen and Strato in Julius Caesar—the first time I had been on stage since Kenya. I still remember Strato’s lines after Brutus has asked him to hold out his sword so that he, Brutus, can run onto it and die honorably:
Free from the bondage you are in, Messala:
The conquerors can but make a fire of him;
For Brutus only overcame himself,
And no man else hath honor by his death.
It was during the Julius Caesar rehearsals that I knew in my bones that I wanted to become an actor and a director. And from our director, I learned that each actor must understand how important and necessary his character is to the play in order for really clear storytelling to take place.
As a citizen, it was easy to feel invisible in that crowd of many. But once we were all secure in our lines, our director would take three or four of the invisible ones out of the scene to watch from the back of the theater with him. Amazing! I remember seeing one boy half-heartedly mocking Brutus and another picking his nose. These two stood out in stark contrast to the other crowd members who were focused on the speaker, taut in body and committed in gesture, creating a scene which was dynamic and electric. Those of us in the back could see the gaps that our absences left. We had left gaping holes! It became instantly clear that it was us, the nameless crowd, who made the scene work and not the speakers.
I have never forgotten this lesson, and though I disagree with the adage that “there are no small parts, only small actors” – there are in fact manysmall parts – I always remember that the small parts allow the big ones to be great.
Macbeth (Macbeth) – the loneliest part I have ever played. Not only does the character in the play get more and more isolated from his peers, the actor playing him feels the same way on stage.
Orsino (Twelfth Night) – We did this in period costuming on a tour, Chicago, New England, New York. After two months of playing Orsino, the costumer came to watch the show and informed me that I was wearing my pants back to front. From this day on, whenever I play in period clothing, I ask that an ‘F’ be written on the inside front lining of my pants.
Richard (Richard III) – I played the title character at the Folger and on opening night during the fight with Richmond, my shield came loose and hit me just above my right eye. Blood spurted everywhere. I had no idea I was bleeding. The actor playing Richmond looked horrified, I thought “wow,” he is really into this. I attacked, he defended and we continued the fight. After Richard was slain, I was lying on my side and kept hearing this drip, drip, drip; and finally realized that I was bleeding. I thought nothing of it. After the curtain call, with actors and others all checking to see if I was all right, I peered into my dressing room mirror and saw blood all over my face and costume. It looked great. I went to the hospital and had 17 stitches seal up the wound. The doctors came to the show a week later. Friends in the audience thought that the blood was part of the fight and wanted to know how we managed to make it look so real.
Berowne (Love’s Labour’s Lost) – Unfortunately, President Reagan was shot the day the play opened.
Edward IV (Richard III) – at the Champlain Shakespeare Festival in Vermont. I was very young playing the dying king and the actor playing young Richard (Randy Kim) lost a contact. All of the actors spent the whole scene walking very gingerly in a distracted manner as they spoke their lines and furtively searched the floor for a glint of glass – this was in the days of hard contact lenses. At the end of the scene, Richard turns to leave and we heard “crunch” as the lens beneath his boot was shattered. For the rest of the play, Richard developed this uncontrollable blinking in one eye.