Jefferson Mays: At School

I look forward to a student audience more than any other. They never cease to surprise and challenge me, and they will always let me know, in no uncertain terms, whether they like what I’m doing. Sometimes brutally, always honestly! There is something thrillingly combative about a student matinee; they make you know they are there, they argue with you and you find yourself wrestling for their attention; the stakes are higher and the words, the ideas, acquire greater import and urgency. It is always an event and is probably the closest I’ve ever come to an “Elizabethan” theatrical experience.

Recently, I leapt at the chance to visit students rehearsing and performing scenes from Measure for Measure, a play I thought I knew. It was a revelation. I was asked to act with a whole string of 12-year-old Isabellas and Lucios half my height. Each one of them astonished me in different ways: Asil who tied into the irresponsibly absent Duke with vitriol and justified resentment; Lilly, who impulsively edged away from the Duke onto a thin ledge in front of the proscenium arch, in one movement transforming the scene into one of danger and stunningly expressive theatricality; Jasper’s relish in maligning an adult to his face. Acting opposite children young enough to be my own, I realized that the citizens of Duke Vincenzio’s Vienna were all, figuratively, his children and I became aware of the weight of his responsibility to them.

Performing for each other, I watched them claim as their own, some of the most challenging language and ideas in Shakespeare, and making the story new, embracing everything from Law and Order to American Idol.

I wanted to go back into rehearsal immediately.

Jefferson Mays is a Tony Award-winning actor.