Archive for April, 2012

Stephen Jenn – A Prince For All Seasons

April 2, 2012

The world is a little quieter today.
I remember when I first met Stephen Jenn.  The university where I studied had this gem within the theatre department called The Eminent Scholar program.  For one or two semesters visiting members of the entertainment community came to spend an allotted time as instructors.  Zoe Caldwell, Robert Whitehead, Edward Albee, and Olympia Dukakis were a few of the notable people to teach and share their experiences.  Stephen Jenn, Royal Shakespeare Company, Old Vic Theatre, arrived one semester as the resident expert on all things Shakespeare.  As regards the Bard, who better, right?

My first experience with Shakespeare was under his tutelage.
My main stage debut was in the Tempest, notable in that Stephen approached me after the audition process and said, “You have the role if you want it.  take the weekend to decide.”
The role was the boatswain.  Probably not a big deal to veteran theatre types.  But a big deal made even bigger by the fact I wasn’t a theatre major (I had been preparing for law school by studying Poli Sci) and had beaten several other theatre majors for right of first refusal of the part.
Not only would I be studying Shakespeare, but I would be directed by no less than a member of one of the oldest Shakespeare troupes in existence.
I said yes with the table reading the following week.
We were gathered around a long table and wasted no time as we cracked our books. I began reading my lines and had made it almost completely through the first sentence when he slammed his script on the table.
“You’re screwing up the verse.  Don’t do it again.”
Except screwing wasn’t the word he used.  Stephen had chosen a stronger word to express his displeasure.
That day I quickly learned the difference between Verse and Prose.
I signed up for every class he was teaching, including a graduate class he permitted me to attend. I had become enthralled with Shakespeare.
Somewhere along the line our path shifted.  It happened while we were studying the sonnets. We became friends.  Every day I saw him I had a new sonnet, written in the proper format, and he marveled at the ease by which it came to me, indicating the stressed-unstressed nature of iambic pentameter was easily lost to many native Brits.  I’m certain he was telling me this simply as an attaboy, yet it encouraged me to persevere.
I auditioned for the theatre program but never made it.  I was told by the committee to keep working at it, so I did.
Two weeks later I auditioned for the Palm Beach Shakespeare’s production of Richard III.  I was cast as the Marquis of Dorset.  My first professional production.  Stephen was highly supportive of this even as I was admonished by one of the department instructors for taking theatrical work outside of the college.  

Stephen left to go back home to London and we spoke on a regular basis.  He’d always inform me whenever he’d be stateside for a similar program.  He was highly sought after and taught at many highly lauded schools with exceptional theatre departments.

But I never truly made the time to see him until my career began to take off and I had the opportunity to travel overseas.  We met for tea and talked, catching up as old friends do.

Our relationship continued to thrive when I returned back to Florida.  The chance presented itself to audition for Hamlet, and like much I have done in this industry, I pursued it because I didn’t know enough to give up or believe the role was beyond my reach.  I’ve often said I’ve succeeded only because I didn’t know enough what the word “no” meant.

I loved him with a fondness reserved for so very few. When I landed the lead role Stephen was the first person I called.  He sensed my nerves and knew just what to say, offering great wisdom and tutelage despite being “on the other side of the pond,” as he, being the proper British gentleman, liked to say.  He shared with me his own experience portraying the prince and understood how daunting the effort would be.  Stephen became an entirely accessible open book during the rehearsal process, and I am fairly certain I would never have made the performances ring true if not for him. It meant a great deal to receive his approval and insight into Shakespeare, and indeed life itself.
Every casting, every life event, anything, no matter how seemingly small or insignificant, was a reason to call Stephen.  He was enthusiastic about every call, and would in turn share news on his latest film or theatre project, sometimes offering details of his on-set experiences while never drifting towards the salacious.
The last time I visited him the picture of myself as Hamlet I sent sat framed on a buffet table.  I understood then the value of our friendship.

Stephen had battled a bastard of a brain tumor for nearly 3 decades.  In the end the tumor began to win.

Yesterday would have been his 62nd birthday.

I bought two Mickey Mouse pocket watches over twenty years ago during one of my weekend jaunts to Central Florida and the Magic kingdom.
I presented one to Stephen before he left at the conclusion of his semester.
He was more touched by the gesture than I expected him to be. I guess, without realizing it at the time, I recognized this one thing: the appropriate accoutrement for any British gentleman had to be a pocket watch. 

Last night I took my Mickey Mouse pocket watch out of the case. It ran just as well as it did when I first got it all those years ago.  Holding it took me back to the day I gave my friend the other one. I wound it, but not too tightly, and set it back on its hook. 
To anyone who knew him, Stephen was a man of all seasons, a prince of great nobility, and an honorable gentleman of the very first class. 

And these words, I never understood their full meaning and mettle until just tonight.
To die: to sleep; 
No more; and by a sleep to say we end 
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks 
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation 
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep; 
To sleep, perchance to dream, ay, there’s the rub.
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come 
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil – 
Must give us pause.

A toast, then, to a man who was my friend, mentor, and professor.
Thank you, Stephen, for showing me the beauty of a world where language was still an art form and words, artfully crafted, form magic.