By Todd Pate
Building the set for Independent Shakespeare Co.'s Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival is the latest in an eclectic series of jobs that have led me all over the country these last few years. I never really know what I'll be next -- a carpenter, writer, actor, horse wrangler. It's a life without much security but I'm happy, and wouldn't trade this gypsy's life for any other kind. But it hasn't always been this way.
Many times, during the long hot days of building in Griffith Park, I would encounter memories from 13 years ago, when I lived in L.A. for the first time. I was 25 years old and I only wanted to be an actor. Back then, if you suggested I should try something else, or even worse, tell me that I'd be good at something else, I would have turned away from that suggestion for good and probably away from you too, if only for spite. I lived and breathed acting -- sent out the headshots, went to acting class, auditioned. Sure, I started getting cast in little films and an agent was interested, but I also denied myself relationships and opportunities that may have enriched my life. This singular ambition simultaneously slowed down time to a creaking pace. I hated my day jobs - they cheated me of my time. Things weren't happening quickly enough; every tick of the clock echoed, thunderously. Ultimately, my impatience brought a growing victim complex to fruition, so I convinced myself L.A. wasn't the right place for a real artist like me. After seven months, I was gone.
These memories flowed in and out of me, as I hammered, drilled, glued and stapled. Each time, I'd shake my head, laughing but also kicking myself a little. Now, it's easy to see that back then things were happening incredibly fast, that I was being handed opportunities left and right.
It was very easy to see that on opening night of Macbeth, too. During Act 1, immediately after the title character's states that...
"If Chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me,Without my stir."
I jerked forward, said to myself, You silly idiot. Seven little months?! All you had to do back then was hang on and relax, and all you wanted back then would've come to you.
Then, as I continued to watch the play, something interesting happened. Seeing the expression of confused hope on Macbeth (so excellently conveyed by my dear friend, Luis Galindo), that he may not have to do anything for him to be king, other than be patient, erased the play's bloody ending from my mind, and I believed a different ending to the play was possible. As the action continued, I began to root for Macbeth, silently cheering him on to make the right moves, to listen to healthier voices in his mind and to simply let things unfold. Then he could become king without having to murder the reigning King Duncan. He and Lady Macbeth would live happily ever after and maybe there'd be some happy sing-along with the entire cast before the final bow. I reveled in this stupor as the play continued.
I continued to root for Macbeth, even as he wrestled with his mad ambition in the dark, dancing with an invisible dagger as it led him across the stage to the sleeping King Duncan's chambers. But he only crept closer and closer to the exit - to murder the king - while I kept hoping some divine clarity would rescue him from the madness. Sitting on a blanket only a few yards away from the action, surrounded by an audience perched forward in suspense, the scene was incredibly intimate. For a quick moment, I felt an urge to walk up to Macbeth, grab him by the shoulders and say:
"Hey Macbeth, you don't have to do this. You said it yourself: chance may crown me, Without my stir. Trust me, ambition will lead you into The Void and you won't make it out. Listen, it may not appear so from your perspective, but from mine, things are going quite well for you. Just enjoy it all as it comes. If you let whatever happens, happen, you will be happy, no matter what!"
But Macbeth followed the invisible dagger off the stage and sealed the fate he's suffered for 400 years. I felt real sorrow in that moment. However, when he came back onstage with blood on his hands, I was relieved. The bright red blood was so jarring, it reminded me that I was watching a play. It was my buddy, Luis (another fellow gypsy wanderer), up there portraying Macbeth. The other actors were playing their parts with everything they had and I was but one tiny part of a large audience willing to go along for the ride. Together, we rushed toward the play's violent conclusion. Swords, blood, rage, and after Macduff was restrained after hacking Macbeth to pieces, I realized then that Macbeth must always die. And companies such as Independent Shakespeare Co. must always produce the lessons Shakespeare left us as he wrote them, so that we may see the best and worst of men and women who can easily be you or me.
My 25 year-old self didn't murder anybody. But he would've despised the person I am today and treated me like Lady Macbeth treated her husband: called me weak with no resolve to shape his own destiny. He would've done everything in his power to make sure I never existed. In that sense, he would've murdered somebody -- me. So, I'm glad he didn't run into any witches. It would've been a real shame, because I love carpentry today, as much as I love to act, to write, to play guitar. I love who I am, and I try, daily, to put all my passion into whatever I'm doing in any given moment. In doing so, I've experienced real happiness, or something better than anything I felt back when I was consumed by ego and singular ambition.
If I'm swinging a hammer, I'm a carpenter. If I'm in a play, I'm an actor. Right now, I'm a writer. I must identify myself as what I'm doing in the present, because if I start to believe I am what I desire to be in the future, then I'm not content with the present. Then I start to feel I deserve what I desire, which leads to misery. The misery begets self-pity and destructive willfulness and in no time the scorpions of the mind -- to use Macbeth's words -- are upon me. Fortunately, I will always have Macbeth to remind me of the madness of ambition. There is hope in this dark play. Macbeth teaches me to embrace the ignorant present (to quote Lady Macbeth), to simply let Life move through me, and not the other way around. All I really can do is what I know how to do and be willing to learn the lessons that are out there for me each day, until the Final Curtain. Then, hopefully, as the sound and the fury of my own idiot's tale fades into nothingness, I will not be bowing at the end of a bloody tragedy, but at the end of a joyful comedy.
Top Image: "Macbeth" | Photo: Grettel Cortes.
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