Shakespearean slam dunk


Shakespeare has a way of getting under your skin. For some people, all it takes is one special encounter. Then you spend the rest of your life engaging with him.

That’s the way it played out for Melinda Hall. She’s the director/actor/writer who produces the annual Shakespeare Sonnet Slam in Manhattan’s Central Park.  As a young actor “ I watched Earle Hyman play King Lear…and I couldn’t move from my seat ”, recalls Hall on the phone from her New York City home. “It was the power of what I had just witnessed”.

A few years later, Hall worked up the courage to approach Hyman when she found herself standing behind him in a bookstore. “ I’m actually  (living) in New York, because of your Lear” she told the venerable African American actor (who played his first Othello with the American Shakespeare Theatre back in 1957).  The two became friends and Earle has been a mentor throughout her career- one that keeps on circling around the Bard.

Melinda Hall fosters a culture of Shakespeare appreciation in both her professional and personal lives.  She moderates Shakespeare workshops for the Screen Actors Guild and Actor’s Equity; runs a film production company and coaches established actors.  She’s particularly ardent when she talks about breaking the 4th wall in Shakespearean performance. “Actors are not sharing their experience with the audience. In Shakespeare’s time, the actors would have played to the audience. (This is known in theatrical parlance as “direct address”.)

Hall emphasizes that “I learned early on in my own actor training that it’s not about nailing the character; it’s about how well you get the audience to connect with the experience.”

But it may be her personal projects that fire her up most of all. First in line is a documentary she’s been working on for 3 years now. “ How Shakespeare Changed My Life” features a superlative cast of characters such as F. Murray Abraham, Sir Ben Kingsley and Stacy Keach recalling the impact that Shakespeare has had on them.  Watch a trailer here:

The Sonnet Slam in Central Park is another matter altogether – a true “Love’s Labour” for which Hall can “only hope to break even”. (You can help her raise the final dollars here on KickStarter ).

First organized by Hall in 2010, the Slam happens again this year on April 23rd  (Shakespeare’s birthday, don’cha know!) at the Naumberg Bandshell in Central Park from 1 until 4 pm.

154 different people will read one each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. Hall created the event to provide an opportunity for Shakespeare lovers of all ages to speak his work out loud – in front of an audience. It’s a free, fun community event and this year, there will be readings from Michael Urie (of TV’s Ugly Betty) and Tony Torn from Broadway (Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Melinda promises “there will be no pitches!” – the event is strictly a celebration of Shakespeare’s life changing words.

Here’s some video of Stacy Keach kicking off last year’s festivities:

And if you are in New York on April 26th, Melinda Hall will be co-hosting a Shakespearean (open mike) Birthday Party at the Drama Book Shop (250 West 40th Street) from 5-7 pm. The event is part of a kickoff for a new film project by The New York Shakespeare Exchange.  You can read about it in this New York Times article: