Athena Stevens: Shakespeare’s influence

On 29 April 2018, Athena Stevens will appear as a jury spokesperson in Trial of Richard III at the West End’s Novello Theatre. The unique case could change the course of history for Shakespeare’s king. Here, Athena reflects on how the Bard helped shape her own direction in life.

Whenever I pick up one of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s a bit like coming home.

On the surface, this might seem like an absurd statement. Especially since I grew up in the north Chicago suburbs, shuttling my way between wheelchair basketball practice and numerous physiotherapy appointments, designed to minimise the effects of my cerebral palsy.

At the age of five, when I announced that I wanted to take ballet classes, my mother could find no dance school willing to take a disabled child. Then at seven, it was determined that few people would ever be able to understand my speech.

I was given a portable typing machine so I could type what I was trying to say. (Like so many great ideas intended to help disabled children, it was more trouble than it was worth.)

In high school, I told my history teacher: “I really want to be an actor, but since that’s not possible, I’m going to be a lawyer.”

And yet today, whenever I feel myself waver whilst writing a new play or preparing to make a political statement in the media, or if I have a big decision looming and I’m clueless about how to handle it, I reach for Shakespeare. I read a few lines and remember I’m merely a player on this world’s stage for a very brief time.

I was quite lucky in my introduction to the Bard. At fourteen, an English literature teacher taught me to be fearless in both understanding the language and putting the amazing words into my own athetoid mouth. The language was the same as that which came from my mother’s Bible, so years of memorising verses served me well.

And the characters spoke like me.

With muscles that consistently worked slower than my brain, I understood the fight to be heard. I understood what these characters faced in times of crisis because it was a situation that I faced daily in my own quest for independence in this world.

I found in Shakespeare, characters whose life and words carried stakes as high as my own.  The fight to speak when you are unfairly on trial, the audacity to beg for help when you know there is none to be found, the desire to name what society refuses to see.

These characters also struggled for breath the same way my undeveloped lungs did. Their rhythm of speech was very much like my own. My cerebral palsy seemed to disappear from my speech patterns as I put this remarkable language into my mouth.

By the time the Royal Shakespeare Company took up residency at my university in 2004, I had already decided that I was going to try to be an actor. A love of the stage and storytelling was in me. So before I gave it up for much more practical life choices, I decided to try and make a go of it; if only to put to rest in my own mind that the life I dreamt of was only ever going to be a fantasy.

For two weeks, I found myself among people who not only dared to legitimise my dream but also expected it to become reality. Out of that RSC cast, came a friend who would later act as my personal assistant at most of my drama school auditions. I also made a friend who would direct my first play in Covent Garden; another who would escort me back to the States to sit with a dying family member; and a director who insisted my future was based in the UK working in mainstream theatre.

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves."

There is something almost indescribably brazen in the idea that anyone can be noble.

Even in our own western democratic minds, if we look hard enough, we will find biases and areas of exclusion in ourselves. How can a women with cerebral palsy play a king? How can someone who has to fight their own body to speak be heard on a mainstream stage? Shouldn’t people who are really struggling be focused on things that are more important than Shakespeare?

The challenge that Shakespeare and his work throws down before us is that greatness is in everyone, if only we are willing to reach beyond the expectations that the world sets as our limits.

I am convinced that Shakespeare himself, the heady combination of words spoken into a void and well-crafted stories give us the power to pull greatness out of ourselves and those around us.

This is what we feel when we notice that Shakespeare’s soliloquies match the rhythm of our own heartbeat, asking us to rise out of our seat and take action. And this is why I find myself reaching for my well-worn copy of the Complete Works when I don’t know what my next course of action should be.

Shakespeare Schools Foundation harnesses this unique power of Shakespeare to transform the lives of young people from different backgrounds across the UK. Some of them like me, may have a disability, but through the Bard, they develop the confidence and resilience to achieve their ambitions.

The limitations of the world may very well slam up against us, threatening to erode us through their cruelty and persistence. But it is in understanding the audacious nobility innate within ourselves and holding fast to the truth that from kings to a ten-year-old still learning to take her first steps, we are all made from sterner stuff than we know.

Shakespeare’s multifaceted greatness is built into everyone you meet, should you only have the audacity seek it out and watch it grow. It is in the continuous search and expectation that we ourselves become great.

Athena Stevens is an actor, playwright, and spokesperson for The Women’s Equality Party. Her play Schism opens at the Park Theatre 16 May for a four week run. She was born with athetoid cerebral palsy.

SSF is a cultural education charity that exists to instil curiosity and empathy, aspiration and self-esteem, literacy and teamwork - giving young people the confidence to see that all the world is their stage.

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