Performing Shakespeare with Migraine
“To be or not to be? That is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows…” - William Shakespeare
That's a partial phrase from one of the most popular, quoted, and influential pieces in all of western literature: Hamlet. This gargantuan work of the late, great English author William Shakespeare was something that I never thought I would seriously have to tackle. Growing up, all I really knew was that the plot had inspired the Lion King. A jealous uncle kills his brother in order to wed his wife and usurp the crown. Spoilers!
Front and center
Going back to the text, one particular line makes me wonder: "…in the mind to suffer…" Could migraine be tied to Shakespeare's Hamlet? I would find myself answering that question when I was cast as the titular Prince of Denmark my junior year of college.
What a year it was. I mean, this was the role of a lifetime. Not only the lead in a play but a lead in THE play. The most famous play. I would be there, by myself, center stage. There were just a million questions running through my head. How was I going to memorize all these lines? How am I going to memorize Shakespeare?!
Can I do this with migraine?
I have suffered from migraine ever since I was a kid, and I remember it always being a thorn in my side. It would get in the way of school, friends, and especially things that were physically demanding. Migraines were a very common occurrence for me and at this juncture in my life - reading that cast list - I was met with a very heavy thought: what if I get a migraine during this process? If I get an aura during a scene… what would I do?
The nunnery scene. It’s an incredibly powerful and complicated scene that comes right off the tail-end of Hamlet’s 'to be or not to be' soliloquy. Hamlet suspects that Ophelia, his love, is conspiring with his uncle against him. He demands that she get to a nunnery where she is out of sight, away from the madness and the betrayal for both their sakes. I had just finished screaming at my Ophelia when our director called for a hold as we planned for our stage combat (a shove to the floor), but something was off. After I had collected myself, I realized that I couldn’t quite make out her face. Half of it was blurred and floating off to the side of my periphery. It was an aura.
The show must go on
I tried to concentrate and focus. Sure, I could have panicked and stopped the rehearsal process, but that wasn’t me. I just needed to pay attention and not let this blinding-effect get in the way of my work. At that moment, I was more than just Sawyer; I was an actor who fought his own body and won. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that this too shall pass. If I was going to be Hamlet, I was going to lead by example. That's not just a dorky theatre phrase. It stands for something. You have to keep moving even when it gets hard because you’re not just doing it for you. I called my sister who drove right over and stashed my meds in a discreet location so I could grab them and not bring rehearsal to a halt. You don’t have to go it alone. You can call for help. After all, it’s not a one-man show.
How much has your migraine disease changed or evolved over time?