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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?

Aura strikes

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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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