The summer before my senior year of high school, I was in a youth production of Measure for Measure (one of the Shakespeare plays that scholars have collectively packed up into a little box and hidden in the attic behind some old snowshoes). I played Duke Vincentio—one of the leads—which I was excited about at first, until I realized that I needed to memorize 194 lines, or just about a third of the entire text in the play. This meant I spent a good deal of July pacing around my basement, squatting and kicking and dancing along to iambic pentameter in a desperate effort to memorize all my lines.
Because I was speaking so much (and because I kept straining my throat), I ended up needing to go on vocal rest for the two weeks leading up to the show—first as a casual measure, and later because I could only get through all my lines if I was on constant vocal rest. I could also only say all my lines once every day. During rehearsal, I would have one run-through where I actually said the damn words. All other times we worked scenes, one of the adults would read them off-stage and I’d mouth along. To run lines, I would lip-sync along to a voice recording of myself saying all my lines.
I talked to my family and friends by typing everything through a text-to-speech app. Beyond the app’s absolute lack of comedic timing, it took so long for me to type out what I wanted to say that by the time I was ready to press “play,” the conversation had already moved light years ahead, leaving me with endless drafts of robot monologues.
Backstage, I used an electric kettle to brew up to five cups of tea every show, and I was popping cough drops left and right. The adults—from the director to the stage manager to all of the fantastic teaching artists—were endlessly patient and accommodating. We only had five performances, and boy, oh boy, was that enough for me. On the fourth and last day of shows, we had a matinee in addition to our regular evening show. That night, we had barely made it to the end of the first half of the show when my voice started giving out. I could hear myself barely mustering a talk-whisper until the lights finally went out and the first half was over.
Backstage at intermission, I went to Lindsay and Anneke, two of the teaching artists for the show, and told them that my voice was getting really weak, that I wasn’t sure if I could make it through the end of the show. They said that I hadn’t sounded half as quiet as I’d thought I had, that they knew I could do it, and that if I needed extra time to chug a half gallon of honey lemon tea, they’d make it work. Because they believed I could do it (and because of exactly two cough drops and one and a half cups of tea), I was able to pull through.
Later, when the second half of the show was over, Lindsay confessed, “I actually was really scared—I was frantically like, ‘Oh God, do I need to go on and read their part?’ But I knew that saying that would just psych you out, so yeah, I definitely lied about how confident I was.”
The next morning—the day we were going to strike the set and say our last goodbyes to our fellow cast members—I woke up with absolutely no voice as well as a nasty head cold. I went to strike, of course, because I’m a good little theatre kid, and because I wanted to see everyone one last time.
In addition to playing the lead, I had also decided for some reason to take on the role of a costume designer. So on strike, I went upstairs to help organize costumes, sorting out which pieces had come from storage and which had been brought in by actors.
“Hey Noah, where should this one go?” one kid, Jeff, said, holding up a grey military jacket.
I gestured to the rack in the corner of the room.
“What?” Jeff said.
I pointed more forcefully and mouthed ‘Over there.’
“On the rack!” I said in a barely-audible croak.
“Oh, okay,” he said, a little taken aback by the state of my voice.
Downstairs, I ran into Mike the director while organizing a pile of clothes to get dry-cleaned.
“So you really can’t talk, huh?” he said.
I shook my head.
“What does it sound like if you try?” he said. He’s not a cruel man so I was surprised by this question.
“Like this,” I wheezed, annoyed.
“Oh geez,” he said. “You’ve really lost it.”
After strike, Lindsay was kind enough to give me a ride home.
“So what are you doing for the rest of the summer?” she asked as we headed onto the highway.
We sat in silence except for the sound of me tapping frantically. Then:
“I don’t — have — any — big — plans. — Probably — just — hanging — out — and — getting — my — driver’s license,” my app’s robot voice said.
“Oh, okay,” she said, shifting uncomfortably. “Is your mom going back to work on that project with Sarah?”
“Yes, — she — is.”
“Nice, nice,” she said.
She started to speak again before she noticed that I had started typing.
“What — are — you — doing — the — rest of — the summer,” my robot said. It never quite got the hang of question marks or exclamation points so every sentence sounded the same.
“I’ll be spending a lot of it working on writing up grant proposals,” she said before pausing. “Man, this is weird.”
“Yeah — I know. — I’m sorry — you — have to — talk — to — a robot.”
“I’m more sorry for you, having to type everything out,” she said. “You’re not mad at us, right, for making this happen? Giving you such a big part?”
“No. — It’s — more — my fault — for — not — being able to — take — supported — breaths.”
“Well, I guess it’s a little of both. You know, we were like, ‘Noah will be the Duke because they’re the only one who can learn all those lines.’ And if it took you down this hard, I really doubt another kid could’ve handled it.”
“Yeah, — it — was — a pain — in the ass. — But — I’m not — mad — at you — guys.”
“Good, good,” she said. We pulled into my driveway soon after, and I waved as she drove away. I went upstairs and crawled into bed, immediately zonking out.
I spent the next two weeks under the covers sleeping, watching old episodes of Scooby Doo, and stockpiling tissues. I hurt for two entire weeks because of Shakespeare, and of course, all I wanted to do afterward was jump back into another show and dig into some more iambic pentameter.