CJ Stewart is 25 years old, from Dallas, Texas. He is graduating in July from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. He was one of the first people to purchase a Shakespeare Deck, and put it immediately to use in his graduate production of Othello, directed by Scott Ellis. Here, we take a deep dive into his experience of the show, acting Shakespeare, and how the Shakespeare Deck helped unlock greater richness in the text.
[This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity]
What made you decide to train in the UK?
Initially, I wanted to go to grad school. I got my BA in Houston, Texas. I went to a historically black college & university, in which we did mostly black theatre, but we also did Shakespeare and many other things.
I knew upon graduation, I wanted to train more in my voice, my body, discover more and give acting most of my time, so I decided to pursue graduate school. I went to New York. They have weeks where all the graduate schools go to the city, and you audition for the schools and if they want you, they call you back. In the midst of all that you discover a lot of schools too. On my second try, I had a lot of call backs for many different schools, one of them being the RBC.
At this time, I’d never really heard of the school, or of Birmingham. The only Birmingham I knew was in Alabama. Some people still think I’m in Alabama right now!
RBC hooked me because it was a two year programme, it had classical training, it was in England and I’d always wanted to go to England. I felt like RBC had everything that I was looking for in a school, and I was right.
What specifically were you looking for? What was on the list?
I was looking for more specific vocal training, more specific body training. More classical work as well, because in my undergrad, we had one class that had us training in the classics and it just wasn’t enough. I knew for myself, personally, I needed more classical training, so other work could just become easier, and so I could be versatile you know?
What differences did you find between training as an actor in America and the UK?
I feel like, in America, a lot of us try to compete. I feel like we can only really compete with ourselves. Here, I don’t see many people trying to be better than the next person – rather, I see more of an ensemble.
Another big difference is that we constantly bring the character to us in America. I think that’s different, because in the RBC programme we’re constantly being trained to go toward the character. Not to say that bringing the character to you is wrong, but more often here we’re being trained to transform. And that’s my ultimate goal.
Finally, I don’t think I thought as much about storytelling until I got here. Of course, storytelling is a huge part of acting, but since I got here, it’s something that I lead with. How can I tell this story the best way I can, truthfully honestly and clearly.
What were your first experiences of Shakespeare?
When I was first introduced to Shakespeare in undergrad, I felt like he was being forced down my throat. Even when it comes to TV shows, like, “Hey, watch this!” – things people try to force me to do, I kind of reject it in a way. Especially if it’s repeated over and over.
I also understood that as a black man, I know that Shakespeare didn’t write for us. And that was one thing that I was push-and-pulling with. I don’t agree with some of the elements that are in a couple of his plays in regards to, black, and what black is, but that ignorance is still relevant today. I also feel like those things can be altered in a way that promotes a positive light upon people of colour, when done right.
Did you ever find acting Shakespeare intimidating?
Yeah! Being from the south, from Texas, we have a lot of broken English that we use when we talk, and a lot of times you can hear my southern drawl come out.
And the language is just so old! You see some things and think, what the hell does that mean? I’ve worked with actors that have been doing Shakespeare for 30+ years and it’s like, wow, it falls so trippingly off the tongue for them, like it says in Hamlet. I would love to get to that level.
But there are so many elements that can help you figure out what things mean, and I’m not intimidated by it any more. I can read a Shakespeare play with better speed and understand most of it – it still takes a lot of time – but I know what things mean, and I can follow what’s going on. And I have so many devices that help me unleash the language.
What was the first bit of Shakespeare that really grabbed you?
I remember my acting coach in undergrad opening up a complete works and going to the Scottish Play. She told us, “listen to this speech.” And she opened the book, the room was just still – I love her so much – and she said,
“She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
And that shit hooked me!
After she said that speech, I flipped into the book, looked at it, and learned it, just for the hell of it. I thought it was so beautiful and dark, and I love ‘beautiful and dark’ so much. I think that’s the first thing that made me say, “hold on, this, I like this”.
What did you discover when playing Othello?
I personally wanted to remove all the assumptions I had about the character. There’s this wall I think between some black men and getting the role, or wanting to be in the role, because Othello the play has just so, so many stereotypical things written for Othello, who is a coloured man. These things describe him as evil, dark, animalistic, cruel, all of these bad things that you hear so much from the play, and eventually he becomes these things.
Knowing I have to play Othello, being an activist for my community, and being a man that hates stereotypes, I had that wall in between me and him. The assumption that I made was that I was going to have to play at those stereotypes full on, and in my mind I was like, I’m just gonna have to have a talk with Scott Ellis, my director, about these things. Because I don’t want to be in a bad light; I don’t want to portray a bad light for my people.
I told myself, I’m not going to play stereotypes. I’m not going to listen to what everyone outside of the rehearsal space, including tutors, tell me about what and who he is.
Because one, all my tutors here are white. And I’m not saying that that’s why I’m not listening to them, but this is a Moor, in the 16th century, and there are so many stereotypes connected to him, and I don’t think people are coming from the aspect of wanting to remove that like I do.
People don’t talk to me about these things, these are things I have to bring up. People try to project what they see and what they’ve read about it, or how they’ve directed it, I don’t know. I tried to block out all of what people were telling me he was, because Shakespeare wrote what he was, and Othello, leads with love. Always.
So I had to approach the role as if, “what would any man in the world, living in this time frame, how would any man react to being betrayed by the only woman in the world that would possibly love him?”
And I think removing everything else, and just focussing on that, created an honest human. And that’s what I led with.
I don’t know how effective it was, but someone came up to me a couple of days ago and he was a black man, and he told me, this was probably the most human Othello I’ve ever seen.
So the thing is yes, you have to go to this certain level with Othello, but you have to get there. You can’t anticipate it. You have to go on the journey of love, betrayal and jealousy to get there.
What themes struck you the most?
Love and storytelling. I feel like those are the things that struck me when I first read it. Every character has a story to tell whether it’s true or made up. Regarding love, I believe love is the most repeated word in the play.
And one we discovered in rehearsal: Iago harks on it at the beginning of the show, “I am not what I am”. Throughout the play we saw people not being what they seem to be, and its many people not just Iago, wearing masks, not believing how people are. It was a brilliant theme, I love that so much. I want to play Iago one day.
Do you think Shakespeare is still worth watching for modern audiences?
Like I said, Shakespeare transcends. His work is relevant to this day, when it comes to work, love, race, all of that still applies because it all still goes on. I think in our production – making it modern but keeping the heart of it, making it about the language, letting the language be the most important part of the play – I think that was most effective for modern audiences, because then you’re focused on what’s happened.
Because the language is so old, you have to make every thought clear, and that’s why I appreciate Scott Ellis so much. He worked with us on the muscularity of language and how we have to make every thought as clear as possible. I’m a believer in, ‘if you don’t know what you’re saying the audience doesn’t know either’.
Scott helped a lot with unlocking the text. You might think one thing means one thing, but it actually means another once you kind of get the rhythm and the structure right. That’s also a hard thing in Shakespeare. I was so happy coming out of this project and hearing so many people tell me, “this is the first time I’ve ever understood Othello this clearly”. I think that’s something to be proud of.
Did you use The Shakespeare Deck in your preparation?
I used the cards in and out of rehearsal. When I first got them, I picked through the cards that I felt like I needed. One of my favourites was a card about picturing a speech like a movie. I chose the speech Othello gives at the beginning of the show, his defence against the Venetian state. It was just beautiful.
In rehearsal, I would shuffle the deck, I would choose one card randomly each day and focus on that. Focus on everything else I have to do in rehearsal and the scenes too, but I’d focus on that card. Whether it’s consonants, or placing an angel on one side and a devil on the other and trying to convince the two, or working vowels or monosyllables. I think the deck came in handy a lot, for rhythms and flavours.
What cards did you find most useful?
The devices cards. The writing out the movie of the speech was very very useful, because it painted a picture and I feel like, if you paint a picture and you see it that clearly then the audience will see it that clearly too. And the devices around rhythms and language, always wanting to speak; it was just a reminder of how intricate the language is and how gorgeous it is. It helped me make many discoveries within painting pictures.
I highly recommend this for all, because they do come in handy and it’s a good thing to have. I wish I had them when I first started doing Othello, but I have them now and they’re very helpful. These are all jewels, and I love how they’re colour coordinated.
What’s next for CJ Stewart?
I graduate in July, then I’ll go home and try to get an agent – I have a showcase in September in New York. I am seeking representation, and I’d love to get representation here as well as at home.
I think I’ll tackle more Shakespeare in the future. Because I’m a classically trained black actor, and I have so many benefits from studying in the UK and going back to America with this resume. It’s brilliant language, and I want to immerse myself in it as much as I can.
Finally, what Shakespeare character would you love to play next?
I want to play Hamlet. I did the ‘to be or not to be’ speech and the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ scene in my first year, and I want to go on his whole journey. Hamlet is at the top of my list.
I also want to play Romeo. I feel like Romeo is so me, or I’m so Romeo.
And I want to play Othello again, and make more discoveries about him! “Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.”