Tending the Spark

The Unfortunates
Ramiz Monsef

There’s the intoxicating flame of creating, of feeling inspiration hit you. And then there’s the equally heady, very different feeling of watching someone you’ve inspired — a child, a student — catch fire himself. Sometimes the two come together.

Before I turned full-time to publishing, I was — like my wife Maura — an actor and acting teacher. About sixteen years ago, we had the good fortune to teach a young man named Ramiz Monsef who took to what we were teaching as if he had been born to it. It was a little humbling to watch as he inhaled both the techniques we were offering to him and his classmates and the philosophy behind them and made them very much his own. Inspiration comes from the Latin meaning literally “breathe in.” That’s what Ramiz did.

That was half of his lifetime ago, but we’ve kept in touch with Ramiz, following as he continued his studies and launched a career, eventually becoming a resident actor at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

This summer Maura and I headed up to Ashland, home of the OSF, to watch The Unfortunates, the original musical that Ramiz had helped to conceive and write, which premiered at the festival.

The show is an ensemble tour de force — a thematically dense, theatrically stunning gumbo that runs the musical gamut from blues to rap to gospel to pop to hook-filled rock to Patsy Kline ballads. It’s staged brilliantly and performed flawlessly — not least by Ramiz.

After the show, we talked to him and his co-writers; he told them that we’d been his teachers. We told him we couldn’t have been prouder of him.

After going out to dinner with our former student and listening to him talk about all of that technique — and the philosophy behind it — that he had mastered, Maura and I went to the festival’s signature Globe-like Elizabethan Stage to watch a lovely production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As we were standing in the courtyard before the show I looked up and saw one of the shields that festoon the exterior of the theater. Each one listed the shows performed during one of the festival’s seventy-seven seasons.

The shield for 1973 listed As You Like It.

Standing there in the courtyard, staring up, I realized just when — and how — my own fire was kindled.

That year I was ten and a half, and my parents brought me to see an adult production of Shakespeare for the very first time. My memories of the show are vague and snapshot-like, but I remember very well how it made me feel. I was transfixed. I was lit up. I was bitten.

From then on, Shakespeare was my passion, my bliss: the language, the laughter burned in my blood, leading me to master’s degrees in English and Acting, to careers first in the theater and then in publishing. I had the joy of being directed, years later, at different theaters, by two of the leads in that 1973 As You Like It — Elizabeth Huddle (Rosalind) and Will Huddleston (Touchstone). I performed in dozens of productions of Shakespeare’s plays, and eventually I began directing teens in them.

One of whom was Ramiz Monsef. Whose work had so inspired me earlier that day.

That spark, that ember has been burning for thousands of years, jumping from one imagination to another. It was very funny for me, standing there in the sultry Ashland evening air, to find that it had traveled, this once, full circle.

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