From the outside, one might think that Cheryl Williams is just your typical acting teacher who works at a public university. You might not look twice when you see her adjunct name tag, or the wheeled suitcase she is always carrying behind her filled with plays, lexicons and handouts for her students. But as someone who purposefully took her Shakespearean acting class twice, just so I could soak up more of her wisdom, talent and compassion for the art of theatre, I would say she is inexplicably so much more than that. But let me try to put my love and gratitude for Cheryl into words.
In Fall 2011, I took "Acting Styles," a Shakespearean acting class for the first time that Cheryl Williams teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Little did I know I was about to start one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, semesters of my entire life, and that I was about to meet one of the most important and influential mentors I currently now have, four years later.
Cheryl pushes her students to work their hardest, telling them that the hole they've spent hours digging up isn't deep enough. She stretches you to your farthest extent, no matter how challenging it might be in the moment. She teaches her students to listen closely to the rhythm of Shakespeare's words and find meaning in them. She teaches her students to not just find meaning in these ancient texts, but also to find meaning in every day human relationships, and how our view of the themes written about in his plays relate to our own stories today, in the 21st century. She teaches her students that Shakespeare's characters were people too! They lived and loved just like us, and that is exactly what Cheryl does with her work. She ferociously guides her students to find the beauty in the Bard's beautiful and timeless literature.
Cheryl keeps Shakespeare alive every day by spending extra hours on campus to coach her students and by being brutally honest with them. If you go up and do your monologue for her and clearly haven't listened to her critique, she'll make you do it until you get it. She's hard on you because she believes in every single student, and believes that there is a creative spirit in all of us. It wasn't always easy getting the constructive criticism, but without it, I wouldn't be the actor I am today.
She taught me that everything Shakespeare wanted us to know about what the character was feeling was written in the lines. She taught me to observe this heightened language closely, because when a human changes his or her pace or rhythm, it can mean something is going on emotionally or mentally within the character -- just like what happens in every human. It's universal.
Although I have had previous Shakespearean training, working with Cheryl was like adding icing and cherries and sprinkles and all of the most decadent toppings to the cake. She taught me that her class was just the tip of the iceberg. The learning process never stops with Shakespeare and with Cheryl. She didn't just teach me about Shakespeare. She enveloped me in Shakespeare. She strapped me into his roller coaster and made me never want the ride to end.
Cheryl isn't who you think of when you hear the word "professor." She never stood in front of her students and talked down to them. She was always open and honest about her feelings with the class and about our work, as if we were all equals, all actors in a company, trying to work together to create something special.
Theatre has been my foundation and love in life ever since I can remember. It has been my own type of therapy, my own release and my one biggest passion. It is rare to find another human who reminds you to love theatre more and more even on the days when you feel like you can't do it anymore, on the days you feel like you won't succeed or aren't good enough to make it. I don't have to be in Cheryl's class to know she's there for me. Countless coaching sessions, numerous coffee dates, thoughtful emails and texts have proven to me her love and dedication to not only me, but all of her students.
So, no, Cheryl isn't just a professor at Temple University, she is someone who changes lives for the better. She is an inspiring and brave woman, who, despite having struggled with her own life battles, puts her students first. If only I could take her class a third time, because I sure wonder what cake topping would be added next.
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