If all the world’s a stage, then Judy Durkin is one of its best players in the realm of Shakespeare performances. The Samohi senior recently beat out over 20,000 students to advance to the National Shakespeare Competition finals where she’ll represent Santa Monica and Los Angeles County later this month in New York.
“The experience is really exciting from start to finish,” Durkin said via email about climbing her way to the top of the National Shakespeare Competition (NSC). “Getting to perform onstage at Lincoln Center is a dream come true.”
At the NSC, high school students from across the country read, analyze, and perform Shakespeare pieces ranging from tragedy to comedy and sonnets to monologues in three qualifying stages: school, community, and national. Prizes this year include a grand prize of a scholarship and airfare to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art Young Actors’ Summer School, a runner-up award of scholarship and airfare to attend the American Shakespeare Center Theatre Camp, and for third place, $500.
Durkin’s first became enamored with Shakespeare and performing arts when her father took her to a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when she was just four years old. Durkin was forever changed by the play, a pivotal moment in her life that left her “star-struck and enthralled” by the production, sparking a life-long love of Shakespeare as both a performer and student.
While attending Samohi, Durkin was urged at the behest of her friend to audition for the school’s sonnet competition, her friend knowing she was fond of Shakespeare. Durkin performed Sonnet 18 for a room full of judges and most importantly, Chon Lee, an English teacher who would eventually become her mentor.
Lee was wowed by the performance and Durkin’s grasp of the language (iambic pentameter ain’t easy), calling Durkin a “shining star” with a talent that’s “an anomaly” among students at Samohi and well, anywhere.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Lee said in a phone call. “She had that exposure (to Shakespeare) at that young age and uses it to her benefit. It helps not just with her essays and analytically, but also her use of it as a performer. It takes on a different light. She’s very gracefully taking her sense of the language and using it to deliver a powerful performance.”
In his mentorship of Durkin, Lee has helped sharpen Durkin’s skill set in many ways: Furthering her understanding of Shakespeare’s “intricate writing,” studying different scenes and monologues consisting of wide-ranging tone, and keeping Durkin off balance with cold reads, giving her random Shakespeare monologues (male and female characters) to perform at a moment’s notice.
“She’s performed before under pressure, and with cold reads, there’s no time to prepare,” Lee said. “She’s able to use that to her advantage. It’s one thing … to look at a play or speech and analyze it on paper, but when you enact a text, bring it to life and make the words sing, it’s rare. Judy can do that. It’s a strong talent and rare gift.”
With her flair for the dramatic and expert guidance from Lee, Durkin has dominated competitions.
Durkin reached national finals her junior year of high school and she’ll be there again this year, the first person to appear in back-to-back finals of the Los Angeles regionals in the NSC.
“This has never happened in Los Angeles ESU (English Speaking Union, the host of the NSC) history,” Lee said.
Although the stakes are higher and the odds stacked against her at the national level, Durkin isn’t fazed–she’s just happy to bring her favorite author’s words to life on a grand stage.
“Any chance to perform Shakespeare’s work is an opportunity I will never hesitate to take,” Durkin says. “Now that I have a year of the competition under my belt, I find it easier to relax and really take time to appreciate my performances.”
Surely, the famous playwright would’ve been proud.
The National Shakespeare Competition takes place on April 23 in New York City at the Lincoln Center Theater.