Shakespeare on Sproul

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He was a far cry from the London stage where William Shakespeare first staged his plays, but Friday on Sproul, “Space Cadet” Billie was Prince Hamlet.

Wearing a black Superman shirt and a trailing blue cape, the amateur dancer and longtime sufferer from schizophrenia attracted a gathering of UC Berkeley students and onlookers as he delivered the famous “to be or not to be” monologue from “Hamlet,” one of Shakespeare’s familiar tragedies.

Billie was not in it alone: Sitting among the crowd was his director, senior theater student Quinn Nagle. The performance was Nagle’s new directorial project, “Space Cadet Billie Doing Hamlet.” Nagle said his goal was to use Shakespeare to help his audience reimagine what it means to be a mentally disabled person.

“ ‘Hamlet’ is about madness,” Nagle said. “I thought it was fitting.”

Billie was born in Hollywood in 1947 and grew up as an only child. At 15 years old, he began secluding himself in the attic of his family’s home, reading science fiction and fantasy novels by himself for days on end. He began experiencing nightmares and frequent spells of confusion.

Billie’s grandmother insisted to his family that there was something wrong, but his parents — particularly his father — didn’t want to see it.

“Schizophrenia was something families were ashamed of then,” Billie said. He said that although his mother was treated for manic depression, schizophrenia was a condition his family had never seen before. It was something they didn’t want anyone outside the family to know about.

Schizophrenia — a brain disorder that affects approximately 1 percent of Americans — causes those afflicted with it to confuse real and hallucinatory events. Schizophrenia often emerges during young adulthood, although it can appear later in life as well.

Billie did not receive a formal diagnosis until he was 45 years old, 18 years after he moved to the Bay Area. He is open about his condition, despite the stigmas that have come with it — in addition to being perceived as crazy, he is often assumed to be homeless, despite the fact that he has owned a studio apartment in Berkeley for almost four decades.

“People think of me as deadweight,” Billie said. “And that’s not true.”

Billie began appearing on Sproul in 1982, using the plaza as a space for his meditation and demonstrations of protest against what he thinks are social ills, such as consumerism and the creation of a technology-driven culture. Last year, he decided to become a dancer as well, after he was hit by a bus and broke his kneecap.

“After that, I thought, ‘I better start using my body.’ I thought it was a sign,” he said.
Billie performs on Sproul every weekday, showcasing dances that he feels are needed by the campus community. For example, after Gov. Jerry Brown declared California to be in a state of emergency due to the ongoing drought, Billie began performing rain dances to improve the weather.

It was this history of dance that led to Billie being approached by Nagle, who said he set out looking for actors with a background in performance.

Nagle said he approached several public figures on Sproul to participate in his production, in which he originally planned to include several scenes from other Shakespeare plays, but Billie was the only one who agreed to do it.

“I was at the bottom of his list — I was too crazy even for Quinn,” Billie said. “He came up to me with his cameraman and handed me the monologue, which I read it in my best British accent. He was shocked. I could do it!”

Nagle also has a personal connection with disability. The student director was born severely deaf in both ears and still wears a hearing aid, despite surgery. Nagle credits his condition with bringing him to theater.

“I grew up being receptive to how people communicate and express themselves,” he said. Nagle has performed in numerous shows since coming to Berkeley and was featured last semester in a BareStage production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” another Shakespeare play.

Billie and Nagle described their relationship as being more cooperative than the traditional director-actor dynamic. Nagle added that his actor has had a major influence in shaping the performance — including picking the title.

“(Billie) is aware, hyperaware, of how he is perceived,” Nagle said. “Although he calls himself a space cadet, we are proving that he’s not.” The goal of the title, he said, is to help to reframe the term to make it beneficial to the disabled community rather than derogatory.

The project is the focus of an upcoming documentary called “Method” by Berkeley film students Luke Thibault and Marc Estrada. The film will be released May 19. Thibault said the filmmakers were attracted to Nagle’s project after hearing about it through mutual acquaintances.

Billie said he hopes his performance will change the way the campus views those who live with mental disabilities.

“I have value in this society — I’m not a parasite,” he said. “That’s what I want to say by doing this.”

Contact Savannah Luschei at [email protected]