Aspiring actress Renee Wilson, 17, says she lives by the “don’t knock it till you’ve tried it” mentality. Wilson, who graduated from Malverne High School last Friday, got a chance to back up those words when she performed in an international virtual production of the Shakespeare play “What You Will” (a.k.a. “Twelfth Night”) on Aug. 8.
The production, which was directed by English producer and actor Ben Crystal, was all improv and featured actors from around the world. “We’ve been preparing for this for months, and it didn’t really click until the week of the show,” said Wilson, who played the role of Olivia. “Between rehearsals and graduation, it was a heavy week for me, but it’s all part of the journey, and I wouldn’t take it back for the world.”
Wilson met Crystal through Malverne School District theatre teacher David Coonan, who invited Crystal to hold a workshop for his theatre students in a message on Twitter.
“She has no ego, and she has a real natural talent and ability,” Coonan said of Wilson, “which is now being seen by an international group of actors. I see the work that she’s putting in, so it’s obvious that she understands the gravity of this.”
Coonan, who also directs musicals and at the middle and high school, had previously directed “Pippen,” in which Wilson played a showgirl in the ensemble. He said that while she didn’t have a speaking role, her presence added an intangible value to the show. “No matter where she was on stage, she was lighting it up,” Coonan recalled. “That’s the sign of a talented actor who has that ability to create a character and execute it.”
Crystal said that Wilson’s playfulness and wisdom immediately stood out to him as she played different characters in Shakespeare’s play. “We ran a script exercise,” he told the Herald via WhatsApp, “and the way [she] captured the lines . . . there was just a certain wit and veracity that came alive in this incredibly engaging young woman.”
Wilson took part in workshops and rehearsals with professional actors from Crystal’s ensemble. She was the youngest member of the group, and acknowledged that she was rather intimidated. Two Zoom meetings, during which she got to know the other cast members, she said, helped to break the ice.
“In my head, I started to doubt myself at first,” she said, “but I had to get rid of that. I learned that if you can’t handle the criticism, it’s going to be hard, but you have to learn how to take it.”
Wilson said the cast members not only helped her hone her acting skills, but also inspired her to step out of her comfort zone. “This experience has really opened my eyes to what’s out there,” she said. “This company has helped me in so many ways. Not only in my craft, but as a person, too.”
“The patience that these professionals have had with her and the way that they’ve embraced her,” Coonan said, “that ensemble deserves a lot of credit for what they’ve done.”
Crystal said he created the virtual production as a way to share actors’ talents around the world, and to give viewers a chance to scratch their creative itch. Having young actors like Wilson as a part of his cast, he said, was a gift.
“David and I will have the joy of knowing that we were there at the beginning,” Crystal said of Coonan.
Crystal’s virtual production will be posted on his website, on Saturday.
Wilson plans to attend Nassau Community College to study acting this fall. She originally had dreams of becoming a voice actor, but after her experience with Crystal’s ensemble, she now wants to dabble in all forms of acting.
“It brings me so much joy,” she said, “and I hope this shows that people shouldn’t be afraid to pursue their dreams.”