During the nine-month run of “Shakespeare in Love,” actor Preston Mead has missed only a few performances so far — including when he had to take his SAT test.
The 17-year-old will be a senior at Ashland High School this fall, but he’s already in his second season with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Mead is stealing scenes this year with his laugh-out-loud rendition of the character John Webster, a slouchy, glowering street urchin who favors blood-and-guts plays.
In “Shakespeare in Love,” the Bard is suffering from a bad case of writer’s block. It doesn’t help when a stream of inept actors shows up to audition for a play Shakespeare is still trying to write.
One acts like a mime, another stutters and a third man wants to deliver lines in a soprano opera voice.
Then there’s gore-obsessed Webster. For his audition, he zestfully acts like a torture victim who is having his heart ripped out, his flesh seared with burning irons and molten lead dropped into his eyes.
“He picks a monologue that is very violent and angry and he goes over the top with it,” Mead says about his character. “He thinks that’s what acting should be — violence and blood.”
To become Webster, Mead slumps his shoulders, lowers his head, peers out from under lowered eyebrows and adopts a working-class Cockney accent.
“He’s a street rat. He’s not prim and proper,” Mead says. “He’s supposed to be a funny character, but not a happy one.”
To prepare Mead for the part, director Christopher Liam Moore recommended he watch horror films such as “The Omen,” a movie about a murderous child named Damien who turns out to be the antichrist. Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the genius serial killer from “Silence of the Lambs,” also serves as a model.
In real life, Webster was a writer known for macabre plays. “Shakespeare in Love” imagines his earlier days.
“John Webster wrote very gory plays. In ‘Shakespeare in Love,’ he’s a sadist as a kid, and theater is a way for him to express that,” Mead says.
When OSF was preparing for the current season, Mead had no idea he’d be cast as the creepy but ultimately lovable character.
He had acting experience under his belt in school and Camelot Theatre Company plays, as well as in OSF’s 2016 season. A true triple threat, Mead can act, sing and dance. He also brings improv and comedy skills to the table.
When it came time to audition for OSF's 2017 season, Mead sang a song and did two monologues — one dramatic and one comedic. During the general auditions, actors have five to seven minutes to wow a dozen people judging their talents.
“My philosophy is seven minutes is overstaying. My philosophy is go in, show what you’ve got and go,” Mead says.
He was busy serving as a counselor at a summer camp when OSF sent an email that he had won the role of Webster in "Shakespeare in Love." His mom was the first to read the news.
"I got a phone call from my mom," Mead recalls. "I'm like, 'Mom, I can't talk right now.' "
When rehearsals started, he experimented with ways to make Webster as funny as possible — both verbally and with physical actions.
"One of the beauties of live theater is you get instant feedback," Mead says. "You can hear your director laughing or groaning during rehearsals. You can hear if the cast is giggling."
Once the play opened, the character Webster became a hit with audiences. Mead says he gets the most laughs from students.
"I'm a kid, and they're kids, and they like me. They didn't expect to see a kid acting like a lunatic at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival," he says.
But Mead also found out the reaction from the audience isn't always the same. Some lines win big laughs one night, but get a more muted response the next time. He said some audience members also might be there for the romantic angle of the play, not the comedy.
Actor Ted Deasy, who portrays playwright Christopher "Kit" Marlowe in "Shakespeare in Love," gave Mead a word of advice.
"He told me, 'You can't chase after the laugh you've already gotten. You'll drive yourself crazy. Stay in the performance you're in now,' " Mead says. "That advice helps me so I'm not distracted thinking, 'Why are they not laughing tonight?' It's the audience that's changed. Different people find different things to be funny."
While most of OSF's 11 plays come and go during the season, "Shakespeare in Love" — the stage version of a hit movie — is one of three plays to run the full season from February to the end of October.
When Mead started performing as Webster, he was a junior at Ashland High School. With aspirations to make acting his career, he is now researching college options as he prepares to enter his senior year.
He learned tricks for balancing professional acting with academics during his stint with OSF in 2016. Mead crams key classes into the morning and schedules other classes in the afternoon, then makes up the work he misses. Depending on the day, rehearsals and other acting responsibilities can keep him busy from noon to almost midnight.
While most of the older actors take on multiple roles each season, Mead stuck with the character Webster for this year.
"It takes really long hours just to be in one play," Mead says.
Despite his busy schedule over the last few years, he still found time to help with Project UP, a program at Ashland High School that helps students with special needs take part in the performing arts.
“Lots of times, kids with disabilities don’t get the opportunity to be in theater and other performing arts,” he says. “We do acting, play theater games and we bring in actors who tell us about their careers. We’ve had awesome guests.”
OSF actors have come to work with the kids, including William DeMeritt, who plays the Bard in “Shakespeare in Love.”
Mead says he’s learned even more about acting from his time spent with the Project UP students.
“I’m usually the student, like when I’m working at OSF. To be in a place where I’m the teacher or the mentor is cool,” he says. “You learn from being a teacher. As the saying goes, the best way to learn it is to teach it. It’s interesting to flip perspectives.”
Born and raised in Ashland, Mead remembers when he was a young student at a school that forced all the kids to participate in the annual school play. Only later did he fall in love with acting.
“I like helping the Project UP kids with dancing or getting shy people to come out on stage to do something fun. I remember being the person who didn’t want to act or go on stage,” he says.
As Mead looks toward the future, he says he’s getting lots of advice from OSF actors about life after high school and how to keep honing his acting, dancing and singing skills. He says he feels lucky to take part in professional theater at such a young age.
“I’m essentially a sponge here. I’m taking it all in,” he says.