By Kevin Zimmerman
When Melissa Friedman witnessed Xavier Pacheco’s self-proclaimed first attempt at performing Shakespeare, she decided the then 14-year-old Corona freshman was either a skilled liar or a naturally talented actor.
“He was like a pro,” Friedman, who serves as artistic director of Manhattan’s Epic Theatre Ensemble, said. “He just picked it right up. We were all a little freaked out.”
Friedman, however, was not surprised when Xavier earn the top prize in the English-Speaking Union National Shakespeare Competition in late April. He was also the first winner from New York in the event’s 30-year history. The contest brings student actors and public speakers from around the country to Lincoln Center, where they perform monologues and recite poetry written by the Bard.
“When Xavier walked on stage, he took in the whole audience,” Friedman said. “You got the sense there is a prodigy in the room. Everybody just stops. That is good acting.”
Although he’s been acting since the sixth-grade, Xavier, a sophomore at Urban Assembly School of the Performing Arts in Harlem, was only introduced to the playwright’s canon last year as part of Epic’s Shakespeare Remix after-school program. The theater company works with New York City high school students to study and to perform a sort of mash-up between Shakespeare’s words and edits and rewrites from the kids.
That first play last year was “Much Ado About Nothing” and Xavier realized Shakespeare’s stuff was definitely something.
“It just blew my mind,” Xavier said. “You go through and find the metaphors and entendres. Reading it was pretty cool, but when we started to stage it, you saw how much he wrote for actors. There was just so much freedom.”
Cast in the lead role of Benedict, Xavier devoured the script as the group, under Friedman’s direction, went through line by line defining words and decoding the meanings.
“When you know what is happening in the scene, it helps us understand it,” Xavier said. “It helps you figure out what he is trying to say.”
Before too long in the process, Xavier had figured out he had a lot in common with Benedict. Shakespeare’s hero is all confidence and cockiness until he discovers the character of Beatrice fancies him.
“As soon as he realizes a girl likes him, that confidence goes away,” Xavier said. “I can relate to that.”
But Xavier’s confidence remained intact after he took on his second role that first year as York in “Henry VI.” As the father of Richard III, York knows his own value and realizes he is capable of changing people’s minds and actions, Xavier said.
“I definitely related to the way he carries himself,” Xavier said. “He knows how to lead and influence people.”
As one of 57 semi-finalists at this year’s Shakespeare competition, Xavier welded his own brand of influence over the judges with his recitation of “Sonnet 29,” “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” and a Benedict monologue from “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Selected as the last of 10 finalists, Xavier’s final-round performance included a bit from “Antony and Cleopatra,” which was brand new to him.
Finalists received 10 minutes to work with these cold readings and Xavier focused on what he had learned from two years of Shakespeare Remix.
“I looked for power words — words that stuck out — and transitions and where thoughts end,” Xavier said.
Friedman said once he made it to the finals, she believed Xavier was on his way to victory.
“His advantage is the cold reading and in decoding Shakespeare,” Friedman said. “I knew he was going to win that competition.”
As part of his first-place win, Xavier received a chance to spend two weeks this summer studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.
Then this fall, it will be back to his daily commute from Corona to Harlem in order to continue his theater training at Urban Assembly. And as a high school junior, it will be time to start looking into colleges with strong theater arts programs. He’s toying with the idea of attending Northwestern, Vassar, Brown and Oberlin.
After college, Friedman expects to see Xavier return to New York and back on the stage.
“There is no question he’ll be an actor,” Friedman said. “He is totally committed.”
Reach news editor Kevin Zimmerman by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4541.