It was just another ordinary day in 2011 when Tyler Duerson made her way to the basement reading room of D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Library – home to the largest collection of Shakespeare texts in the world. Tyler was a junior at Episcopal and a high school fellow at Folger, which means she spent two afternoons a week studying, performing, and watching professional performances of Shakespeare plays under the guidance of prestigious Shakespeare scholars. In a typical year, one or two Episcopal students benefit from this unique opportunity.
“The reading room had huge vaulted ceilings, long wood tables, and really ornate chairs,” says Tyler. “And on the tables, resting on velvet book covers, were original copies of the First Folio. It blew my mind.”
The First Folio is a collection of 36 Shakespeare plays, 18 of which had never been published before and would have been lost without this printing. Published in 1623, it is considered one of the most influential texts in the history of the English language. Roughly 750 copies were ever printed, and only 233 remain. The Folger Shakespeare Library owns 82 of those copies.
“There were drawings in the margins that kids from the 17th-century had made,” remembers Tyler. Leafing through the delicate pages, with their musty old-book smell, she says she could almost feel the presence of “all of the humans that had come before me and their pursuit of knowledge and entertainment. It was really beautiful.”
Tyler came to Episcopal intrigued by Shakespeare but distant from it. She considered it intellectually challenging but perhaps overly dramatic – worth studying but not personally relevant. The Folger program changed all that.
Before Folger, most of Tyler’s theater experience had been behind-the-scenes stage managing EHS productions. The Folger Shakespeare program required that Tyler step outside of her comfort zone and perform for her classmates. “It was nerve-wracking,” she says. “But it was also fully immersive. It literally put me in the characters’ shoes. Acting out the texts physically made me see how those dialogues, though centuries old, were applicable to conversations we are still having today.”
Communing with the First Folio, seeing an unorthodox professional production of Much Ado About Nothing, overcoming her stage fright, and discovering the strength of Desdemona in Othello accomplished something magical for Tyler. “It bridged the time gap,” she says. “It made Shakespeare modern for me. I could see myself in some of the characters, which I never expected.”
Tyler graduated from Wellesley College in 2016 with a degree in neuroscience. She is applying to master’s programs in public health and medical anthropology.