A month before graduating from Ironwood Ridge High School, Tristan Odenkirk looked back on his formative years with a wry smile, recalling an energetic youth with a penchant for acting out. A wiley child who once lost his chair because he leaned back too much, Odenkirk said there was one aspect of school which has always kept him interested.
“I think that the reason that I stayed so interested in Shakespeare was because I didn’t pay much attention in elementary school classes,” he said, “but I did start reading it a lot more and getting into it a lot more when we started to study Shakespeare.”
Calling the famous bard “the Blackbeard of playwrights,” Odenkirk has carried his love of plays, performance and everything Shakespeare (except “Romeo and Juliet”) all the way through high school and onto the national stage. Last month, he joined more than 50 other up-and-coming thespians at the 33rd annual English-Speaking Union National Shakespeare Competition, held May 2 in New York City.
The English-Speaking Union National Shakespeare Competition is a school-based program designed to help students develop speaking and critical thinking skills and an appreciation of literature. Throughout the various levels of competition, students perform different Shakespearean monologues,
as well as a sonnet at the national competition. The ESU was founded in 1920 and is a nonprofit, nonpolitical organization promoting “English as a shared language to foster global understanding and good will by providing educational and cultural opportunities for students and educators,” according to a press release.
Odenkirk earned his spot in The Big Apple after besting regional competitors at the ESU Tucson Branch by performing the monologue, “What a piece of work is man …” from Act II, Scene II of “Hamlet,” performed by the eponymous Hamlet.
Though he took home a win in Tucson, it was not the first time Odenkirk competed in the competition. As a freshman, he chose to perform a monologue of Brutus’ from “Julius Caesar,” though was unable to capture any success at the time.
“People go up there, they do ‘Winter’s Tale’ they do ‘Measure for Measure,’ things that no one is ever heard of because it’s obscure and they want to seem unique,” he said. “The reason I chose ‘Hamlet,’ though, was because I thought I could deliver something different to it, deliver something genuine about it.”
He said the decision to perform a monologue from a more well known play like “Hamlet” came after being cast in a gender-reversed production of the play last year. Cast as Ophelia or “Ophelio” as he was called, Odenkirk was informed by one of his teachers that had the play been put on traditionally, he would have been cast as the lead.
Though he downplays and even sometimes criticizes his performance, Odenkirk impressed in Tucson, and earned himself a two-day trip with educational and cultural activities planned for him across the city, including a workshop at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and a performance of “the Something Rotten!” on Broadway. Though he said he was surprised to have his name called as a regional winner, those that know him aren’t surprised at his success.
“In every audition that I have sat in with Tristan—he just gets it,” said Mary Dickson, drama teacher at IRHS. “He understands the language and he understands how to analyze a script just in his mind, he doesn’t even need to study it for a long period of time. He can just look at a scene, cold read and analyze, which is something so cool for a high school kid to do…He’s just so good at capturing an audience, demanding their attention without stealing a scene.”
With the support of family, friends, teachers and classmates, Odenkirk prepared to take the journey to New York City and meet dozens of like-minded thespians with a communal love of the bard. Though he was set for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, Odenkirk’s sense of humor remained untouched by the slightest sense of nervousness.
“I don’t know what kind of kids are going to be there,” he said. “I don’t know what kind of workshops we’ll be doing, I don’t know if anyone will try and smother me in my sleep, so I’m nervous. I am hoping the main reason that I am nervous while I am over there is if someone tries to smother me in my sleep…I don’t want to be paranoid about getting up on stage in front of these kids and doing the best I can…But I don’t want to demonize the other contestants, I am sure they are very nice kids.”
All jokes aside, Odenkirk was excited to take the trip east and soak in every bit of advice and knowledge he could about the craft.
During the competition, Odenkirk managed to place as a semi-finalist. Alongside a performance of his chosen monologue from “Hamlet,” Odenkirk also performed Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.”
Finishing up his final year of high school, and he had plenty on his plate. Aside from the competitions and trip to New York City, he was also handed the responsibility of being an elected class speaker for the class of 2016 gradation.
In a short speech packed full of witty humor, intentional pandering and mock humility, Odenkirk garnered more than his fair share of laughs from the crowd of proud Nighthawks and their families, capping off the beginning of a burgeoning career for a young man more than comfortable on the stage.
Leaving Ironwood Ridge, Odenkirk plans to continue acting and will attend Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., joining his older brother and the lineage of many of the men in the family.