Strap yourselves in, it’s a long one.
“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
It’s likely possible to write a whole article of strung together Shakespeare quotes, so that’ll be the last one I use, I promise. I use it to illustrate a point about acting Shakespeare.
Specifically, that the more I’ve done and the more I’ve read, the less I feel I know. If you’re an actor, you’re probably in the same boat.
I’ve spent the last eighteen months performing in ten different Shakespeare productions. A majority of these have been with the Merely Players, who strip back concepts and focus on the fundamentals of speaking Shakespeare, telling the story, and engaging the audience.
Shakespeare is performed so often these days that these fundamentals are often sadly forgotten, or placed second to the abstract conceptualization or the ‘innovative’ new gimmick. Actors don’t tend to have control over that side of the creative process, so they end up with a lot of work to do for themselves on their performance. And guess what? That’s their responsibility. Always has been.
I’ve been working with two directors this year, Scott Ellis and Tatty Hennessy. Scott is the Artistic Director of the Merely Players and Tatty is an associate director with Merely, as well as having assisted on World Hamlet for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and most recently, An Audience With Jimmy Savile at The Park Theatre.
When we’ve worked together, we’ve worked in a time pressurized rehearsal schedule. This means the actors have to do a lot of their work at home, and it can be frustrating for directors to give the same kind of notes, just on different scenes.
After realising the repetition in the rehearsal room, I decided to discuss with them what the ten most time-saving fundamentals were that actors could sort out for themselves when doing Shakespeare, and save everyone a lot of time.
The first five have been inspired by conversations with Scott, and the latter five by conversations with Tatty. I’ve expanded a lot, and even expounded on some stuff they might not agree with, but hey, it’s my blog. This represents the fundamentals as I’ve come to understand them over the last year and a half.
With this list, I’m hoping I, and you, will be able to self-correct ninety percent of the problems we cause, and allow more time to be spent on details of storytelling, nuances within relationships, or cheap gags. You know, the good stuff. So, here we go:
1) Pick Up Your Effing Cues.
This has become less of a note and more of a mantra now before every line run, scene or run. Dead air gives the audience nothing. No, I mean nothing. No, don’t think you’re pausing to absorb the richness of the language. No, don’t think the impact of a line is so momentous it brings the play to a standstill. No. Stop it.
“React on your line, not before or after. Breathe on the other person’s line, and this will enable you to come in sharply at the end of your cue. If an acting choice requires you to put in a pause, it’s probably a bad choice.” Scott.
Exceptions on pausing are when they’re built into the rhythm of lines, but these are rare. Some lines will run eight beats, and the next one runs ten. That’s when you might be allowed to pause, as Shakespeare has given you space for it in the rhythm.
If you don’t know about rhythm, learn. I’ve read “Shakespeare’s Advice to The Players” by Peter Hall and “Speaking the Speech” by Giles Block. The former is a useful manual of tools, the second more of a forensic investigation with a bit more speculation, but both are great fun if you enjoy doing detective work and want to ‘read the Matrix’ of Shakespeare. I can short-hand the key points I picked up in another post, so say in the comments below if that’d be useful.
2) Find The Eyes
If what you were saying was just for you, you could think it and keep your mouth shut.
“Everything in the text is there to be said TO people, whether it is the actors on stage or the audience, who exist as fully rounded human beings. When Shakespeare was writing, the audience was lit. No fourth wall, no black box.” Scott.
As a result, everything is communicated outward, and anything else is self-indulgent. And before you think it, playing with vocal levels is different to staring glassy eyed into the middle distance. Find the eyes. If they look away, find some new ones. That applies to both actors sharing the stage and audience. Never forget, it’s for and about people.
3) Your Audience Are Virgins
Even nowadays, most people will be seeing the play you’re performing for the first time. Those that have seen it before may have seen a bad production, like this reviewer, and will need you to change their minds.
This means you have potentially thousands of opportunities to relate meaning, and none should be missed. I (controversially I’ve found) argue there is no subtext in Shakespeare, and no sarcasm either – by which I mean, playing the opposite intention to the written line. The meaning is right there in the line, or if it’s a deceit, it has been outlined shortly before or after. Even then, the best deceit is played straight.
“By the end of rehearsal you’ve heard every thought 100’s of times. The audience hasn’t, meaning comprehension of even the ‘easy’ concepts can be dropped if you’re not serving the sense up on a silver platter. Audience understanding is paramount.” Scott
It takes work to achieve this. You need to know everything you’re saying down to the individual word. Stripping down a rifle, cleaning it and reassembling it blindfolded into a thought that can shoot straight into someone’s mind and stay there. If you’re really doing this, you’ll come off stage sweating.
“Mine the text (ED: This phrase was first used by Michael Billington to describe Jonathan Slinger, an RSC vet. It’s a good one, and a useful mantra) for meaning and detail, and you can avoid wasting people’s time with nonsense exclamations like laughing before a line, or giving an ‘eurgh’ to show frustration. You can put the quality of those sounds INTO the line and keep things moving.” Scott
Exceptions here include the ‘O’, which is a little gift of self-indulgence for the character that Shakespeare has accommodated into the rhythm, and can be styled to the extent you wish.
4) Quit Your Jibber Jabber
I had a massive problem with gabbling. I’d done what I felt was a comprehensive job of all the steps above, and found I was getting so carried away the people outside my head were unable to keep up. This shocked me, because I understood every word, hit every stress and had constructed a flow of cadence that, I thought, would sweep people up and into my character’s thought process. It just drowned them.
In that way, you can think of it like surfing. You have to be on the crest of the wave, in the sweet spot between the momentum driving you forward, and staying grounded and relaxed on the board. I’m rubbish at surfing, too, incidentally. But basically, pace isn’t rushing and energy isn’t volume, and you can rush without realising you’re doing it. Believe me. Being aware of that can really save you a lot of time.
“Finish one thought definitively, then strongly start the next one.” Scott
He had me sit down in a chair and stand up again in between every thought, for all three of my characters, for the whole play, in one go. It’s useful. It helps you strongly identify what a full thought is, what is a part of a thought, and where the thoughts are going. You also get great quads.
Be careful though – as with perilous surfing analogies, you’re always close to disaster.
I don’t advocate end-stopping in Shakespeare, but even those who do will tell you it doesn’t mean stopping or pausing, rather breathing to invigorate each new line. In my experience, pausing on line-endings will break up thoughts and make everything more difficult. If you can’t get through a thought on one breath, however, then choose the right line-ending to use as a ‘springboard’ that re-energizes the thought with a new breath. Breath control is an athletic exercise in Shakespeare, and is something to work on.
5) Serve the play, not yourself.
The problem with doing a lot of work on your own at home is that it’s inevitably self indulgent, and when you turn up to the rehearsal room, your choices can run counter to the needs of the scene. If that’s the case, you kill those darlings as fast as you can. Serving the play sounds grand, but it’s perhaps better to think of it, as Scott puts it, as “serving the rhythm of the scene.”
How do you fit, how do you contribute? That’s your guide. This means killing a lot of other habits too.
“If you’ve found the right choice for a moment, or the sense of a line, don’t change it just to keep things fresh. The obvious choice for a line is almost always the right one.” Scott
‘Clever’ choices often depend on a level of fore-knowledge and critical literary analysis the audience won’t be able to perform when hearing the line only once. While unpicking that choice, they could miss the next three lines. As someone who can revel in being ‘clever’, this has been a bitter pill for me, but audience reactions to ‘clever’ and ‘direct’ choices have made it easier to swallow.
The only warning here is about being ‘live’- you have to react in the moment, but changing the delivery emotively so often results in changing the sense. If you can make the same choice for the first time, every time, then you’re winning. More on this at 9.
6) “Never take your foot off the gas.” Tatty
The word melodrama has been too often associated with ‘bad acting’. In fact, it comes from the Greek Melos for music and the French Drama, for, er, drama. A Melodrama is actually just a play with songs and musical interludes. I digress.
All it really means in the Shakespearean sense is:
“The stakes are high- what’s happening is important and it matters to the people in the scenes.” Tatty
This means that a sense of urgency must accompany the communication of most thoughts. Letting thoughts flop out of your mouth in order to posture, or without a care for their effect, is something people love to do because it feels ‘casual’, and they think ‘casual’ is the same as naturalistic, and that naturalistic is the Good Acting that Good Actors do.
However, nothing in Shakespeare is ever really casual. Characters like Cassius in Julius Caesar may ACT casual, perhaps, but we see the other layer beneath it. It’s a trick. A device. This is my same argument when it comes to ‘subtext’ – even when a scene might be about what’s not said, that’s a very clear device being employed consciously by a character, not something you have to extrapolate or make wild leaps about.
Can Shakespeare be naturalistic? Sure, but Midsummer Night’s Dream opens with a father wanting to slaughter his daughter, who doesn’t want to marry his preferred young boy. You know, the comedy? So it’s natural for tempers to fray and emotions to run high. Urgency. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Casual and urgent are.
So, being overly casual, leaving pauses, and generally being under-energized can split the connections between thoughts, even if you’re working hard to finish one and start the next one strong.
Shakespeare lays blueprints for complex structures of thoughts, which create an argument for a decision that propels the plot. You have to create those arguments like holograms in front of your audience, so they go with you when you decide to move the story along.
7) ASK THEM
There is an abundance of rhetoric in Shakespeare’s work. I attended a wonderful workshop with Bennett Brandreth about it and it was fascinating. There are STILL no rhetorical questions.
“If you have a question in a piece of Shakespeare’s text, you ask the question. Ask it to the characters, or ask it to the audience.” Tatty
When you ask it, you do not have the answer chambered and ready to reveal. It’s not a knock-knock joke (though Shakespeare was a fan of those, too – remember the Porter).
A soliloquy is not a vocalized inner monologue; it’s a conversation where you keep searching for answers because no one gives them to you.
8) Find your voice
Quick, say “I’M BATMAN!!!”
You did it in a gravelly death metal voice, didn’t you? No? Liar.
That’s because Christian Bale left such an indelible impression on Batman that even Lego Batman now sounds like that. The same thing has happened to Shakespeare’s work.
Don’t get me started on privilege in the arts, but Shakespeare wasn’t always performed in an imperious RP that carried with it the cadence of a wizard incanting universal wisdom. In fact, at the time it was first performed it sounded more like this, according to scholar and actor Ben Crystal.
Received Pronunciation Shakespeare started around Queen Victoria’s time (citation likely needed, but I’m not a journalist, and I can’t remember which book it was I read it in). Shakespeare was ‘claimed’ by that voice, with giants like Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart doing it because that’s what drama school taught them to do.
Don’t do it.
“Do it in your own voice. That doesn’t necessarily mean your accent – that’s another choice. But don’t feel you need to put on a Shakespeare voice. Don’t think about what the characters ‘should’ sound like. If you’re playing Hamlet, Hamlet sounds like you.” Tatty
Anyone doing a ‘Shakespeare voice’ is separating themselves from the character and the meaning, so it inevitably becomes hollow. It’s better to use your own cadences, naturalizing the sound of the lines so it becomes authentic to you. That may feel disarming and a little exposing, and it should. It did for me.
Part of the reason I think the Shakespeare Voice lasted for a generation is because it feels wonderful to do. It’s really enjoyable, but it is also self-indulgent. It gets in the way of honesty.
I still now have to work and rework my delivery when learning lines to take out habits and ticks I got listening to McKellen and Branagh, and I’m not always successful. But being aware of it and forcing yourself to say it honestly, purely, nakedly, can actually make the words sing with a new kind of power that is much more direct, and will hold the audience’s attention far better.
9) Thoughts Create Feelings, Not The Other Way Around.
“Follow the thoughts and the feelings will take care of themselves.” Tatty
Actors seem to believe much of their value lies in emoting, and often think of emoting as interchangeable with truthfulness.
Rather, if you honestly strive to communicate, to feel the NEED to say the words and understand what that need is and why it exists, emotion will be evoked out of the language without fogging over the meaning, both for you and for the audience.
If you emote first and then try to communicate, you’ll either colour every word with a general wash, which is at best uncompelling and at worst unintelligible, or you’ll make a face and do a voice and I’ll be too busy being distracted by that to hear what you’re saying.
It is a high-wire act between an emotionally authentic response to what the other actor is giving to you, and making sure the audience follows and understands you. The latter comes first.
If it helps to think of the audience as ‘the person on stage across from me’, then might find, if you’re anything like me, that allowing that person’s eyes to draw something out of you is a lot easier and more ‘real’ than putting half your focus on summoning up a storm in your gut.
10) Forget about the history.
If you treat Shakespeare as a piece of amazing new writing, you’ll have all the benefit of the hundreds of years of academic exploration and books full of tools that explore iambic pentameter (and this article), which will help you avoid all the obvious tripping points, and then have a great piece of text to explore. Don’t be reverential. Not about the writing, and not about anything you’ve seen done before.
This goes for the big leading roles in particular. There is no definitive performance, no One Way. Yours won’t be either, so take the pressure of yourself. Nobody expects you to be the next Olivier, so don’t expect to be either (and let’s be frank, this art has evolved for eighty years since he first started doing Shakespeare, so by standing on the shoulders of giants you’re probably already better).
There’s no harm in being a magpie. If you saw a choice you liked and you can make it in your own way, steal it. But make it in your own way. Equally, as long as you don’t imitate, so much of yourself will come through that your performance will be unique in its own right without your knowledge or consent.
“Nobody has ever stood where you’re standing and thought what you’re thinking and used your instrument to speak these words in this way.” Tatty
That gives plenty of life and originality to a performance, without having to try and be ‘clever’.
So there they are! The actor’s checklist for addressing Shakespeare. If you’ve made it this far and nothing I’ve written has held value or insight for you, then you just massively wasted your time. Yikes. If you found anything useful however, that’s a relief.
Equally, if you think there’s something crucial that’s been missed, throw it in the comments below.
If you completely disagree with any of the points, and I’m almost certain no one can read anything this long on the internet without being outraged by SOMETHING, then give me your cutting (but clean) deconstruction in the comments.