Thursday, May 16, 2013

Zounds! Shakespearean Imagery Is A Killer

Imagery seems to be the most difficult thing for the modern actor.  We don't tend to speak in images anymore.  I can say "Grand Canyon" and you know what I mean.  You've seen it in Thelma and Louise or in a calendar or some such thing.  But in Shakespeare's day, people needed imagery to understand things beyond themselves.  Most people also didn't know how to read and write.  Language was primarily heard - and it was in flux.  Shakespeare created over 2000 words.  People had a real love of language.  And so, it is necessary to develop a love for Shakespeare's words - not a masturbatory love, but a real need for the words you are given to express your ideas.

We tend to learn the dictionary definition of Shakespeare's words, get a sense of the lines paraphrased, and call it a day.  But there is so much more.  First of all, the words and thoughts have to hold some kind of personal meaning for you.  None of us can afford to let the lines do our work for us.  The lines don't mean anything on their own.  Words on a page are just that.  It takes the actor to interpret them and infuse them with meaning.  Much as people would like to believe that Shakespeare had no subtext, there is always room for interpretation.  By "interpretation", I do not mean to support Concept-Driven Shakespeare (see below).  All I mean to suggest is that it is quite impossible for any human being to express everything that is going on in every moment.

Does that mean it's necessary to take huge pauses for thought?  Definitely not.  It is suggested that people spoke much more quickly in Shakespeare's day - and they would have to in order for ROMEO AND JULIET to be the two-hours' traffic of anyone's stage.  So, it is necessary in the style of Shakespeare's writing for people to "think on the line" - which basically means that you can't take the time to think about what you're going to say before you say it.  But that's a style, just as much as Chekhov's plays call for a heightened comic realism.

With all of that said, it's important to keep in mind that there is no correct way of saying lines.  The words will necessarily mean different things coming from different actors.  Shakespeare wrote for a specific group of players.  Chances are, you are not 100% what he had in mind.  As such, we cannot get caught up in thinking that there's a right way and a wrong way.  We all have to let our own discretion be our tutor.

Now that we've sussed out the meanings of the words, we need to attend to the Heightened Language.  We have to understand how the language operates in creation of ideas.  If I am speaking metaphorically, I actually need to create the metaphor.  The hidden meaning will not express itself of its own volition.  You can't say something like, "Your mind is tossing on the ocean," without being aware of the ocean.  It's not a colloquial way to say something.  And so you can't say it as though it's just an ordinary way of speaking.  Try it - it will seem silly.  That said, some balance is necessary.  Just because something is poetical does not mean it needs to become poetry - nor do these things need to be acted out or you'll insult your audience.  But you do need to actually create the image.  

It seems that every time I go see a Shakespearean play, I get one of three things.
1.)  A group of people that seem to be channeling Keanu Reeves in an attempt to sound "natural"
2.)  What seems to be the bad-karaoke version of Shakespeare, where people seem to be doing the equivalent of singing along to their favorite Shakespearean character - without allowing it to come from them.
3.)  A mouthful of emoted words in the stylings we would expect to have seen on the renaissance stage.

Rarely, if ever, are any of these actors grounded in the reality of the circumstances of the play or the individual character's intentions.  I think that we can all agree that the first two are just bad acting.  But the third seems to have become an epidemic in our theater.  These actors seem to think that if they speak with gusto, their passion will out.  But in reality, they are "tearing a passion to tatters, to very rags".

No amount of impassioned speaking will create circumstances for us.  We don't need to know how the words make you feel.  Taking our cues from life, only actors try to sound sad or drunk or angry, etc.  Real people try to keep their emotions out of their speech.  In times of great difficulty, real people try their best to communicate.  So should we - especially in Shakespeare.  For some reason, people seem to throw all concepts of acting out the window when it comes to performing in a Shakespearean play - in fact, it applies to classical theatre in general (not to mention musicals), but that's a subject for another day.

I mentioned Concept-Driven Shakespeare earlier.  I'm sure you basically understand the idea.  I've seen things anywhere from HAMLET: 2001, A SPACE ODYSSEY to ROMEO AND JULIET in a mental institution.  But my real meaning applies less to productions than it does to actors.  We play these roles that everyone has seen.  They are standard.  And there is a tendency for people to decide to come up with their take on the role, to do something interesting with it.  I promise you that their is nothing more interesting than your individual humanity.  Shakespeare wrote living people.  And so it is necessary to let these characters resonate with you.

In the last part of this series as we inch closer to opening our productions of HAMLET and R&G ARE DEAD, we'll go into some of the hidden stage directions in Shakespeare's verse, as well as some basic rules that can clear up your communication quickly and easily.  For the first part in this series, please click here:  Shakespeare CAN Be Understood - And How

We'd love to hear your thoughts and questions.  Please don't be silent.  Leave a comment.  Let's get a conversation going!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Shakespeare CAN Be Understood - and How

You know that bad feeling you get deep down in your gut right before you see a Shakespeare play?  Be honest.

Even if you're a Shakespeare lover, there's always a worry that you won't be able to understand what's being said - and even if you DO understand the text, will you be able to understand these actors?

John Barton (a very important Shakespearean dramaturg) claims that he doesn't really listen to what's being said unless the actors MAKE him listen.  Otherwise, he only gets the most general sense of the lines.  I imagine that many of us share the same difficulty.  Personally, I notice that I easily tune out when it comes to seeing one of Shakespeare's plays performed.  I know many people who have given up on his work entirely.

Essentially, our society come to expect that we won't be able to relate to the actors in a Shakespearean play.  It seems standard for Shakespeare to be performed in heightened acting styles of yesteryear and weird Mid-Atlantic dialects - when in fact Shakespeare's own advice to the players argues that we have to speak to "the very age and body of the time".  First, we have a current tradition of conversational life onstage and a different type of audience than in the year 1600 - both of which need to be taken into consideration.  Additionally, JULIUS CAESAR was initially played in Elizabethan Garb with elements of Roman dress; the Danish countryside in HAMLET more closely resembled Warwickshire than Denmark; and in ROMEO AND JULIET, the households were more specific to English life than that of the Italians.  Lastly, the Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare's text was much closer to the American sound than the current English sound.

I'd like to offer one small piece of overlooked wisdom when it comes to performing in one of Shakespeare's plays: he wrote them in English.  So, you don't need to approach them as though they are in a foreign language.  The audience doesn't need big gestures to understand what's going on.  Yes, there are some big words, but for the most part, his plays are written in the basic syntax of naturalistic speech.  No writer writes exactly the way that people talk - and there are so many vernacular variations that it would be impossible to undertake such a task.  There are plenty of modern writers whose plays that are written in a strange and rhythmic manner.  See Mamet, Letts, Lonergan, and just about anyone else you can name.  None of these people sounds just like you.

But what's so crazy about Shakespeare's language?

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." - HENRY VI, Part II
"To be, or not to be: that is the question:" - HAMLET
"What's in a name?  - ROMEO & JULIET

Any of the above quotes could easily be said in a modern-day play.  As wonderful of a writer as he may have been, Shakespeare was the least poetic playwright of his day.  His writing is character driven and full of intention.  It was meant to be acted, not read.  He wrote living people.  As has been stated by many scholars:  Shakespeare was the first naturalistic playwright.  And that essentially means that he created the concept of naturalistic acting.

Shakespeare wrote in three kinds of speech: 

Prose - The most commonly used form in playwrighting today. 

Blank Verse (or Iambic Pentameter) - Still the closest verse form to everyday speech, created by Shakespeare.  Blank verse has ten syllables per line, typically with alternating strong and weak stresses: de DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM.  You'd be amazed how frequently you speak in this basic pattern.  If you look at many other playwrights of his time and before, their verse structures have either too many or too few syllables per line to represent naturalistic speech.  

Rhymed Verse - This is not that commonly used today - except in poetry and jingles.  But he mostly used this form for an effect of some sort.  Many speeches end in a rhyming couplet.  Some ethereal or particularly majestic characters rhyme with frequency.  But this form is less used in Shakespeare's plays.

It is important to note that Shakespeare did not strictly adhere to his rules all the time.  He wrote intuitively.  And though we want to understand his rules, we must still act intuitively in his plays.  "Let your own discretion be your tutor."  Really, when it comes down to it, if you just make sense out of the lines, not for the audience, but for yourself and your scene partner, then the meanings will come across.  There's no need to go crazy about it.  Just "Speak the speech" easily..."trippingly on the tongue". Focus on communicating, rather than getting it right.

In rehearsals for our current production of HAMLET, we've been trying something that seems to work very well.  We ask our actors to keep their energy moving to the end of their character's thought - so they can't pause (even for a breath) until they hit a period.  I was surprised to learn that Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech is actually four thoughts.  It's easy to get so bogged down in the commas and colons and semicolons that it's impossible to keep track of the point being made.  But we don't tend to speak with commas and semicolons.  Punctuation is a device of the writer to communicate sense on a page.  In real life, we speak until we've finished making a point.  It's amazing how much clearer Shakespeare's text becomes when you focus on the point you're making and then use the words to make that point. 

This is the first part in a series of posts about Speaking Shakespeare.  Next up, we'll discuss Imagery, and then Hidden Clues in the Text.

We'd love to hear your thoughts and questions.  Please don't be silent.  Leave a comment.  Let's get a conversation going!