19 Plays in 59 Days

I’ve been away from the blog, but that doesn’t mean I stopped thinking about Shakespeare. I’ve basically got a year of thinking to fill you in on. The Winter's Tale

One big undertaking in 2010 was my Summer Shakespeare extravaganza. I made sure to see as many productions of the Bard as I could within a 2 month period. It was sort of a challenge to myself to see if I could, to see what was out there, and just for the sake of seeing more theatre. I scoured the net for theaters near and far that were producing Shakespeare and I came up with a list. Then came time to schedule them… that was complicated. Eventually I had my schedule of shows to see. After all was said and done I saw 19 shows on my list within 59 days. I saw a few in the weeks after as well, but that would ruin my excellent title.

Here is THE LIST:

  • As You Like It
  • Comedy of Errors
  • Hamlet
  • Julius Caesar
  • King Lear (x2)
  • Love’s Labour’s Lost
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (x4)
  • Measure for Measure
  • Merry Wives of Windsor
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Othello
  • Twelfth Night (x2)
  • The Winter’s Tale (x2)

In just 2 months I saw 13 different plays! Yes, I saw FOUR different productions of Midsummer. Let’s just say that I’m okay with taking a break from that show for just a little while. omedy of Errors - Kingsmen Shakespeare Company, Thousand Oaks, CA

I should add, just for fun, that outside of those 2 months in 2010 I also saw The Tempest, Macbeth, and another Merry Wives of Windsor. Which would bring my total year count to seeing 22 productions of 15 different plays.

I put a lot of miles on my car, driving 100 miles north for one and a similar distance south for another, as well as everything in between. One great thing about summer Shakespeare is that a lot of companies produced it and offered it for free in a park. To be exact, 9 of the above productions were absolutely free. Good thing too, or I would’ve broken the bank just on theatre tickets.

The productions ranged from college and community theatre to huge regional theatre productions. Quality also had a huge range, but was not at all directly related to budget. The most expensive production I saw may have been one of the least effective at telling the story, while some of the amateur productions had some great talent to keep me interested.

I could go on for days about each production if I wanted to. Some were very good, some were very bad. A few made me happy and others made me mad. I should specify that I only got mad at professional productions — they had all the potential in the world and yet failed to deliver. An amateur production, no matter the quality, is done for the love of it and could never upset me.

Yes, I saw 22 productions of just SHAKESPEARE in a year. How many total performing arts events did I attend in 2010? 86.

I’ll try to find some specific lessons learned or things to point out in future posts. Till then, any questions?

A Sort of Homecoming

How quickly time passes when there’s lots to do. How quickly I lost track of how long it had been since last updating here. Well dear readers, I’m still alive.

Yesterday Duane the Shakespeare Geek sent me a message about a post JM wrote about my extended absence from blogging. Thanks JM for the kind words and Duane for letting me know about it! It was very heartwarming to know the Shakesblogosphere missed me.

I suppose I should some sort explanation of my whereabouts. In short, I moved a couple times, I did several different jobs, I’ve been acting and directing alot, but mostly producing! I started a theatre company with some colleagues about a year ago and have been managing it ever since. Click on the logo here to find out more, if you’re interested.

I’m pleased to say that the Shakespeariences haven’t stopped. I had a very Bardful year in 2010 that I’ll probably blog about soon, so no use in giving away any spoilers just yet. Yes, I may as well start updating regularly again. There’s no time like the present.

You may have also noticed that the site looks just a little different. I came back to this old thing and decided to spruce it up a bit. Change the top banner, clean up some things here and there. I may continue to change things here and there, who knows. Just trying to feel at home again.

So what have I missed?

38 Plays in 38 Days

I got an email a few days ago about an insane and equally exciting challenge: To read Shakespeare’s 38 plays (yes, counting Two Noble Kinsmen) in 38 consecutive days!

Does that sound like something you might like to try? Check out http://www.shicho.net/38/ for the full story. It runs from March 1st to April 7th, and I plan to participate in this month(ish) of madness. Why? That’s a complicated answer, but an easier one might be: Why not?

I’m keeping pretty busy these days, but I’ll try to do some updates here about my progress and news from any other Bardolaters I attract to this challenge.

Happy reading!

In Mother Country Text Acts You!

Have you ever heard anyone say that when acting Shakespeare, the text acts you, the text does the work for you, or something along those lines? I’m willing to bet you have. But what does it mean that the text acts you? How does it do that? Doesn’t one normally act the text? If the text does the work for you, does that mean Shakespeare is easy?

By the text acts you, most people mean that Shakespeare’s text is so rich in meaning and tells the story so clearly that it’s unnecessary to work to hard at showing the audience how you feel or telling the story. In other words, don’t color the picture that’s already colored-in.

If the text acts you, how come some actors sound great speaking the text and others give abysmal performances? It’s good advice to talented actors who tend to try too hard and over-act; it’s clearly an over-simplification that’s not meant for everyone. So when you hear it: Caveat Actor.

The text isn’t going to do the work for you. Not just yet, anyway. Let’s not have the idea that acting Shakespeare doesn’t require lots of hard work. First use the imagery, antithesis, punctuation, and all the other text analysis tools you know and love to discover the text. Once you’ve discovered, explore! Find all the different meanings the lines can have with different stresses, tempos, phrasing, and rhythms. Delve into the images, the sounds, the onomatopoeia. Really KNOW the text intimately. When you speak it, you should be able to do anything with it.

It should be a few weeks into rehearsal (for a play or even just a monologue) when you get to this point. Now that the text lives in you, now that it’s bouncing around inside waiting to be released with immense energy; now it’s ready to act you. Once you’ve done all the work, it doesn’t take a lot of work.

So Shakespeare’s text can act you, just not right away. It’s the final stage in creating a performance. It’s what happens when you’ve mastered your speeches to such a degree that the words seem to be spontaneously created in the moment and flow easily from you, trippingly on the tongue.

It’s a great feeling to have text act you, but don’t think that means it’s easy. Helpful? Very. Easy? Of course not. Would it really be worth doing if it were that easy?

The Eloquent Shakespeare

A Pronouncing Dictionary for the Complete Dramatic Works with Notes to Untie the Modern Tongue
by Gary Logan

Have you ever read one on Shakespeare’s works and not known how to pronounce a word? (If not, are you human?) Where do you normally turn? Most regular dictionaries that you might keep on your shelf only include words in modern usage; not words, names, and places that haven’t been in widespread common use in 400 years.

You could ask someone and hope they’re right. If you have a good movie or audiobook of a play you can check there and listen… but that seems like a little too much trouble for a single word.

What you need is dictionary of pronunciation (I have several) from an authoritative source. I’d say Gary Logan is one: He was the Chair of Voice and Speech at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and has worked as a voice coach for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford Shakespeare Festival, The Shakespeare Theatre Company, and several others.

There’s really no reason not to have a pronouncing dictionary if you’re an actor or director working on Shakespeare’s plays. You’re doing yourself, your company, and your audience a disservice by deciding not to check to see if you’re pronouncing a word correctly. Even if it’s not Shakespeare, and the play has difficult words, one should do their homework and look it up.

But why buy this one? It’s not the cheapest one out there so it had better be good. As a matter of fact, it is good. It might even be right for you — not all dictionaries are the same or right for everyone, I’ll have you know.

The Eloquent Shakespeare lists its pronunciations in Standard American Stage Dialect, a sort of “neutral” dialect that has no distinct regional features. It’s like the speech that most news anchors and classical actors employ while reading the news and speaking Shakespeare, respectively. This means that some of the common words may have a pronunciation that is different from the way you speak.

A feature that I enjoy is the fact that all the words are only transcribed using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). If you’ve learned IPA in theatre school, all the better. If you haven’t, there’s a key to each symbol at the bottom of every page. It’s not that hard to figure out.

The notes and introduction are very well done and informative, if you ever read them. Not everyone’s the type that reads an introduction to a dictionary but I suggest you always do. You’ll be happy you did — why have a tool when you don’t know how to use it properly? The dictionary seems to be complete. It even includes one of my favorites, honorificabilitudinitatubus! Rare or show specific words have the play in which they appear listed next to the headword. If it scans differently in different places there’s a note there to help you. There are even foreign language pronunciations of words and phrases. I know now how to pronounce Si fortune me tormente, sperato me contento.

My biggest complaint is the cover. It looks nice and pretty, but if I saw it on a shelf I would never know that I needed to have it. The whole cover looks like a really long title. Not a big deal, I can take off the dust jacket if needed. But don’t judge this book by its cover!

There are other pronouncing dictionaries out there for less, but if you are an actor, director, teacher, or other serious Shakespearean, I would recommend spending a little extra to get this nicely produced, authoritative, complete, hardcover (long-lasting), and easy to navigate resource.

The Eloquent Shakespeare: A Pronouncing Dictionary for the Complete Dramatic Works with Notes to Untie the Modern Tongue is available from Amazon.com

Seconds, Anyone?

For those of you who have been following my theatrical endeavors, Richard III is done. Next up is Hamlet. Again! If you missed it, I posted a while ago about the 90-minute Hamlet I was a part of. The actor who played Hamlet and the director found a theatre in which to do another production… so why not?

It’s not the same, but there are similarites. Same Hamlet, same director, and two other common actors including myself. This time I’ll be playing Barnardo, Guildenstern, and First Gravedigger. The rest of the cast — I’m happy to report — are very capable, intelligent, exciting, and talented actors.

We’re taking extra time to have a better cut of the script (thank goodness!). There are plenty of changes to add lines in, take others out, taking choices from a Quarto instead of the Folio and vice versa. It’ll be a little longer, but not by much. This Hamlet will still be fast and furious.

Our new challenge is to do the show in a small space. Before we played in a wide open amphitheater for a crowd of a couple hundred. Now we play in a blackbox theater with around 40 seats. I’m very interested in the differences between the acting style needed for large vs. small spaces. Perhaps certain moments/lines/scenes play better when they are more intimate. On the other hand, quickly paced and action scenes (swordfights?) probably play much easier (and more safely) on a larger stage.

More to come on this soon. We’ve been having really great discussions in our first few table work extravaganzas, so I’ll be picking and choosing some food for thought to share with you, my esteemed readers. Stay tuned for that later this week.

Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, and comments on playing Shakespeare on a large stage vs. intimate setting. Discuss!

Trevor Nunn on American Accents

Trevor Nunn, former Artistic Director of the RSC Trevor Nunn, former Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, wants to do a production of Shakespeare with an all-American cast, reports Telegraph.co.uk. Nunn says, “There is a different energy and a different use of language.” This is certainly true: Americans and Brits have very different rhythms and sounds to the way they speak; I imagine that any dialect will bring something new to a character or play.

But the rest of the article chooses not to report on the challenges of staging a play in a dialect or examples of how differences in dialect in equally-talented and trained actors can yield different readings and interpretations of text. Instead, there are a few comments about Nunn’s statement,

“…it is almost certainly true that today’s American accent is closer to the sounds that Shakespeare heard when he was writing.”

You can read the article to see what Professor Stanley Wells has to say about it.

I want to talk about the above quote. It is a common (what I believe to be) misconception that American English is more like Shakespeare’s than British English. Firstly, there are several dialects of English in both the US and UK that vary a great deal from each other. If we’re talking about the perceived “standard” dialect from each country (General/Standard American and British RP/BBC English) I still don’t think American English is any more closely related to Shakespeare’s speech.

English, regardless of where it is being spoken, has been evolving for over 400 years since Shakespeare began writing for the theatre. Language and its dialects change a great deal, especially among super-social societies. There are certainly parts of the US and UK whose dialects have evolved more slowly due to isolation over the past centuries, but there has still been 400 years of dialect evolution.

Perhaps the misconception comes from the idea that British RP is an “invented dialect.” Even so, American English pronunciation has been heavily influenced by our friends across the pond. Remember all those movie stars from the 1930s? Theatre, Film, and Radio in the US had a notably “British” sound for a long time.

So you see why I disagree with Trevor Nunn when he says it is “almost certainly true” that American English is closer to Elizabethan English than modern British English.

David Crystal, world renowned linguist and co-author of Shakespeare’s Words, has done a lot of research on what Shakespeare’s English may have sounded like back in the day. His book, Pronouncing Shakespeare: The Globe Experiment, tells the process of researching this and using the pronunciation in a production! You can also hear David Crystal reading of Sonnet #1 in “Original Pronunciation.” Listen, then decide whether you think modern American or British English “is closer to the sounds that Shakespeare heard when he was writing.”

Vivacious Verse

Romeo and Juliet opens with a prologue that introduces the story that will be the “two hours traffic” on the stage. Only two hours? Isn’t all Shakespeare 4 hours long uncut? I tried to help dispel this myth with Hamlet, and those who think it’s a 5 hour play, as an example. It’s not 5 hours… at least it shouldn’t be.

I mentioned before I was working on a production of Richard III. The running time at the moment is a little over 3 hours — not including intermission — and it’s cut down a bit. Sure, Richard is a long play but that’s not why it’s running so long. It has to do with the speed of the speech. I’ll not rant about the production in general; the audiences seem to like the show, just not the length. Slow Shakespeare is a peeve of mine. Stop acting between the lines!

Shakespeare’s text is supposed to be spoken trippingly on the tongue, not languidly on the lips. I’ve harped on this string before, but “Harp on it still shall I till heart-strings break.” Because, of course, I don’t want to see or be a part of “bad Shakespeare” if I can help it.

I had the pleasure of meeting David Oyelowo at a screening of Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It, he played Orlando in the film. In a sort of talk-back session he gave some excellently-phrased advice: “Know what you’re saying and talk as fast as you can.” Simple, isn’t it? Yes. Easy? No. Actors these days are all about making the words sound natural. There’s nothing natural about poetry! Nothing natural about theatre, either. We should always strive to be believable, not natural. Don’t be responsible for sound and fury that signifies nothing.

The speed of the text has a lot to do with that. Shakespeare’s plays (and most other classical works) are not natural everyday speech, it’s thought and action. When people criticize Shakespeare saying “nobody talks like that!” smack them. I mean, say, “That’s the point!” People think a lot faster than they speak, and if the verse is thought, then the words need to move a lot faster than natural speech.

The challenge is to know exactly what you’re saying, why you’re saying it, hit the right words, understand the rhetoric, and make the text clear at a fast pace. But when all that comes together you’ve got a heck of a performance. Why do you think Branagh is so good? He’s not a star for his good looks, I’ll tell you that much.

It’s worth noting at this point that verse needn’t always be spoken quickly. There are moments that can be slowed, there are even occasions for pauses (which Shakespeare may have written in — more on this another day). But in general, the text should be continuous stream of text. The rate may quicken, slow, and pause briefly, but it must flow.

On the page the characters seem loquacious, but on the stage they must be vivacious.