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?

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.”

What Visions Have I Seen

I asked a couple days ago on Twitter (follow me @BardBlog) for some examples of crazy concepts people had seen. I was impressed, or maybe depressed, by some the examples I got from you!

  • Twelfth Night. All male. On a Submarine. At Christmas. No lie.
  • The Tempest performed literally on an island. Spectators on the mainland.
  • King Lear performed in a latrine. Mad king on a pissoir.
  • Richard III in a Wyoming corral for horses.
  • Romeo & Juliet in a Nevada bordello.
  • R&J performed as if in wasteland on huge articulated truck. Ms as Raj, Cs – medieval knights. Underscored throughout on keyboard.
  • a very literal RSC prod of Richard III. “Winter of our discontent” – snow fell; “glorious summer” – sun shone.

Leave a comment if you have others! It’s always fun to see the crazy things people do with their “new and exciting interpretations!”

I happen to be involved in a production of Richard III with a new spin on it, I’ll let you know more about it — and audience reactions after it opens next week. It might turn out to be a hit, who knows? There’s a fine line between fine art and fine turd, no?

Rules Weren’t Made to be Broken

We’ve been learning rules all our lives. As children we are given rules of the classroom or rules at home of what not to do or what we should do. And there were, of course, consequences to breaking those rules.

When learning to act Shakespeare (or any classical and poetic texts for that matter) there are often rules we are taught. That is, if you are taught by anyone who has had some real Shakespearience. Rules like observing the scansion, speaking to the end of the though, breathing only at the end of a verse line, having good diction, pronouncing words a certain way. The rules are never exactly the same depending on who you ask, but there are always rules.

I once heard from an actor that he felt limited by the “rules of Shakespeare.” He said it was something like acting inside a box because he had to follow so many rules that his own creative process felt muffled.

This was a good observation and I’m sure that many actors feel this way. So before we talk about breaking the rules, let’s talk very briefly about what the rules are for.

(If you’re new here, I discuss many of the rules and some of their significance in the Speaking Shakespeare section and a few in more specific detail in my dissection of the “Speak the Speech” speech.)

The rules of verse speaking make up a form. Sort of like the rules of a game of sports. If people are playing by different rules, we get lost. I’m reminded of an account of a game played several decades ago of between a group of Baseball-playing Americans and Cricket-playing Brits. When the end the game arrived, both sides claimed the victory.

A better example would be the form of opera singing. Regardless of how you feel about opera, it has an undeniable set of rules that make up the form. The way a singer produces sound and phrases pieces of music have been practiced over many years of instruction. If an opera features a soloist who only had a rock-music background their performance would fall flat. They’d be unable to communicate the proper sounds that the audience expects.

The rules work similarly in Shakespeare, but are perhaps less limiting than those of opera. The form of Shakespeare is inexorably linked to its content. You might even say Form=Content. This means that the way the verse is structured and composed has a heck of a lot to do with what the character is communicating. I could write a whole book on the subject but that’s not what I’m talking about now. In the end, it’s all about communicating the story to the audience. When the rules aren’t followed the story becomes opaque to the listener.

Recently I heard an actor in conversation (on the merits of verse) with a director say something to the effect of, “I don’t see the scansion stuff as rules to follow, maybe just a tool you can choose to use. I heard about opera singer who said she would rather hit a note a little flat or sharp than only concentrate on getting the notes exactly right.” A terrible paraphrasing of what was said, I’m sure, but you get the gist of it.

It’s an attractive thought for one who doesn’t understand the form to find an excuse not to use it. What’s wrong with the above statement? The actor forgets that the opera singer has already mastered his/her form. The rules are not the alpha and the omega of the art, but just as every skyscraper has a steel frame, so must every creative artist have some form — however invisible — guiding their work.

The opera singer has already spent years being able to hit every note on the correct pitch with the correct rhythms so that performances can be done with ease. Without thinking about hitting the right notes. What they can think about instead is conveying the meaning and emotional content behind the music. So if they happen to go sharp or flat, it is because they have much more behind their performance than just hitting the notes. Because this opera singer has mastered her form, she can afford to bend the rules.

The actor who felt like he was “acting in a box” did not throw away the rules even though they felt constricting. Once the rules are learned, practiced, enforced, and finally mastered, there are infinite possibilities.

Form will set you free.

Why do you think greats like John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Kenneth Branagh are so great at what they do? Not because they bend or break the rules. But because they have mastered them. The guidelines they learned have nearly become instinct and they are free to be free above the super-solid foundation they stand upon. This is the place where you are able to act outside the box. Not because you threw it away, but because you used it.

To deny the form is to say that you know better than the aforementioned brilliant actors who have had a lifetime of experience. The form doesn’t change, though the way it is expressed does. The foundation will remain the same, but what you build on top of it will be unique to you and the time you live in. So remember, because it is worth repeating:

Form will set you free.

A Little Night Hamlet

Back in May I had the good fortune to perform in Hamlet. While all others played one role, a fellow actor and I had the honor of playing “everybody else.” I was Barnardo, The Player Queen, First Gravedigger, and Osric.

There was a lot that was unusual about this performance. Unusual, that is, if you’re theatre-going experiences have been limited to mostly high-budget, indoor, full length, late evening performances. This play began at 6pm in an outdoor amphitheatre, no set, minimal props, costumes out of the actors’ closets, was a one-night-only event, and ran no more than one hour and forty minutes, sans intermission.

That’s right. We did Hamlet in less than 100 minutes. How? We cut. A lot. Now let’s not turn this into a discussion of the blasphemies of cutting so much text out of a play or how it’s not the play as Shakespeare intended. That’s not what I want you to take away from my telling of my experience.

The play was, among other things, lots of fun. Both for the actors (all eleven of us) and for the audience — of which there were a few hundred. As you may have surmised, we took a very bare-essentials approach to the play. It moved very quickly. The story not only moved quickly because of the cuts, but we aimed for a fairly fast pace as well. Our goal was to tell a good story before the sun set. I think we did that much.

It really brought to my attention that there isn’t a whole lot that is necessary for good theatre. Theatrical philosophy texts often repeat the fact that theatre consists of at least a space, a performer and a spectator. We had no fancy proscenium to hide behind. We were outdoors. No electrical lights, we used the sun. No sound system, but we had a guitarist and the chiming of a nearby clock tower. No microphones. The costumes consisted of articles of clothing in our closets. Nothing fancy, just something to suggest the character.

And it worked! If the story is good (and it is) why confound the play with bells and whistles? I talked with some audience members after the show, many of whom were actors too, and were very impressed with what they had just seen. I don’t think most of the people there really expected a bare-bones production of a heavily reduced script in an outdoor daylit location to be as good as it was. I don’t think I expected it either, to be quite frank. Having all talented actors was a a great bonus and we all worked hard, but we didn’t know what the outcome would be.

I had done a fairly bare-bones production outdoors before, but we had digital sound system for playing music, as well as an intermission. We didn’t have a whole lot, but it felt much less of a bare-essentials type of set up.

After this Hamlet, both actors and audience learned a great deal about what theatre is and what it needs and more about what it doesn’t need. We take for granted sometimes the things we have available to us and what is really most important when producing art.

Even so, I would still prefer to have a dressing room.

Shakespeare’s Fools

In lieu of fooling you all on this day of fooling, I thought I might post a very short blurb of my love for the Fools in Shakespeare’s plays: Touchstone, Feste, Lear’s fool, and the rest. I’ve had the opportunity to play a few of the Fool characters. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had onstage was as Feste. Hopefully I’ll get to play the rest in the future.

Despite being labeled as fools they are actually the wisest characters in the canon. These are characters whose job it is to entertain. Court jesters who are not to be taken seriously, even though they often speak quite wisely.

The more pity, that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly.
– Touchstone, As You Like It, I.2

But they often speak the most true, don’t they? Anyone else that would dare to say the things that Lear’s fool does would be killed.

FOOL. That lord that counsell’d thee
To give away thy land,
Come place him here by me,
Do thou for him stand.
The sweet and bitter fool
Will presently appear:
The one in motley here,
The other found out there.
LEAR. Dost thou call me fool, boy?
FOOL. All thy other titles thou hast given away, that thou wast born with.
KENT. This is not altogether fool, my lord.
- King Lear, I.4

The power these characters have with words is wonderful and sometimes astounding. The Groucho and Chico Marx of Shakespeare’s time.

FESTE. Good madonna, why mourn’st thou?
OLIVIA. Good fool, for my brother’s death.
FESTE. I think his soul is in hell, madonna.
OLIVIA. I know his soul is in heaven, fool.
FESTE. The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul, being in heaven.
- Twelfth Night, I.5

Feste would make a great lawyer with that kind of rhetoric. He’d convince the jury that THEY were guilty. But he probably doesn’t think that highly of his own wordly talents. After all,

Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.

I hope you all had a foolish day!

Out of Many: One

It’s time for some personal reflection and exploration. Open up your mind and start thinking…

Which of Shakespeare’s characters do you most identify with? Why?

Shakespeare wrote nearly 1000 named roles, large and small, comic and tragic, king and servant, rich and poor. With so many to choose from, it’s a tough choice. But with so many characters and in so many situation, everyone’s bound to have one.

And why do you identify with this character? If you’re an actor, could you play this part? Would you like to? Don’t all just say Hamlet, back it up!

If you can’t think of one just yet, start off with which character would you most like to play onstage (whether you’re an actor or not). Who’s head do you want to get into?

I’m very interested to hear what you think of yourself based on who you choose. Ask your friends too! Get them to join in the comments. Or just ask in a conversation. If they say they’re most like Macbeth you might want to look for a new friend.