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?

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.

Shakespeare’s Sonicky Language

Humorist and language expert Roy Blount Jr talks about the concept of “sonicky” words in his new book, Alphabet Juice. “Sonicky” is a term he uses to describe language that sounds like what it is. Not onomatopoeia exactly (whoosh/boom/splat), but thing of the words “oak” and “willow.” There’s a reason the tall, thick, strong tree has such a strong sound, while the droopy tree has a droopy-sounding name. Say the words “oak” and “willow.” Picture the trees in your mind. The image in your mind affects what you say and the word you say affects the picture in your mind. That’s sonicky.

This is a concept that I’ve been a fan of for some time but never had a word for it. Thanks, Roy.

In one of my very first posts on this blog I advised that it is necessary to love language in order to effectively speak Shakespeare’s language. As time goes on I believe it more and more. It’s not enough to understand the words, to know what you want, know who you are, know the relationships. You need to enjoy the SOUND of the words. That’s where sonicky comes it.

Everything in Shakespeare is sonicky.

Today we’re concerned with meaning. Look up definitions of the words or check No Fear Shakespeare for a translation. Okay, now it’s act-able. Well, yes… but that’s not all there is to it. There’s a whole world of work to do, but I’ll try not to get carried away. We’re still talking about the sound of words.

Back in the day the actors, authors, and audiences cared much more than we do about the SOUND of words. Audiences went to HEAR a play. Not only did they want a good story, it had to sound good too. This a huge aspect of the word choices that Shakespeare makes in his plays.

When Richard of Gloucester (soon to be Richard III) speaks “Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths” there’s a lot of meaning contained in just the sound of his words. Look at the first five words. They all have huge, open, similar-sounding vowels. They’re followed soon after by “victorious,” whose change in sound is like that of trumpets welcoming the victorious champion.

How about the line “Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front.” Say “grim-visaged” with a sweet and smiling face. Now try it while scrunching up your face. The image it conjures lends itself to how to say it, and vice-versa. Next — “smoothed” — which is a rather smooth word. “Wrinkled” falls into the same category as “grim-visaged.”

Are you starting to see (or hear) what I’m getting at here?

These words have a particular sound, they conjure a particular image, they serve a particular purpose. The specifics are for you to decide but the point is to be specific in the choices you make. The sound of each word carries much of its emotional content as well as meaning. The sonicky-ness of a character’s words is both his/her head and heart speaking together. Yet another reason why Shakespeare’s works are magical to me.

I’d love to dissect more speeches and concentrate on their sonicky properties, but I’ll let you get to work on that first before you hear any more sound and fury from me on this subject.

Let’s hear it for the Bard!

Go Make You Ready

Hamlet’s advice to the players is at an end, but your work is just beginning. I’d just like to wrap up the wealth of information covered in this speech.

There’s no end to the advice that can be given on acting Shakespeare, but everything you really need to know is in this text. The rest is just mastering it… which of course takes years and years.

Visit the speech every now and then. You may connect to certain parts better over time. Actually, I can almost guarantee that you will. You’ll see a performance either good or bad, come back to the speech and you’ll discover, “Oh, I see what that means!” or, “That’s why he sucked,” etc. You might even recognize things you’re doing in a performance. Maybe get in the habit of speaking this speech every time before you start a new production.

And now to sum up your actor’s checklist that Hamlet so eloquently spoke in this speech:

  • Speak you lines fluently
  • Don’t do odd, extraneous movements
  • Find the emotional balance between too tame and too wild
  • Be honest
  • Don’t be “real,” Be believable.
  • Don’t add your own lines
  • Tell the story

That list is in my words, not Hamlets. I feel those are some of the most important points in the speech. If I were to pick one most important one, it would be the last one on that list. Because you must do all the rest in order to tell the story well.

You’re work is cut out for you. I’m still working on it and I’m plan to always do so. Play. Have fun, make discoveries. Use the wonderful words you are given and your performance will shine. So what are you waiting for?

Go make you ready.

< -- O Reform it Altogether

O Reform it Altogether

And now the advice to the players is coming to an end…

Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it makes the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others.

Overdoing moments might make a few people laugh, but everyone else may be rather disgusted. Think of everyone else before you ham up a moment for a cheap laugh. Remember again holding up the mirror to nature – an honesty is required. Once you lose that you lose your audience.

O, there be players that I have seen play—and heard others praise, and that highly—not to speak it profanely, that, neither having th’ accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellow’d that I have thought some of Nature’s journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably. O, reform it altogether.

This should sound familiar to you. How many times have you seen a movie with a famous actor who just, well, sucks? There are plenty of actors out there who are “big” whose abilities to believably play another person are rather small.

Continue Reading…

Suit the Action to the Word

Hamlet’s Advice to the Players continues! There’s a lot he has to say about acting. After all, he wants the lines he wrote in The Mousetrap acted well.

Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor.

You must find a delicate balance between the energy you give to the speech and the naturalism. Too much energy and you’re bombastic, too little and the audience falls asleep. Experiment until you find what feels right.

This is harder than it sounds. Acting Shakespeare’s text is entirely about finding a balance between making yourself understood and letting the words come out, having lots of energy and being relaxed, using the poetry and sounding natural.

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action,

This is another part of that balance you must find. Rather than explain this part (it sort of explains itself) I think it’s best that go in a different direction.

What you need to do here is match your intention/objective/motivation to the text. You have a NEED to speak these words in order to get what you want. If you let yourself be taken by the text — don’t force it — to the emotional level that it requires and you are all the while aware of your objective while speaking it, any actions you take will be suited to the words and the words to the action.

Continue Reading…

Do not saw the air too much

Hamlet’s advice to the players continued…

Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand thus, but use all gently;

I think you know what this is about. Have you ever seen an actor (or someone in your life) who repeatedly uses the same gesture? It gets old pretty fast. We all have this problem to some degree, but it may be harder to notice in some. Video tape yourself acting a piece and watch it in fast forward. If you see the same gesture over and over: stop doing that! Actors sometimes feel the need for one super strong gesture but it can get pretty annoying. Find actions that match what you’re saying. A downward chopping motion into your other hand means nothing.

for in the very torrent, tempest, and as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.

I’ve seen an actor onstage who was trying to be mad who just walked back and forth and did the same hand gesture over and over and over. Don’t be him.

Continue Reading…

Trippingly On The Tongue

And now the first in the series of posts expounding Hamlet’s Advice to the Players. Let’s begin at the beginning.

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the tongue.

With a couple couples of alliteration Hamlet speaks volumes. “Speak the speech … trippingly on the tongue.” Chapters of acting books and entire books have been written on being able to speak a speech trippingly on the tongue. Well what exactly does that mean?

Trippingly means light and quick, with a sense of ease, fluently. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Basically this means that when you speak, it generally shouldn’t sound like you’re proclaiming your lines “Full of Sound and Fury” (Macbeth), but rather let them come out.

Easier said than done. You need a detailed understanding of everything you’re saying, the important words needed to tell the story, awareness of the literary devices that make the verse and prose come alive, memorization of the piece so good that you could recite it in your sleep, and a very well exercised set of articulators (mouth, tongue , lips) for excellent diction. It’s a lot, but who ever said acting was easy?

Continue Reading…