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?

Shakespeare’s Advice To The Players

by Peter Hall

I’ve read a lot of Acting Shakespeare books and posted reviews on some of them here. Many good, some not up to par, but Peter Hall’s Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players is definitely a winner in my book.

How can you argue with a man who has had over 50 years of experience directing the Royal Shakespeare Company (and elsewhere) with the likes of Laurence Olivier, Edith Evans, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Judy Dench, Anthony Hopkins, and Ian McKellen? The man knows what he’s talking about. Great part of this book number one: Real authority.

Hall makes it clear in the book that he speaks from a place of authority. Not because he says it, but because he learned it from the best actors. The above actors, as well as the great John Barton, have been among his tutors for creating the best use of Shakespeare’s text onstage.

I say using Shakespeare’s text and not acting for a reason. This isn’t abook about acting, per se. It’s about using the text to effectively bring meaning, emotion, story, and acting to the audience; all necessary to “act” Shakespeare. Hall continuously repeats the fact that the text will serve as your strongest ally if you know how to use it. If my post about it can’t convince you of that fact, Peter Hall’s book can.

The advice is wonderfully concise. By page 61 Hall has already laid out and explained “the rules.” The next hundred pages or so are textual analysis of scenes and monologues that are not to be skimmed or skipped. Read the whole book! The explanation at the beginning has plenty of value, but until you see the techniques in action you won’t fully get it. This is probably the closest you will get to having Peter Hall giving you a private lesson on Shakespeare.

If you aren’t already familiar with the acting process the book might not be for you. The book assumes that you have a decent understanding of what Shakespeare’s text is and how it works. It seems to me that there’s too much info in here for someone new to acting Shakespeare. Not that you’d get nothing out of it, but some of the ideas won’t sink in as well as one who has more Shakespearience.

As an added bonus, you can hear Peter Hall working with a couple actors on the publisher’s website. Go ahead and listen to it now for a preview of what’s in the book.

Is this the best book ever? I haven’t had anything bad to say about it yet. Rather than looking for a criticism, I’ll conclude. Peter Hall has been working with some of the best actors for the past 50 years or more. He’s picked up a lot of great knowledge and wisdom along the way. Pick up a copy. Whether you’re an actor, director, vocal coach, dramaturg, student, or scholar, I’m sure you’ll find it helpful.

Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players is available from Amazon.com.

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 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!

Did ya miss me?

You may have noticed that I haven’t updated all summer long. Well, I’m back. I felt guilty after having neglected updating in so long. I’m sure by now I have something to write about.

Let me fill you in briefly on what I’ve been up to since I posted. I simultaneously dialect coached productions of Anna in the Tropics and Hay Fever; then appeared as Bernardo/Player/Gravedigger/Osric in a production of Hamlet; subsequently performed in a summer-long run of Love’s Labour’s Lost and As You Like It produced in repertory, playing Costard and Touchstone, respectively. Somewhere in the midst of that I had a day job elsewhere, coached acting Shakespeare for a day at a conservatory, and started a new website. And now I’m beginning work on a production of Richard III.

I’m impressed with myself now that I write it all down. It feels good to have been performing lately… especially when it’s Shakespeare. But you already know how I feel about Shakespeare.

I’ll be posting bits and pieces about my experiences in the shows I performed in and have seen this summer. I also have a truck-load of books that need reviewing. As I finish them I’ll do my best to post a review here. My apologies to my publisher friends.

And, as always, if there’s anything you’d like me to blog about don’t hesitate to contact me and leave a suggestion. I’d like to start some more discussions here like the other thought-provoking ones we’ve had in the past. Till next time…

May the Bard be with you!

April Book Giveaway Contest!

Spring is in the air, and that means I’m giving away a free book! Announcing: the April Book Giveaway contest. A new monthly(-ish) event here at the Bard Blog.

This month’s giveaway item is


by Scott Kaiser

Mastering Shakespeare, by Scott Kaiser

This is a wonderful book with great insights for actors, directors, and anyone who speaks shakespeare to help you bring the text alive. It retails for $19.95, and here’s a chance to get it for free! You can read my review for more info about it.

Here are the rules:

  • Link to this contest on Twitter, Facebook, your own Blog, wherever.
  • Fill out and submit the entry form.

So simple! Basically you just have to spread the word. Here’s the neat thing: for ever person you refer that enters the contest, you get an extra entry! There’s a line on the entry form that asks who referred you to the contest, so be sure that they fill that out so you increase your chances of winning.

Contest ends on April 30th at 11:59PM Pacific Standard Time.

If you just can’t wait for the contest to end, you can Order Mastering Shakespeare from Amazon.com

So start spreading the word and then fill out this form. Good luck!

Mastering Shakespeare

by Scott Kaiser

What is it that British actors have over American actors that aides in performing Shakespeare? Scott Kaiser raises this question in the introduction. Many American student actors ask themselves this question all the time in training and afterwards. No wonder that the topic comes up, most of the great Shakespearean performances in movies are by Brtis, while the Americans are generally there to sell tickets.

The answer? It’s not that Americans lack anything, but that the modern acting tradition is strongly based in a seemingly not-classic-friendly style: Lee Strasberg and his teachings of the Stanislavsky System, which only included the methods described in one of Stanislavsky’s book and excluded all information about voice, diction, rhythm, verse speaking, punctuation, body, etc. All the stuff important to acting Shakespeare.

Scott Kaiser endeavors to bridge the gap with his book, by explaining “how to apply a Stanislavsky-based approach to the challenges of acting Shakespeare.”

In the introduction Mr. Kaiser acknowledges that it’s impossible to really learn acting from a book. Instead, he turns it into a play. Based on the form employed by Richard Boleslavsky and his book, Acting: The First Six Lessons, Kaiser writes dialogue between a master teacher and his sixteen students. Actors are, after all, used to reading scripts and translating it into personal experience.

In that regard, the book is very effective. Reading along with the students process with the master teacher, Mr K., is a very nice change from other acting books that have a technical manual kind of approach. This book is much more practical. The questions the students have might just be what any other student would ask. Years of teaching experience has obviously culminated in this book.

Mastering Shakespeare doesn’t spend much time talking about meter, scansion, or verse vs. prose, there is an assumption that the student knows about this already. What the book really concentrates on is what inspires the text. “Why am I saying these words right now?” Reading the book offers many different tools to answer that question.

The only thing this book lacks is more introductory information on acting Shakespeare: Scansion, rhetoric, verse speaking, etc. This book assumes that a student has a fairly solid foundation in acting and acting Shakespeare. That being said, it probably shouldn’t be the first thing you read if you’re a beginning student. It is one of many books that should be a part of the actor’s arsenal. Directors and teachers should pick up a copy for insight in helping an actor create specific choices and a believable/sustainable performance.

Mastering Shakespeare is available for $19.95 on Amazon.com