"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, October 28, 2011

Acting Shakespeare’s Wordcraft–An Epiphany

As many of you know from this blog, I have been immersed in theatre for the past year – principally Shakespeare, but also Tennessee Williams.  I participated in the Tennessee Williams Centenary Tribute in Columbus, MS in the summer, and am now at a weeklong conference on Shakespeare at the American Shakespeare (Blackfriars) Center in Staunton, VA.

For all of this year, I have been reading Shakespeare.  I have wanted to understand fully – or at least as fully as possible for a non-scholar and one returning to the theatre after a hiatus of over forty years (I studied English and French literature in college).  My method of understanding Shakespeare was to read a synopsis of the play, then read it slowly and carefully scene by scene; then read three or four critical essays on the play; read the play again, listening to the dialogue on the screen from a video version; and finally write my own critical essay on this blog.  The method has been successful, and while I cannot always keep the plays and characters in my head, with a little refreshment, I can recall plot, character, theme, and particularly relevant issues. 

If I went to theatre productions, it was to help me further understand the text, to help explicate the complexity of language, meaning, and intent.  I did not go for the play itself, for the acting; nor did I have any sense of appreciating the beauty of the spoken word, or the poetry, or the subtleties of language which express feeling.  I was slavishly following the text in my head as the actors acted.

Today I had an epiphany.  I heard a presentation by Scott Kaiser of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (the title of his presentation was Acting Shakespeare’s Wordcraft in the title of this post), the biggest such Shakespeare center in America with hundreds of full time repertory actors, supporting staff, extensive stage space, conferences, and other events.  Scott is a director/acting coach, and in his presentation entitled Acting Shakespeare’s Wordcraft he changed my vision forever.  He has based his teaching on that of Stanislavski – a name I have always associated with the Actors Studio, ‘method acting’, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and many others.  I knew little about The Method, only that it was about personalizing acting, reaching for inner vision to create the character being played.  What I did not know was that Stanislavski wrote two books, the first one on The Method, and the second on the practical craft of acting.  As explained by Kaiser, the craft was based on: measure, word, focal point, image, action, and decision.  Kaiser has applied this to the plays of Shakespeare.

It is necessary, he says, to break down the passages of the play into meaningful measures – any number of lines which convey a particular meaning or intent.  This helps the actor fully understand not only the meaning of the whole passage, but of the sub-passages he must say.  Measures are themselves measured by breathing, by inhalation which helps to provide the rhythm of the speech.

It is equally important for the actor to identify what is for him the key word in the passage.  The word can be a noun, verb, or adjective; but it must be for the actor the word that conveys the most about the passage.  The focal point is important, for the actor should focus his eyes and attention somewhere and talk to that point.  The focal point can shift, as it does from Richard to the corpse in Lady Anne’s dialogue with Richard; or from potion to self to dagger in Juliet’s final scene; but it must be direct, unique, and focused.

The actor should have an image in his mind as he speaks his lines in the measured, focused way described above.  The image should relate to the play – some character in particular – but can and should be drawn from personal feeling and insight.  The actor must learn the implicit or explicit action of the passage, and give the verbal expression a sense of movement and result.  Finally, the actor should make a clear decision when preparing for a presentation of the lines – exactly what does he want to say, when does he change perspective, focal point, or action.

Kaiser is a dynamic, personal, responsive and intelligent director, and as he guided two actors on stage to illustrate all the above, you could see how he gracefully directed their acting, encouraging them, suggesting improved ways of acting, and congratulating them.  I could see in one hour what directing was all about.  I do not mean to exaggerate.  I of course saw only one small piece of directing, but I got it – I understood what the director does, and how important it is.  I saw how the complexity of Shakespeare’s dramatic poetry was made emotive, personal, and accessible to the audience.

One of the actors, a woman from the Oregon troupe, gave me my first glimpse into what acting is and should be.  She was asked to read a passage by Constance, the mother of Arthur from King John. Constance, one of the memorable women in Shakespeare’s plays is grieving at the loss of her son, Arthur.  The male characters do not understand her grief, and see only incipient madness in her increasingly intense if not strident expressions of this grief.  Kaiser directed the actress how to play the scene, invoking all of Stanislavski’s principles.  What resulted was a passage so moving that the actress and I were moved to tears.  I was almost sobbing at the beauty of the passage.  The grief of this mother was visceral, powerful, and ultimately moving.  It was amazing.  The words which I had read many times before in a play that I like suddenly were not words from a text; they were no longer spoken words of an actor; they were words from the heart of a grieving mother. 

This presentation was all the more moving and important for me, because I had come to the point of impatience with the rounds of academic dissection of the plays, vivisections actually, because after Kaiser’s presentation I felt that they were killing the live thing which I had just discovered. 

These academic colloquies aside, many of the larger presentations were original and thought-provoking.  I am still a neo-academic in my approach to Shakespeare’s texts, and these presentations gave me lots of new ideas; and after the Kaiser directing presentation, I did not – could not – turn off my more intellectual interests.  A presentation on a deaf-hearing performance of Hamlet was fascination because it showed how a director could reorder the text of Shakespeare to render it more visual and kinetic.  There were many presentations on the stage productions of Shakespeare’s time, and how the actors who might be playing many different roles in different plays during the week, and for whom rehearsal time and copies of the script were limited, needed to rely on verbal cues which Shakespeare embedded in the text.  There was a fascinating presentation on the use of I-Phones and I-Pads for the audience in a production of Othello.  The audience could interact with each other by blogging.  The actors could consult the blogs when they were off-stage, and the control booth could send explanatory notes electronically to the audience.   These are only a few.

In short, I will never treat the acted plays as merely ways of further explaining the text of the plays.  I will listen more carefully, look more attentively, and take in the whole and the pieces of what I am seeing on stage.

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