Performing Shakespeare generally denotes a level of acting expertise. As in the Bard’s time, an understanding of language, rhetoric, diction, and understanding of story is required by the actor to perform the roles well. Unlike Shakespeare’s time, however, many players are not equipped with the basic tools to perform the text.
Think of it this way, Shakespeare wrote in the common language of his time, in the language of the people, with a dialect directly suited to his common actors. Transpose that to 2017, in Philadelphia, where film is the predominate medium and pictures are the language of the world and we begin to understand the difficulty of Shakespeare’s verse and prose.
Performing in Shakespeare plays introduces you to new skills and allows you to play with language, sounds, and rhetoric in a way unmatched by modern plays (although the American Shakespeare Center is looking to change that).
So what are some of the rules for getting a part in a Shakespeare play? The following list is a number of guidelines our Artistic Director Jared Reed, who has played Macbeth and Hamlet at Hedgerow, uses that you can use to navigate through the Shakespeare’s silly syllables and pretty punny prose.
Act on the words
- Shakespeare is a celebration of language, he invented half of it for God’s shake. Therefore, we do not need those Pinter pauses and Chekovian glances. Use the language in front of you. The challenge is a gift. Speak the speech, I pray you!
Stress the verbs
- Again, the action is in the language. Therefore, verbs are your friend. When performing Shakespeare the characters thoughts, feelings, and turmoils are in the text. Often, they are navigating through their minds like a patient sitting in front of a psychiatrist, only it doesn’t cost you $500 an hour to see! Since we are traversing our way through verse, we need to use the action given to use. Verbs give us a sense of movement. The audience creates the action in their head, and uses the metaphors given to us by Shakespeare to see the story in their mind’s eye.
[Secret Tip] Consonants express thought, vowels emotion – a speech heavy in rich consonants is more intellectual.
- Think, “Now is the winter of our discontent” vs heavy long consonants “to be or not to be.” Shakespeare uses rhetoric and every classical tool of speech and language at his disposal. He plays with language and meaning the way a Hip Hop artist plays with beat and rhythm. The iambic pentameter is a tool meant to carry the flow of the language. The sounds, therefore, are the tools to carve up that turkey. Use the language to inform your decisions about character, about pace, about intent. Does your character speech in vowels or consonants? Sharp sounds? Or soft?
Absolutely less is more or at least simpler is better – the language is so rich that excess movement makes it unclear
- Our modern ears are not tuned to the musing of Bill’s tongue; even so, actor’s in Shakespeare’s time performed in a completely different fashion, allegedly, than we do today. There was no “Method,” no Stella Adler, no Marlon Brando. The important thing for the audience was the language. So, actor’s performed much in the same way opera performs, using their body as an instrument. How does this apply to us today? Well, in order to get through large chunks of text, and to keep the audition with you, less is more. If the audience is having to watch you move every beat, or gesture on every line, then you are competing against yourself for attention. Certainly, body language informs us of emotion, however, body language is more than embodying Robin Williams and running off to the races. “Suit the word to the action, the action to the word.”
- Hold your breath. Make a wish. Count to three. Come with me, and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination. Now that we’re there, let’s talk about breathing. There is a lot of talk today about breath. Take one quick search on youtube and you will find millions of mediation and yoga videos detailing the proper way to breath. Well, we won’t go don’t that rabbit hole here, but breath control and diaphragmatic breathing are essential to good Shakespearean acting. If you want the simplest explanation, imagine someone sucking air as Hamlet, or losing their voice as Henry V during the Saint Crispen’s Day speech. Weak right? Well, if you want to be a baller, then learn to use your breath hommie.
Change pitch to make meaning clear
- Could you sit through Ben Stein reading King Lear? What about Henry Kissinger speaking Iago’s lines? Good speakers understand how to use their instrument. We all can make more sounds than we give ourselves credit for: we have a chest voice, a throat voice, a nasal voice, a silly voice, a pithy voice, a factual voice, a matter of fact voice, a lying voice, a “I’m not lying” lying voice, a serious voice, and on and on and on. Speeches are rarely speeches in Shakespeare’s plays. More often than not they are thoughts on page, or moments interrupted by new moments. Therefore, we, as actors, must make it clear what we are saying and what we are thinking. Opinion is character. Use your voice in all its glory.
Change tempo to make emotion clear
- Remember that whole iambic pentameter thing you learned about when you read Romeo and Juliet as a 15 year-old? Yeah, there’s a purpose for that other than a test. The beat of the speech, like a song, informs us of emotion. The tempo puts us in tune with the characters feelings and emotions as he rides the wave of language. Shakespeare understood how to use the syllables of language to create the flow of voice that translates the emotion of the character in the most efficient way. Tune in to the beat of the speech and unlock its tempo to make the emotion clear.