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TOPIC: Tips and Tricks

Tips and Tricks 8 years 4 months ago #2237

  • Marcus
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I have a list of notes that I go over whenever I embark on a new Shakespeare project. Some of the actors in my company added to the list, and when I read Barry Edelstein's "Thinking Shakespeare," I found he'd echoed many of my tips and expressed them better than I had. Anyway, for whoever find them useful, here's the list. Please add to it!

NOTES FOR THE SHAKESPEAREAN ACTOR -- mostly cribbed from "Thinking Shakespeare" by Barry Edelstein (with some additions by me and others). I highly recommend Edelstein's book!

ALL OF THE FOLLOWING NOTES ARE *SUGGESTIONS*. THEY ARE TOOLS. DON'T EVER GET DOGMATIC ABOUT THEM. THERE WILL ALWAYS BE EXCEPTIONS. THESE ARE SHOES TO TRY ON. WALK AROUND IN THEM. SEE HOW THEY FEEL? KEEP THEM IF THEY'RE USEFUL.

-- The key question is always "Why am I saying these words now?" Keep coming back to that. If you always know why you're saying what you're saying -- and why you're saying it NOW (why it MUST be said now) -- you've won half the battle.

-- The second most important thing is to USE THE LANGUAGE. When possible, don't use gesture. If you say "the beast with two backs," there's no need to make pelvis-thrusting gestures to illustrate what you're talking about. (Yes, the audience won't understand every single word, but that's what we signed onto when we chose to perform Shakespeare. If you want every word to be transparent, do a Mamet play.)

And PLEASE play the emotion ON the line. Don't speak and then laugh (or cry or sigh or whatever) in the pause. Laugh on the line.

-- Write out the scansion. Trust your instincts about word stress, but use scansion as a guide. If you find something odd (e.g. a short line or a feminine ending), don't get hung up if you can't understand the point of it being there. But note it. It may be a tool you can use. Look for... = elision (e.g. o'th'clock)
= feminine endings
= ed endings (e.g. stoppED)
= short lines (pause at the end?)
= monosyllables spread across whole lines ("In sooth I know not why I am so sad"). Such lines tend to mean SLOW DOWN.
= shared lines (fast cues)

-- Work on understanding the RHETORIC. So many Shakespeare speeches are arguments: logical arguments, legalistic arguments, etc.
= paraphrase to make sure you get the argument's logic
= break the speech down into the parts that constitute it
= is there a "ladder of thought" (this begets This which begets THIS)?
= PLAY the argument (pretend you're a lawyer, making your case before a tough jury)
= start new beats with "but" and "yet" -- these are powerful turning points = look for connective words or phrases that link one beat to another*
= common structures: builds (usually three-part), contrasts, lists
= Thesis/antitheses is the KEY rhetorical device. Shakespeare uses it over and over. Look for it. The simplest example is THESIS: to be; ANTITHESIS: not to be. But often the two parts are extended (the thesis might be twenty lines long) and widely separated from each other. You MUST play the thesis/antithesis. The whole point of saying the first part is to contrast it with the second part. Give BOTH parts their due!

-- Word Clues
= (almost) always stress the word "now"
= index words -- this, that, these -- are really powerful when accompanied by gestures: point to her when you say "this woman."
= Big Os release emotion
= (almost) always stress the word "all"

-- Use change of height in language (e.g. from complex to simple)
= note changes between characters
= note changes within speeches

-- line endings
= Shakespeare characters speak ten syllables at a time
= a line ending is NOT A PAUSE. In fact, sometimes a new thought can jam into the preceding one.
= a line ending is a springboard
= tool: Let the royal bed on Denmark be (what?) / A couch for luxury and damned incest
= paper trick: cover all but the current line
= endings are an opportunity for breath
= drive through to the end of the line
= tool: make a list of end-words only

= Caesura (verse lines broken by punctuation): try to respect the punctuation without letting the line's energy die. Still drive to the end.

-- Misc
= avoid the Shatner Trap: let the thought do the work, not the individual words. (Actually, this "trap" can be a great tool. Just use it sparingly.)
= abutted consonants (e.g. moRe Rich). Choose: join or separate. Morrich or more_rich?
= most Shakespearean characters KNOW they speak brilliantly. Words and phrases can be juicy. "You act Chekhov with your heart. But you act Shakespeare with your wit."" Irony is everywhere.
= short sentences slow; long sentences fast.
= play lists as if you're coming up with them in real time and you keep thinking of better and better ideas: this... no this... no THIS!
= repeats requite builds
= "Billboard" all names.
= look for humor in dark moments
= Polysyllabic words end the end of monosyllabic lines always have power
= When something sounds naughty, it is
= tool: each actor repeats the last cue line before starting his speech. (Also, try my connecting-phrase game, explained below, in dialogs. Come up with a phrase at the beginning of each of your lines, connecting it to the cue line.)
= important words gravitate to the ends of lines
= thee (informal); you (formal)
= prose equals verse minus meter. The sentence is the basic building block. Also look for parallelism, 3-part builds, antithesis, numerical groupings, sequential (point-by-point) retellings, orderly inventories, extended riffs on a single idea, repeated phrases, pileup of antitheses)


===
* There's an exercise I love to do, with both modern texts and Shakespeare. It's almost always helpful: I pencil in conjunctions (or connecting phrases) linking each sentence to the following one. For instance:

To be, or not to be: that is the question: (WHAT I'M WONDERING IS) Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them? (ONE POSSIBILITY IS) To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to....

You should always be able to do this, even if the connecting phrase has to be "(CHANGING THE SUBJECT ENTIRELY)"

After doing this, I speak the speech with the connections until I really get how it all hands together -- how one thought leads to another. Then I drop the connections and speak it as written, just thinking the connections.
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Tips and Tricks 8 years 4 months ago #2239

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This is a great list of helpful ideas for any actor—even being dogmatic about some of those point wouldn't be a bad thing!

I'd even add something about playing ambiguity as well as playing soliloquies, which probably deserves its own topic. :)
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Tips and Tricks 8 years 4 months ago #2240

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Can you elaborate on what you mean by "playing ambiguity"? I have a feeling that if write three more words, I'll think, "Oh, of course!" But right now my mind is a blank.
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Tips and Tricks 8 years 4 months ago #2241

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Ambiguity in the sense of double meanings and how to play them. I guess you might say there's overlap with your comments about irony. However, irony is essentially saying something but meaning the opposite, while ambiguity is playing both. There's a way for the actor to indicate ambiguity in words like "seeming" that involves the audience in the speech.
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Tips and Tricks 8 years 4 months ago #2242

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Got it. I also think this overlaps a bit with the idea that Shakespearean characters (by and large) know they speak well; they know they are wits. The actor has to be aware of that. He has to enjoy his way of phrasing things, even in moments of pain and hardship.

This is one of the hardest things to help an actor achieve. If he doesn't already luxuriate in the language -- if he doesn't speak it with a twinkle in his eye -- I generally remind him (or explain to him, if he's really a newbie) the relationship that these characters have with language. If that reminder isn't enough, it's hard to know what to do next.

The problem is that it's about play (and in "being playful"). If you tell the actors to do all sorts of specific things with his voice or whatever, you're regimenting him, and that's not playful.

It's partly just a matter of actor personality. It's very hard to fake a twinkle in your eye. Actors with no fun in them can still be good (though limited) actors, but they're often not good at Shakespeare.

I do have one exercise that sometimes helps. I just used it while coaching an actress who is acting in a Shaw play. She was doing a speech very well technically, but it seems a bit tight. She does the speech exactly the same way every time. I understand every moment clearly, and that's good. I know what her character wants and what tactics she is using to achieve her goals. But she didn't seem to be enjoying the challenge. Yet the language suggests her character enjoys a battle of wits.

So I suggested that -- in the privacy of her own home -- she do the speech in a hundred different ways: it's a bombastic speech, but she should do it in a whisper. She should do it over and over in a whisper, until she can make it work that way. She should also do it with an Italian accent; then with a cockney accent. She should do it in piglatin. She should do it as a "bad actor." She should do it as if the character she's speaking to is a hundred yards away from her. She should do it as if he's in bed right next to her.

The goal of this is to (a) loosen up the speech so that the actor feels she can do it given any conceivable set of constraints (if she can do it in piglatin -- and make it work that way -- doing it normally will be a cakewalk). And (b) it's to get her to stop taking the speech so seriously -- it's to give her permission to have fun with it. Of course, when she performs it for real, she's not going to do it in piglatin. But somewhere in the back of her mind, she'll know she COULD do it that way. She'll -- hopefully -- remember that, at heart, acting is play. It's what children do naturally.
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Tips and Tricks 8 years 4 months ago #2246

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Wow! Great posts marcus.

Just a quick response for now:
Thanks for posts that point up something of the importance of technique vis a vis language and WORDS. I've been blathering on the subject for months. There's an unmistakable melding of technique and "method", if you will, necessary for the translation of Shakespeare's Technique into something today's audience can more easily assimilate. But without the basic groundwork (some of which you mentioned) it's most times a stab in the dark for an actor. And although you rightly stressed that it's not "Dogma", I've rarely found that, when observed "dogmatically" at first, it doesn't lead an actor to a place where a choice is discovered; one that he or she wouldn't have been privy to while fumbling around "waiting to be inspired".
First the cake...then the icing.

marcus wrote:
"...the idea that Shakespearean characters (by and large) know they speak well; they know they are wits."


And those that aren't wits usually think they are, nonetheless. Facility with the language--as you point out--is paramount in any case.

I'd also add that your comment on thees and thous, [= thee (informal); you (formal)] though correct, could possibly be somewhat misleading without the rest of the formula:

=King/Parent/Highborn to subject/child/commoner--thee,thou,thy
=Subject/Child/Commoner to King/Parent/Highborn--you, your
=King to King--You, your ( protocol of mutual respect)
=Lover to Lover--Thee, thou--notice how and where the pronouns change from you to thee in R&J, for instance. (and using the built-in assonance can be very hot or very funny--depending upon the situation, of course)
If at any time this formula changes, something has happened; look for brewing conflict--disrespect or anger or...heretofore unrevealed outwardly-displayed adverse feeling is being shown for a reason--this affects an immediate atmospheric change, and can help greatly with intent and also provide the underpinnings for driving that intent home with the necessary build in the right places. An intentional change can also be used to affect endearment or closeness--or maybe just an attempt at same. Hamlet drops/adopts the form sometimes with Horatio and Laertes; switches back and forth intentionally, for various reasons, with Ophelia, et al.

More on the syllabic and structural clues in the verse; pauses, and other stuff later.
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Tips and Tricks 8 years 4 months ago #2247

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Yeah, the thing about the words is that they're so damn expressive. Like most people who have been to drama school, I was trained in the Stanislavsky tradition. I am a big believer in all that inner-motivation stuff.

But when I work with actors on Shakespeare, I've discovered that the words are a shortcut. If you start by making sure the actor is 100% clear on what he's saying and what it means, if you discuss the rhetoric (vitally important) and the mechanics of the poetry... if you discuss all that and just touch on motivation, and then let the actor speak his lines, you usually don't have to do anything else.

You don't have to get into a big discussion about why the character feels the way he feels, what his action is, etc. Shakespeare gives you all that in his words. He gives it to you in such a powerful, evocative way, that once you understand his words, you can't help but play them actively and truthfully.

This isn't always true. Sometimes you do need to delve deeply into subtext and all that, but the modern trend is to start internally and then, only later, to work on the surface features of the text. I think this is generally the long way around.
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Tips and Tricks 8 years 4 months ago #2249

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marcus wrote:
If you start by making sure the actor is 100% clear on what he's saying and what it means, if you discuss the rhetoric (vitally important) and the mechanics of the poetry... if you discuss all that and just touch on motivation, and then let the actor speak his lines, you usually don't have to do anything else.
One of the best acting teachers I ever had was a Shakespeare 'Verse/Performance' teacher at Riverside Shakespeare Academy in NY. She directed me as Macbeth later on (my first 'head honcho' Shakespearean lead--scared out of my wits at times. I was able to do it only because of what I had learned about much of what you've previously posted). I'll never forget what she said--I'm sure I paraphrase somewhat-- I never fail to tell this to my own students today, usually more than one or two times, since many of their successes glaringly reflect the maxim: "Learn what to do with what Shakespeare made available to his actors; learn what to do with the lines, and the lines will Act You."
There's a 'heightened reality' to performing verse that can't be achieved without addressing the need for technique, which simultaneously initiates and supports that heightened reality. Ironically, I find much of its power to be centered in the sheer physicality of vocal energy, which is of course directly connected to the intentional rhythms in the verse form, those creative rhythmical departures from the form itself, Shakespeare's way of making the structure breathe an unconventional conversational aspect even within the bounds you would think to be restrictive. But once the tone is set--it's set--and the audience is sometimes able to 'perceive' what we think they might not be getting--osmotically-- through the knowledge, consistency, and confidence of the players. All of this, of course, is directly connected to the "Words, words, words..." and the actor's respect for them as the important tool they really are.

Are you familiar with Patsy Rodenburg? (voice and speech for RSC) She pretty much sums it up better than most when she says that in order to do Shakespeare successfully, the actor cannot simply 'play himself ', but must "become someone else".
In a way, she sort of echoes Alla Nazimova (leading actress for KS at the Moscow Art). Nazimova thought of herself as a vessel; empty until she was able to find the attributes and nature of the character she was seeking to portray. Technique was more important to Stanislavsky than we'll ever know, I'm afraid. There's a lot of Stanislavsky that Strasberg left in Moscow. I think that's why it's so difficult for actors in America to accept the "reversal" as you so accurately described it. Many really fine actors I know avoid Shakespeare like the proverbial plague. Although not a particular cheer leading devotee of what has become American Method, I recognize the importance of both points of view. Regarding our present subject, one without the other leaves out too much of the recipe to get it to the plate resembling anything palatable.
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Tips and Tricks 8 years 4 months ago #2251

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That's a great list of tips for an actor. Edelstein's Thinking Shakespeare is one of my favorite books to recommend to anyone who is going to act Shakespeare. The ideas are expressed so clearly. You did a pretty good job of fitting it all down into that short list.

I would like to reiterate the importance of antithesis. John Barton (my hero!) expressed in print and on video the importance of embracing opposites and contradictions within the text. And not just setting the word itself against the word as it "To be or not to be" but inconsistencies within a character. John said that the more you play with them, rather than ignoring them, the character will become clearer. I find this rings true in a lot of Shakespeare's "hard to figure out" characters where s/he seems very much 'this,' but is 'that' in the next scene. It's the sort of thing that drives literary critics insane, but it's such a gift to an actor. That's what makes these characters human.

Also what is extremely important, as you have already mentioned, is loving language! The character definitely are (or think they are) great wits. It's hard for many students these days who grow up in a very visual society that distrusts words. The emphasis on discovering the acting clues in the text, as you said, I believe can be a really fun sort of puzzle for actors to put together that teaches us to trust the language.

I really enjoyed the linking words exercise you shared, as well as the bit about the Shaw speech that needed to be loosened up. It's very important for an actor not to feel limited to a certain way that the text needs to be spoken. The way you mentioned you hopefully cured the actor of that is great, I think I'll use that! :)
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Tips and Tricks 8 years 4 months ago #2254

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Groundling (great username!), I just thought of another tip along the lines of my "loosening up" one: when I direct shows, I'm often irritated with how my actors play the first ten minutes. Time and again, I've noticed that many actors are lackluster at the start, only hitting their stride a ways into the piece. (I've noticed this problem even with big stars on Broadway.) I'm talking about energy, playfulness, committment to the stakes of the piece, remembering not to go on autopilot, etc. Basically, the first ten minutes of the play becomes a warm-up for the rest.

Of course, the solution is to warm-up before the show. I don't know if this is true elsewhere, but in NYC, there's a snobbish rejection of anything "drama school." Many actors -- many good actors -- seem to reach a point where they think they're too good for warm-ups. Some may even want to warm up, but they fear that if they prance around the stage saying "la la la," the more cynical actors will laugh at them.

I make them sound worse than they are. My guess is that most of these people aren't actually snobs. They just don't realize how weak they are in the beginning of the first scene. As-long-as they pick up their energy after that, they get praise at the end of the show. People remember the most recent thing they've seen. So the audience cares more about the end than the beginning. But, as the director, I care about the whole thing.

Now, during the last few years, I've been acting as-well-as directing. I really think of myself as a director, but I it's important that I go through the acting process now and then. I work better with actors if I understand their process. But I never went to acting school (I have an MFA in directing), so I don't know all those exercises that actors use (when they bother to use them) to warm up. Still, I know I'd suck if I started a play cold, with no warm up at all. So I developed my own technique.

I based it on something I do at the gym, when I lift weights. I don't do all those stretches that you're supposed to do. Instead, I just lift the bar that holds the weights without any weights on it. Then, if my goal is to lift 150lbs, I put 5lbs on the bar and lift it; then I lift 10lbs; then 25, etc. I've never had an injury.

Adapting this technique to the theatre, I start my evenings by choosing a big speech of mine and walking around on the stage, saying it to myself. I quietly mumble it -- sometimes I whisper it. I play it as if I'm playing it for the camera, as if a mic was an inch from my mouth. After doing it that way a couple of times, I play it just a little bit louder, as if I'm talking to someone a couple of feet away. Very gradually, I broaden it (heighten it). If, at any time, it feels unnatural or forced, I take it back a notch, making it more subtle. I do it at that level until I feel ready to broaden it again. I keep broadening and broadening until I've gone way beyond what I need for the performance, until I'm playing it like Albert Finney in "The Dresser" -- hugely overacting. When I can play it comfortably at this operatic level, I know I'm ready.

I don't suggest giving up all the la-la-las and tongue twisters you learned in drama school. But you might want to give my technique a try sometime. I've passed it on to several actors, and its worked for them. It feels really relevant (and un-school-ish) to warm up with a speech from the play you're about to perform.
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