A Novice Actor’s Guide to Shakespeare

Advice for the Novice Actor

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on Shakespearean acting. However, when my director cast me in Midsummer Night’s Dream, I became an expert on becoming his worst nightmare. Eventually, I learned from my mistakes. Hopefully, you will never make them.

Sh Sh Sh Shakespeare?

The thought of Shakespearean acting can cause even an experienced actor’s teeth to chatter in iambic pentameter. Nonetheless, Community Theatre directors often find it hard to resist Shakespearean crowd pleasers. Quite often, the more experienced actors avoid the auditions for these shows, for fear of making fools of themselves. Thus, as a novice actor, you may be cast in a Shakespearean production by default. While you may be tempted to believe you are being cast because you have such a marvelous, natural acting talent, it behooves you to yield not to temptation. In most cases, you are probably being cast out of your director’s sense of desperation. Defy thy ego! Realize that you have much to learn not only about acting, but about Shakespeare. If thou art humble, perhaps thou shalt succeed.

All I Gotta Do Is Act Naturally

Confession: I grew up in New York City. Shakespeare in the Park was part of my birthright. From the first time I saw Midsummer Night Dream, I wanted to play Helena. I wanted to be Demetrius’ spaniel, to have him “do me mischief in the wood.” This was sort of strange, considering I was only seven years old and didn’t quite understand what kind of “mischief” Demetrius was talking about, but we probably shouldn’t go there.

Although I spent most of my life surrounded by New York City actors, I didn’t catch the acting bug till I moved to Colorado. In January of 2005, The Backstage Theatre Company of Breckenridge held auditions for JR Gurney’s Love Letters. For some reason, I was intrigued. The plot revolved around the letters exchanged between Melissa Gardner and Andy Ladd. Melissa was a blond seductive, insane and obsessive artist. Hey, I can do that! Due to budget restrictions, the Backstage Theatre had recently stopped paying actors. While they were never making much money in the first place, some refused to audition “on principle,” thereby reducing the number of bodies in the casting pool. I got the part by default. After portraying Melissa, I was hooked!

Faith Let Me Not Play a Man!

Later that year, the company held auditions for Midsummer Night Dream. Did I dare audition for the role of Helena? Uh, I don’t think so! By now, I was about 20 years too old for the part, and at least three inches too short. Helena should tower over Hermia, as indicated in Hermia’s accusation of Helena’s using her stature over Lysander, and calling Helena a maypole. I explored the other female roles. Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons and Titania, Queen of the Fairies would be played by the same actress.

An Amazon and a Fairy? What fun!

Come; sit thee down upon this flowery bed
While I thy amiable cheeks do coy

If Melissa Gardner was Queen of the Fairies, she’d be Titania. I wanted that part.

Okay, who was I kidding? I haven’t taken an acting class since college, and I’m going to attempt to audition for Shakespeare? Still, I wrote a humble email to the director asking if I was being full of myself for even thinking about audition. I could hear the desperation in his reply: “Please audition!” Well if that’s how you feel about it!

I spent hours each day pretending my cat was Bottom, the Weaver, transformed into an ass. Since he purred with appreciation when I’d say
�and kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy
I assumed I was doing a good job. Then, I had an idea. I had a bubble wand lying around the house, a throw back to my 1970s hippie days. When Titania says “Thou shalt like an airy spirit go,” I would wave the wand as I spun around in a circle.
Unfortunately, there were some problems. I was recovering from ACL surgery, so I was not my usual graceful self. When I spun around, I looked like a dork. The bubble wand didn’t work. I looked like a moron. Visions of Fairy queens ceased their dance in my head. The next day I received an email from the director. I was to play Tom Snout, one of the Mechanicals, and Mustardseed, the fairy. In the play within the play, Tom Snout would play the Wall. Instead of being a seductive fairy and a strong, sexy Amazon, I was to play a workman and a wall. How flattering. My first instinct was to paraphrase Francis Flute the bellows mender, when he discovers that he was to play Thisby, the lady that Pyramus must love; “Faith let me not play a man, for I am growing my hair down to my waist.

Upon looking at me, you’d believe me to be more of a wench than a male. Yet in Summit County, community theatre is the only place in the county where the women out number the men. If men played women’s parts in Shakespeare’s day, women can play men’s roles in the 21st Century. Besides, if you turn down a part because you wanted a better one, you’ll never work in this County again.

I responded with a cheery “Sure, I’ll play Snout!”

A few weeks into rehearsals, some actors were dropped for their lack of effort. My consistency and persistence paid off. Even with my questionable talent, my part was “upgraded.” I’d now be playing Peter Quince, a better part, yet still a guy. Although I tried to focus on being “masculine,” my scenes lacked impact. A friend advised me to focus on motivation before gender. With this suggestion, my scenes began to take life, but I was still too feminine. The best suggestion came from my husband, who told me to pretend I was a woman whose husband had died. She needed to work in order to feed her children, so she couldn’t let on that she was a woman.

Watch Your Language

Had I focused on understanding Shakespearean language prior to worrying about my character’s gender, I would have had less trouble with the role. According to Michael Martorano, who has taught Shakespearean Acting in New York and Colorado, novice Shakespearean actors often make the mistake of not really understanding what they are saying to the other person. Actors should realize that Shakespeare’s language is a simpler, clearer way of expressing your feelings if you have taken the time to really know what you want when you speak and what each thought is when you speak it. He compares Shakespearean plays to musicals. “Why do people break into song in musicals?” he asks. “Music is used when mere words are not enough. In Shakespeare, the language is the music.”

Take the question “What light through yonder window breaks?” Romeo is simply asking “What time is it?” But can you sense the difference in emotional intensity between Romeo’s speech pattern, and the colloquial “what time is it?” His next line is “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” He is so in love with Juliet that he sees time in relationship to her.

Your first task as a novice Shakespearean actor is to find a thorough Shakespearean glossary or annotated Shakespeare book. Searching Google will also provide you with many links to annotated Shakespeare sites. One of the most complete Shakespearean glossaries can be found online at Shakespeare.About.Com. Memorizing your lines is not enough. You must understand what you’re talking about. Caveat: Upon gaining an understanding of “Shakespeare Speak,” you may inadvertently translate lines into your “own language.” Paraphrasing is a faux pas! Why? Keep in mind that your fellow actors rely on your lines as cues. Though the more experienced actor may not be bothered by your saying “Ay, marry you must,” when the actual line is “Ay marry must you,” a nervous newbie may be completely thrown off by this juxtaposition of words.

If you have regionalisms in your speech patterns, get rid of them. Mispronounced words sound particularly god-awful in Shakespeare. Although my nine years spent in Boston didn’t completely annihilate the “r” sound, for some reason, I was having trouble with the word “thorn.” Another actor kept saying “Lysanduh” instead of Lysander. If you’re serious about acting, take some speech lessons. If acting is just a hobby, ask a friend with good speech to be your Professor Higgins.

I’ve Got the Talking Elizabethan Blues

The website, renfaire.com has a wonderful page on Shakespearean acting. Since the site appeals more to the Renaissance Fair enthusiast, as opposed to the high-brow Shakespearean scholar, it is entertaining and reader -friendly. The page on Elizabethan pronunciation features sound clips, as well as phonetic examples of commonly used words.

âÂ?¢ Want – the A sounds like A in apple.
âÂ?¢ Make – sounds like mek.
âÂ?¢ Head – sounds like haid.
âÂ?¢ I – pronounced uh-ee.
âÂ?¢ Mercy – pronounced maircy with a hard r.
âÂ?¢ Fair – diphthong ai with a hard r.
âÂ?¢ Neither – pronounced nayther.
âÂ?¢ Lord – drawn out oo sound.
âÂ?¢ Down – vowels pronounced uh-oo.
âÂ?¢ Cup – a short and rounded u.

Breathing Lessons

Have you noticed that some Shakespearean productions move faster than others? Part of the reason is the idea of “cue pick up.” Consider your daily conversations. Is there always a pause between what you say, and the other person’s response? Usually not. In Shakespeare, lengthy, unnecessary pauses make the production drag at a snail’s pace. Don’t wait till the other character has finished speaking to breath. Breathe while they speak, and be ready to respond immediately.

Kristin Linklater discusses breathing in her excellent e-seminar called The Shakespearean Sonnet and the Modern Voice on cero.columbia.edu. You can register for a 60-day trial membership, and take the seminar for free! According to Linklater, vowels are the emotional component in Shakespearean speech, whereas consonants represent the intellectual component. The vowel’s connection to emotion is best expressed when the breath source is deep within the diaphragm. Effective Shakespearean acting balances emotion with intellect. If the intellect dominates, the performance is boring, but too much emotion creates a sappy, unbelievable performance.

You can use your vowels and consonants to bring out your character’s personality. A character that slurs his consonants is usually someone who is not a clear thinker. Sentimentalists tend to overly accentuate their vowels.

Actions Speak as Loud as the Words

Keep in mind that much of the general population has difficulty with the Shakespearean language. It behooves you to use your actions and gestures to dramatize and clarify your speech. When done well, audiences may understand words of which they lack literal comprehension. Movement style is dependent upon your director’s preferences. Generally, if you are performing a scene that features a “play within a play,” you might be directed to move with a sense of caricature. Exaggerated movements add humor to these scenes. In Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Pyramus and Thisby play is performed by a bunch of really bad actors. A parody of the movements of bad actors can be amusing.

Iambic What?

Shakespeare wrote his plays using a combination of verse and prose. Since the ability to use words in a witty and poetic way was considered a sign of good breeding and superior intellect, for the most part, poetry was used by characters of higher social status. Verse is usually seen in love scenes, devotion to God and moments of great drama. It is a thermometer that hints at heated emotions that require a heightened language for their expression. When you are cast in a Shakespearean play, take a look at how your lines are written. If they are written in mostly in prose, you may be playing a character with a low social status, such as a mechanical in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Many novice actors make the mistake of feigning an air of pomp and circumstance when portraying a specific character, simply because they are “talking Shakespeare.” If the character is of a lower social status, this is not always appropriate. However, consider the play within a play in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Why are the mechanicals so excited to perform this? If they please the Duke, they can become the carpenters, weavers, tinkers, etc. in his court. You will notice that the Pyramus and Thisby play within the play is written in verse. As an actor, you might assume that Peter Quince, the plays writer and director was trying to elevate the mechanicals status by writing in that matter.

When writing verse, Shakespeare used iambic pentameter, a rhythmic pattern which placed stress on the second syllable. Iambic pentameter sounds like a heartbeat; daDUM, daDUM, daDUM. It is the closest thing to natural speech rhythm set in verse form. The unstressed, then stressed syllable form duplicates natural prose, but heightens and intensifies its power on the listener. Think of your reaction when the black and white scenes in the Wizard of Oz change to Technicolor. Iambic pentameter is the Technicolor of Shakespearean language.

The word “pentameter” is composed of two words. Penta means five and meter means measure. An iamb is a unit of rhythm consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Sentences written in iambic pentameter have five iambs or ten syllables, five stressed and five unstressed. Unrhymed iambic pentameter is called blank verse.

What does all this mean for the novice actor? If you allow your lines to flow with the rhythm of the speech, your acting will seem more natural. Some actors fight with the rhythm, some over stress it. Try to avoid doing either. As much as you may be having difficulty adjusting to the Shakespearean language and sentence structure, if many of your lines are rhymed, you may find them surprisingly easy to memorize.

Take it from Hamlet

Lest you still fret about your performance, rest assured that the bard himself has provided instruction on how to play his plays. Heed well Hamlet’s advice to his players:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus; but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must aquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.

O it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passage to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipped for o’er-doing Termagant. It out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.

Be not to tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature; for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it makes the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve, the censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theater of others. O there be players that I have seen play and heard others praise, and that highly (not to speak of it profanely) that, neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature’s journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.

Beware the Scottish Play

So your first Shakespearean play went well, and now you’d like to do more. As an initiate into the theatrical world of Shakespeare, there is a tradition you must take seriously, whether thou art superstitious or not. As an actor, the Shakespearean play whose name starts with “M” and ends in “H” must never be spoken or written.

The lore surrounding this piece began when it was written in 1606. Shakespeare apparently wrote the play to ingratiate himself to King James I. In doing so he gave nod to the King’s pet subject, demonology. He incorporated a trio of spell casting witches, and gave them incantations to recite. But alas, these spells were from an authentic black magic ritual. Their public display angered the people for whom these incantations were sacred. They thus retaliated with a curse on the show and its future productions.

On August 7, 1606, the boy who was supposed to play Lady M took ill and died. The catastrophes continued through the centuries.

� 1721: A nobleman got up in the middle of a performance and walked across the stage to talk to a friend. The actors drew their swords and drove the nobleman and his friends from the theatre. The nobleman returned with the militia and burned the theatre down.

âÂ?¢ April 9 1865: Abraham Lincoln read the scene of Duncan’s assassination to a group of friends. One week later, Lincoln himself was assassinated.

� 1942: a production by John Gielgud suffered three deaths in the cast, the actor playing Duncan and two of the actresses playing the Weird Sisters, and the suicide of the costume and set designer.

� 1953: Charlton Heston starred in an open-air production in Bermuda. On opening night, when the soldiers storming the castle were to burn it to the ground onstage, the wind blew the smoke and flames into the audience. Heston suffered severe burns in his groin and leg area from tights that were accidentally soaked in kerosene.

The list goes on, but I need not frighten you. If you accidentally utter the name of this play inside a theatre, legend has it that you can dispel the curse by leaving the room, turning around three times to the right, spitting on the ground or over each shoulder, then knocking on the door of the room and asking for permission to re-enter it.

Despite the superstition associated with one play, and the challenges associated with any Shakespearean production, acting in a Shakespearean play can be an enjoyable experience.

Go. Make you ready.

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