In the Bell Shakespeare office we sometimes get a little jealous of the actors. After all, we sit in the office all day at our computers, while they get to tour to amazing places across Australia, performing for students and teachers everywhere!
So it was with great excitement that we spent half a day with The Players in the rehearsal room, during their training period. We were a ‘test audience’ for them, as they will soon be teaching teachers and students all about Shakespeare’s plays and innovative new ways of teaching them.
This meant that we played warm up games, helped act out Shakespeare’s stories and did some fun scene work. The Players were great facilitators and made the process (nerve-racking for some!) relaxed and entertaining. They were expertly led by our Resident Artist in Education, James Evans. Of course, we loved seeing our office colleagues performing in Shakespeare’s great roles – especially Todd (Production Coordinator) as Romeo, John (Head of Operations) as Juliet and Ruth (Philanthropy Manager) as a very fiery Tybalt. When we were divided into two groups to have a Shakespeare insult-off, I was lucky enough to be on the side with a certain actor by the name of John Bell. We put him up front to win the round for us, except that it was declared a tie. I guess the Players were just playing it safe!
Everyone returned to the office buzzing and grateful for the opportunity to see behind the scenes of the great work that students and teachers will experience this year.
Who knows, some of the office staff might give the Players a run for their money in the acting department!
John Bell visited us eight Players during the first week of our residency and introduced us to Shakespeare’s sonnets as a tool for helping us master Shakespeare’s meter, poetry and style during performance. He said that “if we can master the way in which a Sonnet can be performed, then we can perform all of Shakespeare!” That was about as much inspiration as I needed!
He began by explaining to us the history of the sonnet, and how as a form it was one of the most popular mediums of expressing ideas. During the time of the sonnet’s popularity they were considered the ‘gentlemen’s poetic form’ in which wit and skill were tested by those who considered themselves clever and accomplished writers. It became a kind of literary sport! John asked us to choose a sonnet each and slowly and with a lot of detail put us through our paces in trying to bring meaning and clarity to what we were reading. Just like Shakespeare’s plays, so much of the sonnet comes alive when it’s read aloud and performed as a piece of theatre! The challenge that we discovered though is that because so much is being said in lines that are so beautifully and artistically crafted within such a short length of text, it becomes a very focussed task to give each word and each phrase its full potential. John was very detailed with making sure we were paying attention to the poem’s grammar, the phrasing of its ideas, the construction of its argument and then the selling of its final rhyming couplet. Performing sonnets often feels slippery. You have it one minute, you miss a comma or take a breath at the wrong place and then the meaning slips away a little.
I thought about Hamlet for a minute. In “To be, or not to be”, the Prince has 33 lines in which to express his ideas at that moment. It’s not an easy task (especially that soliloquy!), but in a sonnet there are ONLY 14 LINES in which to make the meaning clear and understood. At least Hamlet has a little more time! What a brilliant challenge.
I have always been a fan of Shakespeare’s sonnets, being such a sucker for love poetry and Shakespeare’s well-crafted iambic pentameter. It’s wonderful to know that aside from just reading them for pleasure, to embark on a journey with the sonnets will constantly challenge and test me as an actor as well. And…it only costs 10 bucks to have a Penguin Classics copy of the sonnets in my back pocket. So while everyone else is reading Harry Potter or the Twilight series while sitting on public transport, I might embark on a different kind of journey.
When we started our year with The Players, we spent two intensive weeks training for the big year ahead. It was like Shakespeare boot camp!
One of the amazing sessions we had was voice work with voice expert Charmian Gradwell. Charmian is the Voice and Text Coach at Sydney Theatre Company. The four hours with her was so physical it felt like we’d been to the gym! And we got to sing which I love.
Charmian said we should sing in flow of passion without signifying the breaths. Everyone had to sing on their own which was freaky, but beautiful to listen to and we found out that our Resident Artist in Education, James Evans, has a sensational singing voice! You always discover hidden talents in rehearsal.
I’m looking forward to more voice work during the year, as we’ve got to make sure we look after our voices. We’d be lost without them