We often get asked by students (and teachers) how we keep 3 shows, and so much Shakespeare in our heads! It has had me thinking, how did I learn so much Shakespeare in such a short time? And more importantly, what do I do to demystify Shakespeare’s language and put it into my own voice?
When I was at school I studied Shakespeare in English. We read his plays out loud, all sitting down in the classroom swapping at every new dialogue line with the teacher reading out any stage directions. We would then maybe watch a movie or two, if they were available, and then toddle off to write our essays. At assessment time you could find the English students during individual study time all silently pouring over their texts as if they were still writing an essay on To Kill a Mocking Bird or some other piece of literature.
Through this process I wrote good essays about themes and the dichotomy of the human spirit, but I never felt close to Shakespeare’s text and words. I loved Shakespeare’s language but never truly felt like it was my language. It was something to be enjoyed from afar, to be written about, something to discuss over tea and biscuits; not something I wanted to really investigate, get lost in a black hole of googling, or something that I could be physically and mentally challenging. Shakespeare was never something that I thought could be mine.
To essay, or not to essay?
There is nothing wrong with knowing the themes of the plays, nor spending time reading the text, or indeed writing essays… But that is not why Shakespeare wrote what he wrote. He wrote these words to be read out loud, to be performed, to inspire and excite people. This is something that I had always known from an academic point of view, but it wasn’t until I was at university studying acting that I really understood the impact of this and how we are usually taught to approach Shakespeare at school.
The thing that I really wanted to know was how could I still sound like me when performing Shakespeare? How could these people that I relate to on so many levels also sound relatable?
The best advice I was given when tackling Shakespeare was “make it your own”, but what did that mean? In my experience, I think that it means something slightly different to everyone so all I can do is give a few pointers and talk through a few of the things that I do when I first pick up a piece of Shakespeare.
What does that even mean?
One of the first ways that I make the language my own is to go to find a dictionary. I know that this might seem a little tedious, but believe me it has helped me more times that I can count! I always go through my text reading it aloud. Whenever I come across a word or a phrase that I don’t understand I look it up in a dictionary. From the simple to the obscure a dictionary can help to demystify what the characters are talking about. A great example of this is one of Hamlet’s famous lines:
“Now might I do it pat, now ‘a is a-praying.”
‘Pat’ often trips me up, and is great because depending on the dictionary/footnotes it can mean a variety of things. Such as: neatly, opportunely, aptly, simple, slick, smooth, but, precisely… The list goes on! If you have lots of time and really want to nerd out have a look at different dictionaries for different interpretations of the same word. Footnotes in your texts are also a massive help: someone else has already had a go at looking through resources and figuring out what characters are going on about! When unlocking Shakespeare it is really about having as many tools at your disposal as possible so get defining those words and phrases.
She said what?
Great, so now I know what the words mean, I know what the characters are talking about and I guess I know what is going on generally… What next, Eleanor? So glad you asked! The next thing I do is get up out of my chair, that is all the “book work” I do. As I mentioned before, Shakespeare is meant to be performed! I would highly recommend finding a buddy (or a small group) and tacking the text scene by scene, speech by speech, reading it aloud. Get up and improvise some blocking. Move where you think you might need to move and be a bit silly with it. If you are studying a comedy I find that this is 100% the best way to uncover the majority of the jokes. If you think it is a little bit naughty, chances are you are on the right track! Jokes in Shakespeare are often full of innuendoes, making fun of how words sound, or simply repeating sounds in an amusing pattern. A great example of a character that does all three of these things is Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet:
“Why, is not this better now than groaning for love?
now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art
thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature:
for this drivelling love is like a great natural,
that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole.”
Once you have read aloud you might want to go back to the dictionary and clarify a few words that still remain illusive.
In other words…
So now you know what the words mean, you have had a bash at speaking the language, and you’ve moved around a bit. Now it is time to literally put the text into your own words. This is also referred to as paraphrasing the language. I find that this is a really important step in making Shakespeare sound like me, so that it fits my body rather than a performer over 400 years ago. There are some online resources around that have already done this, but I think it is always good to do it yourself first and if you get really lost to then check them out. In fact, I think that this is a thing I would recommend for life. You don’t need to spend too long paraphrasing, and it definitely doesn’t need to be word for word. This should be a tool to use to help deepen your understanding of the text. If you still have your buddies around you can discuss (in your own words) what the characters are saying, where they are, and what is happening to them. Often brainstorming aloud can inspire further discussion and really unlock the more subtle layers of the language.
If you have time, and are really enjoying the discovery of Shakespeare and want to explore a little further check out any performances you can, interviews of actors or find a different text with different footnotes. The beauty of Shakespeare’s language is that there is room for everyone to have a slightly different interpretation, it might mean something slightly different to each person. Share your ideas, have fun with the language, see if you can be silly and throw caution to the wind. I love this language so much. I truly believe that you can too. Take Shakespeare’s plays off of their pedestals and throw them around a bit, give them a run for their money and see how much you can pull them apart. This is how I unlock Shakespeare. This is how I perform Shakespeare in my own voice.
Now I could write so much more on my process, but I wanted to give you a taste and to excite you to give it a go and discover how you might make Shakespeare your own and not some piece of literature to be read in silence out of some form of respect. Go forth and enjoy!
— Eleanor – Team M
Some websites/resources that I keep coming back to:
- Shakespeare’s words http://www.shakespeareswords.com – This is my go to website to start off. It has the full texts, synopsis, character lists, word definitions etc. This is also available to buy as a book
- Shakespeare defined http://www.shakespearedefined.com – another great resource/tool for getting those definitions flowing
- Absolute Shakespeare http://absoluteshakespeare.com – the plays, some interesting resources, a bit of variety in this list
- Ian McKellen on acting Shakespeare http://youtu.be/25QcYpYCu4Q – mind the quality of the video but the man makes some fine points
- John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLboSQWmG70j_S2nWkRlncZYW49nLeFKWj – a lot of information but well worth the watch
- Chilli Monologues http://youtu.be/KKn4WFG4Je8 – some chilli Shakespeare fun… Remember Treat Yo’ Self!
August has been a fun and varied part of our year long adventure. Re-rehearsing Romeo and Juliet was such a beautiful experience. Seeing The Fools (George, Adele, Teresa and Nathaniel) again and being around their wonderful focus and passion and good-humour. I felt inspired by their work ethic, and their ability to make the work so much fun. Our director Damien Ryan is such an incredible font of knowledge about Shakespeare it’s insane to be in the room with him. He gives so much to his actors and his direction is incredibly specific, and he is hilarious! I just loved laughing so much….!!
I felt very lucky to have the chance to come back to playing the Nurse and Lady Montague. Adele as Juliet and Nathaniel as Romeo are just so easy to adore, I loved playing their “Mums”. It was wonderful seeing everyone revisit their roles, and to work as a cast of eight again.
Since our Romeo and Juliet season finished in Melbourne us Pooks have travelled to Hobart, which is such an incredibly beautiful place. Exploring the city with fellow Pook Paul has been a joy. Last week we went to Port Arthur – that insanely well preserved historical site where so much suffering has occurred, both recent and not so recent. For a place with such an horrific history, it feels extremely peaceful to be there. Standing on the green fields now you can sense the things that have happened there, and when you consider what people are capable of making other people do – work in chain gangs felling trees whilst knee deep in mud, lashing people with whips until they’re unconscious, sleeping 1000 men in buildings suitable for 60, condemning men to sensory deprivation resulting in madness for many – and the list goes on…. it’s overwhelming. Yet another example of our capacity as a species for “mountanish inhumanity” (Shakespeare’s Sir Thomas More). Our guide in Port Arthur finished our tour by telling us that if we learn about history we learn about ourselves. We learnt a lot that day about what human beings are capable of doing, and the strength of the human spirit. Tasmania is a truly beautiful and fascinating place.
This week we’ve been in Dubbo, Molong and Orange in regional NSW. More on that soon!
So last week we performed at Wagga Wagga Christian College and the players had the most amazing time. The year 4 class were inspirational and followed along with the story of A Midsummer Nights Dream so well, they should be very proud. Adele and Nathaniel said their workshop on As You Like It was probably one of their favorite experiences all year and could sense there was a lot of budding talent. On top of all this here is a photo of the amazing morning tea we received!! It was homemade by their very famous chef at the canteen.
Thanks for making our day!!!!
– Teresa (and The Fools)
Hobart, I have already decided after being here for four days, is the most beautiful city I’ve been to in this country! What a treat to wake up to a beautiful harbour, Georgian architecture and amazing hospitality! The seafood is amazing, Port Arthur terrifying and the coffee as good as any I’d get back in Melbourne or Sydney! After our two-week break from the Actors at Work tour, it’s nice to be welcomed back to our Macbeth Intensive and Midsummer Madness shows with the appreciation and hospitality of these fine Tasmanian folk! Our students have across the board been incredibly responsive to our work and as always, it’s a joy to perform Shakespeare to enthusiastic learners; teenagers open to the possibility of live storytelling.
Today, whilst visiting the Clarence High School in Bellerive, I had a few minutes to browse some framed photos hanging along the hallway of the school. Various alumni were proudly staring at me and I couldn’t help but smile when I came across a picture of one of Australia’s most celebrated stage and screen actresses, Essie Davis. Here she was, in all her glory, with an inscription that told me she had attended the Clarence High School from 1982-1985. I had to take a photo of it! Tasmania, it seems, boasts some of the greatest talent. I first saw Essie Davis perform in 1993, when she played the title role in Bell Shakespeare’s first production of Romeo and Juliet. Since then I have seen her in a handful of films, several more times on stage, once, most notably in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Our theatre talent comes from such a wonderful variety of places across this country. So, Essie Davis began her career and perhaps love for Drama in a humble public school down here in Tasmania. It’s nice to be reminded that even though we often see Melbourne and Sydney as the hubs of Australia’s theatre world, our creatives, our actors, our performers come from all over the place. Talent is not confined or limited to the bigger cities! It made me wonder how many current students are out there, beginning their passion for theatre in high school, private or public, in Drama Classes and extra-curricular performance experiences. Chances are, so many of Australia’s future actors and theatre practitioners we have already met, at one school or another as we travel the country taking Shakespeare to the new generation. If those students are out there reading this, you better believe it. The theatre world has room for you and it doesn’t matter whether you hail from a state capital or small regional town, island, coastal village or outer suburb. Essie Davis would surely agree!
Well, our Melbourne season of Romeo And Juliet has come and gone in the blink of an eye!!! It was an absolute joy to re-mount this production for a new space and new audiences. The National Theatre in St Kilda has been our home for the last week, while we performed two shows a day, and what a glorious old theatre she is (if a little creaky on those original audience seats).
It had been about five months since we performed Romeo And Juliet in Sydney, but all the lines and blocking came back to me, as if Id been performing the show this whole time. It’s strange how memory prioritises things, after 5 months I could bust out all Juliet’s lines without a hiccup, and yet when checking into a hotel, I need a moment to remember my own address!
Revisiting a role like Juliet was a true gift; it was like all this time between productions the character never actually left, but had a little room of her own in some part of my consciousness, where she settled in and became embedded in my everyday life. Opening that door and letting her out in Melbourne, seemed the most natural and effortless of things…except for the dancing in the sand, that did actually require A LOT of effort, my calves are still recovering …and bits of red sand are still turning up, no matter how many times I shower!!!! It’s like they have a mind of their own.
So it’s goodbye to Melbourne and Romeo And Juliet and hello Albury and Midsummer Madness.
While you are all on school holidays, The Players are busy at Bell HQ in Sydney this week, working with our Artistic Director John Bell and Associate Artistic Director Peter Evans, in the rehearsal room on some exciting (but secret!) projects.
On Monday we presented The Hamlet Seminar for HSC students at The Seymour Centre’s York Theatre. Our Resident Artist in Education James Evans presented the seminar while The Players acted out key scenes in various ways to show how different interpretations can be, how a director and actors can completely change intentions behind Shakespeare’s words to create new meaning.
On Saturday we’ll head to Melbourne to present The Hamlet Seminar for VCE students at The National Theatre in St Kilda. It’s the first year we’ve presented the seminar in Melbourne and we can’t wait.
Next up in August we’ll be bringing our production of Romeo And Juliet to The National Theatre along with our six tonnes of sand that line the stage. Where has it been hiding since we last performed the show in March? Hmmm… it’s a mystery. 🙂
But it’s not all for students. Your teachers can also take part in some of our special events. We’ll be holding a special launch to celebrate our Melbourne season of Romeo And Juliet at the beautiful Sofitel Melbourne on Collins on Wednesday 20 July from 5pm. To book your place email us today at email@example.com
Finally, teachers who want to skill up or learn some new tools for the classroom can come along to our Melbourne Teacher Forum: Shakespeare in the National Curriculum on Saturday 30 July, 10am – 4pm.
So Melbourne students and teachers – we’re on our way! We can’t wait to meet you all and work with you at these special events. Remember, if you want to know more, check out our website, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call on 1300 305 730.
Love the Bell Shakespeare Learning team!
Hi everyone! We’ve been so busy touring regional South Australia and New South Wales, and loving every minute. Here are some recent highlights from me!
The players spent a day at Gosford High recently and ran a workshop with the Year 12 students on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night! Their creativity and performances blew us away! They related the text to all the modern issues of gender in our society today. My favourite moments were possibly the love scene they chose to perform on top of the grand piano and their tableaux representation of the play’s ‘love triangle’ as a human pyramid!! I was of course requested to be on top!!
We just performed and worked with the students at Marree in central South Australia. As none of us are from Sydney originally we all love our AFL and so Miss Jakovich couldn’t leave town without performing a drop-kick at the local footy ground ‘ the MCG’! Thanks Marree, we had an amazing day!!
We performed Shakespeare amongst the rocket ships in Woomera today, the famous town in S.A. Not only were the students really fun and brave playing fairies, Dukes and donkeys but tourists who use to live in the area 40yrs ago wandered in to watch us perform. Keep up the good work Woomera, you have a town to he proud of.