Performing Shakespeare: Unlocking the Text by Felix

 

  When we’re touring, we often get questions from students about how to perform Shakespeare effectively – especially given that the language can be quite hard! Sometimes when we’re looking at a whole scene, or an entire play, it’s tough to know where to even begin! So that’s the topic of this blog: how to begin unlocking the text, and discovering clues about the scene.

   Let’s look at an example of a short excerpt from Romeo and Juliet:

 

ROMEO
Give me a torch. I am not for this ambling.
Being but heavy, I will bear the light.

MERCUTIO
Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.

ROMEO
Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes
With nimble soles. I have a soul of lead
So stakes me to the ground I cannot move.

 

   So, right from the first line, we’re given a clue as to the nature of the scene. Romeo says “give me a torch.” This means it must be dark. It seems obvious, but little clues like this are often overlooked. Also, historically, the torch-bearers never danced (as they had to provide the light for everyone else) so Romeo is also trying to make sure he doesn’t have to dance, by carrying the torch. This idea of Romeo not wanting to dance is supported by the second half of the line, “I am not for this ambling.” Romeo is pretty clearly saying that he does not want to go.

   In the next line, we get a clue as to how Romeo is feeling. “Being but heavy,” suggests he is feeling sad or depressed. Shakespeare often uses words that we recognise in modern language, but he uses them in a different way. Nowadays the word heavy usually means something with a lot of weight, but here, Romeo is describing himself as being weighed down by sadness.

   The second half of the line shows Romeo’s wit, and Shakespeare’s clever wordplay – “I will bear the light.” Literally, Romeo is saying he will carry the torch. But there’s more to it than that! The heaviness that Romeo complains of, suggests a burden that he is carrying. Shakespeare continues this metaphor with the word “bear,” meaning to carry, and adds a clever pun with the antithetical word, “light.”

   So we can see the opposites or antitheses in capital letters: “Being but HEAVY, I will bear the LIGHT.”

   Mercutio answers him with some straightforward teasing. “Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance!” But even here, the word “gentle” gives us a clue as to Romeo’s nature.

   In the next lines, we get a little clue as to Mercutio’s physicality – the way he moves. Romeo says “you have dancing shoes with nimble soles.” He’s not telling us that Mercutio has come wearing ballet flats, he’s describing Mercutio’s agility and speed. This gives us some ideas about who the character of Mercutio is.

   He then continues with another pun, or wordplay, this time using homophones. Having just referred to Mercutio’s “soles,” he then talks about his own “soul.” Two words that sound the same, but have different meanings. This use of wordplay and quick-wittedness that Shakespeare gives to Romeo throughout the play is one of the most important characteristics of who he is: he is a poet, intelligent, quick-witted and romantic; a gentle soul.

   In the last line shown here, Romeo returns to the image of heaviness by referring to his soul being made of “lead.” Lead is one of the heaviest metals, but it is also a cheap and common metal, often associated with dullness. So we get a stronger sense of his depression and melancholy here. Romeo tells us that because his soul feels as if it were made of lead, and therefore very heavy, he is pinned to the ground by it, and can’t possibly dance.

   As we start to unlock the language of Shakespeare, we can see just how many clues he has left for us as to who these characters are, and how we could play them. In just six lines of text, we have exposed all sorts of clues and ideas about Romeo and Mercutio, their relationship, and the time of day (or night).

   Hopefully, this helps you guys who are learning scenes for English or Drama, and shows you that you don’t need to be intimidated by the language, but just go through it, line by line, word by word. Once you begin to dig below the surface, you will find that there is a wealth of clues and ideas just waiting to be unlocked! Good luck!

 

Felix – Team Capulet.

fexil blog


Chairs and Giggles – An Ongoing Struggle

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So, we’re slowly but surely approaching the final chapter of our year as the 2015 Bell Players. And boy has it been a great one. We’ve dusted dry red dirt from our clothes in Newman, swam with whale sharks in Exmouth, and participated in an intense drama class game of Duck Duck Goose with our bellies full of freshly baked Donald scones in Donald, all the while aiming to give you guys the best possible 50-minute Shakespearean performances we could, in whatever Aussie town called our names. So much laughter, so many tears (well, not that many tears.  Actually Lucy and I did see Still Alice at a cinema in Wollongong during which we probably shed a year’s worth of tears for all four of us).

However, it has not always been smooth sailing for Team C, let me tell you. We may appear to be cool, calm and collected, but there have been incidents where a powerful and highly dangerous virus has infiltrated our otherwise unshakeable Team front, threatening the very foundations on which our Team was formed. Our will-power, professionalism and strength of character are thrown into jeopardy. It’s frightening.

Now many of you actors out there may be familiar with this virus, referred to by some as the ‘Corpsing’ virus, or quite simply, a dreaded and seemingly uncontrollable unwanted burst of laughter. It is said to have been originally labelled ‘corpsing’ from the times when there an actor must play a corpse, and there has been a tendency to make that actor laugh. You know the feeling – something very funny happens on stage, and the sensible half of your brain tells you ‘hey, that’s okay buddy, let’s just keep on keeping on, hold on to your focus, keep your head in the game, it’s gonna be okay.’ And then the other half is saying ‘HAHAHAHAHAHAH THIS IS THE FUNNIEST THING TO EVER HAVE HAPPENED WHY ISNT EVERYBODY PEEING THEMSELVES WITH LAUGHTER OH I DONT CARE HAHAHAHAH’. So which half do you listen to? It really is a trying test for the actor, not allowing yourself to fall victim to corpsing. Your face gets hot, your chest starts bubbling, nostrils flaring, the sides of your mouth are reluctantly quivering upwards. The struggle is real.

Shiv has a great tip (which personally has not worked on me): when something distractingly funny happens on stage, think of a chair. Only a chair. See now I don’t know about Shiv, but I have experienced some pretty humorous-looking chairs in my time, so I think that could be a very dangerous substitution. Nevertheless, you can read more about it in his latest acting book, ‘Think of a Chair: The Technique and the Way of Life.’

A wee example from our experiences: some of you may recall, in a performance of Midsummer Madness quite a while back, a notable funny happened. The mechanicals were doing their thang on stage – I was playing Snug as I do, and Quince had just handed out our scripts for Pyramus and Thisbe which we were instructed to read and rehearse. But as it goes, before we have a chance to do so, sneaky Puck comes along and freezes the Mechanicals mid-action so that he can enact some of his magic mischief. Now, back to the dreaded corpsing. Just at the point where Puck freezes us, I (as Snug) am sitting precariously on a road case to read my script. And just after Puck does his magic freeze-clap, I (Snug) slowly and ungracefully slip off the road case and fall heavily onto my bum, breaking the freeze and looking like a total doofus. And then I make a feeble attempt to pretend like Snug has fallen on purpose by throwing my arms into the air and saying ‘Woo!’ For the minutes following this clumsy incident, (at which many of you audience members were sniggering – oh yes, I heard you), it became rather difficult for us actors to stifle our giggles, as every time we would make eye contact we would replay it in our minds. Except for Shiv. Shiv was too busy thinking of a chair to share in our amusement.

They are pretty exciting though, those moments. They can be challenging, because you’re fighting so hard to get yourself and your fellow actors back on track, and it can seem like the more you try and fight the giggles, the more vengeful they will be when they creep back up into your throat. I guess what we’ve learnt is just to breathe, take a little moment to gather yourself and get back into the circumstances of the play, and importantly, not to beat yourself up for having a little giggle. After all, acting is supposed to be fun, otherwise why else would they call it a ‘play’?

And like in life, nothing on stage ever really goes exactly as you think it will. So if the virus finds it’s way into a performance you’re in, just relax and breathe, it happens to everybody! Or if you simply cannot relax, think of a chair I guess…


Auditions (feat. Spag Bol)

So I love spaghetti bolognese. Really, I do. For various reasons;

a.) My Mum used to make the most delicious S.B when I was younger, so it brings back the warm and fuzzy memories.

b.) I’m vegetarian, so though you might think, ‘why’s this crazy lady harping on about a dish she doesn’t even eat’, the truth is that there is this amazing fake mince meat thing called ‘Quorn’ (get onto it you veggo’s out there!) which makes the perfect substitute for mince meat, and allows me to share in the joys of this delicious delicacy.

Much to my dismay however, I’ve been reminded countless times that I can’t write a blog post on behalf of the Bell Shakespeare Players about spaghetti bolognese; shocking, I know. So I have decided to talk about something that is an equally important aspect of our actor lives – the art of auditioning – and compare it to the art of preparing this beloved dish.

If we’re being real here, the two art forms are not all that different. Think about it: everyone has their own method to preparing a spaghetti bolognese, or a ‘spag bog’ as Lucy affectionately calls it. Each individual chef and actor has their own unique combination of flavours and spices to give the dish and audition just the pizazz it needs. And like an audition, there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ spag bog (except for the one I cook, obviously.) There is no right or wrong recipe. And quite like when you serve your famous Spag Bog at a dinner party, some people will absolutely love it, and others will smile and say ‘mmm’ and rub their tummies – but really, it’s not exactly to their taste.

Ice cream

Amy wishes this was Spag Bol

 
 
That’s the name of the game when it comes to auditioning: you can only do the best job you can, and try to have fun while you’re doing it. Take it as an opportunity to meet some new people who are passionate about the same thing you are, and whether or not you are right for the role or not, also known as ‘if they liked you or not’, you gotta leave with your head held high, a smile on your face and the knowledge that you just had an opportunity to do what you love for 8 minutes in that room. That’s pretty cool.

 
 

Now like an S.B.O (Spaghetti Bolognese Opportunity, for those who don’t know), the context in which you approach the audition will always vary. Sometimes you are sent a script for an upcoming audition months in advance, and sometimes the night before. Quite like how you may be in preparation for a big dinner party and you begin getting your ingredients ready early in the morning (…okay, maybe you wouldn’t start months before, but just work with me here), versus a situation where your Auntie Linda has called you at 6pm saying that she’s in town and would love to pop over for a bite of your signature dish. And you know you gotta impress Auntie L. So you scramble together whatever you’ve got last minute, and you come up with the best possible result you can. And sometimes it’s even better that way.

My point is, you’ve got to work with whatever you have. If you have months to prepare for an audition, awesome! Take the opportunity to read the play a few times; research the things you think you should know about the play or character, such as historical or political context; get to know some of the playwright’s other work, and do some detailed investigation into the character that you’ll be reading. And if you get the audition notice the night before, also awesome! You’ll be working with some of your initial instincts of the scene/monologue, so your performance is more likely to be fresh as if you’re discovering it all for the first time, not overcooked like mushy pasta.

Here are a few things that I’ve learnt in my time as an actor that have less to do with Spaghetti Bolognese (I’m all out of S.B similes for the moment, but boy will they be back) and more to do with auditioning. Learn your lines back to front and inside out. The last thing you want to be doing in an audition is trying to remember what word comes next. And like the Spag Bol chefs (the Spag is back), different people have different ways of learning lines – you’ve got to figure out the way that works best for you. Like Shiv, I tend to enjoy learning my lines whilst up on my feet doing things. I play with the language, move around and see how it feels in my body, and try to keep experimenting with the sounds and the meaning so as not to get stuck saying the lines the same way every time. So try learning lines while you’re cleaning your room, playing soccer or even… wait for it…preparing a delicious pot of S.B.

Fro yo

Still hoping for an SBO

 

Nerves. Nerves can be a good thing! I don’t think I’ve ever met an actor who hasn’t gotten nervous for an audition at least once in his/her life; nerves too are part of the game. Nervousness is the first cousin of excitement, and why would you be doing this if you weren’t excited about the prospect of getting the role? It’s all just adrenalin, totally normal, and in the wise words of Jake, let nerves be a gentle hand on your back pushing you forward, rather than a restraining force holding you back.

 
 

Also good to remember, not only are the people on the audition panel expecting you to be nervous, but they’ve been in the same position as you! They are, believe it or not, also part of the human species, and whether it be in an audition or an interview situation, they too know what it’s like to stand in front of a bunch of strangers and put a little bit of your heart on the line, whilst trying not to reveal how much you’d really, really love the job. So take a deep breath before you go in, and remember that these fellow human beings are excited to see you do the thing you love. And if they don’t seem too excited, it’s probably because they’ve seen 40 people already today, are exhausted, and are in desperate need of a good-sized bowl of…well, you know the drill.

So I invite you to take pride in preparing for your audition/your Spaghetti Bolognese. Do it in a way that interests and excites you, and whether you get the part or not at least you can say that you’ve given the audition all you’ve got, and you’ve had fun along the way. Every audition/dinner party is an opportunity to learn and improve your craft, so be open to feedback (although when my brother tells me there’s too much basil in my sauce, he is wrong. He’s just wrong.), and allow yourself to keep evolving as an actor/chef. And if you find out that your dinner guests have started feeding their spaghetti to the dog when you’ve turned your back, I’d say it’s probably definitely time to alter your recipe.

x Amy

— Team C


Throwback Thursday: Actors At Work Rehearsals

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Team Ariel and Team Caliban are on the road for one more month before we head into rehearsals for Romeo And Juliet. So, this week I thought I’d give you a little insight into how some of us worked on the script for our Actors At Work shows before we meet each other to rehearse.

Many weeks before we step foot in the rehearsal room, we are sent the scripts that we are to spend the year performing. As you probably know, the shows we bring you are abridged versions of Shakespeare’s plays so you can get the major scenes and a sense of the whole story in under an hour. This is no easy feat for the writers! And for us actors, first we need to read Shakespeare’s original, full length play so we know the full story we’re telling.

As beautiful as Shakespeare’s writing is, it’s not always easy to understand, so it’s good to have a dictionary handy. One of the first things many actors do is say the lines in their own words – this way you can get a more personal feeling for what your character is saying.

Shakespeare often writes in a poetic rhythm called Iambic Pentameter, which can give you an idea of which words are more important, and it can help you learn your lines quicker. It’s often referred to as ‘verse’. In Shakespeare’s time actors only had a few weeks to rehearse, so they needed all t help they could get. Each line has ten syllables, with every second syllable being stressed. It sounds like a heartbeat, or a horse galloping:

Da-dum Da-dum Da-dum Da-dum Da-dum

The rhythm of a line from Macbeth would sound like this:

So foul and fair a day I have not seen

If a character is speaking in verse but the rhythm is broken or inconsistent, this can indicate that the character is feeling unsettled.

Actors are known to do some weird things in preparing for a role, and one of them is skipping. Often to learn the lines actors will skip while speaking the words out loud to get a feeling of the rhythm of the poetry. It looks silly, but it really works!

Sometimes if a character is speaking casually, or is of a lower status, they will speak without poetic rhythm, which is called ‘verse’. The Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are a perfect example of this.

To get to know you’re characters, its important to go through the script ask some simple questions.

  • What do I say about myself?
  • What do I say about other people?
  • What do others say about me?

You can also look at who they are in society. Are they a King, or Queen? A servant? A warrior? A faery? Look at the images they use in their language. Macbeth is often describing dark and horrible images, while the Lovers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream talk about beauty, longing and heartache. This gives you a great idea of what their priorities are.

All of this will feed your imagination and give you an idea of where to start. And then it’s off to rehearsal to bring it all to life!

Cam

— Team Ariel


Working with Shakespeare

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One week down of 4 for Team C in WA and what a week it’s been!

Firstly, we’d like to thank all the schools that have had us so far and send out a thank you in advance to all the school we’re going to visit – our job wouldn’t exist without you guys and it’s actually the best job in the world so it’d be a shame if it didn’t exist !

 
 
 

Now down to business, ahem, Shakespeare. The guy’s a genius – although the Players knew it before, we’re definitely convinced by it now. He would have turned 451 years old last week and the fact that he’s still impacting the lives of people (young and old) is pretty darn impressive!

So to kick off this blog post, here are some things that Team C has learnt about The Bard and his work.

Communicating with the audience

With 3 plays swimming in our heads it was a bit tricky as first to fully let the language take effect. Then, as we’ve settled into the shows and really started playing, this is one thing that I’m particularly having fun with.
Shakespeare writes his work to be spoken and played, to be directed at people and to be responded to. The way I approached it at first was to shy away from the language and try to ‘act’ everything which stifled me.
As the tour has progressed I’ve found that the more the audience is given access to the language, the more the play works on them. For example in an aside or a soliloquy to the audience, if you don’t really communicate with them – the next part of the plot (that the aside or soliloquy foreshadows) falls short. It is often as much of a dialogue with the audience as it is with the other person onstage.

Don’t judge your character

Within the first few seconds of meeting someone, we often quickly make up our minds about what we think of them – the same can be said for characters in a play or novel. It’s a rushed conclusion in real life as it for the characters in a play.
The best thing Shakespeare has done is to not judge his characters – he never paints them in a ‘good’ light or a ‘bad’ light – they just are what they are. Like people. They have their flaws and they have their redeeming qualities. Increasingly, I’ve realised through the tour that that’s what makes his work relevant and playable even so many years after his death. Even though they speak a different version of the English we speak today – they’re just people like us, trying to make meaning of their life and get along in the world in a way they think is best.shakespeare

There’s definitely still more to mention but I’ll keep it short(ish).

Big love,

Shiv
Team C


And so it begins…

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The Players are officially on the road! While Team A has been travelling north, Team C have spent the past few weeks touring Sydney schools in western Sydney then winding their way down south. It’s early days, but I reckon we’ve already picked up a few pearls of wisdom about touring.

1. When checking into a new place, each team member will have different priorities. Respect them all equally. In our case, Jake hits the gym, Amy explores the sofa/cushion situation, Shiv sources food and I get the bath running ASAP.

2. Make friends with the locals. From the lady who runs the candle store to the waiter serving your brekky to the guitarist providing mood music for your tense pool game, these guys know where to find the best coffee/ Vietnamese food/ snorkeling spots/ second-hand bookstores. Plus, they know all the town goss.

3. It is always, always a good idea to do karaoke at the pub.

4. Speaking of music, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Dire Straits are the ideal accompaniments to driving through the rolling green hills of Kiama.
Run the Jewels is good too.

5. Some schools will offer you tea, coffee and biscuits. This will make you happy. Then you’ll go to Jamberoo Public School and be presented with a carton of free-range eggs from their very own chooks, wrapped in fancy gold paper. This will make you happy times one thousand and cause an impromptu photo shoot of the team holding eggs in various ways. It will end when one of you puts one in your mouth and accidentally bites into it.

6. Car snacks are essential. The key is to provide an equal variety of savoury and sweet. In an emergency, an ice cream from the servo works well.

7. Getting momentarily lost can be a n ice thing, so don’t panic. If you’re lucky, the unexpected detour down Swamp Road will provide ample cow sightings and you’ll even have to stop to let a family of fluffy baby ducks and their mum cross the road. Cute!

8. Pack lightly. Ask yourself: do you really need to bring three heavy books? Maybe two pairs of shoes is enough, you’re not going to go running anyway, who are you kidding?

9. Do bring small things that can make your room feel cosy. A little candle and some fluffy socks can make a big difference.

10. Pinch yourself every day – especially on those sweaty three-show days where everyone’s a bit tired and you keep catching your fingers in the road cases. Never take it for granted how lucky you are to have such an incredible job.

— Lucy (Team C)