Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Co-founder gets hit by Emma Thompson!

Emma Thompson, one of the great Shakespearean actors of our time, hit me in the gut last week. As part of a visit to the University of Exeter, Emma gave the MFA students in Staging Shakespeare a wonderful two-hour workshop, during which we explored a couple of key scenes from Romeo & Juliet. As part of an exercise designed to unleash the monsters within us, she walked around hitting each of us in various places, inviting us to let that "hurt" develop into a monstrous, deformed character. As you can imagine, it was a memorable day.

But there are only a few insights from the workshop that I think will be of interest to the Grassroots lot. The first of which is a little gem of wisdom, stated simply enough by Ms. Thompson, "whenever you can use modern intonation while speaking Shakespeare's lines, do it!" In other words, communicate.

I'm going to write, now, as if I know everything. Please, read this with a grain of salt, and understand that it's only out of pure excitement that I tell you these things. Take the good stuff and chuck the rest.

When actors received their cue scripts, they typically had a couple of weeks in which to memorize their part. From this script, they had everything they needed to inform character choices, including rank and status, emotional developments, and relationships. They didn't agonize over a character's background or subtext or motives, they simply let the text guide them. If the text was especially grand, staccato, or full of exclamations, they knew that the scene demanded heightened emotion. If it was low, or silly, or meandering, or menacing, it informed their performance directly. So, when they all got together to rehearse (for what few hours that rehearsal may have been) their characters were probably as fully developed as they would ever be.

What does this mean for us grassrooters? To me it means: trust the text. If you're getting a sense of panic, a sense of superiority, a sense of bawdiness, or a sense of cruelty from a particular line or thought, commit to it 100%. And when you do, you'll be reflecting the text in the same way that Shakespeare's players did, and you'll be amazing.

Now back to Emma's notion of speaking with "modern intonation." Of course this assumes the actor understands what he or she is saying. If you find yourself getting lost in a speech or scene, check out sparknotes. They're a great resource when you need a quick, literal translation into plain, present-day English. But the key - what I'm really trying to say - is that simply understanding what you're saying isn't always enough! You also need to say it in such a way that your meaning is easy to follow. Try not to speak as if you're speaking Shakespeare. Whenever you can, try to say things as you would in real life.

Simple, I know. But it's not as easy as it sounds. Nor is it a better or worse way of doing Shakespeare than any other way. But for grassroots, it seems appropriate, because we are indeed trying to "bring Shakespeare back to the common man" as Mel Sundquist observed. So try it. Follow Emma Thompson's advice, and "speak the speech" with the same fluency, meaning, and intonation with which you typically speak English. As you do this, you'll notice that the text will really start to inform your character, and your performance will rock.

Of course, to do this in the grassroots workshops, you'll need to be nearly off-book. So please take some time to memorize! Your experience at the workshop, I guarantee, will be vastly more rewarding if you do.

Now, on to the second observation from Emma Thompson. Go for the bawdy, the surprising, and the fun. Follow your instincts, banish your inhibitions, and just play.

If original practices has one truly rewarding aspect, it is the absence of a director. Rather than letting this scare you, let it free you! Indulge in the sudden ideas, the impulses, and the feelings that grow from the text. Latch on to meaningful words and see what they can do for your body, your blocking, and your voice. Don't be afraid to fail big. The most memorable moments from our past workshops have been the big, outrageous choices, rooted in the text, and totally committed to by the actors.

Alright, let's review:

  1. Shakespeare should be understandable for everyone. Whenever you can use modern intonation, do it!
  2. Shakespeare should be vibrant. Whenever you can make brave choices on stage, do it! Stay rooted in the text, of course, and present with your scene partner/audience. But go big or go home.

Those are the two main lessons I got from Emma, that I felt could benefit the Grassroots Shakespeare Company. Her workshop was great, and she was remarkably gracious and genuine. Truly a delight!

Spread the word.
Spread the love.
Spread the grassroots.

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