Monday, October 16, 2006

The end. Stop.

Several years ago, when I was directing "The Winter's Tale," I noticed one of the actors was speaking strangely. His first speech in the play began as follows:

Nine changes of the wat'ry-star hath been
The shepherd's note since we have left our throne
Without a burthen: time as long again
Would be filled up, my brother, with our Thanks...

The character is Polixenes, the king of Bohemia, and he's speaking to his friend Leontes, the King of Sicilia. Polixenes has been staying in Sicilia for nine months (nice changes of the wat'ry-star -- the moon), and now he needs to get back to his own kingdom. Translated into rough, modern-day English, the passage means, "According to the shepherd's calculations (shepherds, being outdoorsmen, watch the sky), it's been nine months since I've left my peaceful kingdom. And it would take me another nine months to thank you, Leontes, for your hospitality."

In early rehearsals, the actor playing Polixenes (I'll call him Dave) was punctuating the speech like this:

Nine changes of the wat'ry-star hath been. [Period.]
The shepherd's note since we have left our throne. [Period.]
Without a burthen: time as long again. [Period.]
Would be filled up, my brother, with our Thanks. [Period.]

Nine changes of the wat're-star hath been? Hath been what? The shepherd's note since we have left our throne? The shepherds note what? (Anyway, it's shepherd's not shepherds, so that's like saying "the fireman's hose", which is an acceptable phrase, but not a complete sentence.

Other actors started pulling me aside. "He's pausing at the end of each line," they told me, worrying that I hadn't noticed. I didn't say anything to him for a few days. I remembered, back when I first started reading poetry, that I used to do the same thing. Then my fifth-grade teacher explained that the end of a poetic line isn't the same as the end of a sentence, and that I should keep reading until I got to a period. I though maybe Dave didn't know this basic rule, and I wasn't sure how to tell him about it without embarrassing him. I also thought it was possible that he was just getting used to the verse, and that after a few rehearsals, the problem might solve itself.

It didn't. After a few more days, I pulled him aside and said, "Dave, do you know you're stopping at then end of every line?"

He said, "Oh yes. I'm doing it on purpose."

I was stunned. Why would anyone do that on purpose?

He explained: "The punctuation in the script isn't Shakespeare's. It was added by later editors. We don't know what sort of punctuation Shakespeare intended, but we do know where his lines end. So that's the best punctuation guide we have."

I tried to reason with him that speaking this way didn't make sense, but he made it clear that he was going to do it his way or he'd quit. I should have let him quit. I should have fired him. Our styles were incompatible. But this was one of my first plays in New York, and I felt lucky to have the actors that I had. Other than this (huge) problem, he was a good actor. I sort of went into denial about things and just hoped the problem would go away. Naturally it didn't, and Dave became hated by the rest of the cast. I learned a valuable lesson about not letting problems fester.

"End-stopping" has now become an in joke in my company. Each time we do a new play, the actors who have been with the company for a while tell the new actors the story of Dave and his quirky punctuation. And the new actors always groan and many of them say, "I worked with someone who did that. It's horrible!" I've learned that end-stopping is an actual "school of thought", made popular by Sir Peter Hall, one of the great Shakespearian directors. I used to admire Hall, but when I heard he had started this silly ritual, I wrote him off as a dangerous loon.

Recently though, I read Ron Rosenbaum's book, "The Shakespeare Wars," a terrific exploration of contemporary Shakespeare scholarship. It's a thought-provoking, delightful and -- sometimes -- aggravating book, and I will post about it later. But what interests me now is a chapter about Peter Hall. Rosenbaum interviews Hall and asks him about end stopping. I never thought this would happen, but having read this chapter, I have changed my mind about the issue. I've gone from viewing it as an insane theory to realizing it's an incredibly useful tool -- one that I'll definitely incorporate into rehearsals next time I direct a Shakespeare play.

I should clarify here that I still think Dave was misguided. He wasn't using Hall's version of end stopping. He was using his own perverted version. Where did he learn it? Somebody out there -- some bad teacher (or some group of bad teachers) -- is teaching a corrupted version of Hall's idea, and this bad version is getting around. (Hence all the stories from actors about horrible end stoppers that they've worked with.)

As Rosenbaum explains, Hall learned end-stopping from his mentor, William Poel. Poel, who died in 1934, believed that Shakespeare worked best on a bare stage (as it was originally performed). This interested me, because my company performs on a bare stage. In general, Poel advocated the sort of production that I love -- minimalist in design and based around close, careful study of the text. And, of course, the verse endings are a major part of the text. You can see them clearly on the page, but they're generally lost in performance. To Hall, this is like playing a song on the piano without keeping to its tempo. Grudgingly, I had to admit that there's something to this. Shakespeare's writing -- most of it, anyway -- is verse, not prose. Is Hall wrong to want to preserve this vital feature on stage?

But Hall doesn't believe that the end of the line necessarily marks the end of a sentence. As he explains to Rosenbaum, it's not so much a pause as "a tiny sense break (not a stop)."

All well and good, but how should I translate that into a rehearsal technique? I can't just say to the actors, "Make sure you take a tiny sense break at the end of each line." Actors craft their performances around psychology. They think of their characters as people pursuing some goal -- to take over the kingdom, to have sex with the lady, to steal the money. How would pausing at the end of a line help them achieve these goals? One actress suggested to me that then end of the line is where she should take a breath. Maybe, but that's an awfully technical approach, and one that isn't remotely tied to psychology. I can't tie everything to psychology (sometimes I just have to tell actors to speak louder), but I wouldn't want to force a non-psychological rule on something as basic -- and as psychologically-meaningful-- as punctuation.

But then, reading further in the chapter, I encountered Barry Edelstein. Edelstein is the artistic director of Classic Stage Company, and he's discovered a way to make Hall's theory playable. (Hall surely has too, but Rosembaum doesn't explain Hall's rehearsal techniques). Rosembaum says that, to Edelstein, the pause at the end of the line is "the moment that the actor, as the character, takes to think up the next line." This is brilliant, because it has nothing to do with punctuation. In real life, we often have to pause and think mid-sentence: for instance "Back in the seventies, when I was living in ... Indiana..." (This technique is best when used subtly. If pushed over-the-top, you get William Shatner.)

A huge problem in rehearsal is to get actors to sound like they're saying something for the first time. Their characters are supposed to be thinking on-the-fly, but of course the actors, having (hopefully) memorized their lines, know everything they're going to say. If they're not careful, their performance will sound more like a recital than a conversation. What I love about Edelstein's idea is that it gives actors a rule to follow -- a place to insert the coming-up-with-a-new-thought or the finding-the-right-word (an activity heavily rooted in psychology). It's not a haphazard, arbitrary rule; it's connected to the verse!

Once you learn this technique, it's fun to try it out with random bits of Shakespeare. For instance, here's a snipped from "King Lear" (Lear is banishing Kent):
Hear me, on they allegiance hear me!
Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow,
Which we durst never yet and with strayed pride
To come between our sentence and our power,
Which nor our nature nor our place can bear,
Our potency made good, take thy reward:
Four days we do allot thee for provision
To shield thee from diseases of the world,
And on the fifth to turn thy hated back
Upon our kingdom. If on the tenth day following
Thy banished trunk be found in our dominions,
The moment is thy death...
Using Edelstein's technique, we -- as Lear -- mean to say, "Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow, and with strayed pride to come between our sentence and our power," but, after the word vow, a parenthetical thought occurs to us: we've never broken our vow before! So the speech becomes...

Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow, (thought pops into our head)
Which we durst never yet (back on track) and with strayed pride
To come between our sentence and our power,

Maybe because we're struck a little off balance by the parenthetical thought, we have a little trouble regaining our footing when we try to return to our main point:
Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow, (thought pops into our head)
Which we durst never yet (back on track) and with strayed pride (what?)
(Oh yeah!) To come between our sentence and our power,
For years, I've called this type of thought-process a "What? Oh yeah!" moment. It's very powerful on stage, when an actor plays it well, because -- as an audience member -- you momentarily fear the character is losing control, but then when he snaps back ("Oh yeah!") you're impressed with his newfound confidence: the type of confidence we all feel when we search for the perfect word and it pops into our head.

We then intend to say, "Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow ... and ... to come between our sentence and our power, our potency made good, take thy reward!" But, again, halfway through the thought, a "sub-thought" intrudes: "Which nor our nature nor our place can bear" (this is an insult that I can't pass over as either a man or a monarch).
Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow, (thought pops into our head)
Which we durst never yet (back on track) and with strayed pride (what?)
(Oh yeah!) To come between our sentence and our power, (and this makes me so MAD!)
Which nor our nature nor our place can bear, (Oops. Getting back on track...)
Our potency made good, take thy reward:
Moving forward, we then mean to say, "Four days we do allot thee for provision, and on the fifth to turn thy hated back upon our kingdom," but a sub-thought, a mini refinement of our main point, occurs to us after the word "provision."

Four days we do allot thee for provision (You're wondering why I'm granting you four days?)
To shield thee from diseases of the world, (Got it? Okay. Going on...)
And on the fifth to turn thy hated back
Upon our kingdom.
Again, I think the min-thought destabilized us, and we came back a bit shaky but then regained our footing:

And on the fifth to turn thy hated back (um... turn thy back on what?)
(Oh, yeah!) Upon our kingdom.

Finally, we intend to tell Kent what will happen to us if he disobeys: "If on the tenth day following thy ... thy... thy... thy what? What's a good insult?"

If on the tenth day following (What should I call your body?)
(Oh yeah!) Thy banished trunk be found in our dominions,
The moment is thy death...

This approach, while fun, can quickly dissolve into parody. So I would never tell an actor to pause for each one of these new thoughts. Often we have new thoughts without (noticeably) pausing. So forget the pause, and instead return to Hall's "tiny sense break." It's up to an actor how the sense break manifests itself. It could just be in his head. But if an actor does think of his speech this way, the speech will necessarily become a living mental process -- which is the most exciting thing about watching Shakespeare done well: seeing characters wrestle with their own thoughts, right here, right now, on stage, in front of you. (Hamlet trying to decide whether to be or not to be.) And if the audience follows the thought process, and if the thought-process follows the verse lines, the audience will also be hearing the music of the verse.

I am not dogmatic about this approach. There are times when it should be avoided -- when the thought process will be more dynamic if the actor plows right through the line-break. But it's a great tool. It's worth going through the play, line-by-line, and trying it out on each line ending, seeing what happens.

Full stop.


Gowan Campbell said...

Very interesting! I'm looking forward to putting this in practice. I often have trouble figuring out a good reading, and this might be a helpful guide. Won't try it with Chekhov, of course.

Marcus said...

I think you should do a modified form of it with Chekhov. Chekhov doesn't have line endings, of course, but you still have to find those places where your character comes up with new thoughts. Since you're not bound by a verse structure, you have more leeway as to where these thoughts can come (more leeway isn't always a good thing -- it may actually be more difficult with Chekhov, since there's no obvious structure to guide you).

One general principle worth extrapolating from the Hall approach is that punctuation shouldn't be the only guide to the thought process. That's would only be true if you were reciting something. When we converse in real life, we're winging it, and we can't always think ahead to the period at the end of the sentence we're speaking. So our characters shouldn't either.

It's vital that these mental "ticks" not be gratuitous. A bunch of random pauses, ums and uhs (thrown in to make the speech sound more natural) won't work. They need to be linked to a causal event: your character forgetting what he was going to say; your character having trouble coming up with the word for something; your character starting down one conversational path, changing his mind, and then going another direction. (Mamet and Pinter actually insert this stuff into their writing.)

It's also important that you play the "clicking back on track" or the "Yes! That's the word I was looking for!" moment. The moment when your character recovers from a parenthetical phrase and gets back to his main point.

Some actors won't have to pre-plan any of this. In a naturalistic play, like one of Chekhov's -- they'll be able to improv these mental side-tracks and hiccups. Others will have to start schematically, making notes in their scripts, and then rehearse long enough for the effects to become -- seemingly -- natural.

Avoid pauses when possible. They should be the last resort when playing these moments. The danger is that the scene will become too "pausey" and that it will start to seem unrealistic -- since people don't constantly pause in real life. (One cool effect is a sort of jamming: the opposite a pause, in which you don't quite finish what you're saying -- or the breath that usually comes after what you're saying -- because a new thought hits you, a thought so exciting that it trumps your interest in finishing your last thought. Example: I'm hungry. "I want a pizz -- no, a SUNDAY!" I've cut off the end of the word pizza here, but it's not necessary to cut off a word. If the real sentence was "I want a pizza," then we would generally take a breath after it: I want a pizza. [breath.] No, a sunday." You can create the jamming by interrupting the breath and ramming the second sentence right up against the end of the first.)

It's not important that you make the audience follow every nuance of your mental process. In fact, if they are following it, it's probably a sign that you're playing things too broadly, too pausy, too Shatner. What's more important is that they get a sense that there's life going on inside your head. And this will happen if you think through all the "new thoughts" as you're speaking. No need to actually play them with pauses. If you think them, some of them will inevitably show themselves in your external behaviour.