Thursday, September 20, 2007

"Thinking Shakespeare"

Acting is strange. When you do it wrong, you're boring and phony; when you do it right, you're exciting and real. Being "real" means convincing the audience that you're engaging in purposeful thought -- that you seem to be actively trying to figure things out, right there on stage, in real time. If the audience feels that -- since you're read the script and toiled through countless rehearsals -- you already know what's going to happen, you'll seem contrived. If you're Hamlet, you can't know whether to be or not to be; you have to figure it out as you speak. Also, you must seem to be carrying on real conversation: really listening and responding -- even though, having memorized the lines, you know what everyone is going to say.

You screw this up by overcomplicating. You worry about what to do with your hands rather than what your character is trying to achieve. Or you worry about trying to squeeze out tears, because you're sure the audience will think you're a good actor if you can cry on cue. You're enmeshed in your ego, rather than simply trying to achieve some simple action, like talking or listening.

You screw things up by failing to prepare. You don't learn your lines well enough, so they never seem natural. Sometimes this is due to laziness. Other times, it's ego again. You're scared that you'll fail on stage, and every time you pick up your script for a memorization session, you have to think about your impending failure. That's too painful, so you watch television instead. And in the end, you fail, because you didn't pick up your script.

You succeed because you Keep It Simple, Stupid. You memorize your lines, and you play your simple actions. Then you bow and go home. Really, that's all there is to it. You figure out What Your Character Wants and you try to get it, using the playwrights words (which you've thoroughly memorized). But just sticking to this simple plan is incredibly hard. Actors need constant help to do so. Some need to be prodded to memorize their lines; others need to be kicked in the ass and told to get over themselves, their fears, their inhibitions, etc. What does your character want? What should he do to get what he wants. Do that! ONLY do that.

Even those who are committed to the simple plan need continual reminders to stick to it. It's so easy to veer off course. Which is why it's always useful to read clear, to-the-point acting books. They're all the same. They all tell you to figure out what your character wants and then work to get it. But the good ones find a new way of telling you this. Even when you know these books messages before reading them, you read them and say, "Yes! Of course. That's what I should be doing!" And you're grateful to the author for setting you back on The One True Path.

The best acting book I've read in years is "Thinking Shakespeare", by Barry Edelstein. It delves into every nook and cranny of Shakespearean acting. And we Shakespeareans need even more prodding than usual, because added to our egos and our laziness, we have reverence to contend with. Shakespeare is such a lofty figure! How can we possibly measure up? By Keeping It Simple, Stupid. By figuring out what our characters want and working to achieve those goals on stage. That's Edelstein's message. It's been many other people's message, too. But Edelstein tells it well -- and he shapes it specifically to the needs of the Shakespearean actor. But "Thinking Shakespeare" should be read by all actors. For if you can act Shakespeare, you can surely act Neil Simon. The Simonean uses many of the same tools as the Shakespearean, and Edelstein will teach both how to wield those tools. (It's the "figuring out what your character wants" part that particularly hard with Shakespeare. But if you know how to look for them, you'll find clues in the words. Most of Edelstein's book explains how to interpret the words to find these clues.)

"Thinking Shakespeare" is a splendid book for directors, too. It will teach them -- or remind them -- how to analyze a Shakespeare script. It will also help them work with actors. And "Thinking Shakespeare" will thrill the literary scholar or Shakespeare fan. If you've spent all your time viewing Shakespeare through the lens of academia, this book will open you up to a whole new way of reading (not just Shakespeare, but all plays). You'll see plays as conflicts that arise when multiple agents -- the different characters -- all try to achieve their ends at once, inevitably clashing with each other to do so. And you'll see how each character uses facets of Shakespeare's language to achieve his particular ends. Since I started running Shakespeare through the mechanics of the theatre, I've enjoyed reading the plays more than ever. You will too.

Throughout the book, Edelstein repeated asks the correct question (the only question): why is this character using these words now? He answers that question in dozens of ways, including metrical analysis, focusing on verbs, chewing over line endings, etc. But none of this is done for the sake of scholarship; it's done to answer the question "why is this character using these words now?" (So that actors can choose an appropriate action when speaking the words.) For instance, Edelstein urges readers to consider Richard II's change from heightened to simple language in his "Let's talk of graves, of worms, or epitaphs" speech. Near the start, Richard's words are lofty and "poetic," such as when he says to, "Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes / Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth." But by the end of the speech, his words are simple monosyllables ("I live with bread, like you; feel want, / Taste grief, need friends..."). Why? Why the change from high to low? What does this tell us about what Richard wants? What does it tell us about why he's using these words now? Actors need to understand what such changes mean and know how to use them as tools to aid their craft.

Using simple, non-jargony prose, Edelstein delves into meter, line endings, formal vs. informal address, shared lines, names, rhyme, irony, wit, and more. He's exhaustive and definitive. I dare you to come up with ten topics (applicable to the Shakespearean actor) that Edelstein has forgotten to cover. He's written THE book that every actor and director should skim through (having once read thoroughly) before starting work on a play.

I do have a few quibbles: in his early section on actions, Edelstein suggests that a strong one is "to wonder" (as in "to wonder about a question or problem"). I disagree. An action helps an actor DO something -- as opposed to trying to play some emotional state. For instance, an actor should never try to "be sexy." Instead, he should try "to seduce." To seduce is a playable action. So is "to rebuke," "to compliment," "to mock," etc. These are all things you can try to DO while speaking the playwrights lines. The action that you're playing will necessarily color the way you speak the lines. If I'm saying "you're SO beautiful," I'm going to say it very differently if my action is "to mock" as opposed to "to flatter."

"To wonder," Edelstein's example of a good action, seems more like a state to me. Granted, it's not quite the same as "happy," "sexy" or "pissed off." It makes no sense to say "to happy," whereas "to wonder" is a perfectly fine infinitive. But to me, it's not playable. What exactly do you DO when you wonder? If I'm trying "to seduce," there are various tactics I can employ. I can gaze into your eyes; I can subtly lick my lips; I can speak softly; etc. But what tactics do I employ "to wonder"? Wondering isn't something I do on purpose; it's something that HAPPENS to me when I get curious or confused. (When a scientist is curious, he doesn't take action by wondering; he studies, researches, experiments... When he's lying alone at night, he may wonder, but that doesn't make wondering a playable action. When Hamlet asks "To be or not to be?" he doesn't wonder, he wrestles, searches, beats his head against a problem....) As a director, I'd never tell an actor "to wonder." I'd worry that, by doing so, I'd throw him into trying to play a state -- to BE something (quizzical?) rather than to DO something.

My second quibble is something of a soapbox issue for me: I'm continually turned off, when I see productions of Shakespeare plays, by actors who illustrate their speeches with hand gestures. For instance, when saying "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below," the actor playing Hamlet might flap his arms like a bird's wings while saying "fly up" and point to the ground while saying "below." I suspect actors do this -- and I see them do it ALL the time -- for a couple of reasons; (a) they think it's amusing; and (b) they think it will help the audience understand the difficult, Shakespearean language.

I object to it because it's (a) redundant and (b) condescending. I can understand "fly up" without gestures, thank you very much. And so can my audience. When I direct Shakespeare plays, I forbid all such gestures. I DO worry that the language might be hard for the audience, but I deal with that by making sure the actors know what they're saying, know why they're saying it, say it clearly, and say it while playing an action. Whenever I stick to this plan, the audience always seems to be able to follow the play -- with no need for pantomimed gestures.

But I mostly hate these gestures because they're phony. I don't believe that the characters would really make them if they were truly 100% focused on trying to achieve their actions. I believe they make them because they're 80% focused on their actions and 20% focussed on trying to amuse (or explain things to) the audience. Since I'm aware of this, I smell fakery. I'm not saying that people never gesture in real life. Of course they do. But they don't tend to gesture in such a self-conscious, theatrical way.

I mostly see these gestures when an actor says something lewd. For instance, when Mercutio says, "love is like a great natural, that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole," you can bet that the actor will thrust his hips back and forth to MAKE SURE THAT WE GET IT. Maybe we don't get it (though I think we do, if the actor speaks the line clearly while playing a strong action), but I'd rather miss the sense of a line or two than be constantly distracted by visual Cliff Notes.

I often fear that actors (and directors) are terrified that without these gestures (and without juggling, musical numbers, wacky costumes, etc.), audiences will be bored. Too much Shakespeare! The audience needs a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down! But if you assume that Shakespeare is Caster Oil -- or if you assume your audience thinks it is -- you've lost the battle. Produce Shakespeare because you love Shakespeare, and assume your audience loves it too. Of course, some don't love it, and that's too bad. But you're not going to convert them into Bardoholics by making lewd gestures. You may -- you probably will -- entertain them. They'll go home thinking, "Boy, that actor was funny when he mimed jacking off!" But they won't go home loving "Romeo and Juliet."

I'll be off my soapbox in a minute. But I'm standing on it now, because Edelstein (correctly) points out that if a line seems dirty in Shakespeare, it probably is. In other words, Shakespeare intended it to be dirty, and his original audience would have understood it as dirty. Edelstein does NOT suggest making lewd gestures to illustrate with lewd lines, but he does immediately follow his discussion about dirty lines with a chapter on gesture and movement. So while he may not connect the dots, his readers might. They might feel that an expert on "Thinking Shakespeare" has given them permission to illustrate "the beast with two backs." Maybe he has. Maybe Edelstein likes such gestures. As a Shakespearean director and theatre-goer, I'm sure he's seen them often enough. But while he rails against other practices that make Shakespeare seem phony -- Shatner-like inflection and veddy veddy pretentious, British-sounding dialects -- he doesn't speak out against the sort of gestures that I wish had been left behind in the 18th Century, where they belong. Well, maybe Edelstein's not on this soapbox with me.

Finally, I fault the book for the very reason it will surely appeal to many others: though Edelstein claims to be writing for all sorts of people -- laymen and experienced thespians alike -- his target audience is one that quakes in its boots when faced with "King Lear" or "MacBeth." So his prose is very Shakespeare-for-Dummies-esque. "Don't worry. The Shakespeare Police won't arrest you." That sort of thing. I'm sure this hand-holding aids many people, and it probably helps book sales, but it's a bit grating if you're not scared of Shakespeare. It's a bit superfluous if you want "Just the facts, ma'am."

Still, these are minor concerns based on personal quirks. "Thinking Shakespeare" is a fantastic resource. The next time an actor friend has a birthday, I know exactly what I'm going to get him. The next time I direct a Shakespeare play, I'm buying copies for everyone in the cast.

1 comment:

Taylor Roice said...

"The audience needs a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down! But if you assume that Shakespeare is Caster Oil -- or if you assume your audience thinks it is -- you've lost the battle. Produce Shakespeare because you love Shakespeare, and assume your audience loves it too."

Excellent point. Shakespearean material is good enough to stand on its own merit without gimmicks, tricks, or nonverbal explanations. Even the layman feels uneasy when he's forced to watch a stripped-down, oversimplified, or gimmicky play. When the material is well-understood by the actors and is presented in a heartfelt way, the entire production gains a verisimilitude that draws all sorts of clientele.