Don't Fear Shakespeare
I cannot tell you the number of experienced actors I have spoken with who, when I suggest they audition for St Pete Shakes, tell me how fearful they are of approaching the Bard.
It still surprises me when I hear it.
"Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you..." Shakespeare provides everything the actor needs in the language of his texts. The actor need only know how to understand that text. I realize that getting to the understanding is the challenge for many actors. There are elements of language, especially the heightened language of Shakespeare's poetry that seem quite foreign to contemporary actors. There are breathing techniques and physical awareness that must be considered. There is also what feels like an overwhelming amount of history and historical context that must be understood to fully understand Shakespeare. But to accept the challenge and to succeed with Shakespeare provides untold lessons that can be applied to any acting challenge that an actor might face.
I want to share, through this blog, my experiences in performing Shakespeare, but also to discuss the journey I am currently on in creating opportunities for actors and audiences to experience Shakespeare performed well. The focus always should first and foremost be on the language. We should hear Shakespeare first. Shakespeare has remained a vital component of the Western literary canon and popular culture for over 400 years. Why? Because his language remains deeply imbedded in our cultural imagination. When young people hear Romeo and Juliet for the first time and taken with the tragic love story, it is the language that engages them, that opens new meaning to emotions with which they find themselves wrestling.
I have heard all too often of local Shakespeare productions that began with the director telling the actors "Don't worry about the scansion. We are not going to concern ourselves with iambic pentameter." I have come to believe that these are instances in which the director is expressing that they have no confidence in the actors' ability to learn or do or understand the scansion work. Yet this is the (not so) secret to working with Shakespeare's texts. This is a skill that must come outside and prior to the rehearsal process.
"O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow to tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, split the ears of the groundlings, (for the most part) are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise."
As the Producing Artistic Director of St Petersburg Shakespeare Festival, I have set a goal of creating a training program for actors to work on their Shakespeare Skills. In turn I hope that our actors will take that knowledge into their professional and community theater experiences and, when given the opportunity, will not just "do" Shakespeare but will perform Shakespeare well.