How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bard

With pomp, with triumph, with revelling.

Even though we’re not 100% sure, April 23, is the day we tend to recognize as William Shakespeare’s birthday. And this one is a big one.  The big 4-5-0.  I can only hope 450 years after my birth my works will be half as popular as Will’s is.

As clichéd as an actor/playwright loving Shakespeare is, I do.  And I don’t care that it is clichéd, because it’s also genuine.  And it also didn’t happen overnight.  I wasn’t huge on him during my formative school years.  We’re not taught true Shakespeare when we’re in high school (and sometimes even in college), because there’s not a lot of people who can do justice to the Bard.  So through my high school career, I read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and King Lear.  In college, I studied Othello.  I also studied, somewhat independently, but in a collegiate environment The Merchant of Venice, and Titus Andronicus.  There is still a lot of Shakespeare I haven’t read, but last year I made a goal to read it all (see Year of the Bard).  I haven’t gotten as far along in that list as I’d like, but I shall continue, and blog my discoveries.

How did I shift from Shakespeare just being some guy we learned about in school to someone I aspire after?  It’s hard to know exactly when it happened, but as I learned more about him, and how he wrote, and how we should (as actors) interpret sentences, grammar, etc., his brilliance shone through.  He’s affected me not only as an actor, but also as a writer.

Shakespeare as an Actor

Shakespeare didn’t have a lot of time between writing and acting.  There was no opportunity to “workshop” a play.  He wrote, they performed.  Sometimes within hours.  So how does one make sure all the nuances of the writer are communicated to the actor?   In the words of course.  We don’t have to dig deep to see what needs to be done directionally if we as actors really examine the words.  Don’t just act blankly, waiting for the director to mould you, but let the words form your character and the director work with that.  Not only is it easier on the director, but you can get a much richer and deeper performance.   I’ve said it before: acting is not just showing up and saying lines.  There’s work.  And it’s worth it.

Shakespeare as a Writer

My writing style has changed since learning about Shakespeare’s writing.  Punctuation means so much more to me.  I tell my kids in P.A.C.K (Performing Arts Classes for Kids) that when they get a script/monologue, to circle any and all punctuation.  The reason for this is two-fold.  I like using drama to teach other skills (for my younger kids, their reading comprehension always grows in the three month period).  I also want them to be aware of when a sentence ends, when something shifts mid-sentence, and when to be excited.  It’s easier for some people than others, and I invariably have some who just don’t know what to do when they see an exclamation mark.  I have my theories (and overuse/misuse is one of them), but I want my kids know what to do when they see a specific punctuation mark.  So writers who don’t have the opportunity to direct your work, how do you make sure your nuances are seen?  I believe a lot of it is in punctuation and sentence structure.  When I write, I don’t write like I would write an essay.  I write the way people talk, so it’s not stiff, so it’s lifelike, so it’s relatable.

Shakespeare as Human

Now I know this is going to sound hokey, but I allow myself to feel, to experience things more deeply, and Shakespeare is behind that.  He’s behind me becoming a better actor, and if I’m not afraid to feel all these emotions on stage in front of a million people (misnomer, more like 70 if I’m lucky), then I shouldn’t be afraid to feel these emotions in front of people I know and trust.

Shakespeare isn’t for everyone.  Someone may get the same results from reading a George R.R. Martin book.  That’s fine with me.  I certainly don’t mean to tell someone they’re not doing things write because they don’t like Shakespeare.  I will ask all who don’t like Shakespeare if it’s because they were forced to read in high school/college?  As we all know, it’s hard (but not impossible) to enjoy something forced on us in order to learn.   Shakespeare is more than a bunch of confusing lines, and words we don’t say anymore, he’s deeper, he’s fuller, and he’s wiser than we give him credit for.

To me, fair friend, you can never be old,

For as you were when first your eye I eye’d,

Such seems your beauty still.

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Year of the Bard: The Comedy of Errors

Until I know this sure uncertainty, I’ll entertain the offered fallacy – Shakespeare

The Comedy of Errors was next on my Year of the Bard read list, and despite it being the shortest of his works, I had a hard time sticking to it.  From a reader’s point of view, it is very difficult to keep separate in the mind Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, not to mention their respective twin slaves, both named Dromio.  Now, don’t get me wrong, this type of humour is not lost on me generally.  This is part of the reason I loved Frasier so much – they did this type of comedy quite well.  It just reiterated that sometimes plays are meant to be seen and not read.  I’m quite enjoying this journey through Shakespeare, but until this play, I was content to see it play out in my mind’s eye.  I couldn’t manage it with this short piece.

It’s an important reminder that we don’t get the full picture just from reading a play.  Plays are meant to be seen: the characters are meant to come alive in front of you – living breathing pieces of literature for you to journey with.  You shouldn’t make rash judgements based on scripts alone – for the script is a one-dimensional piece of the three-dimensional world.  So much more is added by the actors, the director, the set, the props, and even the audience.  Directors are wonderful beings who can see the three-dimensional world in the one-dimensional script, and who can guide and shape actors to what they believe the writer’s vision to be.  We like to think actors are great and talented, and the show wouldn’t be the same without them, and that is true in part.  But we must never forget they are being guided by the director, who has patience and foresight to shape what the audience eventually sees.  As a writer who often gets to not only direct my own work, but also act in it, I get special insight not everyone does.  I know exactly what I meant when I wrote what I did.  I know the nuances behind it.  Sometimes I leave nuances alone, for the actor to discover as they develop their character, but the nuance is always there, waiting to be discovered, or perhaps molded in a different way.  Acting is great, and wonderful and is a passion of mine, but if it weren’t for words, all  we’re doing is mime.  Never forget the importance of what words are being said.  If it was important enough for the writer to put in his/her play, it’s important it get conveyed to the audience.

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