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Sunday in the Park with Shakespeare

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There's just something about being outside in the summer — a sense of freedom, of expansiveness, of possibility that simply doesn't exist the rest of the year when life is mostly lived behind walls. For an actor, that sense of largeness and of fun is often rooted in doing outdoor theatre. And not just any kind of theatre, mind you. We're talking classic theatre — Chekhov, Ibsen, and, most famously, the Bard himself.

It's a pretty long drive from Oklahoma City to the nearest seaside resort, but even cities like this, lacking in coastal access and the sting of salty air, have the one thing necessary for indulging in one of the season's most popular pastimes: a park. Seems like all it takes is an open stretch of ground and a group of classically trained actors and presto! Thou hast instant Shakespeare in the Park. The granddaddy of them all, of course, takes place in New York's Central Park, sprung from the Shakespeare workshop founded by legendary theatrical impresario Joseph Papp in 1954 in New York's Lower East Side. It wasn't long before other cities began to follow Papp's example, and now outdoor Shakespeare festivals can be found all across the country, in such diverse locations as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Miami, Nashville, Oklahoma City, Seattle, Kansas City and Ashland.

So what is it that makes Shakespeare seem more accessible in the summer? Actress Jeanie Hackett, co-artistic director of LA's classical theatre ensemble, The Antaeus Company, believes that, "it's a sense of party and of fun. It's the kind of life that is in Shakespeare, which is huge. It just goes great in the summertime. I think people are a little afraid of sitting in a theater with Shakespeare. I think they like the idea of going to an open arena, to be outdoors, under the stars, and watching these plays performed. I'm excited about Shakespeare in any season. But to put on his plays in the summer is a festive thing."

Behind the fun and festivities, though, lies a lot of hard work. Many audiences have a difficult time understanding the flowery language, the iambic pentameter rhythm, and the centuries old customs that are prevalent in Shakespeare's shows. Add to that an actor and/or director who doesn't have the necessary training to convey this ancient style of storytelling to a modern audience, and you end up not only with an unhappy audience, but one that may get turned off from Shakespeare, and theatre, altogether. And considering the number of Shakespearean plays, and other classic works, that are translated into film or are depicted, either in whole or in part, on television, the result is diminished audiences for those mediums as well when those projects are produced with insufficiently trained actors.

What's often lost in poorly presented Shakespeare is not just comprehension of language and story, but recognition of the universality of his themes and situations. Even now, in 2006, murderous scenes like those in Romeo and Juliet are played out daily in deadly urban gang wars. The course of true love runs as rocky in current times as it does in A Midsummer Night's Dream. And the kind of personal and political treachery and deceit found in Hamlet and Macbeth still makes headlines in today's world.

"The whole range of human possibility, in any manifestation, is present in Shakespeare," asserts Hackett. "Everything. Anything you can think of has a correspondence in a Shakespeare play. I think that all theater is about is a group of people coming together to talk about what really matters, and putting their day-to-day, mundane, trivial concerns aside for two hours. The audience and the actors, both. The communication passes back and forth. As actors, it is our job to say, 'Hey, when you come here, we're going to lift you above the everyday ordinary concerns to something that's more important.' And nobody does that better than Shakespeare. The timelessness of his plays, and the resonance of what Shakespeare's writing is about in terms of plot, theme, and language make an event for us — when it's done well, of course. When it's done badly, forget it."

In order to expertly perform such works, an actor needs to do more than just brush up on his Shakespeare. An actor needs in-depth classical training. Such training typically includes understanding the structure of the language, text analysis, scansion, voice work, and various forms of bodywork (mime, fencing, etc.) And if you think such a background only serves the actor devoted to classic theatre, well, think again.

Says Hackett, "If you look at who gets nominated for Oscars, it's often Australians and Brits who've had classical training. Actors with classical training have a set of skills that are not always used by the television and film industry, but it is what separates the men from the boys. If you have the skills for Shakespeare you can do anything with language. If you have the skills for Chekhov, you can do anything with behavior. And so consequently, the bar is set higher, your talent is stretched to reach the demands of these huge authors, and when you settle back down to television and film, then it's just a piece of cake."

Hackett is a busy actress whose recent television credits include Criminal Minds, Charmed, The West Wing, NYPD Blue and Judging Amy. She has played a wide range of Shakespearean roles, including Lady Anne in Richard III, Kate in Taming of the Shrew, Ophelia in Hamlet, and Hermione in The Winter's Tale. Currently she is understudying Annette Bening in an upcoming production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, playing February 12- March 19 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. And experience has shown her just how a classical training brings benefits to screen work as well.

"In a way, what Shakespeare does in a lot of speeches is he gives you a leading thought in the first sentence. Then he goes on to break that thought down, and analyze it in more and more detail. And you'd be surprised how a lot of television scripts do the same thing. When you look at Shakespearean text, you get better at knowing how to do text in any genre. I feel people get smarter about script analysis once they have some experience working on Shakespeare. But also, your vocal range expands, your physical range, your emotional range, even the notes in your voice. A lot of actors are limited vocally. Their voices are flat because the material they work on doesn't ask them to do any more than that.

"Your range as an actor — the range of what you can do emotionally and intellectually — increases when you work on Shakespeare. And your level of self-confidence in what you can do, when you've mastered one of Shakespeare's great roles, increases enormously. I don't know if you can even call yourself an actor unless you've given yourself the chance to approach this difficult material."

For more than a decade, Daniel Swee has been the casting director for New York's Lincoln Center Theater. While his work there has included such contemporary pieces as The Sisters Rosensweig and The Invention of Love, he has also cast the likes of Twelfth Night, King Lear, Julius Caesar, and Henry IV, and such classic period pieces as The Crucible. His big screen credits include the 1996 film version of The Crucible, as well as The Hours, 2002's acclaimed tale of three different women living in 1923, 1951 and 2001 who are connected by a single novel.

"I think that for any language-based theater, a classical background is of enormous value," says Swee. "A tremendous amount of theater does require a use of language that is not naturalistic, and requires the ability to convey complex ideas. There are some actors who are not classically trained who have naturally learned how to do that, but I think they're the exception. By and large, you really do need the ability to energize language, the ability to know how to deal with an actual speech as opposed to just a line here and a line there. And for 'period' types of film and television, I do think it's enormously helpful."

And there has been a resurgence lately in period pieces for both film and television. Casanova, Pride and Prejudice, Troy, and Gladiator are but a few examples. Actors who cannot project a believable character outside of a contemporary setting are actors who place limitations on their marketability. But being able to accomplish that level of character work requires a certain facility with language, both in terms of speaking it and comprehension. Voice and text work are significant components of classical training.

Notes Swee, "There are some very, very good actors who, because they either lack the training or the experience, are not as adept at playing heightened or poetic language. Or they don't know how to handle long passages that require a knowledge of how to build, how to hear what the language is doing, and how to let that emotionally lead you. There are even contemporary plays that require that, and some very good actors lack the tools or experience to approach it correctly. They may be very truthful in a lot of ways, but still, the ability to play Shakespearean language, to play the complexity of it, and to know how to both emotionally and technically approach it can inform people about how to deal with other kinds of language."

So hark ye, actors! To take full advantage of all the opportunities summer provides, invest some of that time in a classical training program. Not only will you broaden your range as an actor, but you will strengthen your contemporary work as well.

"Every single day we perform in a modern mode in our daily life," explains Hackett. "So, when we go into a contemporary play, that's no stretch for us. We already know how to do that. When we move into Shakespeare, we're just using more aspects of ourselves than we normally do everyday. When I auditioned for The Cherry Orchard, I got to rage, laugh, cry, fall on the floor, and do all of this stuff that I don't do everyday. What I usually do every day, even when I'm acting, is I get to play a couple of little notes. But usually I'm on my computer, I'm paying bills, I'm in a pretty narrow bandwidth. And when you get to do Shakespeare, you get to use all of yourself. All of your loss. All of your jealousy. All of your joy. All of your silliness, intelligence, and humanity. It's like they say about Matisse paintings: Matisse tried to put, in every painting, intensity and rest. Well, in Shakespeare you get intensity and you get rest, and it's compressed in time. You get to really live fully when you're doing Shakespeare. The language is a technical skill, but the big challenge is allowing yourself to use all of who you are — your sexuality, your stupidity, your anger, your aggression, etc. We don't get to use all of ourselves everyday, maybe not even every year. But wow, when you live in the world of a big Shakespeare play, you get to use everything you've got.

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