5 Quick Pointers You Should Read Before Performing Shakespeare

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This week at Backstage, we’re going all in on the Bard. One of the most prolific playwrights of his time who is still profusely celebrated and performed today, William Shakespeare’s work is both a bountiful and mountainous endeavor for actors. If you can nail Shakespeare, though, you can basically do anything, which is why we touched base with five Backstage Experts who know their Shakespeare, for some quick Bard-related pointers. See ‘em below, and be sure to check out our exhaustive guide on the subject: How to Conquer Shakespeare.

Don’t try too hard to be subversive.
“And while I'm on the subject of the classics, when you're asked to audition with a short Shakespearean monologue of your choice, do not fool yourself into thinking you should do one of the sonnets, just to be different. There are scores and scores of glorious characters and monologues in Shakespeare's plays, some in poetry, some in prose.”—Stuart Howard, Backstage Expert

There's no one interpretation.
“To be a great actor you have to have a little extra imagination with the role, that extra touch of originality. It comes when the actor interacts with the words they have to say. There’s no such thing as a Shakespeare character, just the words on the page. Every time a Shakespeare character is performed, it’s a different character.”—Stanley Wells, Shakespeare scholar and lecturer

Make appeals to imagery.
“The way I articulate the technique to actors is this: Your imagination is dreaming, it’s just dreaming while you are awake and in dialogue with other characters. On film, dialogue provokes the imagination to dream and the camera captures those dreams in the eyes of the actor. This effect in turn provokes the audience to daydream of what they might do if they were living your character’s story. One doesn’t need Shakespearean dialogue to achieve it, just an imagination. But it’s a lot easier with lines like,

‘Give me my Romeo; and, when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night…’

“Conjuring imagery in your mind’s eye is also the fastest and most effective way to tap into your emotional inner life and bring emotion to a scene. Activate the imagination, and you activate the heart.”—John Swanbeck, director, author and Backstage Expert

Enlist the dictionary as needed.
“The meaning of words have evolved, shifted, and sometimes changed dramatically since Shakespeare’s time. If you don’t know the meaning of a word or are even a little uncertain, look it up. It will greatly affect the meaning of a line.

“Take Juliet’s line, ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ It’s easy to assume that “wherefore” means ‘where are (you)?,’ as if Juliet is calling Romeo to her side. But in actuality, she is asking ‘why?’ Juliet is saying ‘Why are you Romeo, a Montague, instead of someone my family will let me love?”—JV Mercanti, head of acting for the musical theater program at Pace University’s School of the Arts, author of the monologue book series, “In Performance,” and a Backstage Expert

Shakespeare can benefit everyone—even kids.
“What I have tried to do in ‘How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare’ is offer parents and educators the techniques and strategies I developed over the years for my own children. I realized early in this process that Shakespeare is a lot like a foreign language. Many of the words are unfamiliar, even to adults; Shakespeare’s sentence structure sounds odd to our modern ears; and Shakespeare is constantly speaking in complex metaphors that can be difficult to understand.

“So what I did for my kids—and what you can do for yours—was teach them how to decipher every difficult word in the passage being studied, and then memorize that passage so their knowledge of Shakespeare became second nature. The goal was fluency in the way a foreign language can become fluent.”—Ken Ludwig, playwright and author of “How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare”

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