Speaking Shakespeare

It's no accident that Andy Goldberg offers his courses under the umbrella title Shakespeare Gym. He'll tell you his philosophy "is that actors can receive deeper and more profound understanding" of Shakespearean text "through physical exploration."

In other words, Goldberg isn't interested in simply getting Bard wannabes to speak the poetry and prose; he wants it to flow through the entire body. "Often in Shakespeare," he says, "people talk about 'acting from the neck up' in a derogatory sense. I want the words to come organically from below the navel, so that it's not a cerebral process but a physical process. Ultimately, it's both."

Goldberg disseminates his theory through two courses he gives several times a year: a beginners course and an advanced course. In love with Shakespeare since taking a course at Stanford called Shakespeare Through Performance, he recalls with a laugh, "I discovered I was a terrible actor but good at helping other people learn how to act."

Drop in on one of his beginners classes—as this inquiring columnist did—and you see immediately how he does it. Unsurprisingly, Goldberg started not with anything Shakespeare but with warm-up exercises, the object being to relax the body. Only afterward did he hand out Sonnets 138 and 23 and ask the actors, who were still sitting on the floor, to read them aloud line by line and then in sections of four, four, four, and two lines, adding up to the traditional 14. Pointing out that much of Shakespeare's writing involves emphasizing opposites—"lies" and "truth," for example—he had the participants repeat words that seemed explicitly or implicitly opposites. (Although Goldberg never said so, it was clear that each exercise could be repeated by actors working privately with a text.)

When the sonnet work had finished, Goldberg proceeded to the class's main purpose: working on monologues he'd assigned to each student the previous week. What he asked initially was that everyone—as they continued sitting on the floor—pretend to write out every word in his or her monologue as if composing a letter. He pointed out that in the process there is something deliberate that draws attention to each word, consonant, and vowel.

Amid the amusing cacophony of speaking over each other, the actors finished and Goldberg asked what if anything they had learned. One student said she'd become aware of all the L's in her speech. Another said she had found a way into the role. Another experienced the task as "a way to play with the words." Goldberg noted that the process "democratizes" every word—a physical activity he noticeably favors.

At that point, he had the actors present their monologues one by one. He didn't, however, have them stop after a once-over. When they'd delivered it for the first time—some from memory, others reading—he asked them to paraphrase the monologue for the sake of making certain they had some sense of what they were saying. He also made a point of stating he wasn't asking for "how you would perform it. That's not where we are with this."

Making It Physical

Then he reached the meat of his approach: the physicalizing. The student first up had been handed Lady Macbeth's Act 1, Scene 5 "unsex me now" outcry. "I want you to build a giant throne there for you and Macbeth," Goldberg said, advising her to use the tables and chairs she found everywhere in the large rehearsal space on West 48th Street in Manhattan. "Start building it fast," he said, which she did, getting increasingly louder and as bonded to the speech as she was involved in the physical exertion.

A second student played Volumnia attempting to cajole her son, the title figure in "Coriolanus," to do her bidding. When the student's preliminaries had been completed, Goldberg asked one of the others to play a Coriolanus who kept walking away from Volumnia as she importuned him. This forced the reciting student to race around the room as she tried to get the silent warrior to respond.

For Rosalind's chastising of Phebe in "As You Like It" that "you are not for all markets," Goldberg handed this Rosalind a small pillow and charged her with hitting the students standing in for Phebe and Silvius whenever she felt the urge. The actor delivering Richard III's opening declaration from the play named for him had to collect as much of the furniture in the room as he could so as to construct a mousetrap—a metaphorical mousetrap being what the aspiring villain has put in place to get rid of the hapless Clarence.

When the monologue exercises were completed, Goldberg had enough time to switch to prose and have the actors break down the soliloquy Benedick speaks in "Much Ado About Nothing" when contemplating the foolishness of love. The purpose was to draw attention to prose rhythms, which, though not dictated by the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare's poetry, nevertheless underlie the composition.

Goldberg—reachable at www.shakespearegym.com—will concede that throughout Great Britain, Shakespeare is in the DNA, but that "I think American actors can do Shakespeare just fine." He dates his belief in the importance of physicalization to a Theatre for a New Audience course he took with Royal Shakespeare Company voice coach Cicely Berry. "Shakespeare," he says, "has always been my great passion."