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Home :: Archive :: 2008 :: January ::
Performing Familiar Speeches
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0014  Tuesday, 8 January 2008

[1] 	From:	Jeremy Forbing <
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	Date:	Monday, 7 Jan 2008 17:11:44 -0800
	Subj:	RE: SHK 19.0008 Performing Familiar Speeches

[2] 	From:	John W. Kennedy <
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	Date:	Monday, 07 Jan 2008 21:39:36 -0500
	Subj:	Re: SHK 19.0008 Performing Familiar Speeches

[3] 	From:	Dale Lyles <
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	Date:	Monday, 7 Jan 2008 21:48:07 -0500
	Subj:	Re: SHK 19.0008 Performing Familiar Speeches

[4] 	From:	Robert Projansky <
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	Date:	Tuesday, 8 Jan 2008 10:01:49 -0800
	Subj:	Re: SHK 19.0008 Performing Familiar Speeches

[5] 	From:	Mike Shapiro <
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	Date:	Tuesday, 8 Jan 2008 23:38:00 -0800
	Subj:	RE: SHK 19.0008 Performing Familiar Speeches


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		Jeremy Forbing <
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Date:		Monday, 7 Jan 2008 17:11:44 -0800
Subject: 19.0008 Performing Familiar Speeches
Comment:	RE: SHK 19.0008 Performing Familiar Speeches

 >"Obviously this solution is not ideal, particularly from the point of
 >view of narrative continuity, but it seems to meet two requirements-the
 >actors' passion for endless novelty and the audiences' pathetic hope of
 >hearing a little poetry from time to time."
 >
 >I wonder if any performers or audience members on this list can relate
 >to that observation.
 >
 >Alan Horn

As an actor who has been lucky enough appeared in over half the canon in 
my few years in the theatre, I can tell you the problem is not any 
performer's "passion for endless novelty," but the fact that most 
audiences simply won't take the big speeches at our hands.

It's tough, because a speech like "Once more unto the breach" is a key 
moment for the character you're playing, so you don't want to "throw it 
away" as Nichol Williamson is said to have done here (which I'm not sure 
I believe), but on the other hand, with the old standbys, audiences tend 
to stop receiving the story and start watching your "performance."

Having performed the deadly "To be or not to be" when I was much 
younger, I found myself so self-conscious that I was observing the 
audience as they listened to the speech. I became aware of at least two 
persons actually mouthing the words, one of whom may have actually been 
whispering loud enough to be heard. A lot of program flipping took place 
as well, and I'm not sure if that was boredom or a desire to attach a 
name to me, since this was the moment of the show when everyone was 
obviously most conscious of the fact that they were watching an actor 
perform Hamlet rather Hamlet himself.

I like to think I would be able to keep my head in the game better now, 
but I can't say that with 100% certainty. On a certain level, you know 
the best thing you can do is try to let the words affect you as freshly 
as they can, but in this type of situation that is easier said than done.

For the Greeks, theatre was ritual, and so the audiences knowing what 
was about to happen was a good thing, but clearly that was not 
Shakespeare's intention, nor is it what we seek to do in today's theatre.

In the end, the choices always seem to come down to either finding some 
new take on it or just sort of opening your mouth and letting it happen. 
Thankfully, the verse is there to help, and Shakespeare makes it pretty 
clear what choices won't work, but that doesn't always lead to the 
choices that will. Certainly imitation is the worst option; it's a safe 
bet someone will come to the show who has seen whoever you're imitating, 
and popping a chunk of someone else's characterization into your own is 
not going to end well.

(This situation reminds of that comment that was made somewhere: that it 
seems likely that since Richard Burbage, every actor who has played 
Hamlet has previously seen another actor play it, and those no one can 
come to the role without some pre-conceived notion of how it is done.)

I wish I had more insight into dealing with this issue, but whenever I 
have encountered it has almost always been a problem. Every single day, 
some stage actor somewhere wrestles with it. Some people will claim to 
have an easy solution, but such solutions tend to be idealized or merely 
pithy rather than actually answering the question.

Any new perspectives from that the more academically oriented types on 
this list would be eagerly received.

It goes without saying, but clearly, transplanting soliloquies from one 
play to the other is not a real option. And Harold Bloom's idea of 
Shakespeare as closet drama, best enjoyed alone rather than in 
performance, isn't helpful either.

--Jeremy Forbing

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[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		John W. Kennedy <
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Date:		Monday, 07 Jan 2008 21:39:36 -0500
Subject: 19.0008 Performing Familiar Speeches
Comment:	Re: SHK 19.0008 Performing Familiar Speeches

I'm only an amateur, and have done only one Shakespearean role twice -- 
Gloucester in "Lear" -- so perhaps my bias isn't the same as a 
professional's, but I'm afraid I don't see these actors' problem. I 
always get enough variety in my own deeper and deeper knowledge of the 
lines -- yes, even when it comes to audition bits I've used for years.

And, for what it's worth, if I'm still alive and in shape, I mean to do 
Gloucester again in ten or so years.

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		Dale Lyles <
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Date:		Monday, 7 Jan 2008 21:48:07 -0500
Subject: 19.0008 Performing Familiar Speeches
Comment:	Re: SHK 19.0008 Performing Familiar Speeches

Surely Mr. Waugh was being snarky. I cannot imagine how such a odd 
choice would improve anything in the least. The whole "actors' passion 
for endless novelty" is a rather suspect statement, as is any reference 
to an audience's pathetic hopes.

Dale Lyles

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		Robert Projansky <
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Date:		Tuesday, 8 Jan 2008 10:01:49 -0800
Subject: 19.0008 Performing Familiar Speeches
Comment:	Re: SHK 19.0008 Performing Familiar Speeches

My diagnosis, Mr. Waugh, is Nicol Williamson poisoning. An awful actor, 
e.g., his unwatchable Hamlet (I literally could not wait for Laertes to 
kill him). Hard to understand why anyone not being blackmailed would 
cast him as Macbeth -- or as any character not bound and gagged 
offstage. And he's apparently just as much fun to work with; see Paul 
Rudnick's recent New Yorker piece about Williamson and his infamous 
misbehavior in Rudnick's play "I Hate Hamlet".

But to the purpose. Famous speeches shouldn't be a problem, much less an 
"embarrassment", even though it/their familiarity raises the stakes for 
the actor. (Raising those stakes is always a good thing; if you don't 
like adventure, risk, and challenge, don't go onstage.)  Like playing 
anything else in Shakespeare, the actor has to know what  s/he is 
saying, figure out why, figure out why in these particular words, 
analyze the verse, decide how to say those words and what to do onstage 
(following WS's clues and instructions), then go onstage and make the 
words his/her own as if they've never been said before. Some of this is 
thinking and some is feeling and imagining, i.e., art. No famous speech 
should ever be thrown away or treated as unimportant. If it weren't 
important it wouldn't be famous.

Shuffling speeches from play to play? There are directors out there who 
believe even such idiotic novelty is appropriate -- maybe necessary -- 
to staging Shakespeare today. I saw a Hamlet last summer that was cut 
and pasted to be mostly flashback, staged as Horatio obeying Hamlet's 
demand that he Tell my Storie. This ugly Frankenhamlet monster had lots 
of new-text ligatures to hold the bleeding chunks of WS's own Hamlet 
together as it lumbered around the stage. Unintelligible to anyone not 
familiar with the real thing, this was, of course, presented to the 
world as -- Hamlet [sigh], the functional equivalent of calling that 
mess in the pub parking lot a Hamburger and Five Beers. The only good 
thing about the play was that Nicol Williamson was not in it.

Would that WS could control what's done to his work the way the  estate 
of Samuel Beckett does; see "Guided by Beckett From the  Grave", by 
Jason Zinoman, NY Times, 1/2/08, re a Brooklyn Academy of  Music 
production of "Happy Days":

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/02/theater/02shaw.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

Happy new year to all, even to those brethren and cistern who want to 
wrastle some more about Presentism.

Bob Projansky

[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		Mike Shapiro <
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Date:		Tuesday, 8 Jan 2008 23:38:00 -0800
Subject: 19.0008 Performing Familiar Speeches
Comment:	RE: SHK 19.0008 Performing Familiar Speeches

One of the most delicious and gratifying tasks of the actor is living 
with such challenges on a day-to-day basis while preparing for 
performance. The problem is that after being cast, most productions are 
provided 6 weeks or less of rehearsal.

Upon hearing Michael Hoffman discussing his film direction of A 
Midsummer Night's Dream (I was disappointed the production ended up such 
a waste) I asked how much rehearsal time he had. His head bowed and 
exasperated he said budgetary constraints resulted in less than 6 days 
rehearsal. Some of the best directors feel that even six weeks is too 
short a time for living with a character, for material to sink into the 
unconscious, for allowing "Magic if" conjuring. I never played the role 
but when addressing the problem of stereotype and cliche regarding the 
legendary "To be or not to be," it took me a lot more than six weeks to 
feel I could inject life into those lines. I fantasized a discovery 
moment of Hamlet's when he comes upon the question, "To be..." as if 
whispering a crossword puzzle to himself. Realizing he has finally 
uncovered the core issue as being existential, exclaims, "That is the 
question." Although I cannot defend the fact pattern, it's said that 
even god's creative process took more than 6 days.

Mike Shapiro

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