The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.0973  Monday, 30 April 2001

[1]     From:   Geralyn Horton <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Friday, 27 Apr 2001 13:19:26 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0967 Shakespearean Acting Workshops

[2]     From:   Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Monday, April 30, 2001
        Subj:   Re: Shakespearean Acting Workshops

From:           Geralyn Horton <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Friday, 27 Apr 2001 13:19:26 -0400
Subject: 12.0967 Shakespearean Acting Workshops
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0967 Shakespearean Acting Workshops

Shakespeare and Company in Lenox MA teaches all things re: acting
Shakespeare at levels from elementary school children to professional
actors and teachers of teachers. They're good. They do run summer
programs: most very intense, some less so.  email is
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. web site  <http://www.shakespeare.org>

> Are there workshops or classes available in North America on
> Shakespearean acting for the acting beginner?  Are there any available
> over the summer?  Does such a species exist?

From:           Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Monday, April 30, 2001
Subject:        Re: Shakespearean Acting Workshops

Dear SHAKSPEReans:

Surely, the mother of all master classes in Shakespeare has got to be
the collaboration The Shakespeare Theatre and George Washington
University - The Academy for Classical Acting. This highly competitive
and intense program is a year long, resulting in students' being awarded
a MFA.

The following article appeared last week in the Washington Post


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To view the entire article, go to

Got a Good Iago?

"I feel very funny about calling you 'students,' " Michael Kahn tells
the people seated in a circle around him. "I think of you as actors . .
. a group of actors spending this year together to get really skillful
at something you want to do, something the people here are very
passionate about."

It's the first day of school -- that exciting, that jittery. Even more
disconcerting, it's the first day at a school that hasn't existed
before, though Kahn, who runs the Shakespeare Theatre, has been wanting
to create it for years. Every time he heard a Hamlet trying to sound all
noble and British-y, or saw a Juliet whose beautifully enunciated
speeches made absolutely no sense, he envisioned some sort of postgrad
training camp where people who already knew how to act could learn how
to act Shakespeare. Could learn, in theatrical terms, how to conquer
Everest every night.

And here they are on a Monday morning in June, the very first class of
his grandly titled Academy for Classical Acting, 18 people plucked from
auditions around the country, novices barely out of college and veterans
in their forties and fifties. They've convened on the top floor of the
Shakespeare Theatre's administrative building on Eighth Street SE,
nervous and rapt. They revere the Bard, yes, but they revere Kahn --
noted director, savior of the once-imperiled Shakespeare Theatre, head
of the drama division at the Juilliard School in New York, major Man of
the Theater -- almost as much.

"My personal agenda for this school is to have more and more American
actors who will make a real contribution to acting Shakespeare," Kahn
tells them, taking a poke at the notion that people have to decamp for
England to learn this stuff. "I think Americans do Shakespeare very
well. We have the energy. We have the emotional commitment. We have the
physical freedom; we have the lack of tradition that makes this fresh
for us. What we need are the tools." He and his faculty think they can
provide those tools in one intense year. And with Shakespeare more
popular in America than he has been in decades, there are casting
directors begging for actors who can handle both iambic pentameter and a
broadsword, sometimes simultaneously.

When it's time for introductions, Kahn goes first: born in Brooklyn;
mother read him Shakespeare for bedtime stories; wanted to be a director
since he was a kindergartner; etc. He's 62, with a monkish circle of
silver hair, so there's a long career to cover.

And then around the circle: Sean Mullan, a year out of Georgetown
University and the baby of the group at 23, saying, "I'm very surprised
that I'm here, frankly." Christopher Marino, who's had much more
experience but -- with his pale skin, dark hair and elongated face --
invariably winds up playing villains.

"I got cast by nuns as a 5-year-old Judas," he laments, explaining why
he needs to expand his range. "I'm running out of ideas about how to
kill people." Stephen Martin, a Southern Bapt!
ist minister who's probably done the most to rip up his previous life:
He and his brand-new bride quit their jobs in Oklahoma, put her house on
the market, loaded a 14-foot U-Haul and headed for a tiny apartment near
the Sousa Bridge so that he can pursue a professional acting career.
When the acceptance letter came last spring, he was so moved that he

All of them, 12 men and six women, have these stories to tell, and so do
most of the faculty members, who are also part of the circle. Played a
snowflake at 5 or a Munchkin at 10. Intended to be a lawyer/cop/marine
biologist, something steadier, more rational, not dependent on endless
auditioning. Or actually entered a real profession. But -- shazaam --
fate struck and they wound up struggling actors after all, tending bar
or selling makeup to support their habit. Worked at the Golden Apple
Dinner Theatre in Sarasota, Fla. Worked as a strolling player at a
Renaissance festival in Upstate New York. Worked at Disney World.

It takes nearly three hours to go all the way around the room. Everyone
is so thrilled to be part of this new adventure. Everyone is so eager to
get to work. Acting Shakespeare, Kahn has said, is like competing in the
Olympics; it's the ultimate test of ability, and everyone is excited to
have the chance to train for it. No one says that it's also
nerve-racking to have to take student loans in your forties, or to have
to move back in with Mom because paying both tuition and rent is
impossible, or to turn down a part you landed because the rules forbid
acting jobs while you're an ACA student. Maybe no one has to say it.

Six months earlier -- as he was watching almost 180 hopefuls recite
their monologues at auditions in San Francisco, Chicago, New York and
here -- Kahn told them that they were very brave, or possibly a bit
crazy. They were vying to enroll in a program that has no name
recognition, no track record, no movie-star alumni. They'll be the
pioneers. "In a sense, you will never be forgotten," he tells these 18
he selected, to an eddy of laughter. "And in a sense, I guess you will
be guinea pigs."

Just to show what they can do, they perform their audition monologues in
the afternoon, for the faculty and for one another. Everybody settles in
to watch.

As the tormented King Lear, Steve Martin roars in rage and pain. He's
actually a genial soul, soft-spoken as befits a man who's worked for
nine years as a hospice chaplain. But when Kahn asked, at his audition,
how much stamina he had (at 46, he's one of the class elders), Martin
explained about playing kings and friars at a summer Shakespeare
festival in an Oklahoma City park: wool costumes in 90-degree heat, the
stage slippery with humidity, actors so sweaty their makeup slid down
their faces, a $75 paycheck for 16 performances. He is, he told Kahn, "a
pretty tough cookie."

Chris Marino, true to form, plays a murderer with a sardonic sneer,
Gloucester in "Henry VI, Part III." Flame-haired Kim

Martin-Cotten -- she and Marino, both 33, have been a couple since they
waited tables together in New York a few years ago -- offers a passage
from "Julius Caesar" in an urgent low voice. She already works steadily
in theater, but frets that sometimes she plays her characters' queenly
exteriors and needs to learn how to better penetrate their human cores.
She and Marino had worried, earlier in the year, that only one of them
might be admitted to ACA, a potential strain on their relationship; now
that they're both in, they've made a deal: Whatever disagreements arise
get aired at home, not at school.

Sean Mullan, the young Georgetown grad, chooses another soliloquy from
"Lear": He's the bastard Edmund who plots against the king, and he's
convincing enough that, although he has less training than students are
supposed to arrive with, Kahn has decided he's too promising -- dark,
broad-shouldered, smart, fierce -- to pass up. "If he really wants to
act Shakespeare and he gets good at it," Kahn thought at his audition,
"people will hire him in a heartbeat."

Any new venture gets a honeymoon. Still floating after the monologues,
the students tell one another how terrific they were. It's just as well
that they can't eavesdrop on the subsequent faculty meeting, in which
their teachers matter-of-factly discuss whose voice never changed pitch
during the monologue (a problem), who had "all this belief and no
technique" (also a problem), and who was "pretty credible" (high
praise). "I have no illusions," Kahn tells them. "We have a lot of work
to do."

He has a lot on the line himself: He persuaded administrators at George
Washington University to establish this joint program, so that ACA
students will graduate with a GW Master of Fine Arts degree a year from
now. His formidable fundraising abilities helped secure the $2.5 million
that will fund the first two years' scholarships and turned the top
floor of this once-derelict building into gleaming studios, offices and
a lounge. He handpicked the first class, and if its 18 members go forth
and are never heard from again, it's his reputation that will take the

But he's used to daunting enterprises. He arrived from New York in 1986
on a rescue mission: What was then a small Shakespearean theater at the
Folger Library was on the brink after the library h!
ad decided to withdraw its sponsorship. "I was quite nervous," recalls
Kahn. "The theater didn't have financial resources, it really didn't
have any staff, it didn't have a great deal of energy. It was seriously
in trouble."

It took just a few years, however, for the theater to be renamed,
relocated and reborn as the Shakespeare Theatre. Now a thriving
$10.5-million-a-year operation, it virtually sells out five productions
annually at the new Lansburgh Theatre in the reawakening Seventh Street
Arts District downtown; it draws close to 40,000 people each June to the
once-struggling Carter Barron Amphitheatre for free Shakespeare
productions; it's scouting for another 800-seat space. Its three-year
capital campaign to raise $10 million has pulled in $11 million. It has
a national reputation. So, characteristically, its artistic director is
ready to tackle the next project.

(Running Juilliard's drama division, as he has since 1992, doesn't
count; Kahn's apparently able to keep it humming by spending just one
day a week in New York, leaving enough time to run the Shakespeare
Theatre and direct two of its productions each season. He has always, to
colleagues' amazement, juggled at least two high-profile jobs.)

Kahn started thinking about a school half a dozen years ago, when he was
teaching in England one summer. At Oxford, "young actors were
auditioning in droves for a five-week program called 'Classics,' " he
says with polite disdain. "I could see there was a hunger to learn more
about Shakespeare . . . and it was also perfectly clear that a five-week
program was like having one hors d'oeuvre."

It's spring as he's relating this history; the first day of school is
still a month away. His second-floor office, which despite the
theatrical posters and shelf of Helen Hayes Awards could easily house a
corporate veep, has the same slightly formal air as the man himself.
He's tall, 6-foot-2, but something makes him seem even more elevated:
maybe the pressed slacks and elegant shirts and sweaters that
distinguish him in rehearsals full of people wearing jeans and
Birkenstocks, or maybe the languid gestures with long fingers. Maybe the
slight hauteur.

And this is the mellower, matured Kahn. An earlier, New York version was
a confessed "tem-peramental maniac" known for shouting and throwing
things. "I keep thinking I must've been very talented," he muses, "or
why did people keep giving me work?" Now that he's calmer and more
seasoned, a veteran teacher conscious of actors' vulnerabilities,
subordinates are less likely to incur Kahn's wrath.

A kind of offhanded arrogance remains, however; he's not boastful so
much as unwilling to downplay his considerable achievements. Ask him if
the Shakespeare Theatre is Washington's best and he'll quietly say that
yes, he thinks it is, and moreover local theater people have thanked him
for raising the bar, for making everyone better. (Arena Stage co-founder
Zelda Fichandler demurs. "It's the best classical theater," she says
carefully.) Ask Kahn if he'll accept the credit some award him for
helping to revitalize downtown by moving into the Lansburgh on
semi-abandoned Seventh Street and sure, why deny it? He was the new guy
in town, only vaguely aware of locals' fears about certain corridors or
intersections, so he plunged ahead. Now, "there are three restaurants
because of us and a big bookstore, and people come to the neighborhood,"
he says. "I can't even imagine anymore why people were so worried about

Ditto for Carter Barron: The National Park Service runs it, but Kahn
attributes its reclamation as "a completely viable venue" to 10 summers
of free Shakespeare. At a performance of "Twelfth Night" a few years
ago, he adds, he saw theatergoers literally hanging from the trees in
Rock Creek Park because every seat was taken, "standing room only in a
4,000-seat theater." Enough said.

Even his decision to "out myself" in a 1991 Washington Post Style
section profile was partly a matter of bruised pride. Kahn had never
made a secret of his sexual orientation -- Manhattan psychotherapist and
writer Frank Donnelly has been his partner for more than 20 years -- but
he'd never mentioned it to the press, either. His decision to do so
stemmed from a dinner with friends, where discussion drifted to the need
for more prominent people to publicly identify themselves as gay. But he
was also slightly insulted by the way Washingtonians figured that,
because he wasn't married, he must be an "extra man," available to seat
next to divorcees at dinner parties. "It was strange to assume that
someone my age was going to be completely alone all the time."

So he has a significant supply of self-esteem, and it probably receives
regular infusions from the Shakespeare Theatre, where descriptions like
"genius" and "brilliant" and "vision" get used on a daily basis. What
"Michael" is doing or saying or thinking is a subject of enduring
interest. He's the reason a number of ACA students decided to take a
year from their work, move to Washington and take on a five-figure debt
(tuition alone comes to $22,000).

And when they arrive, and stand in front of a mirror that first week
reciting "affirmations" in an Alexander Technique class led by
Christopher Cherry (it promotes body awareness and ease of movement),
here is what they say to their reflections: "I have a place in the
theater." "I am a serious creative artist." And, "Michael Kahn thinks I
kick ass."

Still, Kahn is not without doubts as he launches his latest undertaking.
He's sure of the need for the Academy for Classical Acting; America does
not have an oversupply of actors who can handle the multiple demands of
Shakespeare and other classical playwrights (and, therefore, are better
actors in everything else, too). He's confident about his faculty, and
about Catherine Weidner, who will actually direct the school day to day.

But he worries about whether his concept of a 12-month Shakespearean
boot camp will work as planned. "I agonized for a very long time about
whether a year would be possible," he says. Is this Kahn's Folly? Most
graduate acting programs run much longer, but many actors can't afford
to interrupt their careers; by taking students with previous training
and experience, he reasons, one concentrated year will suffice. He
doesn't want, at the end of it, to think, "If only this person had
another year . . ." Therefore, "I hope, I hope and hope, that I've
brought in the right people."

When he got to Washington, Steve Martin thought he was a pretty decent
actor; he'd played Lear, Shylock, Willie Loman. Just a few weeks into
the ACA program, though, he wages a daily battle with self-doubt.

He and his wife, Vallerie -- their wedding took place 19 days before
they left Oklahoma for Washington -- have put most of their possessions
in storage and moved (with two dogs and a bird) into a cramped
ground-floor apartment with bars on the win!
dows. For the first few days, Vallerie was almost too frightened by her
not-yet-gentrified neighborhood to venture out. A veteran hospice nurse
who quickly found a job, within a couple of weeks she was out visiting
patients -- sometimes in apartment buildings where armed security guards
patrol the lobbies. There are days when home, their church and families
feel very far away; when Steve wonders if his acting will ever be
sufficiently "specific" -- a favorite phrase hereabouts.

Steve hasn't been a student since 1976. He's out of shape and babies a
painful back -- loading and unloading U-Hauls for days and driving 1,400
miles only made things worse -- so he dreads the demanding movement
class. "I'm just a weenie; I'm a wimp," he decides. He's also confused
by his text class. And in a mask class one evening, the instructor wants
him to find movements and gestures suggested by the sounds of a verse
from "Twelfth Night": "If music be the food of love, play on." (Wearing
masks helps students learn to create onstage size and presence with
their bodies, instead of relying on facial expressions.) The instructor
doesn't want him to act out the words, but Martin can't seem to respond
only to syllables and sounds; she keeps telling him he's "acting," and
he doesn't understand why that's wrong.

"Good work, getting closer," she finally says after he's spent 10
minutes stomping around, gliding across the polished wooden floor,
twitching a hip.

"Closer to what?" he says wearily. "I guess I don't get it yet. I don't
know what I'm going for." He's been saying this a lot lately: I just
don't get it. "He's in a foreign country," Kahn observes, "studying in a
foreign language."

It's easy to make fun of what actors do, their offstage exercises and
rituals, preparations and superstitions. The language of acting training
is full of New Age-y-sounding phrases that defy translation into simple
English. In class, students are continually asked to play games, to
imagine having bright yellow balloons inflating in their bellies, to
draw the numbers from 1 to 10 in the air with their navels or tongues,
to embody inanimate objects -- be a tree on fire, become silk. Their
voice and speech teacher suggests one morning that they talk to their
chest muscles and tell them that release is good.

In fact, when she leads a warm-up in voice class, it's hard to see any
connection to the dramatic cadences of the Bard. Everyone stands
barefoot and practices yawning deeply. They do an exercise called "a
thousand mosquitoes," in which they have to scrunch up every facial
muscle to drive away imaginary insects, no hands allowed. To relax their
lips, they sputter like horses. They say, in chorus, "Blubber, blubber,
blubber, plop, plop, plop." They say, "Handy dandy Canadian candy." And,
"Will you wait for Wild Willie, Wily Wally and Willful Wilhelmina

But there is a connection, apparently. Actors act with their voices,
their faces, their entire bodies and their brains, and the ACA
curriculum is intended to improve students' use of all of those. So they
take six to 12 hours of voice and speech each week, and three movement
classes, and group and individual Alexander sessions. They study stage
combat (slapping, punching, falling; carrying dead bodies offstage;
wielding swords, shields, quarterstaffs) and clowning. The chair of
George Washington's theater department teaches Friday seminars that
examine Shakespeare's world, its history and economics, religious and
artistic developments. Most of all, everyone spends lots of time on "the
text" -- Shakespeare's writings, how to speak them, what they mean --
which is where everything starts.

And while they're grappling with all this -- five days a week from 9 in
the morning till 10 some nights, plus weekend rehearsals and play
readings -- they're supposed to be open, emotionally vulnerable,
exploratory and all those other qualities that make actors sometimes
break down and cry in classes (standard stuff; nobody cares) or feud
with their peers (discouraged; ACA is supposed to be a supportive
ensemble) or lose heart. Yet they're also supposed to be able to take
criticism without defensiveness.

No wonder some people feel they're flailing. By July, six weeks into the
program, the extended days and crammed weekends are inducing exhaustion,
particularly for those who make long Metro treks home to the suburbs at
10 p.m., prepare scenes and do vocal exercises and read plays till past
midnight, then are back "investigating the text" in class the following
morning. The student lounge quickly acquires blankets for napping on
sofas. "Would somebody nudge Sean, please?" says one of the acting
teachers in class one afternoon; he's fallen asleep in his chair.

Sean Mullan feels the continual weight of being "the runt of the litter"
-- the youngest, the least trained (he spent his Georgetown junior year
in theater programs at Oxford) and least experienced. He's never done a
full Shakespeare play, except for playing a Spanish-speaking Oberon in a
bilingual production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Smithsonian.
Kahn told him straight out he was taking a bit of a gamble accepting
him. "I've got to work really, really hard," Mullan declared the first
week. "I don't want to be in a production with these people and bring
the production down; there's nothing worse than watching a play onstage
and seeing the weak link."

The problem is that improvement sometimes requires that actors not try
so hard, that they relax and allow themselves to discover things instead
of straining. Mullan is not a relaxed sort, however. He's the guy
demonstrating kick-boxing techniques in empty classrooms during breaks;
he's had a lot of martial arts training. The characters he wants to play
are villains and soldiers, not lovers or fools. In mask class, assigned
to embody "air," he is not a gentle breeze; he's a whirlwind, spinning
on the floor and doing cartwheels. "He needs to soften," says Catherine
Weidner, the program director, who as a partial antidote assigns him to
play Romeo in the balcony scene. Mullan has come to recognize the
problem, but the solution doesn't come easily.

Chris Marino has a breakthrough, though, one day when he's doing a
monologue in which King Richard II realizes that he is solitary, mortal
and afraid. "For God's sake let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad
stories of the death of kings!" Saying the words for the umpteenth time,
Marino suddenly notices that many of his classmates are in tears. "I'd
always been the guy who scared people; I didn't make them cry. I didn't
think that could ever be in my repertoire," he exults afterward. And
yet, "It didn't feel like work. It just happened. It's a very elusive
thing and that's probably going to haunt me and everyone else all year."

Meanwhile, just to up the ante, Kahn has returned. After he greeted
students the first week, and led a master class one aft!
ernoon, he left to vacation in Connecticut and Italy and to handle
Shakespeare Theatre matters. He will teach during only two of ACA's four
quarters, and this week will be students' first opportunity to show him
what they've been learning. They are trying not to get nervous about it,
not to behave differently than they do with their other teachers. They
are trying not to be hyper-conscious of the fact that this guy could
actually cast them in a Shakespeare Theatre production next season.
Didn't Kahn himself tell them 20 times that this is an environment in
which they are free to take risks, to fail, to feel stupid? But the
night before his scene, Steve Martin finds he can't sleep.

On Monday morning, when Kahn takes a chair, armed with Shakespeare's
collected works and a mug of coffee, Kim Martin-Cotten and her scene
partner, Ashley Strand, are the first pair in the metaphoric spotlight.
They've spent much of the weekend rehearsing "Antony and Cleopatra," and
Kahn likes what they've done, Strand's stalwartness as "the greatest
soldier of the world," Martin-Cotten's tempestuous jealousy. "You really
understood what was going on," he says.

He's also pleased with the scene from "Lear" -- all treachery and
manipulation -- that Steve Martin and his scene partner have prepared.
"I thought the reading was very clear, very clear," is Kahn's comment.
"A high compliment, from him," Martin recognizes.

(It's a compliment Kahn's own Shakespeare Theatre productions have often
drawn. Though he has sometimes raised eyebrows by casting a female
Falstaff, staging a "reverse Othello" with a white Moor and an otherwise
black cast, or setting "Timon of Athens" in the excessive 1980s, Kahn is
not known as a revolutionary reconceptualizer of Shakespeare. In fact,
he's suspicious of those who are. The productions he directs are more
often praised for clarity. "Is that a euphemism for boring?" he
initially wondered, then decided it was a valentine from critics and
audiences grateful to understand what was happening onstage. "If the
plays are clear and the actors know what they're doing, anyone can
appreciate Shakespeare," he's decided. "That's the heart of the school,

The scene that seems to make Kahn happiest, oddly, is the one in which
two students flounder awkwardly through an encounter from "Othello." In
class, as with his own theater company in rehearsal, Kahn works mainly
by posing questions. "What's your relationship?" he asks Ross Dippel, a
tall Midwesterner with a big baritone who's playing Iago.

"He's someone I use," Dippel says; the other character, Roderigo, is his

"Right. Does he know it?"

"No," Dippel says. "I come on to him like an older brother."

"Oh. Oh! Really?" Kahn's hands fly to his face in mock surprise. "I wish
I knew that." Meaning that Dippel has failed to communicate that
attitude. "And what are you doing when he comes in?"

Cleaning up the table, rolling up maps and charts. Stage business.

"Is that interesting to you?" By which Kahn clearly means it's not
interesting to him.

So Dippel and his scene partner, Paul Hope, go through it again, and
Kahn has more questions, and dances in his chair when they get something
right, and is blunt when something goes awry. "You have a perfectly nice
voice when you don't push it," he tells Dippel. "When you push it, it's
awful." They take it again.

"I didn't know you could get this far so quickly," Kahn says after the
third rendition. He's pleased: Dippel is conversing instead of
proclaiming; Hope moves from despair to determination; the whole
exchange makes more sense. At the end of the scene, Kahn's full of
praise for their ability to hear criticism and respond instantly. Maybe
people can make quantum leaps in a single year.

"That's the way actors and students should be," he says afterward. "That
made me feel, 'Okay, this is not going to be so hard.' "

S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
The S H A K S P E R Webpage <http://ws.bowiestate.edu>

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