“Shakespeare is his text, and the way he uses it is just that. So if you want to do him justice you have to look for and follow the clues the clues he offers. If an actor does that, he’ll find that Shakespeare himself starts to direct him”. ~ John Barton
Of all the quotes about Shakespeare I have collected over the years, this is my favorite. With these few sentences, he sums up everything that makes Shakespeare special - 99% of the work is already done for you. All you need to do is open yourself up to being directed by the text.
How do we accomplish that? Simple. First Folio. The First Folio is where, for the first time all of Shakespeare’s plays were compiled. Seven years after his death, two members of the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s acting company, collected his plays and compiled them together for the first time. As a Folio enthusiast, I like to think that this is the closest version to what Shakespeare originally wrote.
First Folio is, as I like to say, acting shorthand. How it is structured, written and punctuated are the clues that John Barton was talking about. It all matters, and deserves to be explored. In Shakespeare’s time, they didn’t have six weeks of rehearsal, with time for text analysis. Actor’s learned their lines, and then performed them, without a director to guide them, so all of the things that we spend time in rehearsal working through, and talking about had to be obvious to an Elizabethan actor without the luxury of outside direction. What to say, how to say it, and what to do while you’re saying it all had to be there in text. Through the words and the structure of the lines.
When I introduce actors to working with the Folio, I try to narrow it down to the five most important things to keep in mind, and to always refer back to as they are doing their book work, and during rehearsals. So today, I give you 5 folio tips for rehearsing Shakespeare.
Trust the Structure
As I mentioned before, it all matters. How the lines are structured. Where the punctuation falls, even how the words are spelled (we will go deeper into words in a moment). All of it contains clues to be decoded, unlocked, and explored.
One of the first things actors notice when I hand out a Folio text, is that it looks nothing like the text they are used to seeing. I liken the Folio to sheet music. When you look at a piece of music, the structure itself is laid out for you; where to rest, how fast to sing, what key it’s in, etc. A singer trusts that structure and colors within it as they see fit, while staying within that key, and time signature.
That is what Folio structure offers. A broad, but focused outline for you to follow. You can color it however you would like within the structure. That is where the creative freedom comes from. When you understand how the structure is laid out, you’re free to make bold choices.
Work with the words
Shakespeare is a master of words. Each one was chosen specifically for the exact moment in the play, to convey a specific action, emotion, or thought.
When working with the Folio, everything takes on a deeper importance. The words are no different. The words are your stage directions, and motivations.
Even how a word is spelled is a clue to be investigated. After the actual structure, the first things actors notice when I hand out a piece of Folio text is that certain spellings are different. An extra “E” or one “L” instead of two. It’s easy to chalk that up to poor Elizabethan grammar, or a sloppy transcription, however taking a closer look at these anomalies and their context in the scene, will reveal that most of the words are spelled correctly. By trusting that Shakespeare did this on purpose, and wanted those specific words to look different for a reason means that we have to work with them to bring the story to the audience.
Breathing is acting
Breathing is life. It supports us. It sustains us. How we breathe says just as much about how we feel or what we are thinking as our body language. How much or how little we breath in a scene or a line directly affects all of it. Our breath is the unspoken text, or in a more modern sense, the subtext. Shakespeare gave us that with his phrases. By using the punctuation, those phrases are already given to you, all that’s required is for you to color them. As he directs us through his text, he asks us to engage with our breathing as a way to add depth to his characters.
Globe fun fact: it was really big. With people standing on all three sides and above - if you only stood in one place, there would be a lot of people who wouldn’t see you. So you have to keep moving in order to be seen by everyone. However, movement shouldn’t be random, by working with the words, you will find that Shakespeare has given you specific cues to move. Movement shouldn’t be reserved for only physical movement either. Keep your thoughts moving, and most importantly keep the text moving.
Root it in the text
Everything you do onstage should have a connection to what you are saying in that moment. Your movement, your thoughts, and most importantly your choices, should all be rooted in what is being said in the text. As discussed above, use the grammar and sentence structure to inform your pacing, rhythm, and cadence. Notice the spelling anomalies and how they impact the feel and emotion of the word as you say it aloud. But most importantly anchor everything in the text - what are you saying and why are you saying it now? Shakespeare gave you those words in that moment for a reason. If you are attentive to the text, you will be telling the story clearly, and bringing the audience along on your journey.
And there you have it - by referencing back to these points, while doing your book work, and in rehearsals. You will, as John Barton said, find that Shakespeare himself will start to direct you.