As befits any actor worth their salt I have a tidy library comprised of the usual suspects such as Ibsen, Aeschylus, Miller, Shaw and Strindberg among many others; I also have 14 of the 38 plays written by England’s national poet, William Shakespeare. However, in the last year if my agent called me with an audition requiring the memorization of a Shakespearean monologue my mind would race in to find an excuse to get out of it. The Bard puts the fear of God in me and I’ve felt like a lesser actor because of it. So for 2011 I made a pledge to myself to focus on mastering the fear of the iambic pentameter. To do this I refused to audition for any Shakespeare until I could walk into a room and throw down with absolute confidence.
Of course life has other plans for us and 24 hours after I touched down in Toronto after being away for 3 months my agent called me with a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ audition to be prepared for the following week. I’d already turned down one Shakespeare audition this year and knew I couldn’t do it again less than one month later so I accepted and panicked.
Well, before you can say deus ex machine I get a special invite from Obsidian Theatre via email the next day to participate in the Stratford hosted ‘Working with Words and Shakespeare’ workshop taking place on April 1 & 2. So, maybe there is something to that book, ‘The Secret’….
Fu-Gen Asian Canadian Theatre Company, Native Earth Performing Arts, New Harlem Productions and Obsidian Theatre Company had been asked to recommend 5 actors for the workshop so walking into the Harbourfront Community Centre Dance studio on the Friday night brought me face to face with some of the best and brightest actors in Toronto. Greeted warmly by vocal and text coaches Janine Pearson and Kennedy Cathy MacKinnon as soon as the workshop started was a great start since I was intimidated by the sight of all those actors I did not know.
We weren’t told anything about what were going to do exactly so in my mind I was thinking. ‘when do we get to the words? I need to fix my word problem!’ We’d been asked to bring a yoga mat, a bottle of water and dress in stretchy clothing so I knew floor work would be integral. We were asked to introduce ourselves and talk about why we were in the workshop. I was heartened to hear others say they too were intimidated by Shakespeare and one actor in particular admitted that he flat out refused Shakespeare auditions when submitted by his agent out of crippling fear. I was among friends.
The next two days were about connecting to ourselves by listening to our bodies, breathing mindfully and padding around the room until we could barely hear our feet hitting the ground. Tense shoulders eventually fell, breathing slowed and rolldowns were plentiful. The ground will always reach up and support you, Janine said. Take the words and roll them around in your mouth, really say the words, breathe the words. In his time Shakespeare had a personal vocabulary of 30, 000 words and now we individuals have about 19, 000; we can’t be expected to know every single word in the Folio.
Instead of memorizing we should be ‘learning by heart’ since memorizing does not include knowing the tenor of the lines. Standing in the middle of a cold room for an audition declaiming like Geilgud in Hamlet is the image and sound quite a few of us had in our mind and roundly rejected. But rejecting that image left us with a void since we didn’t know the ‘right’ way to ‘do’ Shakespeare. By helping us relax and loosen our bodies Cathy and Janine gave us one of the most important tools to ‘do’ Shakespeare right: ourselves.
Two hours before the end of the workshop we were handed Sonnet 60. Throughout our breathing exercises Janine had been feeding us morsels of the sonnet, a word here and a phrase there, to get us familiar with absorbing the text. On one side of the page the sonnet was written like a paragraph. The other side had it laid out as you would see it in a book of sonnets with the ‘proper’ punctuation. Truth be told, I preferred the paragraph since the breathing wasn’t imposed. Punctuation can vary depending on whether it is an Arden, a Penguin or Signet publication so just read the text and ignore the commas and semi-colons.
Sometimes Shakespeare can seem like another language and I was aware that a two day workshop wouldn’t fix all of my problems. However, I did walk out of the room feeling more comfortable with myself in the language rather than with the language. The source of the problem was a disconnect from the words in my person. I am now cognizant on how to integrate the words with myself. Thank you Stratford, Janine, Cathy and Obsidian; R & J here I come.