Blackfriars Conference 2013–Colloquy #11: Methods III: Acting in Shakespeare: What We Teach and What We Learn

Hi everyone! Sarah Martin here to liveblog Colloquy Session #11: Acting in Shakespeare: What We Teach and What We Learn. Today’s session chair is Caroline Latta from Columbia College Chicago and features presentations from Tara Bradway of St. John’s University and Adirondack Shakespeare, Kevin Gates of Texas State University, John Harrell of the American Shakespeare Center, and Allison Glenzer of the American Shakespeare Center.

Tara Bradway began our colloquy with a brief summary of her paper which focuses on Shakespeare’s kingship cycles. Bradway asks the question, “what makes a good kingship cycle?” She compares the kingship style of Richard II and Henry V. Richard’s focus is internal while Henry is aware of needs of those around him. Richard’s internal focus, Bradway argues, leads to his demise. She also notes that Richard’s internal nature is problematic for an actor in performance. Mary Baldwin College M.F.A. student Cyndi Kimmel then gave a portion of Richard’s monologue in the famous deposition scene. Bradway says that it is this moment in which Richard is most “theatrically potent” as he identifies himself as an actor without a role. M.Litt student Jamie Jaeger then performed a section of Henry V during which the title character likens himself to the sun. This metaphor, Bradway argues, shows that Henry is putting on a mask of kingship in contrast to Richard’s unmasking during his deposition. Henry’s ability to  successfully perform kingship is what leads to his ultimate victory. Richard, Bradway argues, discovers that he also has this ability, but after his deposition. Kimmel demonstrated this moment as she performed a brief section from the end of the play.

Kevin Gates wanted to find a new textual approach to performance of Richard II. Gates was inspired by John Barton’s 1963 production in which the same actor played both Richard and Bolingbroke. He was also inspired by the American Shakespeare Center’s production of Hamlet that featured a coin toss at the beginning of the play to determine whether the quarto or folio text would be performed. In Gates’s production, the actors tossed a coin to determine which actor would play Richard and which would play Bolingbroke. Gates argues against the idea that Richard was too heavily under the influence of flatterers. Gates asked his two lead actors to come up with their own interpretations of each character and this resulted in two highly contrasting depictions of Richard and Bolingbroke. The shortened rehearsal process (three weeks for each character) created some confusion in terms of blocking, but did not cause any major problems for the production. Costumes also played an important role in Gates’s production. Richard wore an gold tunic while Bolinbroke work a red tunic. The actors donned their costumes at the moment of the coin toss and this created the need for Bolingbroke to have a quick-change. Gates says that he, “underestimated” the challenge this quick change would pose to the performance. Gates stated that greatest affect the double casting method had on the performance was the portrayal of Bolingbroke. Whereas Gates’ counterpart played Bolingbroke’s ambiguity, whereas Gates’s portrayal showed Bolingbroke as a man “ready to fight”.

Colloquy chair Caroline Latta transitioned the discussion from the stories of two theatre companies, to the pedagogical methods she uses when teaching Shakespeare to acting. She devotes the first portion of classes to Elizabethan language with an emphasis on the theory that Elizabethan audiences went to “hear a play” rather than see it. She teaches actors the basics of scansion and rhetoric and how scansion can inform performance. Latta engages her student actors with the text “physically rather than intellectually”. She explained that she might separate women from men and have them each shout lines at one another to demonstrate the rhythm of iambic pentameter. She says that physicalizing the language helps her students engage with the text–Shakespeare’s or even contemporary playwrights. Her actors use the First Folio text to find speech and performance cues in the plays. Latta also shows a clip from Playing Shakespeare in which David Suchet and Patrick Stewart each perform a different version of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice in order to teach the students how actors make choices.

Latta then opened up the discussion to the panel which includes ASC actors John Harrell and Allison Glenzer. She asked the panel, “what are companies looking for that we are not teaching?” Bradway mentioned that her company relies on actors who can scan and analyze text and come prepared on the first day of rehearsal. She also looks for actors who can listen to each other to have ownership of their text and realize that, if an actor truly listens to another, “they can’t help but say their line”. Latta asked John Harrell and Allison Glenzer what they look for as acting teachers through Mary Baldwin College. Harrell said that his graduate students tend to have very good backgrounds in scansion and rhetoric and that he tries to translate the intellectual intelligence that the students have into functional performance. He noted that a complex idea is just a series of simple ideas and that it is those simple ideas that an actor performs. Glenzer said that the “rigor” of the process of acting–the commitment to emotion and repetition is what she tries to instill in her student actors.

Latta and Glenzer demonstrated Latta’s “gauntlet exercise” in which she has two groups of actors to perform lines from Richard and Lady Anne. The actors volley the text back and forth line by line. The exercises forces actors to listen to one another and then return the energy of the other actor.

Latta and Glenzer also discussed the problematic nature of grading students in an acting class. They talked about how important it is to have a student actor write a paper so that the actor learns to articulate his or her process and the teacher has something tangible to grade. Glenzer and Bradway then discussed the importance of a shared vocabulary in a company with limited rehearsal time. Latta asked the panel how they get actors “in the body”. Bradway said that she puts together a playlist of songs relevant to the play and has the actors find moments in the songs that exemplify their character relationships and demonstrate those relationships through movement.

Harrell said that he emphasizes specificity of action when he teaches actors. He asks students to slow down and realize that they have to stop one action before they start another in order to demonstrate specificity onstage.  He then is able to “suck the air out” of the space between the moments so that performance remains dynamic.

Glenzer and Bradway performed a short scene from The Winter’s Tale in which Harrell asked them to demonstrate a “snapshot” version of the scene. Glenzer and Bradway created specific shapes with their bodies to exemplify moments within the scene. He said that the exaggerated physical gestures eventually pare down into playable stage pictures.

Harrell and Gates discussed their experiences in their respective “coin-toss” productions. Harrell said that he preferred performing the quarto order of scenes in Hamlet whereas Gates preferred playing Richard.

Latta emphasized the importance of keeping student actors in the moment and allowing them the space to make a discovery. Harrell  said that he urges students to find moments of discovery in the other actor onstage rather than from an internal or abstract place.

The colloquy conversation concluded with a discussion of different suggestions and anecdotes about the auditioning and casting process that included both panel and audience. The group discussed the difficulty of teaching acting as acting classes so rarely actually reflect the profession of acting. As John Harrell said, a classroom of eight to ten actors has almost nothing to do with the actual job of acting in several shows a week and performing a show over and over again while making each performance fresh and exciting.