Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Advice for Young Actors

I went to the auditions for our Shakespeare program the other day.

You know how when you see auditions on TV, there's a darkened theater and the director and so on sit in the darkened part, and individual actors stand up and do their thing, and then go away?

It wasn't like that at all. Everything was well lit, all the actors did at least three things (usually two in groups or 2-4, and one soliloquy), and went in and out from the floor to the stage several times.

Happily, I had no responsibilities. The people with responsibilities were busy organizing things and taking notes. Me, I just watched. And learned. So today, I'm going to talk about what I learned, and maybe a young actor out there will also learn something.

1) Lose the fake British accent. If you're really British, keep your accent, of course.

I hear your protests: But Bardiac, it's SHAKESPEARE, the BARD! It's CULTURE!

Naw, it's Shakespeare, and a play that should be really entertaining and interesting for your audience. And I guarantee you, Shakespeare didn't speak with either a BBC or an "I saw My Fair Lady Cockney" accent. (And if Shakespeare spoke to us today, we modern English speakers from wherever would probably have a really difficult time understanding him.)

There are a couple problems with accents. First, they're really difficult to do well and consistently, and while YOU may have perfected yours, I bet the other cast members haven't. Which leads to... Second, an accent that's different for your audience members stands out as "marked." It's special, and there'd better be a good reason for the specialness, something your audience should notice. Otherwise, that marking works against the things you really do want your audience to notice. There are times when you want your audience to notice, hey, there's something special about this character. But mostly, you want your audience paying attention to other things.

2) Pre-read the play. Yep, it helps if you have a basic idea of the plot, who the characters are, and so forth.

3) Read for meaning. Most of Shakespeare's plays are in verse, and since you probably haven't read much verse in school, you don't have much experience reading it, much less reading it aloud or acting it. Often, I hear people read and stop at the end of every line, without much (or any) sense of sentence structure.

So when you get a part, look at the punctuation for clues about sentences and ignore the line breaks. Think about how you say sentences: most of us fall off a bit at the end, unless it's a question, in which case English speakers' voices rise a tad (unless you're a valley girl speaker, in which case every sentence ends with a rise). Then we tend to hit the beginning of sentences with a bit of emphasis.

Shakespeare's sentences sometimes have long parenthetical-feeling bits, as when an epic simile comes along and makes you wait a whole long while for the sense to come through, so that if you read it without understanding, it makes no sense at all to your audience. Take a moment to figure out what that parenthetical bit is "doing." Is the character thinking as s/he goes along? Or does this feel like a planned bit? Is s/he blathering, or working through a philosophical problem? Then figure out how to communicate what the character's line is doing.

4) Small roles and gender. Not everyone gets to be Hamlet. But there are absolutely GREAT small parts in Shakespeare. Yeah, you may only have 12 lines, or 3, but the part may be vital to the play.

If you're female, playing Shakespeare, you're likely to notice that there are lots more men's than women's roles. So sometimes, you're going to be playing men's roles. (Unless your director/producer switches them to female roles, which sometimes works, but mostly makes minimal sense.) You're an actor, ACT.

Go to the mall and observe men, how they stand, walk, interact with other men and with women. Some men do this, some do that. Some things a lot of men do, others give a sense of youth, toughness, shyness, whatever. Observe and then practice. And ACT!

About ten years ago now, I saw the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express (now the American Shakespeare Center) do Richard III with Kate Norris in the role of Richard. She was great. And her Richard? He was viscously delicious. Her gender mattered and didn't; which is to say, I noticed her gender, and then I was busy paying attention to her acting, the way her Richard worked the stage.

5) Enjoy! Seriously, this Shakespeare guy wrote some good plays!


  1. I get so happy when someone mentions Shenandoah Shakespeare Express. They are (were, for me, circa 90-92) so awesome.

  2. I had a Shakespeare professor once tell us that the closest modern day approximation to Shakespeare's actual accent would be a Jamaican accent!

  3. Great advice! My daughter has done Twelfth night and Midsummer Night's Dream, and I will share this post with her.

    As for the so called "minor characters", who can ever forget Sir Toby Belch or Andrew Aguecheek?

  4. When I was young and starting out, I was having a blast until I tried Shakespear...Now I recite the lines for fun. Takes years to get it just right.

  5. JM, I know! SSE is GREAT! I wish my campus would bring them in for a performance, but we're out of their common touring area.

    Liza, Oh, that's interesting! I've heard somewhere in Appalachia, but I'm really not a dialects person.

    TBTAM, Thanks :) So what did your daughter think?

    Dan, Shakespeare did write some great lines, didn't he? :)

  6. I'm not a dialects person either, but I've chased down tons of people who are and the general consensus of those 'in the know' seems to be that it's the Appalachian tongue that's closest to Shakespeare's own. That the mountains have served as an insulator and protected the mother tongue of their earliest immigrants.

    Speaking from personal experience, and this isn't to do with dialect expressly but it goes to the same point, I'm amazed and excited at how often I hear my grandfather, a deep-wood West Virginia fellow, as he’ll tell you himself, using words or phrases that are more relevant to Shakespeare's time than our own.

    You won’t find half of his words in a dictionary, but you WILL find them in the likes of Johnson, Raleigh, and even Marlowe.

    And Shakespeare. Of course.

    It's fascinating and I’d love to have time to further study it but for now I just accept, and am content with, the possibility that my native mountain tongue (so mocked by the masses) may have a higher pedigree than it gets credit for.