Lessons Learned From Acting Shakespeare – Part One

My friend and writing group member, Trudy (@mabelgygi), convinced me to take a Shakespeare acting class with her. It’s an adult outreach program at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (@COShakes) in Boulder, Colorado, where I see all my Shakespeare plays every summer. Trudy signed up as soon as she found out about it. She’s big on feeding her creativity and caring for her inner artist, whereas I’m always worried about all the stuff on my “To Do” list and stagnating in routine. But I have pushed myself outside of my comfort zone from time to time in the past few years with great results, and so when she mentioned this class and urged me to do it, I said, “Why not?”

Oh, as much as I love it, when it’s my turn to perform, I sure wish I hadn’t!

I will definitely have more to say about this class after Saturday’s final performances, and probably even more after the class is over and the lessons sink in further, but for now, let me just say this:

Acting is hard.

Not Nobel Prize-level science hard, but hard. There is so much to balance in your mind at once, it’s nearly impossible to keep it all together.

What’s so hard?

Let’s start with the obvious:  the nerves of getting up in front of a room full of people. They always say that people name public speaking as their greatest fear, and in fact, several of my classmates are in this class to improve their public speaking confidence. Once all eyes are on you, your thoughts flee, and your hands feel like parasites temporarily attached to your body. If they stay at your sides, you think you must appear stiff and awkward, and if you gesture, you feel like you must be flailing like an octopus.

Then, there are the words. Memorization is hard enough, especially as you get older (ahem), and memorizing Shakespeare is an entirely different task. I can talk till I’m blue in the face about how his language is in fact modern English, the same language we speak today, but the reality is that his plays are poetry, the grammar is often unfamiliar or tortured to fit the meter, and some of his words are archaic or made up. It’s not like memorizing Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller. Particularly in the speeches, where a sentence may stream across four or five or six lines, you may not have a place to breathe, and you may forget where your sentence began by the time you get to the end.

Did I mention that the primary focus of this class is for each of us to present a monologue of at least twelve lines?

Once you’ve got the words down, you get up in front of the class and find that words + nerves = rushing. We all are so determined just to GET THROUGH IT that we spew forth a string of Shakespearean babble. The words are all there, but there’s no emotion behind them. Or there’s one emotion:  anger, or surprise, or seductiveness, or depression. No variation, no subtlety, no nuance. Just one big blast of words and feeling, and we’re so relieved we’ve gotten through and conveyed SOMETHING.

And then there’s movement. Somehow, we can’t keep still. We rock from foot to foot while we rush through the speech. We flail our hands (or only one of them), but never higher than chest level. Everything is jittery, small, timid, half-hearted. We know we should be moving, but we’re not sure how much, or when, and we’re deathly afraid of being still. Why? Why are we terrified of stillness, of slowness?

I don’t know, but we are.

The teachers are great. It is we students who have trouble absorbing the lessons: slow down; trust the words; plant your feet; if you’re going to move, MOVE.

In my head, I am Helen Freakin’ Mirren. I own that stage, and I speak every word with passion. I never forget a line and I finish with tears in my eyes…and the audience is in tears too.

When I performed last week in rehearsal, I forgot my words many times, sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at the end. I did have one moment that my fellow students reacted to really well but I was so surprised by their reaction, I instantly forgot my lines. Ugh. As I worked, the teacher made suggestions, and I tried to make changes, but that meant thinking, which meant losing my grip on something else:  emotional connection, or memorized words, or gestures…

Rehearsal is the key, isn’t it? Doing it again and again. But what worries me is that I’m just doing the same thing again and again, not getting any better.

I’ll let you know after tomorrow’s final class.

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6 Responses to Lessons Learned From Acting Shakespeare – Part One

  1. mabelgygi says:

    Love you, Maryanne! I’m so glad you came to class with me, and I am thinking of changing my Out of Office message to “Trudy is ‘feeding her creativity and caring for her inner artist’ so she will not be returning any of the messages you send her today.”

  2. Pingback: Lessons Learned From Acting Shakespeare – Part Two | A Writer's Notepad

  3. Denis says:

    Hello, I’m really glad to read you here. Your text is engaging as well as your experience. I suppose every play writer or a scriptwriter must get through such a challenge. I suppose now you read Shakespeare with different eyes. Thank you!

  4. jo says:

    You are a very natural writer, and I smiled through your entire piece.

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