Comedy for Your Shakespeare Lessons

Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield are the authors of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Below is a Q&A Daniel and Jess did with StageNotes.net.

StageNotes: What were your favorite subjects in high school and why?

DanielSinger

Daniel: Drama, Concert Choir, Yearbook, Art, English. The arts classes were great because we learned by DOING. Studying English gave me practical writing skills that I use every day. Touch Typing was probably one of the most helpful classes of my entire life.

JessWinfieldCurrent Headshot JWJess: English, European History, and P.E. (I was on the basketball team until my Junior year). I enjoyed Drama, but gave it up in favor of the Forensics (speech) team. Same idea of developing skills in performance, delivery, comic timing and the like, but more fun travel, days off from school; plus I knew I’d have a great role because I was choosing the material myself. And I wouldn’t have to deal with other pesky actors: I would play ALL the roles!

SN: How did you first become interested in Shakespeare?

Daniel: My 8th grade class read Romeo & Juliet aloud and I instantly loved the verse form of the dialogue. The rhythmic language appealed to me and I didn’t have any problem understanding it. When the BBC filmed all of Shakespeare’s plays in the late 1970’s I watched them all and thought, “Some of these plays are fantastic! (Others, not so much!)” While studying drama in London, I saw everything the Royal Shakespeare Company did. They were so adept at finding clever techniques to make the old plays feel new. Their modern-dress Taming of the Shrew with Jonathan Pryce blew my mind.

Jess: I’d only had the requisite curriculum in Shakespeare (R&J, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Henry IV Parts 1 and 2) and hadn’t been wowed by any of it. Then two actors from the Ashland Shakespeare Festival came to perform for our drama class. They did a couple of Shakespeare scenes (which ones, I don’t recall), but they also did a bit of the game of “Questions” from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which prompted me to buy a copy of the play immediately. As it happened, my English class was just starting Hamlet. I found the interplay between the two works exhilarating. So in a way, my entrée to Shakespeare has always been via the backdoor of parody and satire… and Tom Stoppard.

SN: You mention in the notes that the play was originally developed through improvisation and ad lib. Can you please explain how the play came to be?

Daniel grew up in Santa Rosa CA, just up the road from the original Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Marin County. He’d worked there as an actor in the late 1970’s. After drama school, he sent the Faire a proposal to produce a half-hour Hamlet – all Faire entertainment was scheduled in half-hour timeslots. There was a surprising lack of Shakespeare in their offerings so they gave the show a green light. Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet had proven that an abbreviated version of the Prince of Denmark’s tragic tale was both easy to follow and comical in its sheer brevity, so it seemed like a natural. Daniel’s script was originally just a reduction of the play with no jokes in it.

Two of the actors Daniel hired, Jess Winfield and Adam Long, were brilliant young comics. We were all strongly influenced by the antics of the Marx Brothers, Bugs Bunny, and Monty Python. Our Hamlet became a showcase of broad humor and personal interactions between the actors. This allowed the audience to enjoy the show on multiple levels: the cleverness of seeing the greatest play in the English language rudely compacted into an absurdly short skit; the delight of vaudeville-style slapstick adapted to a 16th-Century idiom; and the witty interplay of three charismatic guys struggling to get through the damn thing.

Keep reading this interview at StageNotes.net!

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s classic farce, two of its original writer/performers (Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield) have thoroughly revised the show to bring it up to date for 21st-century audiences, incorporating some of the funniest material from the numerous amateur and professional productions that have been performed around the world.

The cultural touchstone that is The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) was born when three inspired, charismatic comics, having honed their pass-the-hat act at Renaissance fairs, premiered their preposterous masterwork at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1987. It quickly became a worldwide phenomenon, earning the title of London’s second-longest-running comedy after a decade at the Criterion Theatre. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) is one of the world’s most frequently produced plays, and has been translated into several dozen languages.

Featured are all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, meant to be performed in 97 minutes, by three actors. Fast paced, witty, and physical, it’s full of laughter for Shakespeare lovers and haters alike.

For Creative Writing Teachers: Sifting for Character

BruceMillerIn this post, StageNotes.net makes suggestions of how to use Bruce Miller’s Actor’s Alchemy book in different kinds of classrooms, including creative writing, science, social studies, and psychology. StageNotes’ advice for Creative Writing teachers was “Have your students read Chapter 5 “Sifting for a Character” before they begin working on a play.” Here is an abbreviated version of one of Miller’s classroom exercise Roll Call. Pick up a copy of the book for the full instructions.

Character is most effectively and reliably displayed through a careful selection and execution of actions, not by magically inhabiting a character through some internal or emotional process. I use a particular exercise with my own beginning actors at the beginning of the semester to demonstrate the points I am making here. The game, called Character Roll Call, goes something like this.

I start by asking my students to answer, “Here,” when I call their name. I tell them to answer as themselves as though attendance were actually being taken. I ask the class to observe each other very carefully during the process and to make determinations about each class member based on what they see and hear. They may even take notes if they want to in order to better help them remember what they observed.

As a result of the group discussion, my class will usually conclude that any demonstration of character under the circumstances of the first round of the exercise was sketchy at best. They had too little time and too little opportunity to inhabit and communicate character.

In the second round of the exercise, I ask my students to think of a dominant personality characteristic they possess. It could be anything from shyness to egotism to a great sense of humor to sadness or cynicism. Once they have pinpointed this characteristic, I ask them to come up with a single physical action demonstrating this quality that they could believably execute when their name is called during the next round of attendance taking. The key here is twofold. First, they will have to come up with an action that actually suggests the quality, which, depending on the characteristic, could be difficult indeed. If they can’t come up with an action to represent the characteristic, I tell them to change the quality they are trying to communicate. The idea in acting is to always make choices that can be carried out successfully.

In this round of the game, my actors have a much larger body of work to discuss. Because everyone in the class had to make choices, chances are even if not every choice was absolutely clear, far more of them were interesting, because thought went into their selection. Further, more students willingly guessed at the personality characteristics suggested through the actions presented, because this time through they were more than random and spontaneous reactions of the moment. In other words, because of the specific choices of action, character emerged. And the point of all this is that the exercise is not unlike any scripted acting situation in which an actor has the obligation to be believable, serve the overall script, and do the things his or her character would do under the circumstances while forwarding their own storytelling responsibilities. Each of the actors in the exercise in round two were responsible for the following:

• executing actions that seemed real rather than acted

• executing actions that came naturally out of the situation

• saying “Here” in a way that was consistent with the actions being played and reflecting the ongoing progression in the scene

They also needed to accomplish the following:

• making and executing choices that led to a natural flow from one student to the next

• listening and reacting even when it wasn’t their turn to perform in the spotlight, and listening in a way consistent with who they are in real life, since they were playing the character of themselves

• making their time in the spotlight reflective of their personality trait without any extra mustard

• making their moments in real time and without commenting on their work

A central point of the ensemble element of this game is that an actor must maintain the action of his or her character even when not in principal focus.

In life, no one stops being who they are when they are not speaking, yet so often, beginning actors think they are acting only when they have lines. Childish, no? Each time you respond as a character, execute an action, carry out some business, or move toward or away from someone or something, you add to the audience’s perception of your character. In fact, the sum total of all the actions you execute create for the audience the illusion of character.

The audience will put together the kindness you show in one scene, the anger demonstrated in another, and the intelligence or whimsicality of other moments and mix all the pieces into a complex whole, just the way people do in life. If you come alive only for your spoken moments, you can never expect to be fully believed or to produce a fully realized character.

In the third round of Roll Call, I ask my students to take a moment and come up with a strong personality trait that they can translate into a physical action or series of actions. My actors are now free from the strictures of trying to portray themselves truthfully. They are now free to step outside of themselves and be more creative.

By the end of this sequence of exercises, my students are pretty well convinced that character can be created through a series of actions without the need to somehow completely transform themselves into the character being played. They also understand that successful acting usually results from careful analysis and planning rather than from simply relying on intuition and spontaneous brilliance. Of course, the acting process reserves a special place for those who can live in the moment and react, but most actors cannot afford to rely on that ability alone.

Read more tips for teachers on StageNotes.net.

About the Book

Acting can – and should – be more than guesswork and instinct. Actor’s Alchemy: Finding the Gold in The Script by Bruce Miller examines the relationship between the script and what an actor ultimately does on the stage or on screen. Here is a straightforward guide filled with useful information to help actors learn to use their scripts in a specific and analytical way to solve the problems of the scene and bring their elusive characters to life. In learning how to decipher the script, actors will be equipped to make the choices that lead to delivering a gold performance.

Voice and Speech Training Today by Nancy Saklad

Guest Blogger: Nancy Saklad is the author of Voice and Speech Training in the New Millennium. Below is a post she wrote for the blog StageNotes.net.

Voice and speech training today is a far cry from the elocution training of the 19th century with its cookie cutter, perfectly shaped vowels and predetermined patterns of inflection. Today’s training does not uphold a single “standard” for all actors to learn (except perhaps a standard of vocal health and safety.) Rather, today’s voice and speech training provides tools for freeing the actor’s instrument and expanding the actor’s expressiveness. It is not considered separate from actor training but instead a means of evoking performances that are rich in clarity, variety, spontaneity, emotional and intellectual expressiveness and safe for the actor’s instrument. This type of training directs the actor’s awareness to the sensation of the ever-changing moment and so keeps him in the moment with this point of focus.

For more please visit StageNotes.net.

Voice and Speech Training in the New Millennium

Voice and speech training has long been a part of the fabric of actor training and the training of those whose task it has been to persuade through the voice: primarily actors, politicians, lawyers, and other public speakers. Voice and Speech Training in the New Millennium is a collection of interviews with 24 of today’s leading voice and speech teachers, each of whom has contributed to the advancement of the field and made today’s training a cutting edge component of actor training. Included are interviews with master teachers Richard Armstrong, Cicely Berry, Patsy Rodenburg, Kristin Linklater, Catherine Fitzmaurice, Dudley Knight, Robert Barton, Rocco DalVera, Natsuko Ohama, Nancy Krebs, Bonnie Raphael, Susan Sweeney, Fran Bennett, Louis Colaianni, Nancy Houfek, Jan Gist, Andrea Haring, Saul Kotzubei, Robert Neff Williams, Andrew Wade, David Carey, Phil Thompson, Deb Kinghorn, and Gillian Lane-Plescia. Amidst their similarities and differences in approach is a unified spirit and acknowledgment that voice work is of fundamental importance to the actor’s training process and has the potential to resonate profoundly with the actor and with the audience.

The 2011-2012 Broadway Season

Robert Viagas PlblYrbook_AuPhoto_314865Robert Viagas is the editor of The Playbill Broadway Yearbook: June 2011 to May 2012. Below, StageNotes.net asks Mr. Viagas, “How would you describe the 2011-2012 Broadway season?”

Given the economy people expected a contraction of both the number of productions and the amount spent on tickets. Suprisingly, it was exactly the opposite. Broadway had another season in which it sold more than a billion dollars with of tickets, and that’s billion with a “b.” Yes tickets are expensive—but there seems to be plenty of people willing to spend the money.

As I wrote in the preface to the 2011-2012 Yearbook, it was a richly diverse season of tuneful new musicals, delirious comedies, hard-hitting dramas and exuberant dances, plus revivals of some of the greatest works in the American theatrical canon: “Death of a Salesman,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Porgy and Bess,” in versions that earned their share of controversy, criticism…and several key awards.

Composer Stephen Sondheim, who turned 82 this season, rattled Broadway in summer 2011 by blasting Diane Paulus’s new shortened and punched-up version of “Porgy and Bess,” not just for assuming the vanity title “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” (elbowing out librettist and co-lyricist DuBose Heyward, Sondheim noted), but for bringing in Pulitzer laureate Suzan-Lori Parks to rewrite the libretto and even to change the show’s ending. Sondheim—a Pulitzer-winner himself—excoriated these maulings of the classic. But the result was pleasing enough to win “TGPaB” a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, incidentally beating a noteworthy revival of Sondheim’s own “Follies.”

The 2011-2012 season will be remembered for a pyrotechnic display of bravura performances, not least Audra McDonald’s Tony-winning turn as Bess. Audiences were thrilled by Danny Burstein’s heartbreaking performance as Buddy in “Follies,” Christian Borle as a Groucho-Marxian proto-Captain Hook in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” Nina Arianda as a fake (or maybe not) dominatrix in “Venus in Fur,” Ricky Martin as an audience-pleasing Che in “Evita,” Raul Esparza as a charismatic con-man in “Leap of Faith,” and Jeremy Jordan in TWO brightly etched lead performances in “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Newsies,” et al.

Even with all these, the showstopper performance of the season was James Corden’s brethless clowning turn in “One Man, Two Guvnors.” How good was Corden? In the Tony contest for Best Leading Actor in a Play Corden beat heavyweights Philip Seymour Hoffman, Frank Langella, John Lithgow and James Earl Jones, who were themselves giving stage-shaking performances.

It was a season packed with romance (“Once”), politics (“Newsies”), adventure (“Peter and the Starcatcher”) race relations (“Clybourne Park” and “Stick Fly”), families in crisis (“Other Desert Cities,” “Stick Fly”) and religion. Lots of religion. Two shows depicted the crucifixion of Jesus, “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” “Leap of Faith” enacted a tent revival. Holdover show “Sister Act” rocked a convent full of nuns singing gospel. Another holdover, “The Book of Mormon” continued to have fun (and earn a million bucks a week) with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

“Once” won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, not just because the bittersweet Irish love story touched so many hearts, but because the show had a unique look and sound. In 1960 Richard Rodgers wrote “No Strings,” a musical that used virtually no strings in the pit. “Once” did the opposite: with a supporting cast of street musicians, it used only strings (plus an accordion).

And yet, 2011-2012 will be remembered as the season without a blockbuster—unless you count Hugh Jackman’s solo show that was so solidly sold out that they passed on the chance to be nominated for a Tony Award because they didn’t want to give out free tickets to all the potential voters. They sold them instead, kept the money…and watched as Jackman was given a special Tony Award anyway. But that show was only a limited run, as was the other SRO show, “Death of a Salesman.” “Once,” “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “Newsies” were some of the biggest hits of the season, but none was solidly sold out until after the Tony Awards. There was no new “Book of Mormon,” “Jersey Boys” or “The Producers” this year.

Which is not to say that Broadway didn’t sell a lot of tickets. Though the number of tickets sold was down slightly, the overall gross for the season was a new record–$1.14 billion.

Keep reading this article on StageNotes.net.

The Playbill Broadway Yearbook: May 2011 to June 2012

Many of the people who work on Broadway keep scrapbooks of their experiences: photos, signed posters, ticket stubs, and, of course the Playbills. These are treasured keepsakes, something to be savored over a lifetime, and then passed on to friends and descendants. Playbill Books, a division of the iconic 128-year-old company that designs the programs for every show on Broadway, has expanded this idea into an annual project that has become a Broadway institution: The Playbill Broadway Yearbook. Taking the form of a high school or college yearbook, the eighth edition is packed with photos (more than 4,000 of them, many in color) and memorabilia from the entire 2011-2012 Broadway season.

High School Inspired Broadway: Q & A with Robert Viagas

Robert Viagas PlblYrbook_AuPhoto_314865Robert Viagas is the editor of The Playbill Broadway Yearbook: June 2011 to May 2012. Below is a Q &A with StageNotes.net.

What first sparked your interest in Broadway and Theatre?

Being tall (now 6′ 4”) had a curious amount to do with it. Although I wasn’t raised in a theatrical household, I was often asked play the father or other adult roles in elementary school plays because I was the tallest. Then, when I was in my teens, I had a friend who loved theatre and got a reviewing gig for our local newspaper so he could see shows for free. But Times Square in the 1970s was a much more dangerous place than it is now, so he invited me to come along, partly as a bodyguard, I suppose. Well, the theatre bug bit me hard, and it’s been all downhill from there. I’m now a member of the Tony nominating committee, as well as being founder of Playbill.com and founding editor of “The Playbill Broadway Yearbook.” Over the years I have blocked the view of countless theatregoers sitting behind me, especially when I am accompanied by one of my sons, who are 6’8” and 6’6”, respectively.

What was your favorite subject in High School and why?

It would be easy to say Music or English, both of which I did like a lot. My 8th grade English teacher Miss Heidengen, took me to my first Broadway show on a field trip: “Man of La Mancha.” But my favorite was Social Studies, mainly because I also like history and, especially, maps. That interest has helped me a lot when watching plays like Shakespeare’s War of the Roses dramas or more recent plays like “Copenhagen,” “Democracy,” “The Coast of Utopia,” and even “Clybourne Park.” Every year our high school music department staged a big musical, and in 7th grade I was invited to help beef-up the chorus of “Guys and Dolls,” again because I was tall and could easily pass for a 10th grader. In 11th grade they gave me the lead in “Promises, Promises,” even though the lead usually went to a senior. So I did have a certain fondness for Music as well, although I played no instrument. However, I didn’t consider theatre as a career at that point.

How did the Playbill Broadway Yearbook come to be 8 seasons ago?

It was the brainchild of our publisher, Philip Birsh, who had originally hired me to launch and run Playbill.com, and has since expanded Playbill from being just a theatre program company into a theatre INFORMATION company, with numerous websites, a travel branch, an online branch, a book branch, broadcast, etc. He walked into my office one day and said, “I have an idea. Let’s make a high school yearbook, but for the people who work on Broadway.” Everything else grew out of that.

Keep reading this Q&A on StageNotes.net.

The Playbill Broadway Yearbook: June 2011 to May 2012

Many of the people who work on Broadway keep scrapbooks of their experiences: photos, signed posters, ticket stubs, and, of course the Playbills. These are treasured keepsakes, something to be savored over a lifetime, and then passed on to friends and descendants. Playbill Books, a division of the iconic 128-year-old company that designs the programs for every show on Broadway, has expanded this idea into an annual project that has become a Broadway institution: The Playbill Broadway Yearbook. Taking the form of a high school or college yearbook, the eighth edition is packed with photos (more than 4,000 of them, many in color) and memorabilia from the entire 2011-2012 Broadway season.

The new edition includes chapters on 70 Broadway shows, which is every show that ran during the season – not just such new shows as Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Once, Newsies, Nice Work If You Can Get It, and One Man, Two Guvnors, but the long-running ones from seasons past, such as Phantom of the Opera, The Book of Mormon, and Wicked. In addition to headshots of all the actors who appeared in Playbill, the book has photos of producers, writers, designers, stage managers, stagehands, musicians, ushers – even Leonardo, the “SM” fish who is the backstage mascot at Jersey Boys. This year’s roster is expected to top 10,000 names.

Q&A with Andrew Gerle

Andrew GerleAndrew Gerle is the author of The Enraged Accompanist’s Guide to the Perfect Audition. Below is a Q&A that was done with stagenotes.net.

What first sparked your interest in Broadway and Theatre?

I’ve been in love with theater since I was a small child, doing plays and musicals in school growing up, then joining a children’s theater company in Tallahassee. I love music (grew up as a classical pianist) and I love stories, so it’s a perfect combination.

What was your favorite subject in High School and why?

I was a typical music/math geek, so I really liked math classes. It was like doing puzzles. Organic chemistry was also fun, similar puzzle-type activity.

When did you decide to write The Enraged Accompanist’s Guide to the Perfect Audition and why?

I had been toying with the idea for several years before I sat down to write it a few summers ago. I had played so many auditions and had begun to see patterns in the actors that were auditioning, simple pointers that clearly they just weren’t being taught. I love actors, and it frustrated me to see good ones giving bad auditions when I knew they could be doing better and feeling better about the process.

Other than auditioning, what lessons can be taken away from the book for subjects like Public Speaking, Music, Psychology, Social Studies, etc.?

I’ve had a lot of people read the book and see parallels in other disciplines. What I stress is not only the nuts-and-bolts specifics of audition technique for musical theater, but even more importantly, the mindset that leads to a successful audition, and a successful career. When you put too much pressure on a single audition (or speech, or performance, or athletic event), it can really get in your way. The most successful auditions are ones where the actor is simply showing themselves off to their best ability, doing what they do best, not trying to be something they’re not, not trying to please people they’ve never met. Confidence is seductive and leads to a better performance, no matter what the field.

Keep reading this interview on stagenotes.net.

The Enraged Accompanist’s Guide to the Perfect Audition

“I am your accompanist. You do not know me. I am the guy who sits behind the upright in the unflattering fluorescent light of the dance studio, a bottle of water on the floor, a half-eaten Power Bar on the bench, and your audition in my hands.”

Award-winning New York theatre composer and pianist Andrew Gerle pulls no punches in this irreverent, fly-on-the-wall guide to everything you’ve never been taught about auditioning for musical theatre. From the unique perspective of the pianist’s bench, he demystifies the audition process, from how to put together your book and speak to an accompanist to the healthiest and savviest ways to approach the audition marketplace and your career. By better understanding the dynamics of professional auditions, you will learn to present yourself in the strongest, most castable way while remaining true to your own special voice – the one that, in the end, will get you the job.

Show Choir Suggestions from Mike Weaver

MikeWeaver3-4c_2_3Guest Blogger: Mike Weaver is the co-author (along with Colleen Hart) of Sweat, Tears, and Jazz Hands. Below is a post Mike did for the blog stagenotes.net.

With all of the music in the world – not surprisingly, not every song translates well to choral singing (and dancing!). The best test for whether a particular song has the potential to work for show choir (or not), is to ask a simple question: Does the song allow the performers to communicate directly to the audience in FIRST PERSON? Ideally, a song should allow the performers to “play a character” with a need to communicate something to the audience. Something along the line of:
• I AM…!
• I WANT…!
• WE ARE…!
• WE WANT…!

Story songs (told from a THIRD PERSON’s POV) require a more non-presentational (and non-confrontational) choreographic interpretation. You can recognize these songs easily, because they are songs about “other people”. Often times, from a staging standpoint, story songs split the audiences attention between WHO IS SINGING and WHO THEY ARE SINGING ABOUT. If the staging tries to stay true to the lyric, then someone may be required to “act out the story” while the chorus sings about what the actors are doing. The challenge is to help the audience know where to look. And it is awkward for the performers to sing about themselves in THIRD PERSON. Show choir versions of story songs require special attention in balancing visual, vocal and theatrical elements. You can recognize a story song by their subject matter – typically:

Keep reading this post on stagenotes.net.

Sweat, Tears, and Jazz Hands

Featuring more than 100 competitive show choirs from around the United States in photos, quotations, and stories, this edutainment-style book details the pop culture and theater influences that, over time, built this unique entertainment genre into the mecca of music lovers that it is today.

Read real-life accounts of show choir performers, directors, and choreographers. Catch a glimpse into a once practically unknown society of “swing choirs.” Discover what P. T. Barnum, Bob Fosse, speakeasies, cigarette companies, the modern-day blender, and Lady Gaga all have to do with this glitter-drenched community of singers and dancers.

Take a step beyond the hit show Glee and learn about the real drama, the hard work, the sweat, and the tears. Find out what it takes to build an award-winning competition set; the branding, the budgets, the strategy and the performance. Meet the characters. Learn the lingo. Fall in love with show choirs.