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Shakespeare’s Birthday

In celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, enjoy an excerpt from our brand new book, Shakespeare for American Actors and Directorswritten by Aaron Frankel.

Language as Action

Granted all its other mighty powers, for the actor Shakespeare’s language defines the actions that reveal character. That will be the beacon of this book.

Two contrasting ways about how to read Shakespeare in performance have been described: “romantic” and “realistic.” The former is lyrical, rhapsodies of cadences, singing vowels; the latter is more straightforward, sound matching sense. Ever since Edwin Booth, whose 1890(!) recordings of passages from Othello and Hamlet still sound astonishingly modern, the American way is on the “realistic” side: Richard Mansfield, E. H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe, John Barrymore, Walter Hampden, Orson Welles, James Earl Jones, all followed Booth’s precedent.

Wherever between these contrasts your personal music falls, catch what you hear as the sound of the role and move your music to it. For Richard II, Orsino, or Juliet, say, more “romantic”; for Richard III, Lady Macbeth, or Kate the Shrew, more “realistic”; for Prince Hal, Iago, Portia, Rosalind, in between. Your tuning, what you hear.

There are startling freedoms within this range. Thus, in his time, Laurence Olivier picked up a cue about the excitable Hotspur (“his speech was thick”) and produced a stammer, his thoughts too fast for his tongue, stamping his foot sometimes to get the word out. Similarly, Orson Welles did Shylock with a Yiddish accent, an outsider among the Venetians, and abruptly the play took on fuller meaning. The actor’s courage, truth, then, now, always.

Shakespeare himself will cue us, sometimes obviously so: Dr. Caius’ accent in The Merry Wives of Windsor, or Princess Katharine’s and Alice’s in Henry V. More often there are broader implications, such as the high-minded, carefully spoken “second language” speech of Othello, an African Moor (another stranger in the midst), until it turns magnificently and natively savage at the end. Polonius and Malvolio are each differently pretentious and pompous, Malvolio turning even more affected on becoming a “lover.”

Shakespeare for American Actors and Directors

Fear grips many American actors and directors faced with the opportunity to perform Shakespeare live. The challenges of Elizabethan British speech patterns, the thought of using verse for hours, the debate over staging a period piece versus “updating” the Bard of Avon – all can cause psychogenic trauma on this side of the Atlantic.

Let Broadway legend Aaron Frankel show the way in Shakespeare for American Actors and Directors. This book views Shakespeare’s work through the lens of American performance, catering specifically to the learning sensibilities of American-bred talent. Its streamlined size and reader-friendly presentation make it a practical tool for actors and directors wishing to learn Bard-based performance tactics.

Aaron Frankel plunges readers into the meanings of scenes so they can envision the interplay of characters and step into a role to experiment with ways to convey those meanings. He provides scene examples through which to apply performance techniques.

To capture the spirit of the book in Frankel’s words, “What is totally current is that Shakespeare’s dramatic forte, which is the involvement of his characters with each other, and the core of American acting, which is actors affecting each other, make a perfect match.”

Shakespeare’s Birthday: A Celebration of a Masterful Playwright

Guest Blogger: Mary Z. Maher is the author of Actors Talk About Shakespeare.

I write interview books about classical actors who perform Shakespeare.  Although there are dozens of joys in this line of work, there are also some occasional interview surprises. While talking with Kevin Kline about playing Falstaff, his cell phone rang and an intense conversation followed.  Afterwards, he quietly explained that he and his wife, Phoebe Cates Kline, had taken turns checking their child’s insulin levels in the middle of the night for years.  Kline then lifted his T-shirt and showed a plastic device attached to his chest that regulated insulin.  He said, “If I’m going to have to persuade my child into wearing a thing like that, I’d better darn well know how it feels.”  Wow, I thought.  That’s a step or two beyond method acting!  The Klines have for years dedicated their work and their considerable renown to research in juvenile diabetes.

Kenneth Branagh has a marvelous administrator who told me I could have exactly one hour with Mr. Branagh, as she delivered him to the hotel conference room in London where I would be interviewing him.  He was very busy that day.  Luckily, he moved into the interview mode quickly, not exactly imitating the tiger, but doing a splendid version of a university professor, complete with flowing Shavian sentences and gargantuan gestures as he paced and circled the room.  At the end of 60 minutes, I told him with deep regret that his time was up.  He looked at me rather startled and said, “WELL.  I’ll just go and have a pee, and then you can have all the time you want.”  He gave me a full three hours, completely in character and thoroughly enjoying himself.

Headed toward an interview in my very first book in the 1980s, I’d arranged to meet Ben Kingsley in the lobby of the Lyric Hammersmith, because we both assumed that it would be quiet and deserted on a Saturday morning.  Just as we sat down, a troupe of roughly 100 youngsters paraded into the theater, complete with instruments and shouting, ready for their morning workshop in musical theater.  My heart fell, but Sir Ben was unflappable.  He arranged the menu as a sound barrier around my tape recorder and then gave me an interview so complete I had only to add the punctuation when I wrote it into a chapter.  I was later told by a friend that he’d delivered that material at RSC workshops the summer he played Hamlet there, and she was so hoping that someone had recorded it for posterity.

Well, I did.  And I continue to do this in Actors Talk about Shakespeare, a book which reveals the actors’ process in preparing to perform Shakespeare.  The interviews are rich, mercurial, and quixotic but very revealing of the sparks of humanity that fuel that acting genius.

Actors Talk About Shakespeare

Bravo, Shakespeare. Even today, his plays challenge celebrated actors to hone their skills and electrify audiences. Imagine the process actors undergo to recreate these spellbinding roles on stage. In an interview with the author, Kevin Kline declared that playing Shakespeare “uses a different muscle group in your head.”

Actors Talk About Shakespeare features personal interviews with a stellar collection of prominent American, Canadian, and British performers of Shakespeare onstage, including Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Stacy Keach, Zoe Caldwell, Martha Henry, William Hutt, Tony Church, Nicholas Pennell, and Geoff Hutchings. In conversations equivalent to a magician telling his secrets, Mary Z. Maher uncovers the actors’ process. The book speaks to theater patrons, to actors both novice and experienced, and to educators who teach Shakespeare. Each chapter profiles a career in context, using the actor’s words along with supporting research material. The result is a treasury of talents, tactics, and tales from veteran performers who return often to Shakespeare from careers in film and television.