About Me

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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

First Folio Shakespeare Method - A lecture

Over on Parabasis, Isaac asked a very earnest question and I feel it's probably best not to joke about it there. So I will, appropriately, joke about it here. Isaac asks about reading the text how to determine what Polonious should wear in Act I, Scene 2 of Hamlet.

This made me think of First Folio. I worked with a First Folio crew right out of college, in the worst ever production of Romeo and Juliet (I was Romeo, and I can tell you it was a smashing failure) with the New Hampshire Shakespeare Festival. For those of you unfamiliar with the First Folio sect of the Shakespeare Worshipping Society, here is an example of the sort of logic to be found therein.


First Folio - A lecture


Listen up you maggots. I am here to set the record straight about Shakespeare, who was NOT the Earl of Oxford, thank you very much, but was also in total command of every single word, phrase, loose end and capital letter he placed in every word on every page of everything he ever wrote. He was not simply a genius, as we all accept, but he was correct and perfect in all things, and the only way to strive towards perfection is to attempt to find the messages he clearly sent in every syllable, and obey them, like slaves to a terrible and immortal master.

Each one of you, who has come here today, has come because you are unworthy to lick the fading ink from the bottom of Shakespeare's shoes. You have tried to direct productions of Hamlet set in 1920s Vermont, recast King Lear's Fool as a pack of wild dogs with tape recorders on their backs, performed Julius Caesar with a Kindergarten class, and rewrote and recut Much Ado About Nothing so it could be done effectively in sign language. You are tired of trying to climb the great wall of William armed only with your own lesser impulses. You've come to find out what the writer truly wrote, because after years of a sub-par liberal arts education, you are completely unable to read.

I will provide you with the facts. The only true facts. And before we break up into groups and cry and pound out iams with drums, I would like to give you a quick list of the rules we will follow at all times. Are you ready? I know you are:

1. Shakespeare tells us how to say it. One of the biggest problem facing actors raised on Marlon Brando and Owen Wilson is that they, in fact, feel that they have carte blanche to push the words around in a way that feels "True" to them. Truth has nothing to do with speaking. For example, I am often lying to my friends and family. Does that mean I am not talking? NO.

Each line is written with a certain number of beats. Most lines are ten beats long. They are the "common" lines and should be delivered loudly, so they can be heard, and without any inflection at all. Adding inflection to a ten beat line is the same as adding "just kidding" to the end of the Ten Commandments.

Some lines are eleven beats long. That means they suddenly seem to falter. When speaking these lines, let your voice trail off into wistful nothingness. Show the audience that you are both thoughtful and confused. The more confusion the better, as an eleven beat line is not supposed to have either emotional clarity or directness.

Some lines are twelve beats. That means they should be shouted at the top of one's lungs, as if the sheer effort of speaking for so long is a cruel torture. With lines so long, Shakespeare is performing the functional equivalent of poking you in the psychological ass with an ethereal hot poker. Let the screams come and the line will sing.

If you find a longer line that twelve, simply add the end of that line to the beginning of the next.

If you find prose, as they call it in the funnies, speak it as quickly as possible and get it over with. Shakespeare was not a prose writer, and writing in prose is his way of protesting an addition to his script that he felt was unnecessary. It was a way of saying to a producer, "You smell as sweet as The Rose." For those who don't know, the Rose, in Shakespeare's day, smelled very much like shit.

Capital letters should be highlighted with a raised eyebrow. All words should be pronounced phonetically, even if it makes you sound like you have Down's Syndrome. One must sacrifice pride for accuracy.

2. Shakespeare tell us where to stand. Blocking is often decried by directors as the artistic equal of being a traffic cop. Some claim it is an art, others a dreadful bore. Luckily, Shakespeare doesn't care about directors and doesn't care about your problems. He simply shows each actor where to go and when based on subtle indications in the text.

For example, when a character says "you" to another character, that is more informal than "thou." If a character says "you," regardless of what they are saying, the performer should walk towards the other actor, the one they are speaking to. If a character says "thou," the performer should move his or her character to the other side of the stage and remain there, holding his or her nose. (Note: it could be the other way around.)

Another example is the word "sir." If a character says "sir" one must bow upon speaking the word, each time the word is said. If the character says "sire" the performer should drop onto all fours, like a dog that deserves kicking. If the term is "My Lord" one should hold out his or her hands in front of his or her face, to shield the character's eyes from the blinding light of the other character's authority.

It's all there. Clear as day. All you have to do is read it. Idiots.

3. Shakespeare wanted us to cut nothing. When anything is lost in the text, regardless of length, we are placing his plays on the ground, pulling down our trousers, and relieving our collective bowels on literary history.

4. Shakespeare wants us to speak quickly. Cutting nothing means speaking faster than most people can hear, because otherwise many productions would be five or six hours long. The reason for this is that we now think and hear much more slowly than Shakespeare's often uneducated audience did. They actually had brains and ears that were 20% larger than ours. Shakespeare's was 60% larger than the average human brain. You can look it up.

For the most part, the audience will catch many of the important words if you speak as quickly as possible, as most plays are written carefully so that only the third and sixth words of every line are important. Everything else is gravy.

5. Do not rehearse. Once we learn all these rules, rehearsal only stands between you and perfection. The more impulsively you perform these plays, scroll in hand, with all the rules in mind, the closer you are to the chaotic glory that Shakespeare not only intended, but encouraged.

Rehearsal is a very long, expensive process and much like us; Shakespeare was poor. Why waste time? Read the text aloud, perhaps once, with the other actors. Then you can charge whatever will pay the rent and rush through the text, as the rules indicate, and show them the true nature of his plays.

If they want to understand every single word, they can buy the Arden like I had to.

All right! I think that's a good start don't you? There are some more specifics we'll get into, as there are literally hundreds of tiny things to remember before you can truly perform his plays as God, meaning Shakepeare himself, intended. But with those 5 rules to start with, I think we will make excellent progress and removing all your failed impulses. In fact, we will remove any impulses, good or bad. But honestly, who needs them when you've got Will, king of all words, to lead you to the stage?

Now, let's begin with Hamlet's speech to the Players...



Scott Walters said...

Yeah, I've run into as few like you describe. But as the former Associate Artistic Director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, I can tell you that I've run into a LOT more who think that verse is just prose that's been printed oddly, that Shakespeare didn't pay any attention to the rhythms and words he was using, and if you just feel it all deeply the words will take of themselves. I know that my lifespan has been lessened by several years as a result of sitting through Shakespeare productions directed by and cast with such no-nothings.

I suppose the Greeks' "moderation in all things" applies here. And if you err, err on the side of actually analyzing the verse.

Freeman said...

And here I thought I could get away with being funny. Or trying to.

Scott Walters said...

Nah -- I have no sense of humor.