“All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts." ~ from William Shakespeare's As You Like It
When Brian Rose, professor in the Department of Theatre at Adelphi, was asked to teach Shakespearean performance to pre-professional students (in acting, directing and other theatrical arts), he had been an actor for more than 20 years. He frequently performed Shakespeare, but pondered how best to teach students how to do The Bard’s writings justice on stage.
‘But, for my own part, it was Greek to me.’ ~ from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
William Shakespeare was perhaps the greatest English writer in the history of the written word. A playwright, poet and actor, he is often called England’s national poet, writing on history, human drama, comedy and romance.
“Shakespeare’s work, written in an earlier form of modern English than our own, can seem quite foreign in the 21st century,” said Professor Rose.
Professor Rose decided that to alleviate students’ common fear of performing Shakespearean drama, he would create a tool kit of sorts, to simplify and demystify the scripts.
“At the most fundamental level, actors say sentences that convey thoughts,” said Professor Rose. “If students are reading scripts without understanding what they are saying it is impossible for them to connect with them on the deeper level required for a genuine, compelling performance.” Therefore, Professor Rose begins with the basics: words and sentences.
“Just as a student would have to understand the culture of the 1940s in order to convincingly play a teenager in a show set in the ’40s, they need to understand the vocabulary and context of the sentences in Shakespeare’s work,” said Professor Rose.
To be successful actors, students need to be believable and to speak lines with “the illusion of the first time”—delivering their lines as if the thoughts had just come to them. To this end, Professor Rose combines classic acting theory with a spotlight on the following 10 tools:
- The Sentence Tool. Every sentence has a message and a purpose; learning how to understand and convey those are crucial.
- The Punctuation Tool. Each punctuation mark tells the actor something—when to breathe, to emphasize, to pause or give intonation. Professor Rose provides a fascinating and extremely helpful guide for decoding the meaning of punctuation in a script.
- The Stress Tool. Shakespeare’s work was meant to be spoken using at least three distinct levels of emphasis. How you add emphasis to a line can transform its meaning.
- Stanislavski’s Stress Tool. Professor Rose discusses the three key elements of the Stanislavski method of acting, an approach developed by Russian actor, director, teacher and author Konstantin Stanislavski in the 1930s and ’40s.
- The Single Beat Word Tool. Phrases composed of monosyllabic words provide unique opportunities to the actor. Professor Rose explains how.
- The Verb and Proper Noun Tool. Varying the emphasis on certain nouns and verbs can enhance the conveyance of the character’s world and the people they know.
- The Antithesis Tool. Shakespeare often juxtaposes words, images, phrases or ideas; students learn how to capitalize on this.
- The Pause Tool. There are three lengths of pauses in drama and each is used for different purposes; learn which is which and when to use them.
- The Phrasing and Midline Break Tool. English speakers tend to speak in three-to-five-word phrases. Shakespeare uses distinct phrasing called a midline break. Understanding this structure can help actors break up Shakespeare verses, often written in the 10-syllable phrases and sentences of iambic pentameter.
- The End of the Line Tool. Professor Rose teaches students how to imbue the last words of their lines with feeling to sustain the impact of their performance.
Notably, many of these are the same tools we often use in normal speech—varying levels of stress, pausing and intonation. This book helps aspiring actors to apply these common tools to the reading of Shakespeare to create a more compelling and believable performance.
Professor Rose has been in theater in one form or another for 45 years. He says, “Not a day has gone by that there wasn’t an opportunity to grow.” His credo is, “Respondeo etsi mutabor“: I will respond although I will be changed.
Professor Rose also prepares Adelphi students for the auditions they are destined to face, including the annual auditions held by the University Resident Theatre Association. “The URTAs,” as they are known, provide graduating students from all theater disciplines—acting, arts leadership, design and technology, directing, and stage management—an opportunity to showcase their skills at a national theatrical recruiting event.
“We must not be afraid to be forced to grow by the material,” he says of learning Shakespeare. “I’ve created this slim little book, a Shakespearean handbook if you will, to help students remember 10 fundamental essential principles, including phrasing, midline pausing, emphasis and a handful of other things.”
“It’s like learning how to read music,” Professor Rose says. “Like sheet music, the words and punctuation in a script can tell you so much more than you might realize.” Equipped with these tools for understanding the work, actors can more easily slip into the characters Shakespeare created.