|Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream|
I’ve had the pleasure these last few months of working with a young student, Paloma, from South America. She has been preparing audition pieces for college acting programs in the New York area. In her early twenties now, Paloma has been playing leading roles in professional companies in her native country since she was eighteen. An accomplished singer/dancer, her repertoire includes musicals as well as straight plays. She speaks four languages and, having lived in America for the first decade of her life, speaks English without an accent. She proposed Juliet’s potion speech, for her dramatic Shakespeare piece and we decided on Phoebe from As You Like it for her contrasting Shakespeare monologue - two Shakespeares were required for one of her auditions.
As Paloma was attracted to Juliet, of course I agreed – for auditions it’s always best to do what you feel strongly about. But in the back of my mind a little voice said, ‘Juliet, huh, she’s sweet, but where do we go from there…’ And a slightly louder voice said, ‘Phoebe could be fun, but it’s very hard to figure out her behavior and point of view so the whole piece actually hangs together…’
Paloma and I Skyped before she arrived in NYC for the last month of preparation. Physically, she is petite, charming, very pretty, lively – all the things you’d want to see in a Renaissance ingénue, but the Bard is hard I thought to myself, all those weird characters spouting archaic language.
I, myself, had a so-so start with Shakespeare. The first monologue I remember learning was at my father’s knee - Juliet, as it happens, the balcony scene, ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ I memorized it before I could read and babbled it obediently, when requested to do so, but probably not in front of anyone other than my father, since I suffered from crippling shyness. My next foray into Shakespeare was at an all-girls boarding school, where I played Henry in Henry V. I actually remembered all those lines and enjoyed waltzing around in a cute pair of pointy boots. At Columbia University, I got to play Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and carry on about how, as Queen of the Fairies, her fight with Oberon was screwing up the weather!
But I was already beginning to obsess about something with which I would struggle for decades; ‘What am I supposed to feel as a verse spouting fairy, fighting with her husband about their joint responsibility regarding the weather?’ (Actors really do have to ask themselves the most ridiculous questions!) Exactly how were you supposed to get satisfying results when ‘doing’ Shakespeare. Honestly, his plays didn’t hold my attention when I was living in London and attended performances by the great classical actors like Olivier and Guilgud at the National Theatre. Their diction and physical actions were impeccable, but they didn’t seem fully ‘alive,’ and I either fell asleep or my mind wandered. The one time I truly loved a Shakespearean performance was Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Company. And it wasn’t just because he put the lovers on swings, it was because the actors actually seemed to be talking to each other about something they really believed in.
I thought my Shakespeare problem would be solved when I got into RADA. But their technique of teaching ‘poetic language’ confused me even further. I got all balled up in figuring out the stresses and rhythms of scanning the verse – and then that mess got inextricably entangled with something awful called ‘rib reserve breathing’ – that I couldn’t act any more. When I played Adrianna in A Comedy of Errors, I even forgot my lines! It was the nadir of my artistic existence…
I think Shakespeare had a lot to do with my finally becoming a teacher – and the fact that what intelligence I possess comes more from my ‘animal’ side than anything human. What I mean by this probably has nothing to do with animals and humans, but it feels as if it does. If something is ‘bad’ for me, I will eternally seek a way to get away from it, but usually by going back to it again and again until I grasp the one simple thing I’m doing wrong. After that, I lose interest. If I get a taste of something ‘necessary’ to me, I will never stop trying to ‘own’ it, in one way or another. Of course, most of the time I’m wrong and the thing isn’t ‘necessary’ at all, and the way I find that out is by getting it and not wanting it in the end. Shakespeare, however, has continued to be ‘necessary’ no matter how many times my experience with it has been painful, if not downright humiliating. And throughout my life, other actors, very occasionally a director, but mostly from trying to teach it to my students, I have been shown ‘the way into Shakespeare.’
My streak of bad luck with the Bard began to turn around when I encountered Andre Gregory and later went off to Poland to work with members of the Polish Lab Theatre. That’s a long story, which I’ll get into another time, but I will take a moment to talk about finding my voice - Shakespeare doesn’t work, unless one’s voice is centered and available. I found mine late one night when I had a ‘primal’ experience in a workshop, lead by Ludwig Flazen, co-founder of Jerzy Grotowski’s Teatr Laboratorium. Another break-through occurred during a period of rehearsal when Andre was toying with the idea of producing Macbeth. One of the actors noticed that I was struggling with Lady M.’s monologues; he showed me how to read the Letter speech and the Sleepwalking Scene with the correct scansion. Suddenly, it made sense. My major problem was due to two simple facts I had failed to grasp among all the endless ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ of versification; never stress an unstressed syllable, and if you have to, it means that the line is irregular.
Next week, I’ll describe a couple of learning experiences I’ve had teaching Shakespeare and how I’ve gradually developed a profound kinship with the world of his plays, culminating in my recent work with the very gifted Paloma.