Happy (almost) February, folks! These past few months, my fellow PAC Acting Apprentices – Merci, Ashley, Angie, Brendan, Adam, and I – have had the great pleasure of workshopping a bit of Shakespeare under the instruction of the mighty-talented Dan Hodge and Krista Apple. And while it has been an amazingly enriching experience, performing Shakespeare can also feel impossible at times. Let’s face it. Shakespeare at times can be completely dense and elusive. Sometimes at the end of the day you feel like a lonely actor in a stale room rambling on and on, wondering if anybody’s listening to you speak! I find myself asking … is this what a Shakespeare monologue is supposed to feel like?! And, perhaps more importantly, why does dealing with Shakespeare oddly remind me of my relationships with men?! And, no, I’m not just talking about the romantic plotlines. Maybe it’s because Valentine’s Day is just around the corner or maybe I’m just plain crazy, but … in my own life I sometimes also feel like I’m talking to a wall. But at the risk of sounding like a complete Negative Nancy, I’ve made enough progress to know that Shakespeare, just like relationships, requires hard work. And though daunting at first, if you play your cards right it is very possible to breathe passion, sincerity, and life into your relationships . . . and those monologues too, of course!
And in case you are wondering, I do not dispute that I may in fact be as over-the-top and hysterical as some of these Shakespearean ladies I have been somewhat living vicariously through all my life. I’ve been assigned Helena’s monologue in ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, Act I Scene III. (Thanks Krista!) Much like some of these fierce female characters, I would like to think that I have lived, loved, and learned like they have. These are just a few PAC workshop teachings that I hope will be as helpful to you as they have been to me in approaching and understanding Shakespeare as well as my own love life to boot!
Opt for Optimism
Just because a character seems to be in a ridiculously hopeless situation does not mean that you have to play that character with hopelessness in your tone! Perhaps you, the actor, might think they are hopeless – but the character might not think so. I initially had the natural impulse to want to play Helena as self-deprecating and simply pathetic, but Dan suggested that I try to approach the piece with more bright-eyed optimism. And though at first I was skeptical I quickly realized that it not only made Helena’s speech more interesting, it added another dimension to the character that I felt was satisfyingly honest and empowering. This kind of approach to Helena actually made me think quite a bit about my own relationships. Even when all seems hopeless (it’s been six weeks, why hasn’t he called?!) it’s important to maintain a sense of good humor and optimism. At the end of the day, even if love isn’t reciprocated it’s still what you feel and you are allowed to own it, relish in it, and believe it… at least until it drives you completely insane. Then maybe it’s time to stop living in fairyland!
What are you talking about Vs. Who are you talking to?
I got caught up in what I believed to be the only important point in the monologue, Helena’s overwhelming love of Bertram, that I forgot that there is someone else in the room I’m supposed to be talking to! Have you ever found yourself spilling all the beans to your best friend? I know I’ve been there and I’m just as invested in my relationship to the person I’m speaking with as I am with the person I am talking about. But I am certainly not talking to a wall. Dan detected that I was hitting this “wall,” so to speak, and urged me to not neglect the love and respect Helena also has for the person she is speaking with. In the end, balancing what I was talking about and whom I was talking to surprisingly made my speech more fluid, sincere, and connected to the other actor/audience in the room.
Sometimes Less is More
With Shakespeare many have the tendency to jump to the conclusion that things have to be performed in a big and grandiose way. And while it is important to “give yourself permission to go over the top,” Dan personally challenged me to maintain simplicity in Helena’s monologue. For me, this is a challenge. People often think that I am dramatic in everyday life, as if it’s a result of simply being an actor. In fact, I am realizing more and more that I have a tendency to be overly dramatic as an actor as a result of the insanities of everyday life! But I’m beginning to understand that sometimes all a relationship needs to find its harmony is less emotional-overload and more soundness of mind. So while Helena is clearly head-over-heels in love with Bertram, Dan reminded me that Helena hasn’t completely lost it. Focusing on a path of reason helped me to keep my speech focused, clear, and simple in a way that I felt it was easier for the audience to follow, and easier for me as an actor to believe more in the words I was saying.
I think the most important thing I am learning these days is that every monologue, just like every relationship, has its own unique needs and it’s ultimately up to you to figure out exactly what those are and to find the approach that works best for you. So what do you need to work on this year? More optimism? Or more realism? Having a louder, bigger, and better presentation than the next guy, or is subtlety your new best friend? Should you do grand gestures like flowers, chocolate, and then recite a sonnet on top of a mountain as the sun is setting to show just how much you love that special someone? Or maybe what you really need to focus on is as simple as mastering the art of articulating how you feel about that special someone without sounding like a complete blabbering buffoon (hint: I _____ you? You can fill in the rest!)
Till next time! Best wishes to all the Valentine’s love-birds and Shakespearean-hopefuls!
PAC Acting Apprentice