Bridge Project at BAM Harvey Theater
Blast! I’ve been through four false starts to this blog post already and I’m not any closer to saying what I want to say. Okay, gloves are off. I’m throwing cleverness and insight to the wind. Transitions and subtlety are out too. I’m making a list:
1) I saw As You Like It at BAM. Part of the Bridge Project – Sam Mendes’s three-year long valentine to transatlantic collaboration and classic plays.
2) It made me think a lot about performing Shakespeare. A topic I quite like.
3) Once upon a time, specifically during my three years of grad school and the year or two immediately following, I had a white-knuckle grip on Shakespeare performance technique.
4) This is the thing about grad school. You go (and by you, I mean me) and your teachers tell you that what they are giving you are tools. You’re supposed take them, put them in your toolbox, and then pull them out when you need them. But that’s not what happens. Instead, you (and by you, I mean me) take what they say and turn it into gospel. Those tools become the Ark of the Covenant, and you hold on to that holy structure as tight as your grubby little hands will let you. White knuckles, people. Tight. Because you’re frightened to death of being awful and these tools are probably your only salvation.
5) I wish I could tell you what the result of this white-knuckle grip looks like. But I can only tell you what it feels like. It feels great. It feels like you are the conductor of a massive orchestra that is your body and voice and brain and you are playing THE CRAP out of that Shakespeare. Just TEARING IT UP like the brilliant apex of acting that you are. Like you are laying REVELATIONS out upon that stage. Like no one has ever harnessed the lessons of a masters-level education like you are doing at this VERY MOMENT. You. Are. Awesome.
6) This is what I think it actually looks like: An unnaturally tense person with an abnormally expanded chest, who is possibly experiencing the shimmering instability of a manic episode, bellowing in a peculiar not-quite-British accent and gasping for breath every two-thirds of a sentence.
7) Needless to say, nothing has pleased me more over the past five years than to observe in myself the gradual loosening of my fearful and misguided grip on all those holy tools.
8) That said, there are still a few things I believe about performing Shakespeare. Here are four of them:
9) Move it along. The iambic heartbeat beneath the lines is a perpetual, unceasing rhythm that begs to keep pulsing. So keep it moving. Don't labor over every word. Don't pause where none is indicated.
10) No trochees in the second or fifth foot. Seems weirdly specific and picky but I actually think it’s right. It sounds herky-jerky when you put a stressed-unstressed foot in those positions. The unceasing rhythm gets thrown and it’s like a train going off the tracks. Supposedly, and it’s probably debatable, Shakespeare never wrote a trochee in the second or fifth foot, with Lear’s “Never never never never never” being a notable exception.
10.5) I think I’ve just uncovered the origin of the phrase, “Never say never.”
11) Understand the logic. Don’t skip over anything. Follow the logic from the beginning of a speech to the end until you can see how it hangs together as a whole. It’s important.
12) In fact, choose logic over emotion. By all means, stay open to what the language triggers in you emotionally – in fact you must – but don’t go searching for it. Usually, if you understand the logic of what you’re saying, the emotion will come.
13) Those four things – 9, 10, 11, and 12 – are my real Ark of the Covenant. The tenets I try to keep to in all those Shakespeare auditions I go to, and the tenets I’ll keep to when I’m cast in the final round of Bridge Project plays next year. That’s right. Are you listening Sam Mendes?
14) Everything else I’ve learned is finally just a tool in my toolbox. The tools include maintaining the “integrity of the line” (i.e. finding reason to briefly breathe or pause at the end of every line), leveraging consonant sounds and length of vowels, exploring the use of monosyllabic vs. polysyllabic words, mining every possible resonance of every single word (a.k.a “dropping in”), and connecting emotionally to the character. Great, useful tools, but ones I don’t rely on all the time.
15) Finally, back to As You Like It. In the performance I saw, the cast as a whole were experts at moving the text along, conveying logic, and not indulging in emotion. I did hear a couple misplaced trochees from one actor, but I’m probably the only nerd who noticed or cared.
16) And yet ultimately, there was too much logic and not enough heart on stage that night. At least for me. With a few gorgeous exceptions (Jacques, I’m talking to you), most of the evening lacked the spark of life and human connection. Which just goes to show you that there is still something sublimely indefinable about great performances.
17) P.S. I know that #15 and #16 sounded suspiciously like a review, and this blog is supposed to talk about art without reviewing it. But as Shakespeare apparently said, according to my diligent research, "Never say never." Or as we used to say on the schoolyard, “Tough noogies.”