Their Continuing Mission: Telling Stories of the Human Condition.
I’ve always been more than a little tentative about tackling Shakespeare.
OK, I admit it, I’ve been downright skeptical and even a little scared. The only Shakespeare I had studied was in ye old high school English classes of yore. My college years? Business, statistics, and computer science – nary a Shakespeare class. And while I’ve always loved acting on stage, I never imagined myself doing Shakespeare. Ever.
Even now, when I’m a full-time actress and voiceover talent, I’m not aspiring to tackle the Bard in a full-on production. While I’ve done some stage work, I prefer working in front of the camera and behind the mic. My training and experience have all been along those lines. But in skirting Shakespeare, I’ve learned that I’ve missed quite a bit along the way.
I’m not talking about one of those rare auditions that requires a Shakespearean monologue in addition to a performance from the usual arsenal (occasionally a contemporary dramatic or comedic monologue, more often one or more scenes from the production’s script). Up to this point, I’ve politely declined the opportunity, as I felt totally out of my league. The archaic language itself was most intimidating, as well as what seemed excessive wordiness, references to mythology or ancient Roman events and individuals, and an implicit requirement to master a dialect that screamed “thee-ah-tur.” I left those auditions to those who had grown up on stage, memorizing and mastering all of the Bard’s many works, certain that I’d only embarrass myself in comparison.
Recently, though, I decided it was time to tackle two fears I’ve had in performing: singing and Shakespeare. I’m not one to let fear govern my actions and decisions, so I decided it was high time to take them on.
In addition to beginning singing classes (and I’m really enjoying them!), I signed up for a six week course that promised to “humanize” Shakespeare. Essentially, it taught us how to break down the language barrier, placing Shakespeare’s work within its historical and cultural context, giving us insight into Shakespeare’s personal and professional life and how they influenced his work.
I’d heard for years that Shakespeare was well worth studying, as so many contemporary stories on TV and film are loosely based on his classic plays, though wrestling with the same questions of power, love, and fortune. Until the instructor mentioned it, I hadn’t realized that one of my favorite shows of all time, Star Trek (doesn’t matter which series) also saw itself as an epic retelling of some of the bard’s classics. His own teacher and mentor had been a regular on one of the Star Trek series and had described how the audition process highly valued Shakespearean training and experience, requiring actors to audition with monologues from his plays. No wonder that lauded Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart was cast as the iconic Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the Next Generation series. I consider his casting to be the main reason why the NG series is one of the best.
Once we dived in, I found that the language wasn’t as intimidating as I’d thought it would be. Our eyes and ears began to recognize, understand, and then see past its archaic forms and usage to appreciate the human story that was being told. After all, while culture, national identity, and roles in society have changed over the centuries, human nature has remained fairly constant. Once in a while, we’d come across language identical to how we use it today. It was jarring to realize that dialogue written over 400 years ago could have easily been spoken in daily conversation by people today.
A good teacher can make all the difference to how the student perceives and relates to the material. I loved learning about his plays within their historical context. Especially interesting were the stories of Shakespeare’s personal and professional challenges and how elements of these would seep into his plays: verbal jabs at his rivals, couching political commentary in such a way to get past his censors, acknowledging his audiences with a wink and a nod and inviting them to enjoy a joke at his characters’ expense. He walked the fine line between flattering those in power and pleasing the working class and their coarser appetites. Similar to today’s producers, in which the most successful projects are those that are well funded, popular with the masses, and bring profitable returns to investors.
Telling stories of the human condition never grows old. The language and context changes, but the essential truth of our struggles and relationships is a constant. No matter if it’s played out in an old medieval castle or on a ship hurtling at warp speed among the stars.