Individual text work – Step 1 – Embodying the text

First, read Patsy Rodenburg’s book Speaking Shakespeare. It is the excellent material on which this sequence is based. I have used shorthand and reference … for the detail, read Patsy.

The text work each actor must do has three steps: the physical, the intellectual, the emotional/imaginative. I think it’s a genius concept of Patsy’s to build the work in that order. Most actors I’ve run across easily slip into the intellectual and the emotional, and can build bad habits from the get-go if the work starts there (brainy actors that never get out of their heads, emotional actors that never make a lick of sense). By first exploring physically—by which I mean speaking aloud, with support, and exploring the physical shapes of the text as though it were a foreign landscape you needed to survey—you can build the rest of your work on what’s actually there (believe me, it’s enough), and begin preparing to invest fully in your performance.

A note: On the day I call “today” in this post, I was exploring Posthumus’ speech from the final scene of Cymbeline, starting with “Ay me, most credulous fool” through to “O Imogen, Imogen, Imogen.” On the day I refer to as “last week” I worked on Posthumus’ speech at the top of Act V, scene 1, through “but alack” or thereabouts.

  1. Intone the text
    Ideally, this is the actor’s first read through of the text … out loud and supported on breath. The point is to get the words into the mouth. The intoning keeps you (or me, at least) from getting sidetracked by meaning or emotion at this early stage … you’ll get there, but don’t start there. The only points of concentration should be on connected breath/voice, accurate reading of the words and getting them into your mouth for the first time.

Book-work side note. If you really don’t know how something is pronounced, you are allowed to look it up here, since there’s no point in putting something incorrectly into your muscle memory. But don’t get sidetracked by the meanings of obscure words or phrases. We’ll deal with those in step two.

  1. Consonants
    It seems a bit odd to start with articulation, but you might as well remind yourself up front that your muscles are going to have to work to pronounce this text. Look for points that are awkward or will require special vigilance. This is also a good time to realize that your character uses lots of plosives or that this one line has four hard “g” sounds … stuff like that. Again, don’t get sucked in to thinking about meaning, intention … or if those thoughts come, notice them and let them fly on.
  2. Vowels
    This is hard (for me at least) … but speaking just the vowels can show you instances of assonance (check out the amazing 3×3+1 vowel line “No bond, but to do just ones. Gods, if you”), and clue you into the the emotional flow of the speech (though, as yet, it won’t have much form). If you are familiar with Kristin Linklater’s vowel ladder (see Freeing Shakespeare’s Voice), this is a good time to experiment with that.
  3. Building lines word by word
    Patsy recommends this for lines where the basic meaning is eluding you. I find it a good (if time consuming) way to enter into the world of the rhythm of the text, and to notice things like multi-syllabic vs. monosyllabic words (today, I discovered fabulous contrast in the line: “For torturers ingenious. It is I.” Thinking shifts a bit here toward meaning, but focused down at the level of individual words and how they relate to each other. I think this would be a great exercise for actors who tend to paint the verse with too broad a brush (“ingenious,” for instance, is not the same thing as “torturers”). I also find this a good way to begin to focus in on the thought process behind the choice of these specific words and how one leads to the next.
  4. Building speeches breath by breath
    1. First, breathe at the end of every verse line. This is awkward, but worth doing … mostly to note how awkward it is, and to notice placement of line endings.
    2. Breathe after every second line. I still feel this is too slow, at least in emotional speeches.
    3. Breathe after every three lines.
    4. Breath after every four lines.
    5. Go farther if you can without pushing … but four is my limit at the moment.
      The pace for the speech I was working on today really didn’t kick in until I did four lines in a breath (not the correct breathing pattern for performance, but worth remembering that if I want to kick through to the truth of the speech, it’s probably got to tumble out quickly). The speech I worked on last week felt rushed at four lines in a breath, but was not as emotionally heightened as this one. A great exercise to gauge what fits with each individual section of text.
    6. Finally, once through for sense, breathing where you will.

SIDE NOTE: Interspersing straight reading. On most of the exercises above, Patsy recommends interspersing the exercises with a “normal” time through (not making it anything in particular, just letting it be, and letting it be affected by what you’ve just explored). I didn’t do this full out today, so I don’t think it added a lot to read “plain” in between, but there’s probably something to this I don’t get yet, and if I’d had to “perform” it each time in between, that might have been useful.

  1. Pushing the rock – for this exercise, you need a partner. But next time I go through this solo, I’ll try the pushing on the wall thing (again, refer to Patsy’s book) here. Something about introducing a physical intention on which the words must be carried. More to come.
  2.  Pitch: Read flat – read with amplitude – read “as you will”
    The flat read feels very like fake American acting to me … the cowboy method … the false idea that depth and feeling is contained in stillness (well, it works on film, but is a bad idea with Shakespeare). The over-the-top pitch variety is very like bad British Acting … all vocal form and no connection. Worth doing for actors who are at one extreme or the other … and something to be gained by playing with this in the extreme. Again, I find myself concentrating on vowel ladder concepts while doing this.

That’s step 1. At the end of this work, your speech muscles should have wrapped themselves around the text and you should have some idea what it will take physically to perform this. If you’ve managed to stay our of your head and stay supported on your voice through this work, congratulations

But remember, it’s only step 1, you cannot stop here! Next time, we’ll put our thinking caps on …


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