June 28, 2012
Pre-rehearsal Workshop on the First Folio
By Joan Boar
I had to thread my way around the hugs of veterans and the handshakes of newcomers to find a seat at this first meeting of the Livermore Shakespeare Festival 2012 company.
It was held on a warm Sunday afternoon in what must have been the waiting room of Livermore’s old Southern Pacific Railroad depot on L Street. The large space now serves as a rehearsal room for the company. The cast gathered around a big table to take a look at the First Folio version of Shakespeare’s works to learn how it illuminates the plays.
I sat next to Peta Grimes, prop master for Hamlet. She said she was worried about getting the right guns—ones with bayonets. But at least she has a skull, purchased the day after Halloween last year. “I knew I’d need a skull sometime,” she explained, saying she keeps looking out for a better one for Hamlet’s gravedigger scene.
In an adjoining room, the costume crew measured some actors, while others, members and guests of the Danish royal court and the country town of Windsor, filled out the inevitable paperwork that goes with running a professional company.
It was so nice to be in the middle of all this theatrical activity, which I’ve missed since the Cask and Mask Players rang down the curtain decades ago. Cask and Mask was strictly an amateur group, but the excitement and challenge in the air for these professionals are the same today that I remember.
Artistic director Lisa Tromovitch’s decision to spend time on text work reflects her emphasis on going directly to Shakespeare’s printed words for clues on how to play a scene. Scholars argue endlessly over what Shakespeare actually meant. These controversies give the actors some options to think about, said Lisa.
We were looking at the First Folio, which the company uses as its basic script, but there are a number of early versions of Shakespeare’s plays, published originally in two sizes. The quartos are so called because a single sheet of paper was folded twice, yielding four printed pages. For the folios, the paper is folded in half.
The differences don’t stop there, owing to the variety of sources that various publishers, including modern publishers, have relied on—Shakespeare’s drafts, cut touring versions, prompt books, actors’ “sides,” etc. There are dumbed-down scripts that delete all classical references for uneducated bumpkins. There are texts with printers’ mistakes they didn’t bother to correct. However, the First Folio is generally accepted as being closer to Shakespeare’s own writing than are heavily edited modern editions.
Get the joke
Meanings have changed, and the spelling in the Folio is strange, but a little attention to the text may bring out the innuendo, and you’ve got the joke back—often a sexual joke that had the groundlings guffawing and livened up the scene. “If you find it bring it forward,” Lisa suggested with a smile.
She shared an example from Loves’ Labors Lost, a scene in which the lovelorn swains dress up as Russians to steal into their ladies’ forbidden presence. They speak what they imagine sounds like Russian, “but it’s actually dirty French!” she said.
The actors then took turns reading lines aloud from various plays in the First Folio version. They checked the punctuation that would seem peculiar in modern versions, but which Shakespeare used as guideposts to an actor’s delivery. They took note of the capricious capitalization and words spelled with extra letters. These are ways Shakespeare suggested where to put the stress in a line.
One of the most striking exercises involved Orlando’s complaint to Adam from the beginning of As You Like It. Using a modern edition, an actor might decide that Orlando had planned what he’d say ahead of time and then delivered his speech. But following the First Folio text, he may find that Orlando starts off in a relatively measured way, but his emotions, indicated by the punctuation and spelling in the text, soon start pouring out over his brother’s treatment of him. “It becomes much more immediate, more dynamic,” said Lisa. “It’s a rant,” someone agreed.
Almost all contemporary Hamlet productions are cut; even whole scenes are left out. Different productions may emphasize different themes. But 400 years ago Shakespeare left today’s actors a kind of road map embedded in his text that may be worth following. “It doesn’t matter if you get it right,” Lisa said. “It matters that you notice it.”
We’ll probably never hear Hamlet or The Merry Wives of Windsor just as Shakespeare heard it. English then had a rougher, earthier quality. “Think pirates. Argh!” one actor offered. To hear a sample, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPlpphT7n9s. Actors might remember this sound, lest they are tempted to get too reverential with Shakespeare’s beautiful words.
Next week, actor Elissa Beth Stebbins will take us along on her journey from audition to first read.