Conservatory students brush up their Shakespeare
This story is part of an ongoing series following the FSU/Asolo Conservatory class of 2013 through the three-year graduate acting program. See sidebar to the left for links to earlier stories in the series. A photo gallery from the students’ first year can be found here, and photos from "The Brothers Karamazov" can be found here.
The words of William Shakespeare are in English, but unless they’re spoken on stage in just the right way, they might as well be Greek.
Those words, however, are a crucial part of any versatile actor’s toolbox, with the goal of speaking Shakespeare as an extension of natural speech patterns.
That is why, in the final months of their second year in the FSU/Asolo Conservatory, a group of students are spending their afternoon hours running through sonnets and brief scenes from different plays, making sure they understand every word.
Without an actor’s understanding, there’s little chance that audiences will follow what they are saying without help from their movements or physicality.
Actors rehearsing or studying Shakespeare usually do so with annotated versions of his plays that explain key phrases, or with large dictionaries nearby to learn every possible definition of the sometimes archaic language.
Brendon Fox, the guest professor who is teaching the students this year, says there is a general thought among audiences that, “If I understand it, it must not really be Shakespeare. It’s a little like taking vitamins. I can’t really enjoy it.”
But that’s the case only when the actors don’t know what they’re saying. Bad Shakespeare has turned off many people to the work of the Bard of Avon.
So, on a recent afternoon, student Kelly Campbell is working on a brief scene from Act III, Scene 2 in “Romeo and Juliet,” as she smiles and says “gallop apace you fiery hooded steeds” trying to connect to the words and find her inner 14-year-old.
“My voice is in a different place than when I was 14,” she says. Age doesn’t matter, Fox tells her. “It’s all a matter of figuring out what Juliet needs, how she’s going to get it and bringing that out.”
Campbell goes through the scene that Fox has given her, and then they pause to discuss the meaning, first of words and then of the bigger picture. The words are clues but could have various meanings, and it all comes back to Fox’s key question: What does she want or need and how is she going to get it?
“There are many parallels to some of the basic core acting approaches to Shakespeare,” Fox says later. “It’s the same whether you’re working on Sara Rule or Arthur Miller or Shakespeare. What do I want? Everything is a tool to get what I want. Once I get what I need, I leave.”
That kind of focus is the backbone, to a degree, of the conservatory’s training program, applying the essentials to various styles of performance.
Fox came to the conservatory this season after the retirement of longtime faculty member and frequent Asolo Rep actress Barbara Redmond, who served as head of acting.
He comes from a background of directing, producing and teaching at the Old Globe in San Diego — where he worked with prominent artistic director Jack O’Brien — at LA Theatre works, and in Chicago. He studied directing at UCLA, after years of putting it off.
“I had been meaning to go to grad school for years. I knew I wanted to be able to teach full time in the future and I felt it was important to have that graduate degree,” he says.
But after 15 years living in the real world (or as real as theater can be), “it was exciting and nerve-wracking to go back to school,” he said.
It’s only been three years since he graduated, so he might be able to relate a little more to the graduate acting students he is working with, some of whom waited a few years themselves to return for their master’s degree.
His Shakespeare class has progressed since January when the students started learning sonnets. “We started with a simple 14 lines in a sonnet, then longer monologues and then on to scenes.”
It all starts with the words, Fox says.
“You have to break down a few lines of Shakespeare, the stressed and unstressed rhythm, using those basic techniques of scansion, chipping away at the ice flow of Shakespeare and breaking it down.”
That’s what he’s watching and listening for as some of his students make their first serious forays into Shakespeare.
Playing Sebastian in a scene from “Twelfth Night,” Francisco Rodriguez is trying to express his character’s enthusiasm for life and the world around him. He’s searching for his friend Antonio for some help and advice as he starts wondering if he has lost his mind in a speech that begins, “This is the air and that is the glorious sun.”
“Your first action is to share your wonder,” Fox tells him. The second is what the character needs. “You’re seeking out Antonio. How can I not find him?”
Fox began the year with George Bernard Shaw and then moved to restoration comedy. “We’re working backward chronologically to Shakespeare. Shaw is somewhat recognizable to them with language, costumes, characters, but it introduces them to rhetoric and listening to every word and being conscious of every single word. That’s where we began.”
To help the students appreciate these plays, he had them watch an episode of television’s “The West Wing.”
“I felt that Aaron Sorkin is kind of Shaw’s grandson in his ability to use words, wit and humor to change the world,” he says.
We live in a world where language “is not trusted. You don’t really mean what you’re saying. The first thing to realize in Shakespeare is that you do mean what you say, every single word. If we can wrap our heads around that, everyone can get on board with Shakespeare. The more everyone understands what’s important, the audience will get that as well.”
Fox plans to return to the faculty next year and intends to apply when the regular position officially opens.
“Now that I have the lay of the land with the students, Sarasota, the faculty, I love how intimate it is. It’s a small faculty, close and united in how much they want for and from the students and making it about the students and not about themselves.”