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Playreading Report: Professional Actors playreading session, May 11th, 2017

Keen to expand the scope and range of Players-Shakespeare.com, we ran a Shakespeare reading session with a difference this week. How might this resource be used, we wondered, in the world of professional drama and theatre? To find out, or at least begin the experiment, we invited a small, specialist group of professional actors to spend an afternoon working with the texts through our platform. Our very willing participants all had a particular interest in and experience of playing Shakespeare and working script-in-hand. One of our regular play-reading members being herself a professional actress with a great deal of experience in audio drama, the natural choice was to invite colleagues who shared these specialist skills. In the radio-drama recording studio, actors work at a different pace than in the theatre rehearsal room. The constraints of time and studio costs mean we generally rehearse-record, i.e. we rehearse and record on the hoof, as we go, moving swiftly through a process of collaboration with the producer/director, audio and studio technicians and production staff. It is a very satisfying medium in which to work. For the purposes of our play-reading  however, we would be isolating the acting component of the process. It would be just the text and the actors in a relaxed, safe and informal setting. There would be no director, as such, no rehearsal, no pressure to perform. Just a chance to spend some time doing what we love best, working with words on a page, though in this case a virtual page and not just any words of course.  In the day-to-day reality of a professional acting career, the chance to get your teeth into a towering role by Shakespeare does not come along that often. There was not one amongst the hand-picked actors we approached who declined to join us. Everyone came to the event with eager and excited interest. And we were not disappointed in our expectations.

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To introduce this newly assembled group to the site’s resources, and to leave time for discussion, we chose several scenes from several plays, rather than a single play. Thus we had scenes with different numbers of players; soliloqies, two-handers, three or more players and a long scene with many roles requiring some doubling of parts. The website’s functionality was put through its paces – and worked extremely well.

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Some actors had wanted to prepare in advance, so we gave notice of our chosen scenes. Actors were invited to choose a specific role if they preferred. Some did. Others were happy to work sight-unseen. We wanted also to encourage this group to experience the random-gender-blind casting we usually use and to try out “Parts and Cues”. The actors chose the format they preferred for this first experience of Players-Shakespeare.com.

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Here is a list of the scenes we read:

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King John, A4S1, Arthur is nearly blinded:

This is our favourite scene in King John. Arthur is a young prince. (Certainly under 16 years old, though the character as drawn by Shakespeare sounds much younger). In the context of the play, Arthur, to some minds, is the rightful heir to the throne. King John asks Hubert to blind the boy. In this scene, Arthur successfully persuades him not to. ( In our reading the scene elicited tears from those who, not reading, became the all important rapt and attentive audience– more of which later. This scene is one of Shakespeare’s most touching and affecting scenes.

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If you want to read it for yourself, click on the following link to play-read it with a couple of friends:   Let”s Play King John, A4S1, Arthur is nearly blinded/

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Hamlet, A1S5, Hamlet meets the Ghost:

 

This scene was cast by lot, using dominoes in a bag. In our reading we thus had a woman reading Hamlet, a woman reading Marcellus and the Ghost and Horatio were read by men. Again the cross-gendered roles worked well.. Of course using the site this way, drawing lots, there is no opportunity to prepare a role in advance. The ability to cold-read is a skill that some find easier to perfect than others. Obviously with this group of players it is a familiar practice but it is also worth noting that some play-scripts are easier to read cold than others. Shakespeare works better than one might imagine in this respect. Moreover, his speeches are generally regarded as easier to learn than one might suppose. The secret is in his use of metre and rhythm.

To access this scene:  https://players-shakespeare.com/mffe-version-5-hamlet-online/?page=s|A1S5.html%3Ff

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Hamlet, A2S2:

 

This is a long scene, and required seven readers. We used a pack of cards and the players took a card, any card, from ace to seven.

An interesting added level to the playing style can be found in this lengthy scene. When the leader of the strolling theatre troupe is commanded by Hamlet to give an impromptu performance of a famous speech, the actor in this role has the opportunity to indulge in a display of histrionics when telling of Priam’s death and Hecuba’s distress. That said, it is a  no-less heartfelt display with its own authenticity and should be given with sincere emotional integrity; Hamlet comments on the tears expressed by this character and compares his own behaviour as lacking conviction. In general, in a small-group play-reading, the style of acting can be natural and intimate. Here, however, is a chance to let rip with a more declamatory delivery.

We didn’t have a “Let’s Play” set up for this whole scene, but prepared one in MS-Word which is copied below.  (You can find out how to do this at: Stetting up your own “Let’s Play”.)  Click on any of the links and you’ll be taken to the player’s script for A2S2:

Or you can read the whole scene (all parts) in Standard Script at: https://players-shakespeare.com/mffe-version-5-hamlet-online/?page=s|A2S2.html%3Ff

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Macbeth, A2S2, ‘Macbeth doth murder sleep’:

 

We cast this scene in a more orthodox way with a male actor reading Macbeth and a female as Lady Macbeth. This is the midnight scene, one of the most exciting scenes in the play with its shared lines, the actors picking up their cues, sharing the metre of the verse, driving the pulse of the scene insistently through speeches punctuated by offstage sounds. An owl shrieks. There is an insistent, threatening, knocking at the door. It all adds to the excitement. In our Edinburgh Newtown flat, in broad daylight, with traffic rumbling by on the cobbles below, it came alive!

You can play this scene too (don’t forget the knocks and other sound effects) at our “Let’s play” post at:  Let’s Play: Macbeth shall sleep no more (MACBETH, A2S2, 2 players)

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What we learnt from this playreading session:

This session was very different from our usual play-reading. We used a mix of standard text, highlit text and “Parts and Cues”. Each participant  had their personal preferences. We hope to progress further into using “Parts and Cues” over time. Meantime, we’re going to be adding a ‘Standard Text’ option to each “Let’s Play”.

A suggestion was made by the group that the site would be invaluable to drama students looking for audition speeches or scenes. The “Let’s Play” menu would be ideal for this. Instead of searching through the Complete Works of Shakespeare, “Let’s Explore” is a great guide for finding background information, self-contained scenes and the all important audition pieces for those times when one is asked at an audition, “And your Shakespeare?” No need to prepare just one speech when you can find and prepare so easily as many as you want. And of course you can also find and read  complete plays.

The “Parts and Cues” facility is an exciting one but an unfamiliar one to today’s professional actors. We, however, in our play-reading group, are finding that simply using it to read a scene can answer questions one had, in previous productions of plays we have done before, puzzled over for weeks in rehearsal with the whole script in our own and our director’s hands. But this is a topic for a whole essay, not just a paragraph.

In the process of inviting actors to participate in this afternoon of reading, it became clear that there are actors who, less familiar with cold-reading and Shakespeare, felt unable to accept our invitation, but who nevertheless would have liked to have been able to come along and learn more in a friendly environment. To that end, we shall hold another session perhaps one-to-one or perhaps in a smaller group, using our scripts to play-read together, led by an actor or actors who have experience with playing Shakespeare.

The use of tablets instead of paper scripts is already happening in the professional rehearsal room and recording studio. Scripts are of course now regularly circulated by email to casts and though some still prefer the paper script for its own, particular advantages, actors are moving towards using technology more and more. The consensus opinion at our reading this week was that this is a very exciting resource with tons of potential to explore and we shall be holding another similar event in a few weeks time, not least to accommodate those colleagues who, on this occasion, were reluctantly unable to attend but eager to participate next time.

This session proved the value of our “Let’s Play” posts. These let a group of 2, 3, 4, or more players chose scenes and helps everyone get to their script quickly and efficiently. If we didn’t have a “Let’s Play” post set-up (e.g. Hamlet A2S2)  it is quick and easy for anyone to set up a “Let’s Play” in any software package (e.g. MS-Word) that supports URLs.  From the MS-Word document, you can click on one of the links and a tab opens up in your web browser showing the script for that player. There’s a post on the web-site which explains how to do this at  https://players-shakespeare.com/lets-play-hamlet-getting-going/

A final word on a topic touched on earlier. The audience. The audience is arguably the most important element in theatre-making; indeed the point of the whole exercise. We have not yet brought a separate, listening audience into the process but they are ever present in the mind of the actor when rehearsing and preparing a performance, so perhaps this is another step we shall take, another question to address. We become our own audience at these events but there is another level to aim for. We have started to look at how this website can facilitate the work of the professional theatre maker. This was a simple play-reading event. It was not an end in itself. It was an attempt to test the site as a tool for production and performance. Watch this space.

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If you want to understand how these Professional Actors used our web-site, you’ll find the following post of interest:

How to use our web-site to explore a Shakespeare play

We are keen to run more and to hear and learn from you and your experience of using the site too.

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Let’s Play!!!

Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’
Players-Shakespeare.com

with added input from Eliza Langland, actor.

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If you want to know how our Shakespeare edition is developing,  ‘like’ our Facebook page, and you’ll get more detailed updates on Facebook on what’s happening.
Also, if you run a play-reading, don’t forget – we want your feedback so please post at Player-Shakespeare.com’s Facebook page

 

 

 

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