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Why read Shakespeare’s plays in a group?

It’s the start of 2016 the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, and that has made me think again about why we run this web-site. Our objective is to encourage people to read Shakespeare’s plays in a group, so the obvious question is: “Why?”.

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Before we answer that question, there’s one thing we need to remind ourselves of. We are story-telling (and story-listening) animals. We find meaning in our lives through the stories we tell, listen to, and which become part of us. For example, with my family, I went to see the ballet Cinderella on Christmas Eve, and as well as the Cinderella on stage, there were a few hundred Cinderella’s in the audience – young girls taken to the ballet by their parents, and dressed for the occasion, mostly as Cinderella.

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Shakespeare has written some plays (often derived from folk tales, a deep well of meaning for folk) which many people find add meaning to their lives. How can we experience those plays?

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The most popular way is to watch or listen to the play. You can hear it on the radio; go to the cinema and see a lavish production; visit The Globe and see the story told, much as Shakespeare’s audiences would have seen it.  Depending on the power of the actors and the production you may be deeply moved, or bored out of your mind. Which ever way you hear the story it happens in real-time, and you probably only see a production once. Folk tales affect us so deeply because we hear them again and again, told usually by our parents. A Shakespeare play / film / broadcast can be enormous fun, and can move us deeply at the time, but perhaps the effects aren’t long-lasting.

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Of course, the actors on the stage, and the director – and other members of the back-stage team – have been rehearsing and working on the play for six or seven weeks. This effort, combined with the adrenalin rush which comes from performance can make a deep impression on them. The actors mostly tell the story of their character. The need to give a convincing performance of a character means they focus on that character. They know the story of their character very well, but perhaps they don’t know the story of the play so deeply. Of course, the director has the opportunity to know the play very deeply. The only difficulty is finding a production group that will let you direct. But if you get the chance, grab it with both hands, and prepare to give huge amounts of energy to the project. From that project should arise a deep understanding of the play, or your production of it.

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There is another way of coming to Shakespeare, and that is through study. We study his plays at school; we study them at university; we study the play when we edit the script(s) for production or publication. Studying Shakespeare is a double-edged sword. When we go to a play or we are part of a production, we experience the play by empathizing with what is going on – we feel the emotions of the characters in their story. When we study a play, we engage our brain. No longer do we feel, instead, we think. Now thinking can have it’s own rewards: the beginnings of an understanding of how the plays are made; an appreciation of the richness of the language; exploring the complexities and inter-relationships between the plays. But we are likely to lose the primary affect of the plays – our empathy with the characters in the play. One only has to remember rote-reading of a Shakespeare play in a class at school to remember how deadening study can be.

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And now we come to play-reading. In an earlier age, before the mass of entertainment (TV, radio, Internet) that distract us today, this was  a popular occupation. A small group of friends would get together once a month or so, and read a Shakespeare play together. Some groups would allocate roles to the group at the previous reading, and each member would read their part(s), and the play, before the next reading. This has a number of advantages:

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Each member of the group is encouraged to explore the play for a whole month or so. No longer is the play happening before our eyes in real-time (except at the actual reading), so our understanding of character and play is deepened.

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The play will be read out loud to an audience (the actors are the audience) so the focus of preparation is on speaking the words out loud, which to be effective needs the speaker to empathise with their characters. This is so different from reading the words, which so easily leads to separation of the reader from the character, and quickly turns to thinking about, instead of empathizing with, the character.

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It’s good fun; it is very inexpensive; and it makes for a social occasion.

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In a nutshell, it’s a wonderful, and fun, way of exploring Shakespeare’s plays which complements more traditional ways. And that’s why you should give it a try, and that’s why we will keep running this web-site encouraging you to do so.

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Have a great 2016, and try and include some Shakespeare play-reading in it!

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‘The Director’,
Players-Shakespeare.com

Use our free, online, interactive “Let’s Play” section to play complete plays for 10 players, or extracts for 2 players in “Parts and Cues”, Highlit Text, or Standard script
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