What is your study?

Between yesterday’s workshop and today’s lesson, the 40-ish King Lear students can speak, move, even fight Shakespeare. Or at least we know a bit more about how to do those things well.

Last night, we all attended a two hour workshop with members of Psittacus Productions (one of whom is an ’06 WC Drama alum) and worked through a couple of scenes and speeches as a class. We didn’t look at any of the text from King Lear — we’ll have plenty of time for that later — but discovered and tested some helpful acting tools that our actors can experiment with in rehearsals.

Two of our actors staging a scene from "The Comedy of Errors." (Please excuse the horrible quality of my iphone photography skills)

Two of our actors staging a scene from “The Comedy of Errors.” (Please excuse the horrible quality of my iphone photography skills)

After we warmed up our bodies, voices and concentration skills, the class sat in a circle on the stage and collectively worked through Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech. We tried it multiple times, each a bit differently: we overemphasized the iambic pentameter and took notice of when the verse became irregular; we paid attention to the last word of each line; we ran through the speech line by line, then punctuation mark to punctuation mark, then period to period. Some things we noticed:

  • Breaks in iambic pentameter tend to indicate a shift in thought or mood
  • The last word of each line is useful for determining how the speech moves; reading only the last word of each line tells a story of its own
  • It’s useful to note when there are long stretches of verse without punctuation and when it’s interrupted with commas and semicolons; these details can indicate thought process and development. When we had to read the lines from period to period (without taking a breath, mind you) we discovered that in the middle of the speech, Hamlet has a giant chunk of verse without a single ending punctuation mark. As actors, we need to ask what that means.
  • When moving through a scene, it helps to consider status; how do differences in rank affect how two characters interact?
  • Instead of just walking aimlessly through a scene, actors need to consider where and why they’re moving towards and away from each other. How can you track the scene based on how two characters are moving around each other?

Edmund and Edgar walking through their Act V Scene III fight sequence. Again, apologies for the quality. They look really badass, I promise!

This afternoon, we switched gears entirely and spent our class time observing our Edmund and Edgar in a fight rehearsal. Our fight choreographer, a member of the one and only Society of American Fight Directors, let us watch as he coached the two brothers in their final, epic fight to the death. They haven’t actually fought to the death yet, but they worked through the first two phrases of the fight, and it already looks pretty epic.

(And while I have the chance, here’s a video I’ve wanted to post for a while.  It’s a clip of stage combat professionals from the Globe Theater:


Anyway, here are some pretty awesome facts we learned from our fight director:

  • There are no “good guys” or “bad guys.” That’s just boring. Edmund thinks he’s doing the right thing, so he can’t just be the villain.
  • The swords our actors are using are REAL swords. They aren’t sharp, but they weight 3.5 pounds, and getting hit with one can really do some damage.
  • Fight choreography takes quite a long time; it takes about five hours of practice to stage one minute of fighting.
  • Our goal is to give the illusion of hurting each other; the actors look like they’re near each other, but they actually maintain a safe distance throughout the fight. Our fight choreographer described it as “ugly ballet with dangerous props.”
  • Part of staging a fight is to entertain the audience (we all love a good, violent fight scene) but there’s another important element: Telling a story. Edmund and Edgar would have been trained swordsmen, and their duel was a battle of power, not just brawns. The winner of this kind of judicial duel proved that God was on his side, so the stakes were pretty high.
  • A fight is a story about the exchange of power. In this final fight, for example, Edmund begins with a higher status (he’s the nobleman in this situation, has the hearts of two princesses and has killed everyone else in his way). But as the fight continues, Edgar gains control, and by extension, status.

So even if you’re not a Shakespeare fan, here’s a little incentive to come see King Lear this  Spring: Epic fight scenes. Trust me, it’s going to be awesome.

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