Brush Up Your Shakespeare

I have this philosophy that being open about the closed-door process of auditioning demystifies potentially intimidating situations and help us all learn from each other’s experiences.  I know, I know…grab some s’more supplies and we’ll all gather around the campfire and sing “Kumbaya”.

But on the real, something I am intensely interested in is audition repertoire. I’m really fascinated by pieces actors choose.  I also love really digging into my own book.  For most performers, it’s kind of an after thought.  After auditions, rehearsals, day jobs, performances, who has the time, right?  You see a posting, you fling something together or use that tired old monologue that’s been your trusted workhorse for years.  Trust me.  I do this too.  Still, we make our lives more difficult by being flip with our repertoire.  I believe it’s essential to really sit with your audition pieces.  Ask questions of them.  I say this over and over, but it’s true; as a performer, you are your own empire.  Your audition pieces are your employees.  They work for you.  Are they doing their jobs fully?  Also, are you utilizing all they have to offer?  Have you been actively recruiting exciting new pieces?  If you like your material, nay LOVE your material, if you find joy in performing it…auditioning becomes that much more easy and fun.

It can be overwhelming to look at your repertoire in it’s entirety and ask these questions.   You might be thinking, where do I even start?

Over several posts I’m going to be digging into different areas of audition repertoire and talking about how you can find really exciting and fun pieces that show off who you are as a performer.

Since I like to talk about things in real time, currently I’m switching out my old Shakespeare piece and bringing in a new one, so let’s talk about the Bard.

Conventional practice says YOU NEED A SHAKESPEARE MONOLOGUE.  I agree.  BUT, if you really hate Shakespeare….if classical theatre curls your toes, screw it.  Don’t do classical theatre.  Don’t have a Shakespeare monologue.

Heresy, right?!  Not really.  Do what you like.  That said, a theatre company may hold a general audition in which they want to see two contrasting pieces, one classical.  Typically you could eek your way around this by not expressing interest in the classical show, but tread carefully.  Not doing the pieces that were requested can very quickly make you look “difficult.”  Still, it’s your life.  Don’t waste it on stuff you don’t care about.

That said, in my opinion Shakespeare rocks, and you are missing out on a fairly large and vibrant subsection of productions if you don’t spread your wings in that direction.

So what to pick?  Ideally, you should have TWO Shakespearean pieces, one comedic, one dramatic.  Which will you use most?  I can’t tell ya.  It depends on who you are as an actor, what kind of productions are currently being produced, and what roles you are interested in.  What would rather play?  What would you rather play?  Dogberry or Claudio?  That would be an indicator.

There is often concern about what pieces are “overdone.”  Well, I’ll tell you something.   What’s overdone is not investing in your classical pieces or being intimidated by them.  They are just text, my friends.  Albeit really really great text, generally speaking.  So, if you want to do “To be or not to be…”  If that is the piece above all others that you connect to…Do it.  Just make it awesome.

That said, while the philosophical question behind “To be or not to be” is food for thought, I would offer that from the perspective of an actor auditioning for something, you could find a monologue that is more active and vibrant and shows off who you are as a person and a performer.

So.  (And I will ask this over and over ad nauseum) Who are you?  What floats your boat? Personally, I like my Shakespeare monologues with a dose of evil.  It’s just so damn fun.  Lady MacBeth isn’t a bitch!  She’s ambitious, people.  Talk about motivation.  What is fun for you to perform?  Do you like to wax romantic?  Do you like to make ‘em laugh?

Still, even if you know exactly what you are looking for in a Shakespeare monologue, the cannon itself is a little overwhelming.  I often suggest heading towards the Histories.  They are often pushed aside in favor of the Comedies or Tragedies.  In fact, the new monologue I’m working is Queen Margaret from Henry VI, Part II.  I know, you just fell out of your chair from excitement.  But listen, this woman is NOT HAVING ANY MORE BULLSHIT.  “I am no loathsome leper, look on me!” It reminds me of this moment from Best in Show: (go to :55 in the video)

The key is to find the right character and then find them at a moment of crisis.  By crisis, I don’t necessarily mean Drama or Tragedy.  I mean crux.  See these characters are human, because they are.  For now, in your search, push aside ideas of “heightened” language, scansion, or anything else that makes you a little wary. Just find a human you connect to and want to play.

Secondly, find this moment of crisis as it is happening.  Don’t find the moment when they are telling someone about it after it happened.  Don’t pick a story monologue.  It isn’t active.  These moments work in the context of the the play or scene, but in an audition,  you haven’t built enough relationship with your audience to make a story monologue viable.

I mentioned Claudio before, so let’s dig in a little.  Claudio, as you may recall, is the suitor to Hero in Much Ado About Nothing (one of my very favorites.)  Based on false information, he thinks Hero has been banging  somebody else so when he shows up for their wedding grieving, angry and distraught, he has this to say:

CLAUDIO Sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness.
There, Leonato, take her back again:
Give not this rotten orange to your friend;
She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour.
Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
O, what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal!
Comes not that blood as modest evidence
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none:
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.

This “rotten orange”?  “She shows the heat of a luxurious bed”?!  Dude is throwing SHADE.  He is pissed!  He is also devastated.  Admittedly, this is a short piece but imagine the power you could rack up in this.  Short pieces can be very effective.

Staying with Much Ado About Nothing, let’s take a look at some comedy.  I offer you Benedick, the charming blowhard who starts the show with everything figured right out, and always affirming his Bachelor status.  In this monologue he is expounding on just how much he hates Beatrice…the woman he (spoiler alert) shortly marries:

BENEDICK O, she misused me past the endurance of a block!
an oak but with one green leaf on it would have
answered her; my very visor began to assume life and
scold with her. She told me, not thinking I had been
myself, that I was the prince’s jester, that I was
duller than a great thaw; huddling jest upon jest
with such impossible conveyance upon me that I stood
like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at
me. She speaks poniards, and every word stabs:
if her breath were as terrible as her terminations,
there were no living near her; she would infect to
the north star. I would not marry her, though she
were endowed with all that Adam bad left him before
he transgressed: she would have made Hercules have
turned spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make
the fire too. Come, talk not of her: you shall find
her the infernal Ate in good apparel. I would to God
some scholar would conjure her; for certainly, while
she is here, a man may live as quiet in hell as in a
sanctuary; and people sin upon purpose, because they
would go thither; so, indeed, all disquiet, horror
and perturbation follows her.

DON PEDRO

Look, here she comes.
Enter CLAUDIO, BEATRICE, HERO, and LEONATO

BENEDICK Will your grace command me any service to the
world’s end? I will go on the slightest errand now
to the Antipodes that you can devise to send me on;
I will fetch you a tooth-picker now from the
furthest inch of Asia, bring you the length of
Prester John’s foot, fetch you a hair off the great
Cham’s beard, do you any embassage to the Pigmies,
rather than hold three words’ conference with this
harpy. You have no employment for me?

DON PEDRO

None, but to desire your good company.

BENEDICK

O God, sir, here’s a dish I love not: I cannot
endure my Lady Tongue.
Exit

Purists may balk, but I say either cut or integrate Don Pedro’s lines and you’ve got yourself a monologue.  He goes from listing Beatrice’s horrible attributes (and inadvertedly showing us how witty and hilarious Beatrice is in her own right), to desperately begging Don Pedro to send him anywhere ANYWHERE Beatrice is not.

Remember, in the context of auditioning, don’t think of Shakespeare as separate or different from any other piece. 

While you search, remember: there are comedic monologues in tragedies, there are tragic monologues in comedies, and there are both in the histories.  It’s all the delivery and timing.

I’ll post later about preparing these monologues, but for now read and gather.  Sit with them for awhile.  Read them out loud.  Find phrases that speak to you.  Ideas that seem clear and pointed.  Just like any monologue, it’s easiest when the character is talking TO someone. Once we dig into preparation, you’ll find most of the time Shakespeare tells you exactly what to do.  In many ways, Shakespeare provides a road map to preparation right there in the text.

But for now, have fun!  Find pieces that excite you and spark your creativity.

Hamlet:
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature:
for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and
pressure.

In an audition, the true nature you should be concerned with is your own.

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