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What's in a Word? A Meditation on Shakespeare's Language

I know it sounds trite, but there really is something special about performing Shakespeare, especially the way Pigeon Creek does it.

First of all, there’s the thing everyone talks about: the language. How can you not love it? Oddly enough, though, I don’t love it for the reason everyone else does. Sure, Shakespeare knows how to turn a phrase. We see and hear his beautiful poetic wit in all those famous passages that are always getting quoted and recited and published in little books. The truth is, though, that not all of Shakespeare’s language is beautiful. Not even most of it is. For every “Life’s but a walking shadow” (Macbeth 5.5), there’s an “I’ll do something” (Cymbeline 2.4).

For me, the greatness of Shakespeare’s language isn’t about how pretty it is. It’s about how precise and character-specific it is. Shakespeare was an actor writing for actors, and it shows in the text. He gives us nearly everything we need to play our roles. When I’m working with Shakespeare, I can trust the words aren’t there by chance. They were carefully selected and placed to convey what each character thinks and feels in any given moment. When performed well, the linguistic differences between characters are clear even when they’re played by the same actor. That’s the real beauty of Shakespeare’s language.

The other thing that makes performing Shakespeare so special for me is that I work almost exclusively with companies willing to embrace the Original Practices of thrust staging and universal lighting. Being surrounded by the audience, bringing the action to them, and sharing light with them eliminate the “fourth wall” boundary between actor and spectator. Suddenly, we—actors and audience alike—gain a sense that we’re all in this together; we develop relationships that are far more intimate and interactive than other theatre styles can create. It’s the communal experience that’s always a part of live theatre turned up to 11.

We Original Practices actors learn to exploit (in the best of ways!) the proximity and visibility of our audiences. They become fellow members of the king’s court, soldiers on the battlefield, conspirators in the rebellion, or drunks at the pub. I make audience members my confidantes. Shakespeare’s characters are always bursting with things to say but can’t seem to say them to anyone else, so they turn to the audience for relief and support. Some of my favorite moments as an actor happen when I get to just sit with an audience member and talk with her like my best friend because in that instant she is.

I could talk about acting Shakespeare until…well, actually, I’m not sure how long because I’ve been doing it for at least 15 years near and haven’t stopped yet. But I’ll press pause on the conversation for now (always leave ‘em wanting more) and close with this: there are thousands of years of great theatre out there, and I love a lot of it, but nothing can replace Shakespeare.

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