I’ve spent the past two years working on the ‘cue script’ approach to working with Shakespeare’s text and now I’m about to stage a whole play using this technique (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, December 13, The Cockpit Theatre). I’ve been reflecting on how I got here.
Two years ago I read a book: The Secrets of Acting Shakespeare by Patrick Tucker. That’s when my head exploded. The idea of performing Shakespeare’s text from cue scripts literally fired my imagination. I was already part of a company working with the Meisner technique of acting, which emphasises listening to your partner and being present in the moment – well, cue scripting would certainly do that for us, with extra added Shakespeare magic.
Plus, how exciting to rediscover the skills of the original modern theatre players and cross-fertilize them with the insights of post-Stanislavski techniques. I wanted to do this work. Passionately and unreasonably wanted to do it. Coincidentally, my husband Dewi Hughes is head of voice at Drama Studio London, where Patrick Tucker’s techniques are taught, and luckily for me Dewi wanted to do this work as much as I did. So, all we needed was some crazy volunteers. Luckily again, we knew where to look.
For years, my academic training in English lit (BA Hons, MA, PGCE) had been flirting with my theatre training and experience, and this was the moment when they got hitched and their child was born. The child grew into the work we call Shakespeare:Direct, which has in turn matured and spawned its own offspring: Two Gentlemen of Verona, 12.30pm, 13 December 2015 at the Cockpit.
For two years since I picked up the Patrick Tucker book, we have been working with an ever-expanding group of our fellow actors, discovering and developing the skills of the Early Modern players (basically, finding out what we don’t expect to do and what came as second nature to them). We work in cycles of three week courses: a day class to learn all the stagecraft and text skills you need for First Folio text, three weeks to study and learn your part (lines and cues) with two sessions of one-to-one verse nursing (text coaching), then a performance workshop to an invited audience in a studio at the Cockpit (our home theatre in Marylebone).
Nobody is allowed to read the whole play or even their whole scene. And to do them justice, nobody has (so far as I know). There’s no looking up vocab either, in case of accidental spoilers: they ask one of us at verse-nursing.
It is perfectly possible to craft a character just from their lines and their cues; if it weren’t, the thriving playhouse society of Tudor, Jacobean, and Restoration eras, and hence of modern times, would never have existed. This approach keeps you right on your toes, as the words are all you have to work from, and the urge to assume and complicate is very strong in the post-Stanislavski-trained mind. I spend a lot of time at this stage saying, ‘That’s a possibility’, before we go on, collect all the evidence and weigh it up. And so often things come up that I’d not expected, or seen coming, or thought were there. Which I LOVE! We assume in a flicker of a heartbeat, and don’t even know we’ve done it. But if you realise the assumption is not actually there, the world is a whole different place. I’d never realised Malvolio made jokes until I looked as his part as a cue script. There they were, large as life, incontrovertible, utterly unexpected. Love it!
Our performances working from cue scripts are always electric. No matter how well I know the plays, I feel I’ve seen the scenes for the first time in these performances. There is something truly unique about working from a cue script, both in preparing your part and in performing it. We discovered early on that costume really helps. The more you dress your part, and move your part, investing deeply in every choice made during the study period, the better the performance works.
As an actor, you have to be completely 3D in your decisions; there is no external director to shape you, only the internal one: Will Shakespeare himself. And nobody cares a fig if you call for a line from the book-holder. It makes not once shred of difference to the performance, or the audience; in fact, several of our audience members have said they enjoyed being part of the active creative process.
The next step
Now we’re making the giant leap from individual scenes to a whole play prepared in this way. I have no idea if the project will work, as I’ve no idea really what we’re doing. But I know the work is amazing. I trust the techniques we have discovered and honed. I trust every one of the players to truly play their part. I also know that our small invited audiences love every moment, so why not a larger paying public house in a real auditorium? I also know we have to grow, and this is the logical next step.