18 months and seven performances into the salon:collective’s First Folio cue script project, Lizzie Conrad Hughes outlines how far the art of listening has help the salon’s Meisner-trained actors play as Shakespeare’s company played. Watch us on June 7 or join the next round in September
It’s happening again on June 7, when 12 incredibly brave, or possibly seriously crazy, actors will perform six scenes from assorted Shakespeare plays, never having heard what their scene partner(s) have to say to them. Each player will have fully researched, learned and prepared their own part but there will have been no shared rehearsals.
The first time we tried this in January 2014, we instantly realised that we lacked some of the skills that must have come naturally to those early players. We were all rather stuck on the stage, reluctant to move. Some of our first group of actors described feeling very isolated, almost suffocated, by not knowing what their partner was going to say to them.
This is not surprising. We are actors in the post-Stanislavski age. We are essentially the creatures of the director and designer. A contemporary actor’s job is to serve the vision of the whole play, as created by the director and manifested in the design. We expect to be told what to do, and have every interpretive choice vetted, scrutinised and approved before an audience ever sees it.
We are not used to taking direction from the writer through the text, serving the text and character directly, and moving when the text suggests we move. But our growing company of actors prepared to learn how to be players in the style of the Shakespeare’s King’s Men are getting to grips with rediscovered skills, and we’re having great fun doing it.
We’re getting good at listening hard for our cues, and finding our own ways of learning the one or two words we have to listen for to know when to speak. Watching other players perform, I see not only actors deeply engaged and committed to the moment with their partner, but characters in the heat of a vital moment in their lives. It’s wonderful to watch, and to do. It’s not just waiting for your partner to stop talking. For me, the most fascinating discovery in working from individual acting parts has been the phenomenon of deliberately repeated cues. This means a character will sometimes give or receive their cue more than once, creating a natural conflict as two players speak simultaneously. This runs through all the plays, and is an element of Shakespeare’s writing that modern productions have completely lost. It is ridiculously exciting to work with, solving so many problems in familiar scenes, introducing entire new angles on familiar characters, and changing familiar plays into something altogether new.
We’re tackling more demanding scenes, dealing with more than two or three players, and incorporating physical business, which we do run through before a performance. This is for safety and practicality, not cheating. We also have a company jig to end the shows in the spirit of Shakespeare’s playhouses, because it’s fun, and also to use up the spare adrenalin that’s zooming around after the scenes.
Making history at the Rose
We’ve also made history. We took the work back to its home in March, when we performed a round of scenes at the Rose Playhouse on the Bankside. This was an incredible honour. We were the first company to perform Shakespeare in the cue script style on that site since the Rose was pulled down over 400 years ago. The pressure was huge, it was freezing cold, but the great, dark cavern of the Rose remains echoed thrillingly as 20 players brought their commitment and creativity to 10 scenes. I’m told the resident ghosts were very happy, and especially enjoyed the jig at the end.
For June 7 we’re back on home ground at the Cockpit (book here for a free observer’s place), and are likely to be there for the final round this year in September. After that, we’ll be strapping in for the extended project. This will be a performance of an edited form of one play in the Cockpit auditorium on December 13. Yes, wewill, without any group rehearsal, present a shortened whole play. Join us for a wild ride.