Taking Direction Directly From Will

How does this actually work?

I’m going to talk a lot about being directed by Shakespeare this week, but I want to put in a word for our 21st Century acting tricks before I go back to waxing lyrical about Will and his ingenuity.

Two Gentlemen is proving to be a play stuffed with characters playing very strongly held agendas, which is making learning lines and developing character challenging for several players. Are their characters telling the truth? What are they thinking and feeling?  How do they play this?

We have no record of acting techniques or expectations from Shakespeare’s time, beyond what the audiences applauded in the way of passionate speeches and risqué comedy gags. How did his players deal with these issues in their performance? We have no idea! But they must be dealt with, so we are employing our own techniques: weigh up the evidence, identify who the character is, discover what they want from the scene, and how they feel about its events. My favourite current tool is one borrowed from Dominic Kelly and Alex Vendittelli, teachers of the Meisner Technique of Acting: are you having a good day, or a bad day? This has proved very useful, and extremely enjoyable – Julia Crook and I made lots of excited squeals over her part in King’s Road’s Pret on Saturday!


Julia Crook as the Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well







Do what you have to do, so that you can say what you have to say

Not having a director to set blocking, or confirm or change choices in physical behaviour, is the oddest part of working directly from a part, and without group rehearsal. Post-Stanislavski actors are programmed to work organically together under the eye of a director to manifest the director’s whole vision of a piece. We are not used to taking direction from our playwright, and working directly from our text and off our own bat. It comes back to trusting again: trust that Will is there to help you with your part, and has told you when to move and where, you just need to take the plunge and do it.

There are very few specific, separate stage directions in the First Folio. The text is even light on entrances and exits; characters often enter who haven’t previously be said to exit, so how did they know when to go? The answer is mostly common sense. If your character says, “Come, I pray you, go with me”, or similar, then you are leaving unless you clearly have lines that keep you on stage. And as you are clearly a character of high status to give that kind of order, it may not matter where you go as the rest will follow wherever you go.

A few things you do just have to set. These get dealt with at the brief “tech” that happens before performances, when we walk through all entrances and exits, and run any physical business or fights that do need to be pre-set. It appears most playhouses of Shakespeare’s time had two entrances, a left and a right, which simplifies possible traffic issues. Patrick Tucker employed practical strategies like Montagues from the left, Capulets from the right. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that Will’s players did a similar thing, as it makes practical theatrical sense to do it, and they were consummate practical men of the theatre. On December 13th we’re working in the Cockpit with four entrances to co-ordinate, so I have worked out a traffic-flow plan in advance, and walking through entrances and exits will happen before our show. There’s nothing to say this wouldn’t have been done, and it is necessary to do it, so we do it. I’m sure Will would support us in that. We need to get our show to work, just as he would do.

You and Thou (it’s more than just poetry)

One of the things everyone thinks about with Shakespeare’s text is ‘thou dost’, ‘thou sayst’ etc. Truth be told, using ‘thou’ was old school even when the lines were written, so why did Will use the word? Was he just being poetic? Dramatic? Affected? And why do some characters switch from ‘you’ to ‘thou’ and back again during scenes, sometimes during speeches?

Patrick Tucker had a theory: if ‘thou’, like ‘tu’ on French or ‘du’ in German, is the intimate form of ‘you’, how about that means a physical or emotional closeness? Which means ‘you’ could also imply formality, and also a public form of address, as if to more than one person? And again like French and German, maybe there could also be a status element to using ‘thou’, as masters mostly ‘thou’ their servants and receive a ‘you’ in reply, like pupils to teacher in French class at school.


A scene from Twelfth Night





I really enjoy the you/thou rule, especially in scenes where one character switches from you-ing to thou-ing  the same person, as this must indicate at the least a change of feeling or tactic and at most a physical movement. Scenes like Lady Percy’s showdown with Hotspur in Henry 4th Part 1 really light up with the you/thou movement rule. Hotspur is torn between his love for his wife and his passionate need to set off for battle, and he switches back and forth from ‘you’ to ‘thou’ throughout his speech to her. We then see a young man physically torn, pacing back and forth between the door and his wife. Free acting for the player, free emotional charging for both players, and simply following a simple rule.

The rule has frequently proved very puzzling to 21st Century actors. Remembering that “thou” is intimate and ‘you’ formal has flipped out just about everyone at some point in the last two years. We think it’s because ‘thou’ is old fashioned, therefore to us it seems it must be the formal choice. One player in this company who is at home with the rule is native-German speaker Tamara Ritthaler, but even she was puzzled by finding it in part of her speech. She has part of a scene with a servant character, and ‘thous’ them most of the time. She switches to ‘you’ for a line where she felt she must be close to the other player. ‘Do you have a powerful opinion at that point?’ was the question we played with, and yes she did. So, she knew she was being directed to physically break a rule, and thus Will pointed her directly at the heart of her character’s action and the size of the moment for them. I love it when this work does that!


Rosalind’s banishment in As You Like It, where ‘you’ and ‘thou’ switch within a speech, indicating the Duke speaking directly to Rosalind at times, and at other times more publicly, makes the scene both electric to play, and quite easy to set. Rosalind also switches in her form of address to the Duke, using both formal terms like ‘your Grace’, and more intimate and simple ‘Uncle’, which require changes in physical proximity and physical attitude. ‘Your Grace’ could be distant, public, definitely formal, or close and on a knee supplicating. ‘Uncle’ is simpler, more human, appealing directly to the Duke. Smart tactical choices for Rosalind, and some necessary acting for the player.

A player must physicalize the difference in their behaviour that a change of address suggests. Two of our players have to deal with multiple changes of addressee in some of their scenes in Two Gentlemen: Olly Hewett and Llila Vis. Players only see the entrance or exit of another character in their part if that action is their direct cue, so they’re both guessing in their scenes about who they may be talking to, when they came in, etc. But, they both can see that their language changes, that their forms of address change, and a few ‘yous’ and ‘thous’ also creep in. Sometimes, all you can do in this work is stock up on possibilities, and find out which one it is in the scene itself. Surprisingly perhaps, this proves to be liberating rather than restricting or terrifying. I guess we’re getting used to it.

When it comes down to it, if you know what to look for, doing without a director is completely possible!

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