Verse-Nursing and Secret-Keeping

By November 15, 2015 February 21st, 2018 Acting, Blog, cue script, Shakespeare, Shakespeare:Direct, Shows, Theatre

Secrets and spoilers


Verse-nursing has begun. This is the process of study and coaching developed by Patrick Tucker and based on the original practises of the time. So far as we are able to tell, mostly from Restoration theatre records of actors and actresses being coached in their parts by either senior actors or significant figures of the time (for example, the Earl of Rochester and Samuel Pepys), and the one direct example of Hamlet famously coaching the Player King in how to speak his speech trippingly, this was the most direction that an Early Modern player could expect. One or two session with the writer if you were an adult player; sessions with the senior actor who was your apprentice master if you were a boy (this is surmise only, but has a pretty solid amount of proof and logic behind it).

We have three of us who act as “verse-nursers” to the rest of the cast, and each other. We all take an acting role in these projects. This does complicate things a bit, as it’s important to avoid nursing someone who is in the same scene that you are. In the regular three week cycle, just being too busy or unavailable is quite easy, but this time, with ten weeks at our disposal, I’ve already had to say to someone I’m sorry, I can’t VN you, we’re in a scene together. It’s a minor spoiler, but better than not spoiling. My first victim was Katherine Kingston, long-time player and choreographer of our company jig. She was immediately inspired by her character’s switches from simple into complex language, her lightning-swift changes of tactic – oh yes Katherine, you will truly be kept on your toes!

Secret Keeping

Nobody knows who they’re going to be with in a scene until the day of performance. It’s part of the high stakes secrecy that surrounds cue script work.  And it’s wonderful how seriously everyone takes this!  Like, this week I’d been working with Lawrence Carmichael on his text, and when he finished it was Geraldine Brennan’s turn – and the care that had to be taken with covered pages, shut notebooks and suddenly elaborately casual conversation… To be honest, I’d be happy to tell people who they’re working with, but we started the work keeping it secret until the day, and now everyone rather likes it. John Kelley, another established player in the cast, rather sternly told me not to spoil the work’s “USP”, so I’m keeping it zipped. We do give away the plot line for a player’s character, as that is information that they would have known back in the day, if they’d seen the character’s whole part. And simply, sometimes there are things you do just have to know.

But sometimes, I am just BURSTING to tell someone who or what they’ll be working with, I have to bite my tongue so hard – this is the worst work for a lousy secret-keeper! I review every sentence before I say it. And the fantastic thing about this work is that the text gives away what you need them all to know anyway. Damn, Will was good! I am endlessly moved and delighted by how free and open all our players are to the process, the risk, the joy of discovery.  Will would be proud. And amazed that we’re still doing his plays. But he would have loved what we’re doing, because we’re doing it for the love of theatre, the joy of language, and the chance to act. He was a man of the theatre to his toes.

I also find myself saying, “Why would you HUMANLY do that/say that in that situation?” What real reason, if this were actually you, would lead you to that action or that expression at that moment? And we always get a brilliantly simple, deeply truthful answer. I LOVE working with Shakespeare’s writing, just because he’s so endlessly darned good at writing PEOPLE. Real people.  And humanity hasn’t changed in 400 years, even if sometimes the words are funny.

Of course, my clever players have also learned to read me. I was nursing Llila Vis, one of our original players, and pointed out to her that she at one point makes an exit was another character which “may or may not be pleasant”. She immediately laughed, saying after two years she knew that meant it wouldn’t be! I must work on some new phrasing.

John Kelley as Hotspur

John Kelley as Hotspur


  • Simon Furnesd says:

    I’m really enjoying the energy and enthusiasm of these blogs as well as the evident passion for Shakespeare. Well done!

  • LOVE your blog, it’s helped me realise, why do modern directors keep looking for ‘new novel ways’ as if we could reinvent the way we rehearse Shakespeare plays when they worked out the best way back in the day? as if doing it any other way will get more juice or truth out of the thing? plus as you say “humanity hasn’t changed in 400 year”. Would love to come play if there’s space on the next course? I love working on the fly, I do it in life all the time anyway much to the annoyance of some haha! x

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