This was to be an unusual production, the opening of “Shakespeare in Rep,” two performances of three plays over two weekends, the advertisement stated “A company of student actors will work and prepare three comedies of Shakespeare in a manner referred to today as "original practices." Based on the historical condition of the "players" presenting DIFFERENT dramas and comedies DAILY (in "repertory"), some people believe that much more of the show was the creative and technical product of the individual actors than today's practice of director and designer-led cohesively conceptual performances. With very little time for group rehearsals, the performances take on an added intensity and energy resulting in truly unique, one-time events that are not to be missed!”
As expanded upon by Prof. Jay Sierszyn in his introductory remarks, there’s a bit more to it than that. “Original practices Shakespeare” is based on conjecture that, due to the large repertoire described in contemporary writings, and that play appeared often with as much as two months or more between performances, the manner of performance had to have been quite different than that we are used to. As presented here, “original practices” means that there is minimal to no rehearsal, and that the cast appears on stage with “cue scripts” in hand. (Cue scripts are individualized scripts, called “sides” in musical theatre, that contain just the one character’s lines and stage directions, and the cue lines from other characters that call for them.) The argument is that, given six different shows in a week and months between individual shows, the actors couldn’t possibly have learned and remembered all those scripts.
Professor Sierszyn’s production added several variables to this experiment. This was a new play to most, if not all of the actors, which would not likely have been the case in Shakespeare’s day. The actors were recruited anywhere from two weeks to two days before the performance, and had had minimal opportunity to work with each other. Most of the actors knew little of the script other than what was in their “sides”. When you add in that Shakespeare’s actors would have been familiar and comfortable with the vernacular vocabulary, pronunciation, and turns of phrase, whereas some of the cast demonstrably were not, what is left is basically a first-run-through rehearsal with improvised blocking and some costumes. The resultant performance was academically interesting to me as a some-time actor, but I was definitely not convinced that the groundlings of Shakespeare’s day would have paid money to see it.
A case in point occurred when a line or entrance was missed. Since other actor’s didn’t know the script or even the context of the scene they were in, they were stuck until the “book holder” prompted them. In one instance, when the stage manager was distracted by another crew member, the cast got so far off track, missing an entrance and several page of script, that the show had to be stopped, backed up, and started over from the missed spot.
The “original practices” idea does not convince me. OK, suppose you DO have sixty plays in your repertoire. Is it so impossible that anyone could memorize that number of parts? I think not. People in times before easy retrieval of information, or even hand books, could train to feats of memory that we would think prodigious today. If you ran an acting company then, why would you even consider hiring someone that couldn’t do that? Take into account that the same people wouldn’t necessarily have to learn all the largest parts, and there would be lots of small roles more easily learned and parceled out. The “original practices” idea also fails to take into account that, performing in the afternoons, the company has mornings and/or evenings to brush up the play either for that day or the following day. Once you had blocking down, that’s relatively easy to recall, and in my experience helps to make the lines come. Verse structure also helps memory.
That being said, the student actors were game, gave it their cheerful best, and weren’t badly thrown by fluffs and misses. While interesting, I think that this experiment pretty conclusively disproves the “original practices” thesis, at least as practiced here.
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