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Megan Schmidt
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Shakespearean verse: 'A 400-year-old rap'?

Thu, 10/03/2013

LAWRENCE — Stumbling over "A Midsummer Night’s Dream"?

Tongue-tied over "The Tempest"? 

Think of a Shakespearean verse like a 400-year-old rap, suggests KU theatre scholar Paul Meier.

“You don’t have to speed through it, but you wouldn’t recite a rap verse slowly, either,” he said. “Embrace the rhythm and take advantage of the clever speech.”

Witnessing the struggles actors face performing the English dramatist’s works helped Meier create “Voicing Shakespeare,” a multimedia instructional ebook that unlocks secrets to performing Shakespeare’s greatest works with confidence, clarity and power.

Performing Shakespeare is good training for all actors, but it’s an especially important skill for the ones working in theatre, Meier said.

“Shakespeare is the most famous playwright in the world,” said Meier. “His plays provide so much opportunity for actors because they are performed every day of the year. Every state has at least one Shakespeare festival. That’s why they need to fall in love with Shakespeare and learn how to bring his verses to life.”

Meier’s latest, 2013 edition of “Voicing Shakespeare” has been remastered to include better graphics, technical support and functionality, he said.

To illustrate the techniques it discusses, the ebook includes 76 audio and video performances of Shakespeare speeches, performed by 17 actors from the U.S., Canada, England and Australia.

Reading too slowly, in a way that doesn’t sound conversational, is a common difficulty for beginners, Meier said.

“It sounds as if they’re reading the Bible in church,” he said. “You have to make it fresh, real and alive. It’s real people talking. You’re not just quoting a dead language.”

Originally from England, Meier has decades of experience as a dialect and accent coach, which has included training actors at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-on-Avon. At KU, he directed a 2010 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in its original, early modern English pronunciation. It remains only the fifth fully produced, original-pronunciation Shakespeare performance on record.

In his time in the U.S., Meier has noticed a few differences between American and British acting students, he said.

“A lot of American actors think they have to sound British,” Meier said. “I think if you’re American, use your full-blooded American accent. Make it your own.”

American actors are also more likely to “resist the music of Shakespearean language,” Meier writes in “Voicing Shakespeare.”

“In the 19th century, England’s establishment seemed to believe that literature could be expected to pacify and civilize the proletariat,” he wrote. “…. America has always been more sensitive to high art’s hegemonic tendencies. Poetry, admittedly, easily becomes high art, and its musical effects and its ‘prettiness,’ if embraced for their sake alone, can emasculate the free, unpatterned thoughts and feelings they convey.”

While the book focuses heavily on the oral art of acting, Meier also points out that theatre actors cannot ignore the rest of their body.

“My young acting students have seen hundreds of films, but some have never seen a theatre production. On the screen, closeups and great, big faces are most of what you see,” he said. “So they learn to read faces instead of the body.”

The right gesture or body movement can provide helpful context, not just for audiences unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s plots and characters, but also for breaking through language barriers.

“It’s an international language that translates whether you’re in America or France, Poland or the Congo,” Meier said.



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