Sarah Woods is an actor and leading Shakespeare tutor. She accompanied and supported the actors on the day’s shoot for TO BE. Here she writes of her passion for Shakespeare and her experience of working with the young cast and crew of TO BE. Sarah was also acting coach throughout the shoot of BOOT and BAT EYES.
I love Shakespeare.
I love his plays, his characters, his extraordinary use of language, his huge, big-hearted humanity, his terrifyingly accurate insight into what makes us tick, and, and, and …
So when I was approached to work with director Damien Power as acting coach on TO BE, the promo for atyp’s THE VOICES PROJECT, I was delighted at the prospect.
What a great idea, I thought: launching a monologue-writing project with, arguably, the most famous monologue ever written.
And to have “To be or not to be…” coming out the mouths of ten young people, ten different souls – different genders, ages, up-bringings, even cultures – well, I was excited!
On reflection, I realise that it is my excitement for and love of the material that helps to break the ice when teaching or directing Shakespeare – particularly with young people: I just have to think about how much it excites me and why, and then share this with them. I find it can be catching.
In this instance, the young actors in question had already done an introductory workshop on the monologue – so I certainly wasn’t working from scratch. Nevertheless, I’m a firm believer in the premise that all acting needs to start with sense. The words need to be made sense of before anything else can happen. So the first thing I asked each actor was: were they across all the meaning in the speech?
Most had at least a reasonable understanding of the general gist, but there were a few gaps to fill in – actors need to be absolutely specific in their understanding of the material so as to be absolutely specific in their playing of it. My starting point was with an eye to guard against washy, generalised acting down the (very fast) track to their performance for the camera.
The next thing I talked through with most of the actors was Hamlet’s given circumstances. What had happened to Hamlet up to this point – the moment before he opens his mouth to utter those (now) very famous words? This background provides the very real grief and trauma that Hamlet’s ideas spring from … and stops the speech from being a dry, intellectual argument. Every Hamlet is different. I talked to the actors about working from themselves. This was their Hamlet, and Damien didn’t want them to ‘put on a character’ – which I was totally in accord with. We encouraged them to see what came out if they put themselves – with their age, their gender – in Hamlet’s shoes.
Earlier this year I played Gertrude in the STC Education production of Hamlet. And ours was the Gen Y, female Hamlet! Initially, I wasn’t sure how it would work, but it was fabulous seeing the terrific actor, Sophie Ross, in the role – and seeing how young audiences jumped whole-heartedly onboard her ride and stuck with her all the way. She played her Hamlet about 17 years old and girls and boys alike seemed to relate to her.
So it was a lot of fun for me that on this shoot, of our ten actors, we had seven female Hamlets – and I had a positive female Hamlet experience under my belt to relate to them if necessary.
As it turned out, none of the girls had any dilemma with the gender-bending casting. What was interesting, though, was that across the board, we saw very little natural tendency toward anger from any of our female Hamlets, which would have been a fairly reasonable response to the given circumstances, I would have thought – (although not as much in this speech as in other parts of the play). Nevertheless, the girls brought many other very real and relevant qualities to the piece. Particularly powerful was their connection to Hamlet’s profound sorrow.
Our three young men were all excitingly different – their personal responses to the piece being nudged even further in different directions by the evocative locations Damien had chosen for them: the bitter impotence of a bad date in a parked car; the futile struggle of life in a dirty back lane behind a restaurant; the isolation – (but also private space to think) – of a late-night basketball court. All Damien’s locations, in fact, lent great texture to the performances.
The next – AND ALL IMPORTANT – thing to work with the actors on was: what were they DOING?
Not just their physical activity, but what were they doing with the words?
Hamlet is wrangling with a huge dilemma: he is contemplating suicide. So the actor doing this speech needs to be encouraged to really wrangle with the issues.
Sort it out.
Make a decision.
Solve the problem.
Hamlet’s great frustration is tied up in his inability to prove the power of his convictions by acting upon them. Of course, by the end of the speech Hamlet has not succeeded in any of this – (otherwise it would be the end of the play right there!) – but he must actively attempt to do so.
I had a terrific day working on TO BE.
Damien’s choice and range of locations injected extra fun into the challenge for each of the actors. It also added to and informed each of our Hamlets’ given circumstances. There was a really calm ease about Damien’s direction and I felt we worked well together.
But the young actors were what it was all about on the day. They were lovely, unpretentious and dedicated.
It was a pleasure to work with them.
THE VOICES PROJECT: TO BE is online here.
THE VOICES PROJECT: BOOT and THE VOICES PROJECT: BAT EYES premiere online in February.
THE VOICES PROJECT: THE ONE SURE THING begins its run at atyp on 1st February. Book tickets, here.