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Owning Shakespeare's Text With YOUR Natural Voice and Speech

Updated: Feb 9

It's tempting to read Shakespeare's plays and imagine them being performed in a British dialect.

After all, many of the plays take place in England. He obviously wrote in England. The plays were originally performed in England. And let's face it, the text sounds heavenly when Branagh, Rylance, and Dench do it.

So it's totally understandable that the actor's impulse is to perform them with a British dialect.

But, as an American, it was actually detracting greatly from my work.

When I was younger and preparing for my first Shakespeare play, I was definitely using a laughably amateurish combination of R.P. (Received Pronunciation) and Cockney. But then the director was like "No."

The truth was, I was operating under the subconscious belief that I couldn't channel these thoughts and feelings authentically using my own voice and speech.

So putting on the dialect was a way to "present" my idea of the piece rather than "represent" the character's experience on a deep personal level, which is our goal as actors.

Now you may say, the Richard III's experience was that he was in London killing people for the crown. And to that I say yes and Juliet's experience was that she was in Verona, Italy falling in love with Romeo but did Shakespeare have his actors use Italian accents in the original production?

No, he didn't.

In fact, the play was written in English and there is absolutely no reason for you to use an accent while performing it.

So now that that's out of the way...

How do you own the text with YOUR natural voice and speech?

First of all, let the text land on you. Say it so it makes sense (as much sense as possible - we all have to look up words) and read it out loud to uncover the truth of what's being said as much as possible.

It older language and it can be very poetic, so it's important that you take your time with it and let it land on you.

Some of the plays and speeches will hit you more than others because we all resonate with material differently. But a good exercise is to just read it out loud and put it in the room...the same room you're in, with the same body you're in, speaking just the way you speak, without prematurely rushing to the idea of what a performance should look like.

This will help you comprehend it from a personal place right from the start.

Next, as you put the material on its feet and start to incorporate some of the imaginary circumstances, do your best to keep it personal. If you're playing Queen Margaret - who can easily feel like a dark, otherworldly being - start from you. What would it be like for you to place a real curse on someone's baby? Working from the inside out is helpful because it grounds the larger-than-life material in your truth and your voice.

Now that doesn't mean we should casualize anything. These are high stakes moments. These plays are about the most important moment in these characters' lives (not the second most important moment).

So while you do want to stay rooted in authenticity, know that authenticity can go many places. So as you get more comfortable coming from that personal can start using the language and not holding back.

Use the language and don't hold back. In your everyday life, when stakes are higher, your emotions cause you to emphasize thoughts by uuuuuuusing the vowels and consonants in the words.

For example, you bowl over crying saying "Whhhyyyyyyyyyyyyy?" Right? Or you're forced to hop off a call that you wish would never end and say "Byeeeeeeeeeeee."

Even just sounds! When you're surprised, imagine all the different ways you can say "Oh!"

We lengthen sounds when our emotions rise. And in Shakespeare, the process of emotionally connecting to the material should give you freedom to emphasize those vowels and consonants in a way that's natural and impulsive to you.

It's called using the language. Put your emotions ON the words, not in between them. If you do that, you'll be just fine.

Let go of "presenting your idea" of what Shakespeare should look or sound like and focus totally on keeping it personal and using the language. 👌

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