About a year ago now, before we all were Zooming constantly, I had this idea about using video chats to connect a bunch of people I’ve worked with in different parts of my life, into a “community of practice.” Communities of practice (COP) are common in the tech world, which is where I learned about them, although they exist under other names in various realms. Typically, they involve bringing together a group of people who are all interested in learning a particular thing, and everyone agrees to some kind of assignment. Maybe they’ll all work through a course on machine learning together, or they’ll all try building a canoe and check in as they reach particular benchmarks. I don’t know if there are many theater people doing this, especially since they aren’t about working together, but rather working independently with shared resources, encouragement, and accountability. So it’s not like actors who get together for a contact improv jam, where the gathering is where the work happens. COPs are spaces for reflection on the work.
I was thinking about how I missed the discussions I used to have in grad school. More than the lecture/instruction aspect, the conversations I had with my peers and with faculty were where I learned the most. I realized, I don’t need to be getting class credit and writing papers and paying a university to have interesting discussion with interesting people! So I emailed a whole bunch of theater people I know from all over, inviting them to join me in a COP centered on Giles Block’s Speaking the Speech: An Actor’s Guide to Shakespeare, meeting via Skype. I proposed that we would each pick a monologue, read a chapter each month, and apply what we learned from that chapter to our monologue. Many of them were interested, but due to time zones, schedules, and tech challenges, we ended up with a small group: Katherine, Holly, and me.
A few things didn’t work as well as I had hoped. For one, some of the chapters didn’t apply at all to the monologues we’d chosen. None of us had rhyming ones, and Block has several chapters devoted to rhymes. By the end of the book, I think most of us had dropped the application to our monologues. One chapter per month was too slow; we switched to two at some point, and that was better. It still seemed too slow a pace; if I did this again, I would want to meet weekly or every-other week. The group wasn’t really big enough, either. If we had five people, we still might have had a quorum if one or two couldn’t make it. As it was, if one of us wasn’t available, we generally cancelled.
All of those minor quibbles and learnings aside, I loved this COP experience. Holly and Katherine are both brilliant, but have very different training, so their insights, questions, and discoveries often diverged. Although the pace was slow, working through the book in this methodical way, reading and digesting a small bit at a time, made me sit with the material and interact with it more deeply than I would if I just blazed through it on my own. Katherine and Holly also gave me permission to question some of Block’s assertions more than I might have otherwise. I have a ton of respect for Block, and if I didn’t have Holly and Katherine saying, “This doesn’t make sense to me, either,” I would have just deferred to his authority. There were a few sections where I wasn’t able to picture what Block was describing, and Katherine was able to demonstrate. If I hadn’t had her as part of this group, I probably would have just skimmed by those sections and remained mystified. In theory, I could have called her and asked if she understood what he was talking about, but I probably wouldn’t.
The book itself (oh, right, this is a Book Report post!) is a fantastic tool for actors and directors. It’s more accessible than Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, but more advanced than Mastering Shakespeare. I loved how, throughout, Block connected rhetorical and rhythmic concepts to playable actions. This is not an abstract text; it’s grounded in the work of the theater.
Block’s understanding of the theater as a creative business also shows up in his awareness of the trajectory of Shakespeare’s work. Many other texts I’ve read abstract Shakespeare’s plays into a monolith, as if all of them sprung from his brain in the same instant, and follow the same logic. Block is careful to always note which innovations start to appear at which points in Shakespeare’s career. He points out Shakespeare’s discoveries and experiments.
The whole thing is well worth a read, for any serious performer of verse drama, but here are a few of the insights that keep rolling around in my mind.
The rule is, there are no rules (here are tools)
Block contradicts himself in this book. I don’t get the impression that, if I asked him about it, he would say that he was mistaken in one instance and right in the other. He offers options, avenues for explorations.
I wonder, also, if this reflects Shakespeare’s own journey of experimenting as he was writing. Maybe in some of the plays, he tries inverting a convention that he otherwise adheres to in all his other plays. Maybe some insights hold true for his early career, but go out the window as the verse gets wilder and he grows in his skill. Every section of this book, though, offered lenses that are worth exploring in any of the plays.
The sound of sincerity
In Shakespeare circles, we say that verse is the heart language. It’s direct, emotional, embodied. The iambic rhythm maps to our heartbeat. I’ve always insisted that the starting point with characters who are speaking in verse is that we should assume they believe they are telling the truth. That doesn’t always work; some characters lie in verse (I think this is part of what makes Richard III such a compelling and convincing liar. He sounds very believable). It can be an interesting acting challenge, though: “What if you believe what you’re saying? Can you do it without even hinting that maybe it’s not true?”
The thing Block pointed out about this that I of course should have realized a decade or more ago is that if verse is the sound of sincerity, then prose must be the sound of misdirection. In prose passages, we have to ask, “What is being left out or avoided?” A lot of scenes that are obtuse and confusing break open when we ask that question.
Mirroring is the sound of disagreement
In many cases, Block named something that I already knew at a gut level, and he offered a clarification and definition that I lacked.
One example is what he calls “mirroring.” I have recognized these moments, where one character is asserting power by imitating another’s rhythm, often inverting the other’s rhetoric as well. The “wooing” scene in Richard III is a perfect example. But here’s how Block describes it:
I call it “mirroring,” and it is when one speaker mimics the rhythm of another in lines of just three stresses each.
So now, when I see these short lines, of exactly three stresses, a little flag will go up in my brain and I’ll know what to look for. I’m sure I’ll notice examples I might have missed (the Richard one is terrifically obvious, I can’t imagine missing it).
Rhymed verse is fun, but also challenging. Workshop participants sometimes ask me, “How should I performed rhymed verse?” My answer is always a pathetic shruggy, “It depends…”
Block has laid out all of the different answers to that question with massive clarity. The last half of the book is basically about rhymes and why and when characters rhyme. Do they realize they are rhyming? Are they being clever? Are they making a discovery in the moment?
A number of Block’s insights, dropped in passing, made me do a double-take and ask, Is that true? Why haven’t I noticed it? I’m noting a few of them here just because I want to remind myself to look for them while I’m working:
- Trochees are especially common in the fourth foot of a line.
- In addition to being used for social inferiors or in intimate moments, “thou” is used to when characters speak of those who can’t hear them, or are absent, or are dead, or are asleep.
- “Rhyming tends to freeze the action, holding the moment in suspension.” I think I know what he means by this; rhymes set up the wait for their completion. But does it always feel like that?