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Tips for Performing Shakespeare

Venk pays it forward, sharing advice he recently got about performing Shakespeare.

Show art for Exploding Lear
To those of you who follow my posts, I want to apologize in advance. In this entry, I shift my focus from my usual film aspect and write about a specific theater experience I had recently and what I learned from it.

About three and half hours ago I was waiting backstage, heart thumping, ready to enter onto the UCLA Melnitz 1473 stage for the opening night performance of Exploding Lear.

A carefully selected and auditioned cast of 21 theater students came together to perform selected scenes from the play King Lear, written by William Shakespeare.

I think we had a rocking show.

It has been a fantastic experience; like nothing I've ever had before. And all the credit goes to our guest director, Helena Kawt-Hausen, and our guest actress, Kathryn Hunter, who reprised her role as Lear in our performance. They are both critically acclaimed artists, and I could spend the rest of this article bragging about their numerous awards and films, but you have Wikipedia for that.

The point is: They know their stuff. Especially Shakespeare stuff.

We had nine days. They had no clue what we were going to do; we had no clue what we were going to do. All we had was the script. In these types of situations, it is imperative that you're prepared. You never know what will be thrown at you. We decided on our scenes and our characters. I was to play Kent, Lear's most loyal man.

I only had one speech in the workshop. My total line count was 19, which, for Shakespeare, is tiny. Even with that small amount of dialogue, I have never had a director stop me so many times when I was performing. I would continually get note after note after note. It gets to a point where you're not even sure if what you're doing is right anymore. Everything just seems jumbled up and nonsensical. However, I took Kawt-Hausen's advice to heart, especially her oft-repeated observation that people, because of Shakespeare's difficult language, put on a general, non-specific emotion—like sad—and just wing it. She taught us this doesn't work. There were several other key points I extracted from our guests artists over the course of the nine days we spent putting up our production. Below find the best advice I learned from our guests artists and some things I discovered myself while struggling with performing Shakespeare.

1. Make sure you know what you are saying. When I say that I mean EVERY SINGLE WORD. Not just a generic idea of the text.

2. Know the context that you are saying it in. Where were you 10 minutes before this? What happened? Who are you speaking to? What is your relationship with them? You know, the basics.

3. Connect the text to something personal in your life. When you connect the text to your own life, it makes the scene real for you, thus making it real for the audience.

I'm not saying the three steps above are the "be all and end all" of how to perform Shakespeare, but it might get you somewhere in nowhere land. Good luck!

…And read the play. Sparknotes doesn't cut it.

P.S. Check out this article in the DAILY BRUIN that talks about our show!


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