Kicking this up to the top level and out of the comments so people can join in.
The topic is Improvising in Shakespeare’s work. Or, more generally, let’s call it “going off script”, since it doesn’t have to be extemporaneous for our purposes. We’re talking about when actors, in between their Shakespeare lines, add the occasional words of their own devising.
I have two thoughts on the subject. First, on the subject of “Do we think that Shakespeare’s actors improvised?” I answer, “Shakespeare’s not here anymore to defend himself.” So I have to assume that, when it was live, he had least had the option of going up to an actor afterwards and saying “That was good, keep it” or “Well, that ruined the show, thanks a lot. Don’t do it again.” Who really knows if the plays were the same night after night? Shakespeare could have constantly been revising. So while the Works as we’ve come to know them are like Scripture to us, we almost certainly hold the source material in a much higher regard than the creator did.
Second, I think there is an important distinction between a director saying “Ok, in my vision of the play, I’m going to have you do the following….” versus an actor just deciding to say something funny. I’ve actually just remembered a good example – during the Commonwealth production of Shrew in Boston several years back, I can’t remember why exactly but there’s a chase scene – some servant who has impersonated someone is now being chased by that man’s bodyguards – anyway, he jumps off the stage and into the audience, turns back to the stage (where the bodyguards are approaching), puts his arms up and yells “Wait!! Fourth Wall!” They pause, confused, just long enough for him to head for the hills, before they too jump down and pursue.
I don’t recall at the time being pissed off that the director had thrown this in. I remember thinking it was very funny. It was a directorial decision, and showed some purpose.
Now instead compare a hypothetical scene from Macbeth, at the dinner party before Banquo’s ghost makes his appearance. The seated guests are all no doubt socializing and talking amongst themselves, and then one of them pipes up loud enough for the audience to hear, “Rectum? Damn near killed him!” and everybody has a big guffaw.
I think I’d be upset about that.
Are my feelings on the subject arbitrary? I honestly don’t know. Could be. Could entirely be in the hands of the particular director or actor. If I get the feeling that the director and/or actors have love and respect for the material and are merely trying, in their own way, to present it in the best possible way? I like that. If on the other hand it seems to me like they’ve taken the “We need to make this better” approach, then I have a problem with that. And I do realize that this is entirely opinion – Julie Taymor could have nothing but the utmost respect for Shakespeare’s work, and this is simply her way of expressing it. I have no idea.

11 thoughts on “Improvising

  1. "I think there is an important distinction between a director saying "Ok, in my vision of the play, I'm going to have you do the following…." versus an actor just deciding to say something funny."

    I think says it right there.

    It being public domain, anyone has the right to do anything the damn well please with the scripts of course. So the question becomes SHOULD they?

    Abridgment also is another thing. That happens all the time. But I have been to Shakespearean shows that do the sort of thing mentioned here, and for my part, I hate it.

    And I am not a purist, as it were. I believe the works leave open all kinds of room for interpretation and different visions. I don't even mind if sometimes if scenes are performed in a different sequence than written. But to just throw in something on the fly like that "4th wall" thing, or even worse, a director putting it in there by design, is nothing but a distraction.

    It is like saying, "what we are doing isn't solid enough in it's own right, so we are going to throw in the Three Stooges, just to wake you up." If you want to do the Three Stooges, do them. If you are doing 12th Night, however…

    Between a director making it an order, and an actor pulling it out of his posterior during a performance, I certainly would rank the former over the later in terms of acceptable for a Shakespeare show. But truth be told, I don't like it from either source.

    Facial expressions can go a long way without changing a word.

  2. There is considerable editorial opinion that some of the text that has been handed down to us is, in fact, ad libbed material interpolated by actors and faithfully transcribed by someone as part of the play. Usually, this is comic material. One might question whether this was something Shakespeare sanctioned ("ad lib something funny here, Will Kemp"), something he tolerated, or something he had no control over ("Sorry, will, you are just the author, and one shareholder, The Money likes the funny bit as is").
    So, there may very well be a history of this sort of thing. On the other hand, we cannot say for sure what parts might have been ad libbed and what parts were written by WS.
    I agree with Ty, the question is simply should one mess with the text as we have it before us. I would say that although the text should not be treated as sacred, it must be handled very carefully. Before changing the text, it is important to remember that you are dealing with plays that have been popular for 400 years because they were well written. If you are going to re-write anything, you better be very sure you are a better writer than your predecessor, or risk the scorn of audience and critic.
    In the end, what matters is if it works. I don't think textual changes matter any more than other changes–doing Henry V in a WWII setting or Macbeth in a modern German/Russian setting, or whatever the Patrick Stewart production was, or Othello in California, or simply Shakespeare in modern dress for that matter. Certainly, no actor should make textual changes without consulting with the director–they need to be working as a team. But whatever changes are made must be made with a conscious understanding that what has been done before has worked and what is being proposed may not.
    Changing Shakespeare's text is like covering a Beatles song–few if any do it well enough to be applauded for improving on the original.

  3. I just want to note that I am coming at this from the perspective of a lifelong performer and I am curious how many other commentators are in that boat. As a performer, improvising is something that just sometimes happens in the rehearsal room, and I find it hard to believe that the way theatre is made has changed all that much. This is why I have a problem with categorically denying improvisation. Acting is improvising. For improvising doesn’t have to specifically mean coming up with your own text. As actors, we fill in all the blanks – movement, how to say a line, how to relate to others, how to use a prop. When I played the Porter, one day I brought a flask. As I left the stage I took a much-needed swallow. I didn’t speak anything that wasn’t in the text, but it was still improvisation.

    I worship at the altar of Shakespeare and his genius, but I know that he understood actors. You can feel it – that’s why we want to play his roles. Actors are not writers, but they do understand character and so sometimes something gets said that is absolutely in line with what should happen. I have been in a rehearsal room with a brand-new play where and actor says a line differently, or throws something in, and the playwright keeps it because it is perfect. The actor was never trying to be disrespectful or to suggest that he knew better than the playwright, or even that he should be a writer of any sort. But the reality of the rehearsal room is that this sort of thing happens. Inspiration strikes. It happens now, and it had to happen then.

    I can certainly understand the desire to sanctify the text of Shakespeare, but the truth is because he did not oversee the printing of his own works, we cannot say for certain what he wrote himself or what an actor may have added. And if we are categorically denying a modern production the ability to do something, where do we draw the line? If you are not allowed to speak a word that is not in Shakespeare’s text, are you allowed to cheer? to laugh? to gasp? If Shakespeare writes “Ha, ha, ha” do you laugh, or do you say the word ‘ha’ three times? If Shakespeare’s text is so untouchable, does that mean we aren’t allowed to cut it? Do you object to the replacing of an archaic word with a modern one?

    I feel that these plays are great works of art; because of this they resist being stationary. They continue to move and to change and continue to speak to us. Yes, Shakespeare deserves respect. But I think he would be more amazed that people continue to respond to his work than he would be offended that Peter Zadek did a Measure for Measure where nearly every character dies at the end. Here we start getting more into the question of author’s autonomy versus director’s vision. But I feel that the text on the page is one piece of art, where a play performed is another one. And every new production, every new director, every new actor is going to change a play. And they have to, in order for it to speak to their audience. And please, please, please, let's not forget that Shakespeare himself was adapting, changing, reworking previously existing material.

    I think the more interesting discussion lies in what changes work and what changes don’t and why as opposed to should they be allowed to make those changes in the first place. You have every right to be offended by bad choices, but I object to being offended simply by choices being made. And to play devil’s advocate – do we not learn as much from bad choice as we do from good choices? And certainly theatre artists deserve the space to experiment and try new things. And truly for some choices we may not know whether they work until they are in front of an audience, interacting with all the other elements in a show.

    Also I think it's unfair of you to dismiss actors' contributions. How do you know what happened in that production of Shrew was a director's decision as opposed to something the actor did one day in rehearsal?

  4. I'd posit that improvisation can be justified. Obviously, if someone comes up dry onstage, that actor's scene-mates are obligated to improvise and cover for them. If you can manage to this in iambic pentameter, more power to you. 🙂

    Also, I've seen actors improvise during audience interaction. This happens mostly in ASC shows, since they keep the lights on and incorporate the audience intentionally. There's debate even at the ASC, however, whether it's justified to go off-script during comedic scenes with audience members. For example, my director for As You Like It said we shouldn't improvise based on audience reactions when we, for example, took a line to the audience. He felt Shakespeare's actors wouldn't have done that. One of my directors for Antony and Cleopatra, however, went off-script often himself during audience interaction, sometimes to hilarious results. He was experienced enough to improvise in verse, though. It's an interesting issue. I'd say the only thing that is obviously unjustified is purposeful out-of-character or out-of-setting improvisation. That's just distracting.

  5. "And let those that play
    your clowns speak no more than is set down for them;
    for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to
    set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh
    too; though, in the mean time, some necessary
    question of the play be then to be considered:
    that's villanous, and shows a most pitiful ambition
    in the fool that uses it."

    That Shakespeare has Hamlet address this in his speech to the players has always indicated to me that, yeah, actors sometimes went off-book. I'm not sure I would necessarily want to read Shakespeare's attitude into Hamlet's — Will might've just been having a good laugh at it — but if you want to know how at least one early modern author felt about what actors did to his plays, I feel like Ben Jonson has some choices words about it in the prologues and introductory letters to some of his plays (although I might be confusing that with the vitriol he occasionally leveled at his audiences).

  6. Oh, I'm a fan of anyone who brings the ASC into a conversation!

    One might even argue that improvisation was a known fact of the Early Modern theatre, since Shakespeare wrote lines to be delivered directly to the audience, and you never know how the audience will react. The audience reaction is off of the text!

  7. Well said, Charlene (your long post).
    What works is what counts.
    Would Shakespeare be in favor of improvisation? Who knows? Maybe he was forward thinking and actor-friendly. Or maybe he was self-satisfied and didn't want anybody messing with his work. It is not really important what he would have thought. What is important is what his audience thinks.
    But I think Shakespeare audiences can be tough crowds. Like Beatles fans. Be careful when you mess with what we love!

  8. In the instance where we have multiple published versions of the plays (first quarto, second quarto, first folio) we see that the plays often received substantial changes over the course of their runs and revivals. How much of that is due to the actors, Shakespeare himself, or early editors, is open to debate.

    As far as improvisation goes: certainly actors of the time improvised: commedia dell'arte troupes did travel to England from the continent, and left a substantial influence on English theatre (note that most of Shakepeare's comedies are set in Italy.) I would not be surprised if Elzabethean actors attempted to imitate the Italians in their improvisational prowess. With regards to the plays-within Hamlet and A Midsummer's Night Dream improvisation (or a prohibition against improvisation) comes up as the characters discuss the performance.

    It's not that improv didn't happen, it's a matter of how much of it and whether Shakespeare appreciated it or not.

  9. The fourth wall thing is rich–since most of today's audience members wouldn't understand the reference anyway. Esoteric "in jokes" are really out if you ask me. Totally selfish and egotistical.
    And the major difference between sharing something with the audience in Shakespeare's day and doing it now, is that by all accounts they already shared much more than we are willing to do. "Modern" acting techniques have seen to that. The "fourth wall" didn't exist then–at least in any form that we know it. And if we've created a fourth wall in staging the plays, then we'd better be damned sure we know what we're doing when we break that glass.

  10. Charlene, I'm also coming from this as a performer. My historical references are simply to show that while these words are printed they are not etched in stone, as well as show that Shakespeare was probably far more familiar with improvising actors than most playwrights of our era.

    JM, I don't really see how a "fourth wall" joke is remotely "selfish and egotistical." Most regular theatre attendees are either familiar with the term "fourth wall" or would be able to ascertain the meaning from the context of the performance. It doesn't matter if the King's Men performed in the round, modern staging uses a fourth wall and people will get the joke. A lot of the jokes in Shakespeare's texts require familiarity with the dialect of the era that comes with seeing and reading a good number of plays: I get jokes that the person next to me does not. Does this mean that the company performing said play is being "selfish and egotistical?"

  11. Ian, the point is really not someone's erudition when it comes to theatre jokes or any other kind of jokes in Shakespeare's text. But so far, I haven't come across the 4th wall bits. Maybe they're in the Quartos only 🙂

    The point is, is it necessary or is it self-indulgent. Is it useful or overly presumptive? Is it part of what we know to be the author's work?
    Try those antics with Albee–he'd cut your head off.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *