Speed Reading Shakespeare

A couple of times recently I saw people asking for advice on how to read Shakespeare.  Normally this turns into people telling them that Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read. So what they should do is to go find a live production of the play they were thinking about reading and watch it instead.

I’ve always hated that response.  I don’t think that anybody in the history of that question has ever meant, “Hey, I’ve got a choice between seeing a live production of this play, or reading it, what should I do?”  If somebody wants to read Shakespeare, why are we trying to stop them? Either they are a student who has to, or are trying to learn more on their own.  I think we should be encouraging that, not trying to talk them out of it.

To that end, I’ve come up with a new recommendation that I’m going to start using. I call it Speed Reading Shakespeare. I can’t say I’ve taken it for a spin yet personally, but I look forward to doing so because I can’t see why it wouldn’t work.

Let’s pick a play as our example.  Shall we say A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Great. I’m going to assume that you have, or can get your hands on, a reasonably modern edition of the play. By that I mean it should have some degree of footnotes/glossary, modern spelling, and just in general be more approachable/readable than going straight to the First Folio.  That can be fun, too, but it’s not for beginners.

Ok, awesome.  Now go get a movie version of Dream.  Preferably several.  This is most likely easier than it sounds – a quick search tells me that there are two versions streaming on Amazon Prime right now (the 2016 BBC version, and the all-star 1968 Peter Hall version). But a little searching on Hulu, YouTube, and other streaming sources will no doubt reap benefits.

Is live performance better? No, not for this project.  First, there’s the real world limitation that maybe Dream isn’t playing someplace convenient for you. But more importantly, you can’t pause live theatre. If you are unfamiliar with the play, then you are guaranteed at points to say, “Wait, what did he just say? I’m lost.”  Sitting at home with the remote control, you’ve got that under control. 30-second rewind button to the rescue!

Here’s the fun part, though.  Ready for the magic?  Turn on the subtitles.

Would you look at that!  Now you’ve got your own personal production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream being read to you, all while sitting comfortably in your living room with your copy of the script, a bowl of popcorn and your Snuggie.

I’d love to say, “Just have the play open and follow along with the movie.”  There are a few reasons why this doesn’t work. First, you’re constantly taking your eyes off the screen to read, which breaks your ability to understand the flow of the story. Second, any production you see is going to edit. They’re going to change words, they’re going to give lines to other characters, they’re going to cut large sections. If, every time they do that, you have to spend a few seconds saying, “Wait, where are we?” you’re just going to get lost.

Watch the play this way. If you have the opportunity to see multiple productions, watch all of them.  You’ll discover immediately that you can spot where the productions differ (in terms of what they cut) because sometimes you’ll be saying “Wait, the first one said X Y Z and this one didn’t” or “I don’t remember the first one saying X Y Z like this one just did.”  If you get lost or confused, don’t be afraid to pause and rewind.

Now, after you’ve done this, now go read the play.  Suddenly it will all start to make sense because it’s not just words on the page. You’ll have sounds and images in your head to go with the words. If you’ve watched a few different interpretations you can even start to understand the characters. Maybe you think, “The Demetrius I saw in the first one delivered this speech much funnier than in the second one, in the second one he’s really kind of mean and I hate him.”

Wait, you’re perhaps asking, how is that speed reading Shakespeare?  Going through a couple of movies, reading it, then watching it again?  That’ll take hours. Days.

Well, yes.  Speed reading is not “Go through it once, very fast, and you’ll absorb everything.” Speed reading is about making multiple passes through the material. You then use each pass to better structure your understanding of the material. The next time through you’re “filling in the gaps” you missed the previous time.  The first time you watch the play you’re trying to follow the words but you’re mostly just getting the story – who are these people, and what are they doing? Watch it again and you know the people and the story, so you pay more attention to the words.

I think, after going through this exercise, you’ll have a much better understanding of the play than if you (a) sat down and read the No Fear Shakespeare version, or (b) found a live production and suffered through that.  I’ve got a version of King Lear that I have to get around to watching, and I think I’ll try my subtitles trick. I’ve read Lear and seen multiple productions, but I’m curious whether that trick gives me deeper insight into the text. I’m betting it does.

 

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Most Dysfunctional Marriages in Shakespeare

I love it when Shakespeare comes up at lunch.  We were talking about with a coworker who’d been in Midsummer, and I asked whether his production had been on the light and glitzy side, or touched on some of the darker bits.   This might be the play that kindergarten kids get to dress up as fairies, but it’s also the play where a husband drugs his wife and sends her off to be with an animal until he gets everything he wants.

Which led to this question. I’ve seen “Best Marriage in Shakespeare” done before (and we’ve done it here), and the Macbeths often win that one. They’re made for each other.

So how about the most dysfunctional? Define that however you like.

I am going to go ahead and disqualify Othello right off the bat. If you actually kill your wife during the course of the play then it’s just too easy.  And that goes for both Othello and Iago in that one. Claudius gets a pass because that was an accident.

Kate and Petruchio?  Whether or not you intrepret the play’s ending as happy doesn’t necessarily mean that their relationship is a healthy one. What about the Twelfth Night couples?  When you realize that the person you married isn’t the person you thought you were marrying, can you just roll with it and end up happy?

 

 

 

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Midsummer Movie!

I did not see this coming!  Looks like it’s time for somebody to try A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the big screen again:

Interesting.  Looks like they’re going with the original text, which is always a good way to start in my book.

The biggest name attached appears to be Rachel Leigh Cook (Hermia) who seems like she’s kept busy, but was really “big” back in the days of Dawson’s Creek and She’s All That.  Trivia?  I continually confuse “She’s All That” with “She’s The Man” and assume that it’s a Twelfth Night adaptation.  I suppose Hamish Linklater (Lysander) is also a big name now, he’s had steady primetime TV work for years now (Legion, Fargo, The Crazy Ones, New Adventures of Old Christine, Ugly Betty…)

What I’m worried about is the trailer shows none of the Rude Mechanicals at all. I came away from it worrying that they’d be entirely cut. Luckily the IMDB page does list credits for all of them so they’ll definitely make some sort of appearance.

Oh! I knew this guy looked familiar!  Fran Kranz (Bottom) is one of Joss Whedon’s gang, and played Claudio in Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. That could be cool.

Anybody know more about this movie?  IMDB dates it 2017, but the YouTube trailer appears to be brand new and it looks to be arriving in theatres July 13.  No clue if it’ll be in wide release or not (but I really doubt it).

Is it possible to make a good movie version of Midsummer?  Or is it just too ridiculous (unless you go animated)?

 

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Shakespeare’s Dark Comedy

Over the centuries it’s been common practice to spin a happy ending on Shakespeare’s tragedies.  Romeo and Juliet live, King Lear and Cordelia live happily ever after.

What if you went the other way? The comedies are known for their happy endings.  Can you spin your favorite comedy and give it a dark ending?

Twelfth Night is the obvious choice, with Malvolio’s ominous, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”  How does he not show up at the wedding with an AR-15?

How about A Midsummer Night’s Dream?  The lovers wake up, the love potion has now worn off Demetrius, who sees Theseus and Egeus and immediately goes right back to the character he was in the first scene.  Seeing no change in anybody’s feelings on the matter and with Hermia refusing to budge, Theseus has her executed.  I was going to write that Lysander tries to protect her and gets executed for his trouble as well, but it’s more fun if he’s a coward who absolutely doesn’t do that. 🙂

Can we count The Tempest?  I know, not technically.  But it’s so easy to envision the entire play as the ravings of a poor old man alone on an island making up the whole thing.

Anybody else want to take a shot at going dark?

 

 

 

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Guest Post : Still Dreaming by Hank Rogerson

Still Dreaming,’ a documentary that in many ways is a sequel to another film I (Hank, not Duane) directed called ‘Shakespeare Behind Bars,’ will premiere on PBS starting this Saturday, April 14.

STILL DREAMING is a multi-award winning film about the powers of creativity, and how engaging in art-making can deeply enrich our lives at any age. 

Filmed at The Lillian Booth Actors Home just outside New York City, where a group of long-retired Broadway entertainers dive into a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and find that nothing is what it seems to be. With a play that is usually about young love and sex farce, this ensemble finds that for them, the themes of perception, reality and dreaming deeply resonate. 

This wistful, honest, and frequently hilarious documentary follows the rehearsals as opening night approaches. Tempers flare, health concerns abound, and disaster seems imminent. But as these former entertainers forge ahead, they realize that creativity is a magical force of renewal.

This whole film journey started back in 2009, when I went to the Lillian Booth Actors Home to meet with the Shakespeare group there to discuss the possibility of their doing a play and my filming that process. The residents and staff were all very supportive of the idea right away, so the discussion quickly turned to which play they would do. The residents in particular were very enthusiastic about the possibility of re-connecting with their craft, for it was as one put it, “This is my whole life inside, and this is a way of getting all of that back.”

My co-director, Jilann Spitzmiller and I went in with the idea of Romeo & Juliet, but that was met with very little enthusiasm, and so a discussion ensued mostly around comedies, since as one resident jokingly put it, ‘There was enough tragedy in their day to day lives already.’ They did discuss Macbeth, King Lear of course, with its theme of old age, and one point someone suggested The Tempest, but I quickly rejected it since it was the play done in ‘Shakespeare Behind Bars.’ The residents kept coming back to comedies such as Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was Midsummer that seemed to gain the most backing since it was a comedy, and had an ensemble cast with no real leads. This was good they felt since it wouldn’t fall on one or two actors to carry the whole production, which seemed like too much pressure at their age.

Still, there was quite a bit of resistance from the residents. How the heck would it ever work? A fantastical moonlit forest in a sterile nursing home environment with fairies and sprites leaping around all played by 80-year-olds, and 80-year-olds playing young lovers. How in the world would that work, they wondered. (Jilann and I wondered too!)

At one point in the discussion, a long time pro from film, tv, and theater, who was by far the most experienced actor in the room, spoke up and added, “We have no sets, no costumes, no lights or tech crew. How would we ever do this? And to do it half-ass-ugh, no thanks.” This was met by a prolonged and sinking silence, and it felt like the entire idea of the production was going down right before us. I could sense many of the seniors in the room thinking, “Well if she doesn’t want to do it, then how could we ever go on without her…”

Then another resident broke the quiet and said, “We don’t need a set, we have the outside. Just stand beneath a tree, in a field, and we have spaces indoors in which to work.”

To this, another added, “Yes, all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

A tangible, visible energy moved through the room, a collected sigh of relief that the group could go on, and that this opportunity ‘to get it all back’ might still happen.

And it did.

You can tune into your PBS stations starting this Saturday to watch, or you can stream the film at www.stilldreamingmovie.com.

 

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