Last Updated on August 14, 2015 by
All the world’s a stage!
The Globe Theater in London really pioneered recreating a theatrical experience as close to what Shakespeare would have been familiar with as possible. This leads to a very unique style of acting and design, but not only is the work itself different from acting and theater today, but the manner in which the classes are taught in modern England was noticeably different from what I have experienced in the States.
The Shakespearean stage is big. Not only is it the size of a basketball or tennis court with galleries rising behind it, it rises up three stories and curves around the sides almost completely surrounding the actor. I suppose this is what we would call a “thrust” stage, with the audience being on three sides, rather than a genuine theatre “in the Round” or “arena” which does completely surround the stage on all sides.
Because of this architectural style, this allows several commonly held rules of a Proscenium Theatre (where audience is on one side of the stage) to be broken:
- You can have your back to the audience! Because of the way the stage is arranged, even if you have your back to one person, you will always be facing another.
- “Naturalistic” acting isn’t nearly as effective at the Globe than it is at an indoor theatre. The space is so vast and there are so many distractions and limitations (wind, rain, the aches and pains of having to stand through the entire performance, pigeons flying around, people fainting, etc.) that the nuances of where a person is looking, how they are standing, and how they are talking can be lost. These subtleties convey a clear meaning in a traditional (modern) theater, but in a space like the Globe, they are lost if they are not emphasized or (dare I say) exaggerated.The Shakespearean actor is playing to an audience that is everywhere at once: in front of them, behind them, above them, below them; the actor must have a heightened physical and vocal presence in order to be heard from the top gallery to the bottom floor.
Theatre was not considered the noble art form that it is today. To some, the image of stuffy intellectuals, dressed to the nines is what comes to mind when someone talks about taking in a night at the theatre. Well, I would like to say that this image is as wrong today as it was in Shakespeare’s time.
While theatre today is a highly respected art form, in Shakespeare’s time it was considered something fun to do among other revels such as bear baiting, gambling, and prostitution. In fact, our professor described the neighborhood that the Globe occupied in Elizabeathan London as being one of “boats, bars, and brothels,” which should give some idea of the people that frequented the Globe.
While it was frequented by a rougher crowd, one of the necessary things to take in a play was spare time, and one of the few classes that would be able to afford such a luxury was the upper echelon of English society. This is not to say that the upper classes were much better behaved than the lower. In a satire written in complete contrast to Erasmus’s De Civitate, the author said that one ought to sit in the most prominent place that he could, take up as much space as he could to show off his new cloak and catch the eye of a young lady, and at the interval to make a great show of stretching, yawning and complaining about the performance.
In many ways, going to the theatre was a social event, done as much to be seen as it was to see. In fact, the patrons would have gone more so to hear the play, rater than to see it. This is why so many clues about the scenery, the time, the place, and who is entering from where are put directly into the lines of the actor’s dialog.
This is not to say that going to the theatre was a rare treat. Remember, Shakespeare’s day was one that had no television, no radio, no iPods nor computers, so whatever entertainment they could not make for themselves had to be sought out. Going to the theatre, I would say, was tantamount to someone tuning in to catch the latest episode of their favorite television series.
Even so, the theatre was not without its critics. The Puritans, and other staunchly religious peoples detested the theatre as it made people more susceptible to the passions of anger, jealousy, melancholy, and lust. Others saw it as a waste of time, taking away from what could be put towards work or, even more importantly, studying the Bible.
Of course, just like today, to keep the crowds coming back, the playwrights had to keep turning out new pieces to draw an audience.
- There would be a different play being performed almost every day.
- The Shakespearean actor would have at least five roles in their head that they would be able to draw from.
- The rehearsal periods were short, usually only two weeks. Needless to say, the actors were professionals at learning by rote.
- The scripts that would be given to an actor would be only what they needed to get by, and nothing more. Usually, they included the actors lines, their cue line, and one line from the person that immediately follows. This jugsaw-puzzle of a script may have been done to save ink and paper, but it most likely would have been done for security reasons. In Shakespeare’s day, there was no copyright, so if one person that wasn’t the author got a hold of the script, they could pass it off as their own work without penalty.
The rehearsal process was a lot more laid back and experimental than I had anticipated. The professor would give us a series of games and techniques to work on and then have us apply them to the scene we were doing. We did these exercises either in small groups, small groups that were watched by other students, or as one group that any student could jump in and out of at any time. This kind of environment made us much more open to trying new interpretations of the script, experimenting with delivery and interactions, and made us more comfortable, both with our lines and our partners.
The class was driven much more by student questions that what I had been accustomed to. The professors would go in with the instructions and lecture, but what they expanded on and elaborated depended on what the students asked about. In this way, the classes were tailored specifically to the students, rather than the professors having laid out what they were going to be teaching regardless of how the students respond. In this way, the classes were more like a dialog than a lecture.
In a way, that is what this class has been about. Not just professionally communicating the words of Shakespeare to an audience, but also how to communicating practically to other people, communicating through time with the life and works of an author, and in a wider sense, communicating between cultures as part of a study abroad course.
It is my hope that the conversation will continue as I hope to return to this, the greatest of all classrooms in the greatest of all cities.
Forget about San Francisco, I left my heart on London!