Milan, I'll Lick You Yet

You really can't take Shakespeare too seriously.

You can't get too caught up in the language. Is that heresy? So sue me. Will wasn't writing greeting cards; he was writing theatre. He was a storyteller, a tribe shaman. He was writing characters and plot. Not just pretty metaphors.

Every time I talk to someone who works on Shakespeare --actors, directors, dramaturgs -- I ask them about iambic pentameter. Some of them think you have to follow its rhythm slavishly; others say they ignore it completely. But a few have said something that makes a lot of sense to me, that it's like music theory: you don't have to pay attention to it unless you need it, and then it will be there to help. These folks say that if a line is tough to understand or to figure out where the stress is, then go to the iambic pentameter and it will point you in the right direction.

The other thing I've been telling our actors is to make sure they really underline the subject and verb of each sentence. There's often so much ornamentation that we need to help the audience focus on what's important. Though we attempt a kind of naturalism with our performances, they still require that exaggeration to make this complex language easier to grasp on only one hearing. Luckily for us, that exaggerated style is not all that different from the bolder-than-life style of Bat Boy, Urinetown, or Spelling Bee which we know so well.

But technical considerations aside, I find the biggest hurdle in doing Shakespeare is Shakespeare. Too many people, particularly those who don't know his work well, see him only as the greatest writer of the English theatre. They try to give him import, majesty, reverence, respect. They see the plays as Masterpieces. They try to raise the characters to mythical figures.

But that's not what Shakespeare wrote. He wrote comedies and romances and thrillers and tragedies, not Masterpieces. He wrote for the uneducated groundlings as much as for his middle class patrons. His plays were rowdy and vulgar and outrageous and violent. They were extreme. They weren't reverent or self-important.

The hardest part for many actors is taking the Shakespeare out of Shakespeare. You have to get rid of him. You have to meet the play and its characters on their own terms, get inside the world, and bring it to life. Shakespeare didn't want actors or audiences thinking about how great the playwright is! He wanted them submersed in the considerable psychological reality of his characters. His gorgeous language isn't why we still perform his plays. It's his characters: Iago, Polonius, Richard III, Lady Macbeth, Coriolanus, Shylock, Henry V, Prospero, the "shrew" Katharina. Imagine a character as complex and inscrutable and fully human as Hamlet onstage in 1600! Modern audiences are impressed with the psychological complexity and realism of O'Neill, Albee, Miller, and Williams, but Shakespeare was doing work just as remarkable more than three centuries earlier.

And even in his very early Two Gentlemen of Verona (particularly in this fixed up form), Proteus is an extremely complex character. He is both a sweet, charming guy and a complete dickhead. He is intelligent and literate but also childish and selfish. He's incredibly passionate and romantic but also freakishly unfaithful. Why is he such a mess of contradictions? Because that's real life. I know people like Proteus, people with big, open hearts who are also emotionally retarded, don't you?

I guess, in short, what I'm circling around is the idea that you don't really treat Shakespeare any differently than any other writer. Yes, there is the technical aspect of understanding the sometimes archaic language, but once you know what it means, it's exactly like working on The Wild Party or Love Kills. Exactly. It's all about telling a great story.

So come join us in March -- we'll tell you a great story and we'll send you out of the theatre singing. I promise. You won't be able to help yourself.

Long Live the Musical!