Performing Shakespeare Unrehearsed
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Performing Shakespeare Unrehearsed

A Practical Guide to Acting and Producing Spontaneous Shakespeare

Bill Kincaid

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eBook - ePub

Performing Shakespeare Unrehearsed

A Practical Guide to Acting and Producing Spontaneous Shakespeare

Bill Kincaid

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About This Book

Performing Shakespeare Unrehearsed: A Practical Guide to Acting and Producing Spontaneous Shakespeare outlines how Shakespeare's plays can be performed effectively without rehearsal, if all the actors understand a set of performance guidelines and put them into practice.

Each chapter is devoted to a specific guideline, demonstrating through examples how it can be applied to pieces of text from Shakespeare's First Folio, how it creates blocking and stage business, and how it enhances story clarity. Once the guidelines have been established, practical means of production are discussed, providing the reader with sufficient step-by-step instruction to prepare for Unrehearsed performances.

This book is written for the actor and performer.

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Why Unrehearsed?

Shakespeare’s greatness is a cultural article of faith. His presence is felt today in our advertising, in our idioms, and in our high school classrooms, as well as on stages everywhere from universities to parks to regional theatre and Broadway. In the minds of many aspiring actors his plays remain both the ultimate mountain to be climbed and a fearsome, unattainable summit they are secretly terrified to attempt reaching. The monolith of his canon of work casts a shadow they cannot escape, but their prior experience with the plays has often brought them more anxiety than joy. Some audience members (notably family and friends of young actors cast in Shakespeare’s plays) dutifully attend performances, either with a forced smile or rolled eyes, and wonder why the supposed greatness does not transport or transform them.
The lofty goal of Unrehearsed Shakespeare performance is to bring the plays to actors and to audiences with an immediacy that jolts them out of their ingrained responses of confusion, intimidation, or apathy. This ambition is not unique to Unrehearsed Shakespeare, and perhaps it sets the bar too high. But this is a book for actors, and striving for unachievable perfection, it could be said, is what all actors of real integrity do any time they set foot on a stage. No one learns to climb mountains by walking up and down hills. Any attempt to bridge gaps between the great writer and those who secretly question his greatness is worthwhile, even if its success cannot be empirically proven.
Before theatre evolved into the complex collaborative art form it is today, it was about the actor, the words, and the audience. Unrehearsed Shakespeare puts primary responsibility for the event of performance into the hands of the actors, who use the writer’s words to tell a story to an audience whose presence they openly acknowledge. Unrehearsed Shakespeare connects us to a legacy of rowdy, raw performance from past ages; it connects us to the sense of spontaneity we yearn for in all our acting work; and it connects us (we fervently hope) more closely to the greatest dramatist of all time—by helping us look at his words in a fresh way.
None of this is intended to alienate or alarm directors, who are omitted from the Unrehearsed Shakespeare equation. Unrehearsed performing will never supersede modern production methods, which place the director (and rehearsal) squarely at the center of the theatrical process, nor will actors with Unrehearsed experience become less capable of bringing strong work to rehearsals. Most directors seek out self-motivated, well-informed actors who bring insight and understanding to the rehearsal process. They celebrate actors who respond readily to unexpected stimuli in the moment, actors who examine complex language minutely because they believe it is their job to investigate all aspects of a character’s personality and motivations. Unrehearsed Shakespeare demands and develops these traits in actors. Actors who successfully perform Unrehearsed Shakespeare know how to shoulder their share of the load in a rehearsed production, and they bring something real and detailed to the collaboration table.
Performing Shakespeare without rehearsal is widely misunderstood. Some see it as an extension of improvisation, or dismiss it as an elaborate parlor game for actors. Even actors who dabble in it without diving in fully can walk away with such misapprehensions—misapprehensions only possible if you have never studied the mechanics behind it, seen the deep love for the complexity of language it can stir in actors, or witnessed the great joy it can bring to audiences. As for the misconception that actors in Unrehearsed Shakespeare are improvising, or merely doing whatever feels right in the moment: if that is what they are doing, they are contradicting the spirit of the technique. Unrehearsed does not mean unprepared. Incomplete preparation results in halting, uncertain, self-indulgent chaos; thorough preparation results in jubilant, if messy, spontaneity. Successful Unrehearsed Shakespeare performers are following a specific set of guidelines developed by actors/scholars who believe passionately in reclaiming a theatre of actors, words, and audience.


It is important to note that many variations exist within what has become colloquially known as Unrehearsed Shakespeare. This book advocates a specific approach that is similar, though not identical, to what is practiced by other companies who choose to produce in this distinctive and exhilarating fashion. The following is a thumbnail sketch of how our brand (so to speak) of Unrehearsed Shakespeare works.
To begin the process, someone we will refer to as the production coordinator decides on a Shakespeare play to present without rehearsal. That person assembles a group of actors, who may not even know one another, but who all have been (or will be) trained in the Unrehearsed Shakespeare guidelines that comprise Chapters 3 through 8. The production coordinator casts the actors in specific roles, and provides each of them not with a full script, but with only the text they will speak in performance—plus a few syllables before each line that will serve as their cues. These abbreviated scripts, resembling what some theatre people might call “sides,” are known as cue scripts. Equipped with these, each actor then meets individually with the production coordinator to go over details of the cue scripts in what we call a text session.1
Either before or after the text session, actors construct performance scrolls with the pages of their cue scripts; they will carry these scrolls, which are modeled after a surviving cue script from the Elizabethan era, onstage with them during the show. On the day of the performance, a short period of time is set aside beforehand for going over rehearsed segments: moments the production coordinator considers to be impossible or dangerous to perform without prior planning.2

Reading the Cue Script

Until the performance, cast members do not know how their lines, and often even their characters, fit into the play. As mentioned above, they have only their own lines and their cues, as well as the occasional stage direction, which means they work from a page that looks like this:
  • too late, Amen
  • Ross
  • [II.1]
  • Enter John of Gaunt sick, with the Duke of York, &c.
  • Lancaster is dead.
  • And living too, for now his son is Duke.
  • justice had her right.
  • My heart is great: but it must break with silence,
  • Ere’t be disburdened with a liberal tongue.
  • of good towards him.
  • No good at all that I can do for him,
  • Unless you call it good to pity him,
  • Bereft and gelded of his patrimony.
  • children, and our heirs.
  • The commons hath he pilled with grievous taxes
  • And quite lost their hearts: the nobles hath he fined,
  • For ancient quarrels, and quite lost their hearts.
  • than they in wars.
  • The Earl of Wiltshire hath the realm in farm.
  • hangeth over him.
  • He hath not money for these Irish wars:
  • (His burdenous taxations notwithstanding)
  • But by the robbing of the banished Duke.
  • securely perish.
  • We see the very wrack that we must suffer,
  • And unavoided is the danger now
  • For suffering so the causes of our wrack.
  • as thou dost ours.
  • Be confident to speak Northumberland,
  • We three, are but thyself, and speaking so,
  • Thy words are but as thoughts, therefore be bold.
  • myself will go.
  • To horse, to horse, urge doubts to them that fear.
  • will first be there.
  • Exeunt.
The cue script excerpt is from Richard II. As you can see, each cue is set to the right margin and preceded by a series of dots. The actor, who plays multiple roles in this production, changes into his Ross costume for this scene, as indicated by the centered name above the scene number, and enters (as part of the “&c.”) on the cue “and come too late, Amen.” He first speaks when he hears “Lancaster is dead,” and because he has only his cue script he is unaware that more than 200 lines will pass before anyone says it. He continues to listen for cues and answer them with his lines until “will first be there,” at which point he exits. Throughout the scene it is his job to follow the guidelines enumerated in later chapters.

Other Sources

This book is about how to perform Shakespeare without traditional rehearsal. Many excellent books have covered other topics in the area of acting Shakespeare, and actors can bring what they learn from those books into their Unrehearsed performance work as well; knowledge accumulates and inevitably pushes the overall level of performance up. Readers who want to immerse themselves in an exploration of how Shakespeare’s active poetry can inspire actors should read Cicely Berry’s The Actor and the Text. Readers who are looking for claims that performing without traditional rehearsal conforms to Shakespeare’s original intention will want to refer to Patrick Tucker’s Secrets of Acting Shakespeare: The Original Approach. Readers interested in the history behind the still-developing theories and approaches of Original Practice can learn about it from Don Weingust’s Acting from Shakespeare’s First Folio. This book, however, will barely scratch the surface of any of those topics.
Patrick Tucker’s book, along with workshops he conducted, laid the groundwork for and inspired all the Unrehearsed work being done today. Over time, various schools of thought as to what might be called “best practices” have inevitably developed, as practitioners made discoveries, experimented with new theories, and adapted their approaches to the tastes and needs of their acting companies and their audiences. For example, Tucker’s company worked with seasoned, high-profile professional actors, which naturally led to different methods and discoveries than working with groups of eager, often brilliant, but less experienced student actors. Evolution of the technique is a natural and healthy process, and the differences between how the various groups work are gaps rather than fissures. The groups share common commitments to the most important objectives: precise attention to text, freedom from the impositions of a stage director, and communion with the audience. What binds all the groups together is much stronger and more extensive than the details that separate them.
When we imagine what it would be like to own a large share in a theatre company, and moreover imagine what it would be like to depend on it for our entire income, we quickly identify every performance as an asset that generates revenue and every rehearsal as a liability that occupies our actors’ time when they could be performing. On top of that, unless there is a second space designated and reserved for them, rehearsals necessitate the closing of the space, once again cutting off potential ticket sales. In order to mitigate these problems, rehearsal periods in professional environments (where actors are paid for their rehearsal time) are never as lengthy as they typically are in academia (where the student actors are not compensated), and every continually operating professional theatre has a space for rehearsing the next production while the current one keeps bringing in customers.
Taking into account the above facts, we can imagine a system of playwriting that makes rehearsal unnecessary, making it possible for a theatre to show a different play every day. In this imagined system, overhead costs are low and income generated is high. Even if performing Unrehearsed were not invigorating, rewarding, fun, and educational for actors, we can see that it might be an attractive option for producers, or for playwrights who are part owners of their companies.
Some believe that Shakespeare, playwright and shareholder in his company, filled his plays with performance instructions specific enough that rehearsal was not needed. This is speculation, but frankly, so are a staggering number of the claims made, often with absolute and confident words, about Shakespeare’s life and even his identity. The fact is, we have little hard evidence about the man and his life, but we do have the words he left behind. This book is concerned with the words of his plays.
And if Shakespeare did not invent a money-saving way to mount popular plays quickly and without rehearsal, energizing actors, thrilling audiences, and generating income, he is now wishing, from beyond the grave, that he had.


1 Patrick Tucker, author of Secrets of Acting Shakespeare: The Original Approach, refers to these meetings as “verse-nursing.”
2 The rehearsal for these segments is roughly analogous to Patrick Tucker’s “Burbadge time.”


Berry, Cicely. The Actor and the Text. New York: Applause Books, 1992.
Tucker, Patrick. Secrets of Acting Shakespeare: The Original Approach. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Weingust, Don. Acting from Shakespeare’s First Folio: Theory, Text and Performance. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Meter in Shakespeare

Actors who aspire to do great Shakespeare need to study iambic pentameter, the verse form Shakespeare employed for a substantial portion of his writing. Mastering iambic pentameter is not easy, and no single exercise or book chapter will make you an expert, but the material in this chapter can at least get you off to an excellent start. Becoming truly good at anything requires sustained effort—you do not work out once and suddenly have great biceps. If biceps are a priority, you put in the necessary time and effort to develop them. Understanding iambic pentameter is worth the time and effort it takes. It is...

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