By Caleb Mitchell
‘You do what?? Wow, I could NEVER do that!’
I get this reaction a lot. Normally it’s from a friend-of-a-friend I’ve just met in a (socially-distanced) pub in Clapham who just cannot believe that anyone would want to be part of an Improvised Shakespeare Company.
And the thing is, I want to tell them, ‘You know what, you’re right. Improv is only for us professionals. You mere mortals can just watch, marvel and laugh. Preferably in all the right places (whenever I’m speaking).’
But the truth is that I believe Improv is for everyone. It’s a joyful, delicious, (sometimes frightening) theatrical adventure that every man, woman and cheeky schoolchild should try at least once.
Improv Is About Teamwork
Improvisation, whether long-form (an entire play) or short-form (standalone scenes) is all about learning to work together as a team.
Let’s go back to the friend-of-a-friend in Clapham for a moment. Why are they so adamant that they couldn’t try Improv?
Well, it probably differs for each person, but I’d suggest many people imagine arriving at an Improv class, being immediately manhandled onto a darkened stage and told to sing a song that rhymes (ABAB is preferred) whilst the rest of us post it to on TikTok for all our mates to have a good laugh.
But Improv done well isn’t about the individual, it’s about learning to work together to create something magical – stirring scenes and captivating characters.
Putting Each Other In The…!
At ShakeItUp we regularly like to ‘put each other in the… (poo)’. We might ask our scene partner to remind us of their family motto in the form of a poem or demand they recite the tale of how they came to own their favourite pair of socks. As a song, naturally.
The audience loves watching them squirm onstage as they consider how they are going to pull this off, all on their own.
But I’m going to let you into a little secret, they’re not really alone. My scene partner knows that I am ready to jump in and help at any moment if they’re struggling.
Make Your Partner Look Good
And that’s because Improv is not about making myself look good, it’s about making my partner look good. It’s about listening. It’s about taking their offers and suggestions as though they are the best ideas ever (and hopefully them doing the same!).
This builds trust and camaraderie. You start to realise that we’re actually all on the same side here. And the results can be spectacular.
The YouTube Dream
You might be thinking, ‘That’s all well and good but I work as an accountant in Brighton, what’s Improv got to do with my day-to-day?’
Let me answer that by asking you a question. When was the last time you failed? And I don’t just mean you forgot to take the bins out, I mean really failed. You had an idea, whether at work or at home, you went at it full tilt… and it bombed.
A few years ago, I started a YouTube channel doing theatre reviews. I had loads of ideas and created a few videos, but what I soon realised was that each video was A LOT of work. I was spending hours recording and editing and I just didn’t have the time.
But I was reluctant to stop. I knew friends had been watching my videos and I didn’t want to admit defeat because I was worried what they would think.
Atychiphobia (try saying that with a mouthful of halloumi) is defined as the fear of failure. In extreme cases we can find ourselves veering away from risk and only attempting things which (we think) are guaranteed to succeed.
At X (formerly Google X) they have a simple goal: to find radical solutions to the world’s biggest problems. They are currently pioneering self-driving cars and whether huge balloons could bring affordable internet to rural communities around the world. The whole mantra of X is that they are a ‘moonshot factory’ (a reference to JFK’s dream to put humans on the Moon by the end of the 1960s).
But what I really love is that they actively reward failure. In fact, according to Astro Teller, Director of X, they applaud, high-five (and give bonuses) to every person on teams who end failing projects. Why? Because X want to encourage innovation and they also want to know as soon as possible whether a project has any chance of succeeding.
So how do you get over the fear of failure? Well, one way is to fail at something! Even if it’s just a small thing. And that’s where Improv comes in. I fail every single week in our rehearsals at ShakeItUp. But I do so gladly (most of the time!) because as a company we celebrate failure. Because in doing so we not only learn how to become better improvisors but we are more willing to take risks and try out new ideas in other areas of life.
Learning to fail...
Okay, so I admit, Improv can be a bit scary. It can feel like you’re willingly hopping out of a plane at 30,000 feet in just your undies.
But trust me, Improv has the potential to change your life. It pushes us to innovate – to fail, mess up and to inexplicably stop speaking mid-sentence and forget where the scene is set (guilty as charged) - but to do it together, working as a team. And in doing so, we will learn a little more about ourselves. We will learn what it feels like to fail.
Remember my YouTube channel? Well, that’s long gone. But what I learnt was that I really enjoyed video production. So I bought some camera equipment and started shooting wedding films. Four films later and I’m still going strong.
So when the pandemic is finally over, I’d urge you to find a local Improv class (or one of our workshops) and give it a go. What have you got to lose?
And who knows, maybe, just maybe you’ll see a ShakeItUp show on the Moon by the end of the 2020s (I’m going to email X about it this afternoon, promise).
‘We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking-place, And we’ll not fail.’ – Lady Macbeth, Act I Sc. VII
By Ed Kaye
Shakespeare has never been more accessible.
Theatres may be closed, but online streaming services provided by The National Theatre, The Globe and The RSC are providing us all with some of the finest shows their respective archives have to offer. Unsurprisingly, one writer keeps popping up.
Shakespeare has worked his way onto the laptops and televisions of the nation during this lockdown. Not only that, but we have all been treated to some of this country’s finest performers of Shakespeare. Paapa Essiedu, Tamsin Greig and Ralph Fiennes (to name a few) are perfect examples of what theatre-goers might call “a great Shakespearean actor”.
Ask anyone to name a great Shakespearean actor, and chances are the same names will come to the fore. Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Mark Rylance, the list goes on.
But what makes a great Shakespearean actor? What separates them from the rest of the pack? How can the budding actor, drama school graduate or seasoned professional hope to earn this grand title?
At GSA, where myself and most of ShakeItUp trained, performing Shakespeare well meant combining total understanding of both the meaning and rhythm of the text with bold and truthful gestures.
Sounds awfully actory, right? Basically you need to understand what you’re saying, say it in the rhythm which Shakespeare set out, and match your big words with a big physicality.
Mastering the rhythm of Shakespeare’s text is the part where many performers get stuck.
Most of Shakespeare’s plays are written in lines of verse - like a line of poetry. These lines of poetry contain a rhythm called Iambic Pentameter. It sounds complicated, but you can achieve this rhythm by saying the words ‘I am’ (iambic) 5 times (pentameter).
Iambic Pentametre I am I am I am I am I am
Richard III Now is the win -ter of our dis-con-tent
To talk about the rhythm of Shakespeare’s plays puts me at risk of turning this blog into an online GCSE English class. This highlights a significant problem for most actors approaching Shakespeare’s verse; it can seem too academic.
When an actor is about to perform one of Hamlet’s many soliloquies, surely their mind should be focused on their character’s desire for vengeance or painful grief, not on the rhythm of what they’re saying?
What’s more, many actors will argue that their main job is to convey as much reality and truth through their performance as possible. Who in reality truthfully speaks in that rhythm? Surely no one, not even in Elizabethan England, has ever asked for a pint of beer in strict iambic pentameter?
How do actors overcome this challenge and ensure that the rhythm of the verse does not become an enemy to their performance?
Peter Hall founded the RSC and has directed some of the most famous Shakespeare productions this country has produced. What was his approach to performing Shakespeare’s verse?
According to Judi Dench, regimental.
“When Peter Hall directs, he stands at a lectern-and you’d be rehearsing in front of him-and he’d be looking at the lectern and beat out the meter”.
His focus on iambic pentameter was so concentrated that he would labour over single lines of verse for hours, to ensure that the actor performed to the rhythm of the verse.
The result, when successful, is actors like Judi Dench. Actors who are so comfortable with the verse that when they speak it is like poetry. Not only that, but their extensive knowledge of the rules means they know how to break them; like a great jazz musician.
Other directors, rather than following the meter, choose to ignore it.
The 2017 sell-out Almeida production of Hamlet, starring Andrew Scott as the titular role, garnered widespread critical and public acclaim. In an interview with the director Robert Icke, Scott confided how even with 20 years experience in the theatre, he had to deal with the same insecurities less experienced actors have when approaching Shakespeare.
“I’ve always thought that there was maybe something within Shakespeare that I didn’t possess…I don’t really understand what iambic pentameter is”.
Was this an issue? Not for his director.
“We’ve invented this idea of verse speaking when I suspect (Shakespeare) wouldn’t have known what that was”.
A quick search of Scott’s ‘To Be or Not To Be’ on Youtube will show you that sticking to the meter was not on his mind. Instead, the rhythm of his delivery is constantly altering, with pauses and stresses on words which wouldn’t be seen in a Peter Hall production.
And yet many would argue that Scott’s performance was more realistic. They would say that a Shakespeare play is not a poetry recital, but a dramatic depiction of real life. No-one in real life speaks in verse, so why perform like that?
Two opposing and highly successful approaches. The question is, which one will help the good actor to become the great Shakespearean actor?
The truth is that if I knew the answer, I’d be on the doors of The Globe Theatre as soon as it reopened, brashly preparing to show them my Romeo which they never asked for.
The fact that these two styles both yielded wildly successful results may prove that there is no one answer.
Perhaps the closest we can get to a firm answer lies in this crisis we all find ourselves in.
Shakespeare is currently being provided to many viewers who otherwise would not buy a ticket to one of his plays. People like my two older sisters. Their reasons for not seeing more Shakespeare is the same for many other frightened audience members: the language is too difficult to follow.
I recommended they watch The National Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night, which recently streamed YouTube. Whilst they may not have loved the whole production, they both agreed that Tamsin Greig was exceptional as Malvolia. What was it about her performance that they loved so much?
“We understood what she was saying, and she made us laugh.”
Perhaps the key for great Shakespearean acting is not becoming a master of the meter, but rather ensuring that what you say makes sense and moves your audience. Like any good acting.
However you get there is up to you.
With contributions from members of the ShakeItUp company, this monthly blog will cover behind the scenes peaks into the rehearsal room, news about our latest projects, and insights into what goes into creating our Bard-based Bedlam!