Theatre Thursday: Brush up your Shakespeare?

I was recently listening to yet another fabulous Matt Baume podcast on his Sewers of Paris channel, an interview with Jeffrey Masters, trained Shakespearean actor who instead shifted to journalism and podcasting when he came from New York to L.A. and realized that Hollywood didn’t give two warm shits about the Bard.

Kind of a shame, really, but a question did come up in the podcast, clearly asked by a non-actor.

“Isn’t Shakespeare harder to do?”

And Jeffrey eventually end-ran his way around to the answer I would have given: No. In fact, Shakespeare is actually much easier to perform because, face it, he was so much better a writer than any of our modern English language playwrights, and I’ll peg “modern” as having started as soon as British theatres reopened after the restoration of King Charles II.

Honestly, given the choice between having to learn all the lines for a major role in Shakespeare or a one scene walk-on by… name any major Broadway playwright of the 20th or 21st century — O’Neill, Hart, Miller, Simon, Shepard, Hansberry, Norman, Churchill, Hellman, Miranda, Vogel, Rebeck, Wasserstein, Kushner, Mamet…

Well, while a lot of them are amazing writers, with the first five only doing “White people theatre” and the last practically being a Jewish neo-Nazi, if we leave all of that out and just focus on the words…

Shakespeare is still far, far easier to memorize, learn, and put some real emotional power behind.

Why?

Well, number one is that Shakespeare did tend to write his stuff in iambic pentameter, so that you had lines on a regular meter: “ba-DUM-ba-DUM-ba-DUM, ba-DUM-ba-DUM-dum.”

Note that there are five emphasized syllables there — the “DUM” bits, and each of those is preceded by an unstressed syllable. We can ignore that dangling “dum” at the end. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not.

But fill this phrase up with words, and here’s an example of what you get:

To be or not to be, that is the question…

Of course, he didn’t always do this, and really messed with things in MacBeth. For example, the witches spoke in trochaic tetrameter — four syllable feet with the first emphasized, as in “BUBB-le, BUBBLE, TOIL and TROUB-le.” But what really made things weird in the play was one particular and yet very common word…

Which appeared three times in that paragraph.

It wasn’t just the rhythms and beauty of Shakespeare’s words that made his stuff easy to learn and perform, though. It was that he gave his characters rich inner lives and strong needs, and that went from his leads all the way down to his spear carriers.

One great example was when I played every single spear-carrier in The Comedy of Errors, and although it was really only two characters combined who physically appeared in multiple scenes but only spoke in a few, Willie Shakes had me covered, because he left enough breadcrumbs in those lines to give me a motivation and a through-line.

Basically, my character was a rent-a-cop only motivated by the money, which became really important in those moments when I suddenly had to deal with the leads in the show.

“He is my prisoner, if I let him go, the debt he owes will be required of me.” Note that “prisoner” is two syllables here; pris-ner. And I still remember that goddamn lovely line almost twenty years later — which my director made me deliver in an over-the-top bad 50s Broadway Irish accent.

Don’t ask.

But somehow my plea worked, the wife of Lead #1 paid me off, and life was good for my character from then on.

Another time I stuck Shakespeare in my head came after that show and when I somehow managed to lock myself out of my own car radio, but my dealer couldn’t fix it. Since it was in the days before Bluetooth and I had a 20-minute commute from home to Dreamworks SKG every day, I did the only logical thing.

I learned every single monologue delivered by Gloucester aka Richard III in all of the history plays he appeared in — which, was basically all three Henry VI plays, plus the Richard III one. And then I recited them over and over on the way to and from work for months.

Now? I don’t remember a lot, but that’s only through lack of repetition.

As for other roles by other playwrights I’ve done? Good luck. They have neither rhyme nor reason and, quite often, no greater motivation or inner life if they are not the lead characters.

A quick example of a play in which I also played a jailer character was Marsha Norman’s “Getting Out,” which in general was an amazing story documenting exactly why A) Jailing sex-workers and drug users was totally ridiculous, and B) Why the way they were treated upon release all but guaranteed they would wind up back in the system.

Anyway, I was one of the two guards dealing with her in prison in the flashback wraparound, and while it kind of felt like there was supposed to be a “good guard”/”bad guard” dynamic going on because I was kind of nice to her in one scene, there really wasn’t enough to hang that on.

Why? Because in all my other scenes, I was just as dickish to her as the other guard. I was a fucking prop, and nothing more. Boring!

Simon, O’Neill, and the other perpetrators of WYPIPO theater? Okay, I guess that your stuff was really important when Irish immigrants and Jews were in the non-represented classes, but guess what?

Just during or after WWII, the Irish (my people!) fucked their way such a big dent into culture that we actually earned our “whiteness” after having been considered sub-human up until the 1920s. No, seriously — Irish immigrants used to be classed about one half-step above people labeled as Negroes. Don’t ask — it was a really, really ugly era in American history.

Meanwhile… Jews were also treated equally badly and, again, it was only after WWII, and when the horrors of the Holocaust were finally revealed that Americans did yet another “Oh, shit… that’s fucked up dance.”

End result? In the late 40s and 1950s, American Jews took over the film and TV industry (in a good way) and changed the face of American humor forever.

Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Lenny Bruce, Shelly Berman, Sid Caesar, and on and on and on? Do any of those names sound familiar?

But… back to the point… if you’re afraid of Shakespeare and speak English, then you do not belong on stage at all, period.

Flash back to the aforementioned list of Jewish creators and, guess what? Every single one of them was probably deeply steeped in Shakespeare.

I know that Brooks, Allen, Bruce, and Caesar were, at least.

Again, though… the problem with trying to learn dialogue from modern playwrights is that there is no damn poetry in it. Not that I can’t memorize those lines. It’s just that it takes a metric fuckton longer to do so.

And… no matter how many words you write, they are never going to be as pretty as those from the Bard of Avon.

BTW, as a produced and published playwright, I include myself on that list. Yeah, I probably have written some interesting shit, but it’s nowhere as easy to learn as what the Bard put down,

Fight me!

Sunday Nibble #60: Patreonage

Because I was finally fortunate enough to be able to, I signed on as a Patreon monthly supporter for three YouTube creators I’ve followed for a long time. It’s a tiny amount, but it helps them to do what they do and, thanks to the behind-the-scenes info and perqs, it’s pretty easy to see that yes, they really do appreciate the support.

Also, because it’s been a long and very busy week, I’m having a lazy Sunday, so consider this installment a clip show, if you will.

Name Explain

Run by a low-key and deadpan funny British man named Patrick, this channel is all about language, including word origins, place names, and so on, so you can see why I’m a big fan.

He does all of the illustration, layout, writing, and editing for his pieces, with the occasional live-action installment, and he’s a pretty constant poster. Sometimes, it seems like he has new content daily.

Here is one of his latest pieces, in which he discusses what is apparently the most-hated of English words: Moist.

He’s also currently got a Patreon pledge drive going on with the goal being to hit $1,000 in supporters before June 1, IIRC. If he meets that goal, he’ll shave off his beard — which has been his trademark look since forever. And he’s close, having crept past $900 last month.

Just visit the Name Explain YouTube channel and check it out.

Morn1415

This channel is all about science, particularly space and physics, so a natural attraction for me. For the longest time, there was no narration in the videos which we later learned was because the creator is not a native English speaker.

However, he finally started narrating, and while he has an accent, it actually adds to the experience. I can’t remember whether he’s mentioned where he’s from, but his accents puts him somewhere in the Swiss/German/Austrian zone

The piece of his that first attracted my intention involved a comparison of star sizes, beginning with our own Sun, and then spiraling upwards and onwards until reaching the ridiculousness of a star that’s about the size of our entire solar system.

But the one that really impressed me was when he combined two different works — one which went from the scale of quantum foam up to human size, and the other which started on human scale and went all the way up to the entire universe.

Then, he put them together to start at the quantum scale, wind our way up by powers of 10 to the whole universe itself, and then plummet back down to where we started.

He calls it Vortex. Set your video to the maximum resolution you can, switch it to full screen, put on your headphones, turn off the lights and hang on for an amazing ride.

And don’t forget to check out everything else on the Morn1415 YouTube channel.

Matt Baume

Finally, this channel is named for its host, who is a connoisseur of LGBT history, particularly through its portrayals in modern pop culture. Particularly illuminating is his walk through the evolution of the depiction of LGBT characters in television from the 1970s to the present — well, he’s up to the late 90s by now.

There are some real surprises, some pleasant, and some… not. It’s probably no surprise that The Golden Girls dealt with gay themes and presented homosexual characters in a positive light, and Baume has covered that idea several times.

He also covers current events, hosts live hangouts, and has a long-running series, The Sewers of Paris that is also available as a podcast, in which he takes an hour or so to deep dive on LGBT history, as well as interview significant people from that history.

Check out the Matt Baume YouTube channel.

Disclaimer: Other than supporting them through Patreon, I am not affiliated with any of these creators or sites, and am receiving nothing in exchange for this article outside of what all of their other Patrons are getting. I just believe in what they do, didn’t feel like writing too complicated of an article today, and wanted to help them out.