Classical texts can be some of the most challenging plays to produce. The language is archaic, the plays are long, and the characters are, lets face it, really hard. However, the classics tend to be a go-to for most young theatre companies due to the ease of securing rights. Yet many performers who have limited experience with Shakespeare are turned off from auditioning because the language seems intimidating and frustrating. And that could not be any further from the truth.
There is a reason that companies produce the classics year after year – because they’re timeless. The stories of Shakespeare, for example, can be manipulated and formed to suit any time period, setting or world, making his plays some of the most versatile material for young artists to hone their skills and test their range. I was able to sit down with some of the cast members from Hypokrit’s Romeo and Juliet, whose experience ranges from nerd to newbie, to get their opinions and advice for young actors intimidated by classic texts.
What has been your experience/training in classical material?
“[I had] limited classical training in college,” admits Dyalekt, a rapper, composer and actor, playing Friar. “The first play I ever wrote was a Hip Hop adaptation of Macbeth (Heir to the Throne HHTF 2001).” Dyalekt never viewed his limited training as an obstacle, but instead chose to use his background in music as an avenue to explore and share Shakespeare’s work: “I’ve taught several Hip Hop/Shakespeare classes, basically about their similarities and how to use the rap-ear the radio gave you to listen to Billy in a way that’s easier to understand. Two summers ago my band (Deathrow Tull) performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where we had freestyle rap Lincoln-Douglas debates about Shakespeare with local MCs and poets.” In Dyakelt’s mind, Shakespeare is far more accessible than people assume.
What has been your experience with Shakespeare?
“Shakespeare is storytelling and character,” observes Chilean actor Eusebio Arenas, who moved to New York to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. He plays Prince in Romeo and Juliet. “After you deconstruct the language, Shakespeare is about finding the truth within the scene,” emphasizes Arenas and suggests approaching the text as dialogue between characters, rather than over-thinking the poetry in the language and putting the plays on a pedestal: “[The poetry doesn’t exist]… because the characters are poets. For me the words are still a dialogue and [the] discovery [of that dialogue] is what we must aim for.”
How has working on Bollywood & Shakespeare together changed your opinion on either of these genres?
Nikita Chaudhry, who trained at NYU Meisner Studio and is playing our gender-bended version of Benvolio, was surprised by the malleability of Shakespeare’s work, especially since it’s often viewed as stuffy, dated and overcomplicated. “I have learned that Bollywood and Shakespeare are not mutually exclusive. I love that we are playing with time, class, style, race and gender in this production, it’s exhilarating,” says Chaudhry who watched Bollywood films growing up. “The language in both, the songs, and the rhythms. The heartbeat of the story is so visceral and strong.”
Elizabeth Wessa, who portrays Lady Capulet, echoed Nikita’s sentiments. “Just being exposed further to Bollywood has given me more of an appreciation for the genre,” she explained as she reflected on her first experiences of watching Bollywood movies. “Combining the two has demonstrated how universal and timeless so many of Shakespeare’s themes are.”
How has training your affected your process?
“Training has both helped and hindered,” says Chaudhry. “Helped because I am able to dive into the meaning of Benvolio, and really work with what I am getting from those around me. Hindered, because I think I hold back from really going into the extremes of both the Bollywood aesthetic and Shakespeare.” The structure and formality that some conservatory training instills can sometimes prevent actors from approaching the work with a sense of play. The need for playful experimentation in Shakespeare was also reiterated by Morgan DeTogne, who plays Juliet: “My training philosophy [is] that there are no formulas, and to experiment with many techniques to see what works best for you. This has helped me be flexible when embracing the Rasa technique* and working with Arpita on experimenting with the text and emotional arcs in each scene.”
What advice do you have for actors working on a Shakespeare play with no classical training?
Dyalekt: Remember that it’s still acting. It’s also music and there’s a lot of direct address, but the same can be said of many [works].
Elizabeth: Don’t be overwhelmed by the language. Shakespeare’s themes and characters are all ones you’ve encountered before. And remember, he wrote for the people, he was a crude, rude, dude so enjoy the work!
Nikita: Relish the words. Use the words and meaning to discover what you’re saying, and as an actor. Learn the rhythm so that you can follow the heartbeat of Shakespeare. Do all the homework you can so that you can be as free as possible when rehearsal and performance comes!
Morgan: Do your homework. There are so many tools available to help you from No Fear Shakespeare (for understanding the text) to texts on iambic pentameter to help you understand the rhythms and beats. Go into your first rehearsal with as much knowledge as you can. And drill the verse cold!
Eusebio: Read other Shakespeare material, focus on the language, so you can immerse your body with the words and be completely in the moment, without having to make an effort to speak. You can only bring yourself to the material with honesty, patience and with an extreme desire to grow, and the director will do the rest for you.
*The theory of performance founded in India from 200 BC, which is used in Sanskrit drama as well as in classical dance and music.