The Cockpit | London, December 2015
Some reflections on actor training regarding Shakespeare and Cuescript.
For some years The Salon:Collective have been exploring Shakespeare text through scenes without rehearsal, i.e. ‘cue-script’ as a training practice. Led by Lizzie and Dewi Hughes, (the latter also co- running this at Drama Studio) this time round they are attempting the whole Two Gentlemen of Verona, a play about love, lust, friendship, jealousy and favourite plot devices such as characters taking disguise and mistaken identity, and significantly, obscure enough for the cast to have not seen or worked on it before.
The Elizabethan environment for plays was of a broad representation of society mingling together in unhygienic circumstances, the tickets would have cost a mere coin, kept by the box office when it was still literally a box. Next door to the Globe was a popular animal pit for gambling, where actors on stage competed in volume with animal fighting such as bears or most exotically, ‘how long can the Orangutan survive on a donkey before being torn to pieces by a pack of dogs?’ game. With entertainment in high demand lots of new plays were being pumped out with a large turnaround of audiences. The companies would have no official space or time for their work (often showing five different full plays, multiple times, a week) and the playwright would not be able to provide a whole text to any single actor, using individual ‘rolls’ with an actor’s part and the feed-in line as their prompt and nothing else (this is demonstrated by the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) This was all before directors were really a thing, and the company was made up of players and the playwright, which explains all the clunky exposition and descriptive text in classical theatre. The combination of the working situation and performance environment leads to the theory of ‘Cue-script.’ Supposedly, for every new piece there would be no preparation before presentation (rehearsals didn’t often happen back then) and actors would essentially experience the piece with the audience.
Cue-script in application thus brings multiple performance exercises together; disciplined vocal effort, improvisation, clowning, bold characterisation, direct address, awareness of space… the list goes on. Watching Two Gentlemen… like this is an event in itself: everything is amplified, there is a glorious electricity among the players, helped by the heightened sense of theatricality; the audience are briefed in a prologue about the nature of the work and script-prompt – the exposure of it all brings us on side. Everything happens in this production in a hilarious mashup of Shakespeare storytelling and almost pantomime comedy. Prompted lines created face-changing reactions, actors entered at the wrong time, or didn’t enter at all, declarations of love were given to the wrong person, beyond the story itself just the experience of watching it was a joy.
Evidence that this tool should be used in all actor-training can be summarised in the application of two forms and ready skill of another. Firstly, the individual preparation of the actor, without a director, requires that they propose clear, strong choices for their character, that the understanding and delivery of the text is given with big energy, because starting big is important in this type of work (and ignored in most others.) Secondly, an element that is practically lost in all the other dramas I’ve seen is that the actors are really truly listening to what each other are saying. When the actor is hanging on every word of their partner the audience are, too. Upon big pieces of news I was more engaged with how the characters would take it. Essentially, this performance environment was much more demanding for the actor, but the audience were instinctively more compelled by it. These performers literally cannot afford to miss the story unfold, or their cue line. This stops the actors being complacent with the exposition, or indulging themselves too much with the more selfish Stanislavskian ideas. Also you can tell that the actors are really working FOR each other because the ensemble would otherwise collapse; basically ‘I need you to listen to this because it’s really important and I don’t know how you’ll react…’
Which leads on to the third, clowning. As someone who advocates clowning as core training for any actor, I found this idea was well borne out by this production of Two Gentlemen…. With cue-script, the stakes are already high, the energy is electric, the audience are on side and want the performers to succeed, but it’s also hard, especially reciting lines. Good clowns should manage all bases of acting and how to deal with the awkwardness it if it goes wrong in a very exposed and live moment. The bigger-than-life character Thurio (Lawrence Carmichael) was played with a curious cartoon campness (at least it was bold) but really excelled when things went wrong. At one stage during a moment of awkward silence he coyly said “line?” and the prompt said the line while pointing at the other actor whose line it was. Everyone laughed, it wasn’t awkward at all; it was supposed to be ‘dramatic’. Another moment when the lovers are reconciling he burst on stage and disappeared again in one hilarious movement (only a handful of audience would have seen it.) Lastly, after a long pause of nothing, the prompter finally announced “Enter Proteus and Thurio!” he had to recover the void by shouting extra grandly “LORD PROTEUS!” as an entrance, catching the moment and turning it positively.
The clownish character Launce (Viv Groskop) didn’t seem to drive the story at all and the way she spoke made it hard to follow, but there was mischief afoot when on stage and she had great rapport with the audience, a side-comic that was obviously a crowd-pleaser that makes you wonder which ones are lost in the rest of the canon.
The benefits of this style reach beyond performance training. Approaching the text using cue-script can unearth compelling suggestions as to Shakespeare’s direction of a scene. For example, an edited extract from Act 1. sc 3 of Romeo and Juliet:
…The pretty wretch left crying and said ‘Ay’. (46)
To see now how a jest shall come about!
I warrant an I should live a thousand years
I never should forget it. ‘Wilt thou not, Jule?’ qouth he
And, pretty fool, it stinted and said ‘Ay’. (50)
Enough of this. I pray thee hold thy peace.
…To think it should leave crying and say ‘Ay’… (53)
Wilt thou not, Jule?’ It stinted and said ‘Ay’. (59)
And stint thou too, I pray thee, Nurse, say I. (60)
In this Scene the Nurse is aggravating the other two with tedious stories. Both cues for Lady Capulet and Juliet is “and said ‘Ay’” (as well as the fact that Nurse says it twice within her pieces of text,) so with cue-script both Juliet and L.Capulet are competing for the next line. The repetition and mundanity of Nurse’s text (edited here) helps drive the objective, but neither performer can be sure of which is their actual cue and there is more suspense in the scene (can you imagine L. Capulet’s face after she tries to cut-in and Nurse continues, and then imagine Juliet’s when she thinks she’s missed her cue?) It is hard to doubt Shakespeare’s intention with this and really he’s lending bonus energy to the situation with his own games for the actors. The awkwardness of this was probably a hoot for the bawdier audiences of his day but we also learn that it wasn’t as slick and straightforward to play as you might see with RSC productions. While lacking in preparation simultaneously Shakespeare is generous with scene craft.*
The company deserve praise for taking on this work while hardly any other groups (either in performance or education,) are looking at it. The cast undeniably worked really hard, but the significance lies in this refreshing approach to discovering Shakespeare academically and in presentation. It takes what you think you know as an actor and challenges it to the extreme in a way that is as much fun as it is punishing, because surely one is better for the experience.
Watch this space.
*Romeo and Juliet cue-script scene presented by Salon;Collective at The Cockpit Theatre, London, September 2015, delegated by Lizzie Hughes.
- Two Gentlemen of Verona (Cue-script) | Salon:Collective - January 15, 2016
- Krapp’s Last Tape | Robert Wilson - July 20, 2015
- Waiting For Godot | Sydney Theatre Company - July 20, 2015
- Little Shop of Horrors | Live Live Cinema - July 12, 2015
- A Mad World My Masters | English Touring Theatre and RSC - June 6, 2015
- Betrayal: A Polyphonic Crime Drama | I Fagiolini - June 6, 2015
- The Possible Impossible House | Forced Entertainment - February 26, 2015
- Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 | Royal Shakespeare Company - February 26, 2015
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It) | Dmitri Krymov Lab - December 20, 2014
- Crazy In Love | A Conspiracy of Clowns (South Africa) - October 27, 2014