Brush Up Your Shakespeare: Part 2

Last week, ABLE founder and Director Katie Yohe explained how she starts adapting Shakespearean texts to work with our ensemble (click here if you missed it). This week, in Part 2 of our 3 part series, she'll explain more about selecting scenes, editing text, and devising group numbers for the performance. 

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue
— Hamlet, III.ii


Once the skeleton of the story is in place, it's time for the fun stuff - building in the scenes and monologues our actors will perform. My goal is to always maintain as much of Shakespeare's language as possible. I want our actors to play with these rich words and sounds. And I try to preserve the very famous quotes -  "Parting is such sweet sorrow", "The course of true love never did run smooth", "There's small choice in rotten apples", "We are such stuff as dreams are made on", etc. It is a special experience to see our actors take ownership of these famous words, and to hear the audience respond when they recognize a line. Here is Alena performing on of Caliban's famous monologues in The Tempest:


But, as discussed in part 1, cuts have to happen. I keep four main things in mind when making these difficult decisions about which words stay and which words get the axe:

1) Time: Our shows are 75-90 minutes long. We want to make sure everyone - both onstage and in the audience - is energized and engaged through the whole performance. If there is a lot of repetition, it has to go. If a messenger comes in and has a 60-line monologue that could easily be recapped in 2 sentences by The Narrator, then I toss the exposition to the Narrator and save juicier bits for the actors. Our final script should be 50 pages or less, so I always have that as a marker. 

2) Clarity: In many monologues, characters are working through things out-loud. You get to hear what’s happening in their brains. Though fascinating, these winding and difficult passages often need to be distilled to their essence for our young actors.  Sometimes, as with all the love potion mix-ups in A Midsummer Night's Dream, there is so much confusion among the characters, we need the narrator to inject some insight. I try incredibly hard not to paraphrase lines or change words. We want to introduce new vocabulary and ideas to our actors, but we don't want to overwhelm them; if they ask me "what does that mean?" and I can't answer in one clear sentence, something needs to go. When Kate and Petruchio meet in The Taming of the Shrew, there is a ton of fast wordplay much of it relying on sexual innuendo. I made many internal cuts in this scene to preserve their wit, but keep it PG-rated:


3) Staging: If you've ever seen one of our shows, you know that each one of our actors has a teaching artist or facilitator with them onstage to drop in lines. This method is great for boosting the confidence and comfortability of our actors, but the stage can get very crowded very quickly. A simple 2 person scene requires 4 bodies on stage. Sometimes we can assign one volunteer to multiple actors, but things can still get overwhelming (like at the end of The Tempest when all ELEVEN characters are supposed to appear at once!). Where possible, we try to limit scenes to 4 characters, and let the Narrator cover the rest. For example, in this scene from The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio is really speaking to a large group of men about wooing the wildcat Kate. We combined and condensed the lines from the other men and have Petruchio's longtime friend, Hortensio, deliver them instead. Not only does this give Hortensio more lines (yay for him), it also keeps the scene smaller and more focused:

4) Casting: I always have to keep in mind how many actors we’re working with. We have anywhere from 12  to 20 actors, and each one gets to play at least 2 or 3 different characters within the play, so the math needs to works out. In Romeo & Juliet, all the girls had a chance to play Juliet and all the boys had a scene as Romeo, so I had to ensure there were enough to go around.  Some smaller side characters we know will be played by teaching artists volunteers, so those lines can be shortened to keep the focus on the actors. It’s generally pretty easy to tell which characters will be the most appealing to our actors, so the script has to reflect those interests and give ample opportunities to play those characters. In The Tempest, for example, many of the girls identified with Miranda (easy to understand – she’s their age, and she gets to fall in love!), so, even though there were speeches of hers that would have made sense time-wise and clarity-wise to cut, I had to hang on to them for performance. 



The last piece of writing the adaptation is figuring out where our ensemble performance pieces will go.  In every show, we have at least 2 moments that showcase the ensemble all together because 1) it’s fun and 2) it lets us work on teamwork and cooperation in class. We start working on these group numbers in the second week of class, so it's important to set them well in advance so we have time to prepare choreography and/or music. Here's a breakdown of the group numbers from our past Shakespeare shows:

Romeo & Juliet:

  • The opening Prologue performed in American Sign Language
  • A big dance at the masquerade ball (set to Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, naturally)
  • A massive Montague and Capulet swordfight!

Midsummer Night’s Dream

  • The ensemble entered the theatre as a troupe of players all playing different rhythm instruments – we had maracas, castanets, tambourines, and drums to introduce the Lovers, the Mechanicals, and The Fairy Kingdom
  • A traditional Pavane to celebrate the giant wedding ceremonies at the end of the play

Taming of the Shrew featuring music from Kiss Me Kate!

  • The ensemble entered singing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” with each actor getting to sing or shout out a rhyming word.
  • The Girls sang Kate’s big song “I Hate Men”
  • The Boys sang Petruchio’s “I Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua”.
  • A select group of dancers performed to “Too Darn Hot" at Kate & Petruchio's wedding reception. 

 The Tempest

  • The ensemble opened the show as the four elements (earth, water, fire and air) to portray the terrible storm that brought the ship to Prospero’s Island.
  • The Senior group performed Ariel’s song “Full FathomFive” set to “With a Little Help from My Friends”
  • The Junior Group enchanted Miranda and Ferdinand’s wedding as Island Spiritis and Nymphs singing to the tune of “Eight Days a Week”


Twelfth Night has many songs written into the story so we have a lot to work with already. You’ll have to join us at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on May 28th to see what group numbers we end up with!

Now we've got a working script! Be sure to check out Part 3 in next Monday's blog to see how the editing process continues throughout rehearsals. 

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