Brush Up Your Shakespeare: Part 1

Twelfth Night will be ABLE's FIFTH Shakespeare production. In Part 1 of a 3 Part series, ABLE Founder and Director Katie Yohe takes you through the process of adapting these classic texts for our ensemble.

As a performer, Shakespeare is some of the most gratifying work I have ever done, and I LOVE seeing our ensemble tackle these timeless stories. While I revere the Bard's work,  I am a realist, and I know doing full un-edited versions of these plays with our ensemble would just not be possible (some could be up to 4 hours long!). So, edits have to happen. It's a lengthy process - starting at least 3 months before rehearsals with edits continuing right up until showtime. While challenging, it's also a fun and rewarding endeavor to make these pieces accessible for our actors and audience alike. Here's a basic overview of what goes in to bringing our Shakespeare shows to life:

All things are ready, if our minds be so.
— Henry V, iv.iii

Nerd note: while it may seem hypocritical that someone writing about adapting Shakespeare should be choosy about which editions she works from, I really, really am. My base is always a well loved copy of the First Folio. For additional reference (in pocket-sized form) I turn to either the Penguin or Arden editions of the scripts, both of which offer helpful introductions and commentary without taking editorial liberties on the text as so many other editions do. And when in doubt, the Lexicons are basically giant Shakespeare dictionaries!

Research and Preparation

Sir Anthony Hopkins says he reads each script a minimum of 100 times before filming. I don’t go that far, but I do read through each play start to finish at least 3 times. Through this process, there is a lot of highlighting and underlining. Certain words or phrases stick out. Certain characters I just don’t remember even after the 3rd time (that’s usually a good sign we can cut them!). 

I also love to watch other people’s interpretations of the work. The Royal Shakespeare Company has many of their stage productions preserved on film. And there are several updated movie versions of Shakespeare's Canon as well. Baz Luhrmnan’s Romeo & Juliet is a classic. For Taming of the Shrew, I drew inspiration from Elizabeth Taylor's performance, but also the update Ten Things I Hate About You and Cole Porter's musical Kiss Me Kate.  For Twelfth Night, I’ve already watch the Amanda Bynes update She’s the Man. It helps to clarify where the main points of the story are, and which lines are universally deemed “too good to cut”. Some characters are eliminated altogether or condensed. Sometimes I agree with directorial choices, sometimes I really strongly disagree, and both are helpful for shaping what our script will look like. And, if I find a really good adaptation, I can always share that with our actors and their families to help them get familiar with the story before rehearsals begin. 

During this time, it’s also helpful to talk to other friends and colleagues who have tackled the same material. Did they have difficulty staging certain moments? Did they learn anything new? 

Sometimes, as with Twelfth Night, I get the luxury of more time for research. We settled on Twelfth Night over a year ago, so there's been lots of time to think about how we want to present it and we already started introducing one of the major themes - identity - while working on What You Will (fun fact: the full title of Shakespeare's play is Twelfth Night or What You Will). Whether it's 12 months or 2,  after diving in to research, I have a clear idea of how I want to tell this story, the themes and ideas to bring to the forefront, and the characters we will focus on in class. So it's time to start writing...

I will (by your gracious patience)
A round un-varnish’d tale deliver
— Othello, i.iii


All of ABLE’s Shakespeare productions feature a narrator. This is usually where I start our script.

The narrator keeps the story moving, helps clarify plot points, and makes sure characters are introduced clearly. You can see the Narrator (here, played by Mallory Alcala) at work in this clip from 2012's A Midsummer Night's Dream:

In some spots, the narrator also helps to remind actors about stage directions, as Narrator Peter Van Kempen does here for Prospero (Sam R) and Ferdinand (Andrew) in 2014's The Tempest: 

The narration for our plays reads like the full story without the scenes. In fact, we often teach the story using the narration. We do an exercise in class called “Play Plots” where one volunteer reads out the narration, and each actor mimes a different character throughout the story. The narration should keep the feel of the story (serious, comical, mysterious, etc.), use descriptive words and images, but also be very clear. 

The narrator is the audience’s bridge into the world of the story, so getting it right takes more time than anything else. During my time at Syracuse, I worked on several audiobooks and assistant directed a play with noted children’s author, Bruce Coville  (The My Teacher is an Alien series, The Unicorn Chronicles, Diary of a Mad Brownie and much more!). He has a beautiful line of Shakespeare retellings and has been gracious enough to share his manuscripts as a jumping off point. Bruce’s stories always include pivotal Shakespeare quotations which help to clarify where and which scenes to plug in. His narration sets a clear tone and an easy shift between scenes. His books served as a base for our scripts of Romeo & Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest. 

The narration in Twelfth Night will be crucial because the characters are so mixed up!  Viola is in love with Orsino who is in love with Olivia (she is also being pursued by Malvolio because of a trick played on him by Sirs Toby and Andrew). But Olivia is really in love with Cesario who is actually Viola who is sad about Sebastien who is friends with Antonio... see what I mean? We need a clear voice to steer us through the land of Illyria!

Once the narration is in place, it's time to add the fun stuff! Check out next Monday's blog to find out about the process of choosing and editing scenes and devising group numbers for the performance.