Actors and theatre directors have been interpreting Shakespeare’s plays for centuries, but establishing dynamic and productive relationships with academics in the field has been harder to achieve and often avoided. Existing scholarly texts to support theatre practitioners can be impenetrable, which risks myths which have grown around Shakespeare’s plays being perpetuated into performance. 

How can Shakespeare scholars support theatre practitioners and actors?

Bridging 400 years

Academics at the University of Birmingham’s world-renowned Shakespeare Institute, in Stratford-upon-Avon, are working with RSC directors in pre-production workshops designed to bridge the years between Shakespeare writing the works and their production for a modern audience.

The RSC’s summer season for 2019 features three of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays: As You Like it, The Taming of the Shrew and Measure for Measure. Dr Martin Wiggins has worked with directors Kimberly Sykes and Justin Audibert in focussed workshops designed to help directors tap into academic expertise that is helping them shape their nascent productions.

Dr Wiggins has been a Fellow of The Shakespeare Institute since 1990.  His research interests cover the full body of dramatic works written in the British Isles between Reformation and Revolution, giving him a unique understanding of Shakespeare’s plays in their full professional and repertory context.“

The workshops allow RSC directors to work with academics and make the distinction between the mythology that has grown up around Shakespeare’s plays and current historical understanding of where these plays have come from,” Dr Wiggins commented. “The sessions can have a surprising impact on the direction that a play’s staging takes; for example, before working with Justin on The Taming of the Shrew, I would not have predicted that ballads would emerge as a significant element in his production.

“Academics know about the early life of a play; it’s the director’s job to make the play meaningful for contemporary audiences. Our work with the RSC in pre-production creates striking academic insights about early theatrical process which can be useful to the directors of today.”

New texts empower actors in rehearsal

In addition to theatrical workshops, experts at The Shakespeare Institute have worked closely with Bloomsbury Publishing to develop an innovative series of annotated texts of some of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. The ‘Arden Performance Editions of Shakespeare’ are designed to provide actors and directors with information that helps them to create vibrant and relevant interpretations of the playwright’s works.

Director of The Shakespeare Institute Professor Michael Dobson was instrumental in creating the Performance Editions, which use the authoritative texts of the plays prepared for the academic Arden series. Professor Dobson, his colleague Dr Abigail Rokison-Woodall and actor Simon Russell Beale are general editors of Performance series.

They provide only information that theatre practitioners need, such as glosses of unfamiliar vocabulary and notes on meter, together with plenty of blank space for annotations scribbled in rehearsal. Professor Dobson commented: “Some theatre companies try to use scholarly texts with massive footnotes, which are the last thing an actor needs. So to find out what actors really needed we got hold of a particularly literate one in Simon Russell Beale, who has played just about every major Shakespearean role you would want to play, and asked his advice as well as enlisting him as a general editor.

“Our editions arm actors to enter into discussions in the rehearsal room. We tell them about variant texts, which allows them to make informed decisions about the lines they are speaking and creates greater opportunity for ensemble productions in which every participant finds their true dramatic voice.

”Five editions have been produced so far – Hamlet, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet – with Macbeth due out in early 2019. The academic-publishing partnership is commissioning more and Professor Dobson’s view is that all of Shakespeare’s 36 plays would benefit from a Performance Edition.

Each Edition annotates a range of areas including: variant text (where differences between early printed editions provide casts with legitimate choices between different versions of the same passage); punctuation; lineation; meter; pronunciation; stage directions; rhetoric; rhyme; verse; and prose. There is also a list of key figures of classical Greek and Roman mythology who are mentioned in the play, as many young actors have not received a classical education.

Connecting page and stage

The project harnesses Professor Dobson’s long-standing research interest in the relationship between editing and performance – or ‘page and stage’ – and also sees him working with Shakespeare Institute colleague Dr Abigail Rokison-Woodall, a former actress and specialist in verse-speaking, who is a co-founder of the series and has edited the Performance Editions of Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “For me, the idea for the Arden Performance Editions came when I wrote my book ‘Shakespearean Verse Speaking’ – I wrote a lot about actors’ interactions with edited texts and thought that a different kind of edition might be useful in the rehearsal room,” said Dr Rokison-Woodall.

“What actors want and need, for example, is the simplest description of unfamiliar words; not a full scholarly description. They want clear, but not patronising, help with meter and scansion. They also want space to write their own notes in the text.”

She added that actors were not always aware of textual choices available to them, but the Performance Editions illustrate as clearly as possible how a text may vary between Folio and Quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays. The Shakespeare Institute team workshopped the performance editions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet with drama schools, including RADA, whilst Cambridge University’s European Theatre Group are using Othello on their forthcoming tour. The National Theatre had a draft copy of the Macbeth as they prepared for this year’s production and found this ‘incredibly useful’. 

They have also begun to commission an accompanying series of ‘handbooks’ to help actors deal with things such as rhetoric, personal pronouns and how Shakespeare  can be rehearsed according to the methods advocated by key theatre figures such as  Stanislavski.

Liberating theatremakers

Kimberly Sykes is directing the RSC’s 2019 production of As You Like it and finds the University of Birmingham’s academic support invaluable as she interprets Shakespeare’s 16th-century works for a 21st-century audience.“Actors and directors in a rehearsal room are constantly questioning; annotated texts are essential in helping us unlock a play’s potential and it is glorious to have so much information in one copy,” she commented. “Such texts give theatremakers the freedom and validation to make our own decisions.

“For a long time I was terrified of the relationship between academia and professional theatremaking. Only since working with the RSC and the University of Birmingham has it become normal practice for me; whether library research or working with staff and students at The Shakespeare Institute, like any good relationship it is evolving and deepening the more we do it.“Working with academics is not about whether to stage a play in a modern or period setting - it’s about firing the public’s imagination. Working with academic experts can offer real insight into what was bubbling under the public consciousness in Shakespeare’s day – allowing us to make plays like As You Like It relevant to today’s audiences.” 


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