This semester, I’m in a Shakespeare class and in honor of his 450th birthday, all the students enrolled in similar classes put on short excerpts of plays on Wednesday. It felt like a middle school production, except there was no annoying teacher-director insisting on gratuitous costumes. We students chose that ourselves.
A few groups decided to film their scenes, ones that featured cue cards not quite offscreen, and many of the live actors onstage referred to lines in their hands. Skits ran much faster than everyone thought. Despite this, there seemed to be a passion running through the room, not the typical class requirement vibe.
While that may have stemmed from the free food, there was also a deeper focus on words on the audience’s part than typically arises at dramatic events.
Watching English majors — pasty, quiet types for the most part — take on something as grave and beautiful as Shakespearean work felt like an adaptation that needed to happen, however sacrilegious it seemed in light of our limited acting backgrounds.
I, for example, forgot how nervous I get onstage, and when it came time for me to deliver what we decided was the closing monologue for Titus Andronicus’s final dinner scene, my voice shook and cracked, and I reworked some of the wording.
I maintain this was because I got caught up in the moment, just like our Titus did when he regained balance like his jumping onto a desk that slipped sideways was choreographed. And it was intense and in-the-moment enough to warrant shock.
Our prop list looked like something from a Tarantino film (meat tenderizer, a head, swords?), according to Titus, and our single practice involved pretending Tamora’s dog was our audience as she sat, barking, on the living room couch.
It was a very typical college experience — Tamora’s surprised roommate walked in just as Titus slit Tamora’s throat with a clear plastic knife — and it reminded me of high school, when my friends and I would spend afternoons making five-minute films.
The masterpieces usually featured us playing several different characters with somewhat different voices. We didn’t rehearse much, just yelled at each other until everyone did what we felt they were supposed to. Our story lines never made much sense either, even when we performed something pre-written.
The yelling came from some underlying desire to fully represent these slapdash characters, people we came to believe in over the course of a filming no matter how impromptu the plot points.
Standing in the back of a tableau with an appropriately depressed face for Marcus while I watched my fellow cast members read lines from their phones and hefty anthologies and amend their awkward gestures to accommodate the small space, I saw the same change happen.
Shakespeare’s characters were far more developed, but we began to settle into them just like high school. Would Tamora draw out her words and close her eyes halfway, bored with the proceedings? Where would Saturninus look when searching for Chiron and Demetrius, whose styrofoam heads we taped to a dinner plate for effect? Was Marcus calm or crying when he delivered the final speech?
After the whirlwind of killing onstage, complete with an earsplitting scream, someone accidentally drawing blood and a sword fight that included the audience, I believed the watermelon we called Lavinia was an actual person, and my three fellow students lay in a heap of bodies on the ground and not just fruit juice.
The audience tracked with it as well. They tensed up, waiting for the summation of the scene, and I chose to go with a wailing Marcus, hysterical and bemoaning the idiocy of slaughter.
Acting, no matter how poorly it’s done, is a rush. And reinterpretations of text teach something intangible and difficult to translate to someone without similar experience.
And after I fell to the floor in grief, we cleared off the stage and Titus took care of his wound, what we left was a visceral reminder that words create action and emotion.
Every so often, us staid English majors need to remember that.