We were lined up in rows, face to face, with a stranger. One of the two instructors of the Shakespeare Workout, Paula Plum, told us to address the following sentences to our partners: I like you. I love you. I adore you. I worship you.”
We were to say this, taking turns, while looking one another in the eye, loud enough to be heard. Since our rows were about five feet apart, whispering was going to be out of the question.
After five seconds of self-conscious grins and giggles, we were off to the races. Jennie Israel, the Workout co-teacher, called for us to get our voices across to our partners, and with increased volume came increased intensity.
It didn’t take long before the words had their way with me. It feels wonderful to be told – even by a stranger –that I was liked, loved, adored, and worshipped. It feels almost as good to see how another person’s face lights up when you lob those words back at them.
It was a fun exercise and dizzying in a rollercoaster kind of way. Not that I would know, having never been in a roller coaster. I like to keep my feet on the ground. But the experience followed me home like a puppy and I couldn’t get it out of my head? It was only a game; part of the warm up for what is, essentially, an acting class. But how did those pretty lies manage to be a kind of truth?
“Say what you mean” is an ethical imperative that I take seriously. It’s how I make my living, how I define myself. Writing non-fiction and first-person essays means asking readers to trust that I am, to best of my ability, telling the truth. To earn that trust, I strive for transparency by making it clear how fact A, interview B, and observation C, lead me to conclusion D.
When I write fiction, transparency means unambiguous language and – for the most part — a conversational tone. I am sparing with asides and suspicious of metaphors and I prune every sentence close to the branch. I omit unnecessary words, the First Commandment according to Strunk and White, the most (perhaps the only) beloved grammarians of the English language.
Intellectually, it was impossible to mean what I said when telling a stranger, “I like you. I love you. I worship you. I adore you.” And yet, after a few rounds, I sort of meant it.
To say, “I like you,” is a simple statement of recognition that we’re both human beings. Easy enough.“Love” goes much further, but in that chosen setting, it followed “like” as a more generous response to a human need as basic as our need for water. “Adoration” is almost a reflex when eyes are locked and love is invoked. “Worship” is, admittedly, over the top, but after repeating it again and again — I like you, I love you, I adore you, I worship you – there was a champagne-cork pop moment of radical amazement that this person – all eyes and breath and hunger – was a fucking miracle.
I suppose it was a lesson about the art of acting: good actors can speak as if they mean what they are saying; great actors find a way to make the words in the script their own, without as ifs.
Getting past “as if” is especially difficult when the play is 400 years old and loaded with unfamiliar words and turns of phrase, not to mention the rhymed couplets. Shakespeare is a challenge on both sides of the footlights. Nobody talks like that! In fact, nobody ever talked like that. And yet, when great actors perform King Lear, the arrogance, deception and pathos in the play will bring even a screen-addled 21st century audience to tears.
The reason I signed up for the Shakespeare Workout class was to understand his work better, not as an actor, but as a member of the audience. I wanted to be able to follow the action without being lost for the first ten minutes. I wanted to understand the language better. I wanted more.
After the second session, I decided that the only way (?), or the best way, (?) or maybe just MY way to get inside a Shakespeare play is to rehearse the way actors rehearse: with a director/teacher.
Reading the play silently? My eyes glaze.
Reading it aloud? Almost as pointless because eventually, my attention will wander.
Hearing the audio or watching a video? Much better, but still passive and I am too easily distracted.
Watching it live on stage? That gets me more than halfway there. The actors need an audience for it to matter, so I am part of the action.
But rehearsing a scene, a speech or just a few lines, with input from someone who knows what matters? Bingo.
For the Shakespeare Workout, we were all assigned to work on a scene with one other person. My scene was Act One, Scene Four of King Lear, where Goneril makes it clear that her father made a terrible decision when he divided his kingdom and ceded his power to two of his daughters.
But before any of us did a reading for the rest of the class, we were assigned an exercise similar to “like/love/adore/worship.” This time, though, Jennie and Paula gave us a few lines from our scripts to trade back and forth.
Goneril accused me, “You strike my people; and your disorde’d rabble/Make servants of their betters.”
I responded, as Lear, “Detested kite! thou liest.”
A dozen times (at least) we thrust and parried. Her anger grew dark and bitter. My response went from surprise, to mockery, to outrage. Her eyes widened. My insult landed like a slap. With those four words, I ended the relationship between us.
But “King Lear” was mine for good.
Birthday presents from people who know me best. xox
My Shakespeare Crush #4: It’s all in the text.