Why Should Every Actor Study Shakespeare?


Joe Siravo teaching Shakespeare, with TKActor Julian Dufualt

Joseph Siravo taught the Shakespeare Workshop at the Meisner based Terry Knickerbocker Studio and taught at the NYU Graduate Acting Program for ten years. 


Once you have Shakespeare as the foundation of your acting training in language, you can literally DO ANYTHING. In all great writers, there is a unified balance between thoughts and feelings that, when it finds its way through our bodies and into our hearts and our minds, is so extraordinarily satisfying that it gives us goose-bumps just to speak it and to hear it.


Language training is essential for every actor, no matter whether s/he wants to be employed in Plays, Films or on a TV series – you cannot just ‘get by’ without it. Otherwise, you are putting yourself not only at an artistic disadvantage, but a professional disadvantage – because the best actors, and the actors who work the most – all have had strong training in language.


I recently went to see ‘Othello’ at NY Theatre Workshop – and the leads, Othello and Iago, were played by two actors who have had hugely successful film careers – Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo. There they were, embodying one of the greatest plays that Shakespeare ever wrote and inhabiting some of his most powerful poetry with such a deeply visceral intelligence and sensuality.


All great writers seek to find the right balance between ‘sound and sense.’ Whether it’s American playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Tony Kushner, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Paula Vogel, Suzan Lori Parks or August Wilson – or the great English & Irish playwrights – just look at George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Caryl Churchill, Harold Pinter, Brian Friel and Tom Stoppard – they all owe a huge debt to Shakespeare – in that they all have this sense of ‘poetry.’ No matter how lofty or how mundane, their writing strikes such a harmonious balance between sound and sense, that when you speak their language, you simply cannot imagine having said it any other way!


In the rehearsal room, there is something electrifying when actors fully commit to the language of Shakespeare. Many actors who are unfamiliar with, put off by, or frightened of Shakespeare, are oftentimes introduced to his writing as ‘literature’ rather than as actual scripts to be played on a stage, in front of a live audience.


Unfortunately instead, they mistakenly think of Shakespeare as stuffy, effete and something snooty.


Shakespeare’s plays were written to be spoken, not to be read. About 90% of Shakespeare’s audience was illiterate. Their world was essentially based on an oral experience.


From Left to Right: Dan Burns, Schuyler Quinn, Kyriacos Micheal, Joe Siravo, Julian, Dufault, Henry Winship, Laura Oberbeck, Rebecca Anderson, Kezia Bernard-Nau, Elisabeth Poe, Arelys Rosado-Gonzalez.


Going to the Globe to see one of Shakespeare’s plays was more like going to a sporting event than anything else. The plays were presented in the afternoon, without the benefit of fancy sets, lighting, or sound design. The Globe was on the other side of the Thames River in London, in a rough, terrible neighborhood called Bankside. There was even bear-baiting down the street from the Globe. Let’s just say that it wasn’t Lincoln Center, OK?


The Globe held about 2500 audience members, 500 of whom stood in ‘the pit’ and paid a penny to get in and watch the show. The men and women in the pit were working people, who stood in the dirt, drank beer, ate peanuts, and hooted and hollered at the actors, while the wealthier, aristocratic patrons sat in the seats behind and around them. It was much more like going to a baseball or football game than anything else.


Shakespeare was an extremely successful businessman who not only wrote extraordinary plays but presented them to a crowd of theatre-goers who were always hungry for more. His plays were bawdy, bloody and yes, sometimes, beautifully poetic – but always, always, popular entertainment for the masses.


Unfortunately today, the word ‘poetry’ often frightens actors or makes them wary. Contrary to what you may think, poetry is rough and tough; you can push it around, lean on it but it will always be there to support you. Speaking is a deeply PHYSICAL act. It’s visceral and is literally felt in the body. There is nothing namby-pamby about it.


In the English language, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone as influential as Shakespeare. His dramatic writing forms the foundation for the last 400 years of theatrical history. It’s no accident that Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into at least 80 languages, including Chinese, Bengali, Tagalog, and Uzbek.


Never forget: Shakespeare is not just for old people or stuffy people. If you listen to Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim or the hip-hop music and lyrics of ‘Hamilton,’ you will find a direct line going all the way back 400 years to Shakespeare, which continues to this day and well on into the future. As an actor, if you miss out on the incredible experience of rehearsing, speaking and playing Shakespeare, you are wandering out into the desert without artistic food and water.



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