Performing Shakespeare – with Laurie Torosian

 

Does even the word “Shakespeare” cause thine eyes to glazeth over and enflame thy nervous disposition? You’re not alone. Performing Shakespeare can be intimidating. But whether you are on the fence about auditioning, or you dream in thee’s and thou’s, I think we could all use some instruction and inspiration in the Bard’s realm.

 

Laurie Torosian’s commanding presence and tell-it-like-it-is delivery leaves an indelible mark on audiences that have the pleasure of witnessing her work. Since she humbly avoids waxing on about her extensive experience with Shakespeare, I will take a moment to brag on her expertise: 

laurie-headshotLaurie has portrayed over 15 roles in nearly a dozen separate Shakespearean works, often reprising a role two or three times for different productions. She toured with the New England Shakespeare Festival for ten seasons, and studied abroad for six months in London, honing her skills in the Bard’s homeland. Most recently, Laurie was nominated for a New Hampshire Theatre Award for her performance as Kate in Windham Actors’ Guild’s Taming of the Shrew.

 

It is without further ado, then, that I present Laurie Torosian:

 

 

Mike: Laurie, I’m thrilled to be able to pick your brain about Shakespeare. I’ll start at the beginning. What were your first experiences performing Shakespeare? What do you remember feeling when preparing for your first role?

 

My first experience was being involved in Midsummer’s Night Dream while in college. The director had a 60’s vision and wanted a “laid-back vibe” for both the actors and the audience. The focus was on the “experience” and not the language, so it was a pleasant experience and not intimidating, as I feared it would be. However, my first professional show was Taming of the Shrew and I was terrified. I had been cast with a First Folio company that “plays by the book.” By this, I mean they performed as Shakespeare’s company first did. The shows were unrehearsed; they used a First Folio script, and the only things that were run before a show were the fights and the dances. As an actor, you received a scroll that would contain your lines and above each line were the three words which represented your cue. That is it!

The cast had already performed the first show the night before, and I joined the tour on day two. I was nervous as I prepared my scroll, not having the entire script, but I trusted that the artistic director would not lead me astray. I had attended her First Folio workshop and I knew if I played by Shakespeare’s rules, I would survive.

It was the most amazing feeling and it sparked an immediate love, understanding, and appreciation of Shakespeare and his work that I had not had while reading his works in school.

 

Mike: A common perception is that Shakespeare is hard. Do you agree? Why do you think actors have this perception?

 

laurie-pink-dress
as Luciana in Comedie of Errors [New England Shakespeare Festival]
I understand that perception. In my high school, Shakespeare was taught in English class and treated strictly as literature. I read it and was intimidated. I understood it for the most part, but I wasn’t excited by it. When the subject of performing it was addressed, the teachers would talk about it as a “high art” with fancy costumes, big gestures, and loud “over the top” voices. I have learned that many actors, producers, and (unfortunately) potential audience members feel this way. When promoting shows to the public, I would often hear “Oh, Shakespeare, huh? Let me know when you are doing something else”. People often hear the name, remember disliking it in school, and write it off as “too hard.”

What changed it for me (and many audience members) was taking the required First Folio workshop and seeing a company “play by the rules”. For the first time, I understood why his plays have stood the test of time. His writing is inspiring, devastating, hilarious, bawdy, but mostly universal.

His writing is inspiring, devastating, hilarious, bawdy, but mostly universal.

I was shown how often that the Shakespeare that is read in school is an edited text. This means that Shakespeare’s original draft was often put through spell check and changed to make a neater version. When I saw examples of First Folio scripts next to what I read in school, I understood why I didn’t fully understand what I was reading. Often the edit breaks up the iambic pentameter or the rhyme, shortens words, and changes the original meaning. The story is basically still there, but the poetry is gone.

The other disadvantage of a random edit is that Shakespeare has written “directions” into the text for his actors. He tells the actor what tempo their voice should have, how loud, what inflection, their blocking, and any necessary props all in the text. These directions make Shakespeare less intimidating and more exciting for the actor.

Fortunately, there is a much better understanding of the First Folio text in recent years so the edited versions are much better.

 

Mike: How has your Shakespearean experience benefited you as an actor across other genres and disciplines?

laurie-blue-dress
as Olivia in Twelfthe Nighte [New England Shakespeare Festival]
I love this question. Having the opportunity to be a part of an unrehearsed Shakespeare company certainly taught me lessons that I take into each show that I do. When I sit to prepare the script for my next show, I use the same lessons that the First Folio taught me. They remind me to look at the vocabulary that the playwright chose, the way in which the characters speak about each other and to each other, and how they treat each other. However, the biggest lesson that I learned was to remember to listen to the other actors. When you have script that only lists the three words as your cue, you learn to listen.

 

Mike: What can an actor do to prepare for a Shakespearean audition? And then, let’s say he or she gets the role. What do you recommend for the rehearsal process?

 

Shakespearean auditions can feel daunting, but I treat them like every other audition. If a friend asks, I tell them to try to find a character’s monologue that they feel a strong connection with, but that is not often done. There are several monologues from Midsummer’s Night Dream that are heard multiple times at every audition. I look for lesser-known monologues to work with. Once the choice is made, I tell them to Google any words that they are unsure of and to look over what the character wants to accomplish with their speech, as well as the language. I prepare this way for any audition.

If I am fortunate enough to be cast, I do the same with the entire script. I look up every word that I have any question on. The beautiful thing with the English language is that one word can have many meanings. Shakespeare is the king of using double entendres or multiple meanings to his advantage. My best advice is to know exactly what you are saying and what is being said to you.

Once rehearsal begins, I like to be off book as soon as I can. When the words are there, I can start working on exactly what the character is saying and feeling towards the other characters.

Find what works best for you. In rehearsal, listen to your director and their vision, to your fellow actors, and to the beautiful words that they are saying to you and enjoy the experience.

 

Mike: Any final thoughts you may have that I didn’t touch on?

I am so glad that you decided to write about performing Shakespeare’s work. 2016 marked the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and to commemorate the occasion, two copies of the First Folio made their way across the United States. The touring exhibitions allowed many theatre companies to perform excerpts of his work for members of the public that would not normally attend a Shakespeare play and this hopefully awakened in them the joys of Shakespeare. I am grateful for world that his work opened up for me. So, the next time you see an audition notice for one of his shows, don’t feel intimidated, take a chance and go for it!

 

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