By Sarafina Vecchio
How did I begin my journey studying Shakespeare? More than a few years ago, when I was a senior in high school, I was sitting in English class staring at the test I had to take on Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’. I hadn’t read a page of it. I didn’t understand it, didn’t want to understand it, and was completely unmotivated to force myself to study it. I closed myself off from all the ways my teacher tried to get me to understand the play. I failed the test…spectacularly. The following conversation took place, shortly thereafter:
My teacher: “This surprises me. You want to be an actor, don’t you? I would think Shakespeare would be right up your alley.”
Seventeen year old me, doing my best to belittle her: “I won’t be performing anything like that, so I don’t see the need.”
My teacher: “Hmm…. Well, good luck!”
Fast forward to 2014. I’m receiving a post-graduate degree in TEACHING Shakespeare from The University of Warwick, in England- about 10 miles away from Shakespeare’s birthplace. How and why in the world did I get from THERE to HERE?
The answer is actually pretty easy. After developing some needed maturity, and receiving a little help from my college theatre professors (and falling in love with the episode of ‘Moonlighting’ where Maddie and David become Katherine and Petruchio from ‘Taming of the Shrew’ for an hour), I allowed myself to admit that studying classical theatre was an important part of my education and professional goals. I finally opened my eyes to the world of Shakespeare and saw him for all the things he was: a poet, an actor, an intellectual, a trouble maker, a comedian, a political activist, a lover, a dreamer….the list goes on and on.
The more I was introduced to his works as performance pieces, the more I wanted to learn. As an actor, I ended up craving Shakespeare above all else! I loved the way it made me feel! I finally realized I could relate to it: the love, the lust, the loss, the torturous self judgement, the judgement of others, the endless insecurities, the dreaming of being something bigger and better, the ALL OF IT! As I studied, I slowly developed an awareness of the collateral benefit: I became BETTER at the other types of pieces I loved to perform: contemporary plays, musicals, film, even improv!
Now listen, performing Shakespeare isn’t all about wearing fancy doublets, storming castles, or climbing balconies. It’s about using language to make a story come alive. And, at the end of the day, that is an actor’s job – to tell a story. I don’t think it sounds crazy to say that, in order to be a successful actor, one needs to have experience in many different types of performance. To ignore Shakespeare or other classical writers is to ignore a huge part of our profession! (And you are also denying yourself a TON of fun.)
Here are just FIVE of the DOZENS of ways studying Shakespeare can make you a better actor in ANY medium of our art form:
Can you reach the back of a 2000 seat theatre with just your voice? Can you say “Surcease Success” 10 times fast without missing a syllable? Can you bite, kiss, punch, melt, torture, or hypnotize someone with just the words coming out of your mouth? You could do all these things and more with Shakespeare!
Studying Shakespeare, his plays, and understanding how breath plays a crucial part can help you develop your own breathing. This will make your instrument much more powerful and dependable!
3. FAMILIAR THEMES
Believe it or not, many of the themes Shakespeare’s plays touch on are alive and well in today’s society! And MANY contemporary plays (AND films AND TV shows) use his stories as inspiration! Knowing his works can help you understand modern writing!
4. TEXT ANALYSIS
Just a few lessons in how and why Shakespeare wrote in the manner he did, using the punctuation and very EXACT words he did, can help you breakdown contemporary scenes, too! Modern playwrights spend years perfecting pieces. Studying the how and why of Shakespeare can help develop a healthy respect and understanding for today’s writers.
We could all use a little more “play” in our lives, couldn’t we? When done right, the richly detailed, sometimes fantastical worlds Shakespeare created can inspire today’s actors and audiences to tap into the sometimes too-oft-ignored creative and imaginative parts of their brains.
The Bottom Line…
In order to become a successful actor, you need to be a well-rounded actor. Studying Shakespeare is essential. Opening yourself up to the parts of performing that might seem more foreign to you will not only help you develop a deeper and sharper discipline, but it might spark a love for something you never knew you had! It definitely did for me!
And… if you see my English teacher… please send her my apologies.
Sarafina Vecchio has been working as a performer and teaching artist in Chicago for nearly 20 years. She holds a Post Graduate Award in Teaching Shakespeare from The University of Warwick, in conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company, in Coventry, England. She also earned a Bachelor’s from Roosevelt University and studied classical acting at Richmond College in London. She is the founder of “ShakesPlay!”, an independent workshop for middle and high schools, which teaches an on-your-feet approach to connect kids’ worlds to Shakespeare’s in a fun, friendly, and fearless way. Sarafina also worked for several years in Chicago, NY, and LA as a plus-size model, appearing on runways, magazines and print ads. Most recently, she has been seen on NBC’s Chicago Justice, several feature and independent films, and on many Chicago area stages. She is proud to be a member of the faculty of Acting Studio Chicago and to have the opportunity to share her energy and passion with others who recognize the incredible professional opportunities the Chicago performing arts community has to offer.