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Archive for the ‘Acting’ Category

We love actor Louis Butelli’s posts for the Folger Theatre Production Diary. Recently, he wrote about his discovery—after a long run here playing Cassius in Julius Caesar (closing Sun, Dec 7)—that whether Shakespeare’s set a play in Elsinore or Agincourt or Rome he can’t resist talking about the theater. Enjoy this player’s perspective.

Louis Butelli (Cassius), Julius Caesar, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Louis Butelli (Cassius), Julius Caesar, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

One of the fascinating things about performing in a long run of a play by William Shakespeare is the way the play continues to unfold over time. Living with such rich and complex language yields new discoveries; I’ve been consistently surprised by Julius Caesar, and how it contains thoughts and notions that I hadn’t remembered about the play.

As a man of the theater, Shakespeare constantly put references to his own craft and its practitioners into his work. Hamlet fans will certainly recognize this from the “advice to the players” speech, wherein the Dane coaches a troupe of actors who are rehearsing his play. Hamlet remarks that “the purpose of playing…was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.”

In The Tempest, the wizard Prospero stages an elaborate masque to celebrate the wedding of his daughter. At its conclusion, he says “our revels now are ended. These our actors, as I foretold you were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air.” In his epilogue, Prospero asks the audience to “release me from my bands with the help of your good hands. Gentle breath of yours my sails must fill, or else my project fails which was to please.”

In Henry V, Shakespeare places a Chorus into the action, which begins the play and each act of the play with a prologue, and ends the play with an epilogue. This Chorus is constantly reminding us that we are in the theater, and begs us to use our imaginations and forgive the short-comings of the performers. Right off the bat the Chorus wonders “can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?”

Lately, I’ve been noticing how often Shakespeare calls our attention to the fact that we are players playing at Julius Caesar.

Early on, Brutus and Cassius question Casca about the offstage cheering they had heard. Casca describes the scene of Antony offering Caesar a crown in the public square, with a crowd looking on. Casca says of Caesar, “if the tag-rag people did not clap him and hiss him, according as he pleased and displeased them, as they use to do the players in the theater, I am no true man.”

Later, when the conspirators visit his garden, Brutus warns them not to let on that they are up to no good. He says, “good gentlemen, look fresh and merrily; let not our looks put on our purposes, but bear it as our Roman actors do, with untired spirits and formal constancy.” Having killed Caesar, and dipping his hands in Caesar’s blood, Cassius asks “how many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown?”

Sometimes the references even leap from play to play. It is believed that Hamlet was first performed very soon after Julius Caesar sometime in 1599 or 1600. Shakespeare had a company of actors for whom he wrote, and with whom he sometimes performed.

It is likely that the original cast of Julius Caesar would also have comprised the original cast of Hamlet. This lends a kind of winking pleasure to the following exchange between Hamlet and Polonius, as the audience gathers to watch Hamlet’s play for the king:

Hamlet: My lord, you played once i’ the university, you say?

Polonius: That did I, my lord; and was accounted a good actor.

Hamlet: What did you enact?

Polonius: I did enact Julius Caesar: I was killed i’ the Capitol; Brutus killed me.

Hamlet: It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there.

This love for his own craft and his fellow poets and players, this exuberance and joy in storytelling, this warm embrace of audiences are part and parcel of working on the plays of William Shakespeare. His delight in the art form is passed directly on to us, both the artists presenting the plays, and the audiences that come to experience them.

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About Louis Butelli
Born and raised on Long Island, New York, Louis has spent the past eighteen years working as an actor, teacher, director, and writer. From 1998-2008, he was Artist-In-Residence and Company Clown for the Aquila Theatre Company. During that time, he played in over 25 productions of the works of William Shakespeare and other classical playwrights, appearing Off-Broadway, at major regional houses, on tour in the US to 49 states and across Europe; taught over 300 masterclasses; wrote, adapted and appeared in a new production of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde; and authored numerous successfully funded grants. Other credits include Folger Theatre; La Jolla Playhouse; American Repertory Theater; South Coast Rep; LA Shakespeare Festival; Shakespeare Theatre Co, DC; Alabama Shakespeare Festival; Yale Rep; Long Wharf; Orlando Shakes; Pasadena Playhouse; Two River Theater, NJ; Alpine Theater Project, MT; La Scala Opera’s West Side Story in Milan, Beirut, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Osaka, and Tokyo; many others. TV: The Knick (Cinemax), The Unusuals, and All My Children (ABC), Law & Order, and L&O: Criminal Intent (NBC). Louis is co-founder and Executive Director of Psittacus Productions, for whom he has produced A Tale Told By An Idiot (LA Weekly Theater Award) which performs again in May, 2015 for Lincoln Center Education, and CYCLOPS: A Rock Opera (NYMF Award for Excellence, 3 LA Weekly Award Noms, Pulitzer Prize Juror Nom) which has played Pasadena Playhouse, Ars Nova’s ANT Fest, and a sold-out and extended run at the 2011 New York Musical Theatre Festival. Previously, he has collaborated with director Robert Richmond to make the short film, Dreadful Sorry, financed by a generous grant from the South Carolina Film Commission, Twelfth Night and Henry VIII at the Folger Theatre in the nation’s capital, for both of which he was nominated for the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Supporting Performer, winning the Award for Henry VIII. He is honored every day he is able to go to work in the service of a great story.

Read more of Louis Butelli’s post on Folger Theatre Production Diary   |   Follow him on Twitter @louisbutelli

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Giving life to one of Shakespeare’s plays is as easy as speaking his words aloud. Actors, however, become their parts – making a human character breathe out of words on a page. You don’t have to be Derek Jacobi or Helen Mirren, though. To be a thoughtful actor, you just need to have an idea of what the character wants. Who are they?

Students in Macbeth have varying character reactions to Duncan's arrival.

Students in Macbeth have varying character reactions to Duncan’s arrival.

Today’s teaching modules all give students the opportunity to explore the life behind their character’s lines (even if they don’t have any lines!). By putting their minds to who the character is while they’re playing them, they’ll discover new depths of relationships in the plays, and speak or react on their feet as though they are that character.

In Imagining Back Story, students select a character from Measure for Measure (though this could be done for any play) then closely read the play to glean clues about their character’s life before the story. They then write a journal entry for their character which gives more detail to their life leading up to the events of the play.

Similarly, A Boxful of Character has students closely reading the text to discover their characters’ hints at who they are in order to curate a handful of everyday items that their character would have. What goes into Hermia’s purse? What five things would Iago want on a desert island? Have fun with it and discover what your students interpreted about their characters!

Finally, in The Secret Life of Minor Characters, the play’s leads are put aside in favor of the individuals in the crowd. Using the assassination in Julius Caesar as an example, this module outlines how students can apply their creativity to the people in crowd scenes who may not explicitly state their motive, but should have one nonetheless.

These sorts of approaches are done every day by actors taking on Shakespeare’s plays. There’s no definition for who these characters are – they’re different for everyone playing them! Discover new ways to illuminate these plays in performance with your students, and let us know how it goes!

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Inspired, today, by David Tennant‘s affirmation in the power of performing Shakespeare, today we’re rounding up some of our favorite Teacher to Teacher videos about performance in the classroom. Getting students on their feet is one of the most important things we stress about working with Shakespeare’s language – they are, after all, plays!

Teacher to Teacher Title Screen - Performing

What can be nerve-wracking for everyone, though, is the thought of being”onstage.” In your classroom, though, it’s certainly not about putting up a full performance – perhaps not even a whole scene – it’s about saying the words out loud and discovering the action that supports the language and makes it more dynamic.

Some students like getting up to read in front of the class – but a lot may hang back. Get your audience involved as reactors and directors, as explained in these videos by Tory Virchow and Erica Smith:

Finally – see performance-based teaching in action with Sue Biondo-Hench and her students from Carlisle, PA. From group activities to personal reflection, her students find ways to bring Shakespeare’s language to life!

How do you incorporate action in your classroom?

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~by Louis Butelli

Today, I’ll just talk a little bit about what it’s like playing so many Fools.

The first thing to say is that it’s a great honor to be included in the roster of Shakespeare’s Fools. One of the most fascinating things about Shakespeare’s writing is that he worked with an active theater company – he wrote things for specific actors to perform on stage, often very soon after he finished writing. Anybody lucky enough to play Shakespeare’s Fools owes a huge debt of gratitude to two men in particular: Will Kempe, and Robert Armin.

Kempe was an actor and comedian and a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company for which Shakespeare wrote. He was a “rustic” comic, his jokes were bawdy and improvisational, and he specialized in “jigs,” comedic song and dance routines. Many people suspect that he was the original Falstaff from the Henry plays. He is likely to have played Peter, the comic servant in Romeo & Juliet – there is a Quarto edition of the play with the, apparently mistaken, stage direction “Enter Kempe,” rather than the expected “Enter Peter.” For reasons unknown, Kempe left the company in 1599, replaced as company clown by Robert Armin.

Armin was a comic writer in his own right. He wrote plays (“The History of the Two Maids of More-Clacke”), essays (“Foole Upon Foole”) and poems (“The Italian Tailor and his Boy”). He is generally accepted to have created the roles of Feste, Lear’s Fool, Touchstone, the drunken Porter, among others. Seeing as Shakespeare has given songs to many of these characters, one suspects that Armin was also a skilled musician. More interesting, perhaps, is the impact Armin’s presence in the company had on Shakespeare’s writing. These later Fools are darker, sadder, more melancholy – they are more philosopher Fools than rustic clowns.

Certainly, the writing in the plays speaks for itself. However, we are afforded a little glimpse of Shakespeare’s own opinion about the difference between the two men, and how Fools function for him.

This is from Hamlet’s “advice to the players:”

“Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.”

Food for thought, indeed!

Thanks so much for reading, and come and see Twelfth Night before it closes on Sunday!

Catch more insights from Louis on the Folger Theatre blog!

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~by Louis Butelli

Hello, dear readers of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Education Blog! My name is Louis Butelli, and I’m an actor, specializing in Shakespeare’s comic characters. For the purposes of this post, though the term doesn’t necessarily always apply, for reasons I’ll discuss later, I’ll refer to them all as “Fools.”

Louis as Will Somers in Henry VIII, Folger Theatre 2010

Louis as Will Somers in Henry VIII, Folger Theatre 2010

Here at the Folger, I’ve had the good fortune to play Bardolph in Henry V, Roderigo in Othello, Will Sommers in Henry VIII (for which I won the Helen Hayes Award), and am currently playing Feste in Twelfth Night. I hope you’ll come along and see us, if you haven’t already. Some of the other Fools I’ve been lucky enough to play include Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew, Lear’s Fool in King Lear, Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both Dromio twins in A Comedy of Errors, Sir Hugh in The Merry Wives of Windsor, among others.

While there are plenty of differences between these characters – some are noble, some are servants, some sing and dance, some are clever, some are simple – they still have a similar function: they make you laugh. Or, at least I hope that they do.

Let’s start with laughter.

Laughter has long been treasured by human beings, both because it provides a sense of safety, well-being, and social cohesion, and because it just feels really good.  Recent work in Anthropology has suggested that spontaneous, “feel-good” laughter – or so-called “Duchenne laughter” – was passed along to us by our primate ancestors. This means that laughter has been a vital part of the human experience since, well, before we were human.

On an almost evolutionary level, then, we hold people who make us laugh in fairly high regard. Moreover, we also sense that laughter is never far from its opposite; joy and grief seem to require each other in order to exist at all. We can see evidence of this as far back as it is possible to look into our own history. All ancient mythologies – from all over the world  – contain some version of a “trickster” god or persona.

Most people know Loki as the supervillain from the new Avengers movie franchise. And there’s something to that. Still, his origins are in Norse mythology. There, Loki was an anarchic shape-shifter who refused to follow the rules and sometimes helped and sometimes hindered the other gods. For the Navajo from the American Southwest, the spirit of Coyote lurks behind “naughty” and “mischievous” behavior. In one instance, Coyote’s antics result in the creation of the Milky Way.

We have Ancient Greek culture to thank for much of the foundation of our own literature. For the Greeks, Hermes played the trickster role in the pantheon of Olympian gods. At once a messenger, a thief, and a mischief maker, he invented the lyre – which he made from a turtle shell – and stole the cattle of the sun god Apollo.

To stick with the Greeks, and move closer to the point, I’ll mention “satyrs” here. Satyrs are anarchic demigods. Half man, half goat, they are lusty creatures of sensual pleasure and appetite. During the Festival of Dionysus, an annual theater celebration, citizens would gather to watch three plays in a row by the same playwright. Then, after the third play concluded, the author would present a “Satyr Play.” These were entertainments wherein the traditional Chorus was replaced by a chorus of satyrs – who caused much mischief and mayhem. The presence of the chaotic satyrs would turn a familiar story upside down.

This idea of inversion, of something naughty or unexpected emerging from something familiar, is very much at the root of the foolery we find in Shakespeare. If we think of Twelfth Night – playing through June 9th at Folger Theatre – we spy some of these notions. The holiday known as “Twelfth Night,” has its origins in the pagan figure known as “The Lord of Misrule.” On his holiday, the social order would invert. The servants became the masters, and vice versa. This temporary departure from the ordinary way of doing things seems to have offered a kind of social cleansing, the ability to “blow off some steam” before returning to business-as-usual.

Louis as Feste with James Konicek and Craig Wallace as Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, Folger Theatre 2013

Louis as Feste with James Konicek and Craig Wallace as Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, Folger Theatre 2013

Fools in Shakespeare often seem to function as permanent, or “professional” Lords of Misrule. They are often employed by the monarch, or the higher status characters, and because they have some sort of skill – they tell jokes, they sing songs, they offer honest opinions – they are free from the normal social order. So long as they don’t displease their employer, they are free to come and go as they wish.

As Feste, the Fool in Twelfth Night, says, “God give them wisdom that have it. Those that are Fools, let them use their talents.” In saying so, he emphasizes his difference and separateness from the other characters, and suggests that he’d rather sing for his supper than be thought of as “wise.”

I’ve written an article for the Folger Theatre Production Diary about some of my research for playing Feste, with some pretty juicy stuff about Fools – check it out by clicking here!

We’ll continue with Part 2 of Louis’s post on “Playing the Fools” next Tuesday. Catch up with Louis on the Folger Theatre blog!

 

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In a recent article in The Guardian (1/1/13), Brian Cox talks about his first performance for the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing the lead character in Titus Andronicus which, if you’ve read some of my other blog entries, you’ll remember is my favorite Shakespeare play. Cox notes that the role of Titus was “… the most interesting thing I’ve ever done in the theatre.”  That’s no small observation given the wealth of experience Brian Cox has had on the stage.  Deborah Warner, one of the first women to direct for the RSC, did an incredible job directing the play.  She gave it a life I had never seen before , and I had seen several productions of the play.  I traveled with a group teachers, part of an NEH summer institute, that summer, and I remember some of the participants laughing when I said the play was one of my favorites and that I was looking forward to seeing it. They did not share my enthusiasm.  The other Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night, was really good, but Titus is what I recall most vividly from that summer.  I remember sitting in the audience at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1987 and being mesmerized by the play. It is still one of the most engaging theater experiences I have ever had. I stayed in Stratford an extra weekend just to see it a second time.  Reading the piece in The Guardian brought back great memories of a terrific summer studying Shakespeare’s plays in Stratford. Is there a performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays that stands out for you?

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A play is acting.” (Elementary school student, grade 2)

For all my reign hath been but as a scene/Acting that argument.” (2 Henry IV, IV.5)

Last week, I had the fortunate opportunity to meet with high school students participating in Folger’s High School Fellowship Program. I was especially fortunately because our guest instructor was Caleen Sinette Jennings, Professor of Theatre at American University. Through an afternoon working with Caleen, I learned several important things about Shakespeare and his language.

1. Each word can be a physical experience. Think about the way little children tell stories. They use their entire bodies to tell the tale. It’s like they can’t help but move and shake and wiggle and engage all of themselves because they are so excited. They act out the story. Shakespeare’s language invites us to do the same. The words are so packed with meaning they burst out of us. If we get up on our feet, it’s almost impossible not to find yourself moving as you say the words out loud. The words are parts of a play—a living thing. They are a series of physical experiences.

2. The behavior of the words provides us with clues into the state of mind of the speaker. Look at a phrase from Shakespeare. In this class, the students acted out Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech. These words are so well known, it’s tempting to just run your eyes over them thinking “yeah, I know this.” Instead, act each word out. Pay attention to words and phrases: nobler in the mind, slings and arrows, outrageous fortune, perchance to dream. Give over to the motions the body associates with the words. You’ll begin to understand Hamlet as you give motion to his words.

3. Sometimes the words fight with each other. Characters try to hold different “truths” in their minds at the same time. Characters deceive each other. Characters struggle to find meaning in experience. All this is expressed in words that are at odds with each other. Let the words fight. Give the words expression with your body that lets them fight. Character’s inner turmoil becomes evident as their words do battle.

4. Shakespeare is not hard to understand when you physicalize it. I’ve seen the light in young people’s eyes as they recognize they do understand the language. They get the meaning. The words make sense. Once they are up on their feet, putting the words into action, it’s not difficult to understand. In fact, it’s very much what they are experiencing in their lives.

Thanks to Caleen and these great students, I literally saw Shakespeare come to life, right before my eyes.

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