Episode 232: Rhona Silverbush coaches actors to speak Shakespeare with confidence
March 9, 2020
Our guest today is Rhona Silverbush, co- author of Speak the Speech!: Shakespeare’s Monologues Illuminated.
Rhona teaches small-group classes and privates one-on-one coaching to actors on how to speak the language of Shakespeare.
You don’t need to be a professional actor to work with Rhona: some of her students are members of the regular public who just want to get a better appreciation of the plays – and there is no better way to do that than reading the plays aloud in a group. She periodically hosts a play-reading circle in New York City, and if you are interested to learn more, check out her website: http://www.rhonasilverbush.com/
Will Bachman: Hello Rhona, welcome to the show.
Rhona Silverbush: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Will Bachman: So, Rhona, let’s just jump right into this. For a management consultant who’s interested in improving her influencing skills, where would be a great Shakespeare scene to start with?
Rhona Silverbush: All right, well … Okay, so I think the questions are, are you talking about to marketing outward to the public? Or are you talking about skills within your corporation, within your business? I think if you’re looking outward, I would look at Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. And the reason I’d look at him is because Brutus … Brutus and the other conspirators have just killed Caesar, and the people loved Caesar, loved, loved, loved. They wanted him to be their emperor, which we did not want. So, Brutus gets up and gives this whole speech about why it was the right thing to do and he uses logic and it seems to work. I mean, the people are like, “Yeah, okay, great. Got it.”
And then Mark Anthony gets up, and he seems like he’s using logic, but what he’s really doing is he’s appealing to their guts. He’s appealing to their emotions, and he does it using rhetoric and the rhetoric sort of talks to them into these pretzels and gets them to think that they’re being spoken to with logic. But really what he’s doing through these rhetorical devices that he uses, that Shakespeare is so great at, is he’s really just sucker punching them and dealing entirely on an emotional level. And they think they’ve been given logic and they are completely swept away by what he says, and he knows it.
Will Bachman: And he uses Brutus’ own words against him.
Rhona Silverbush: He does. That’s right, but with a twist.
Will Bachman: But, yeah. But Brutus says Caesar was ambitious and Brutus isn’t this man.
Rhona Silverbush: Exactly. Exactly. And people, by the end of it, they want to rip Brutus’ head from his shoulders. And so, it’s very interesting how, at the end of the day, we really are governed by our emotions, and marketers know that and they can really look to … That’s just one example in Shakespeare, where he’s using rhetoric to really just sway people emotionally. So that’s, that.
But if you’re looking in house, if you’re trying to be an effective CEO or even just project manager or whatever, I think you can look at Henry V. Well yeah, I think I would look at Henry V. I mean, he understood that you need to be working with whomever you’re working with, and that one tactic is effective in the boardroom, and another tactic is effective on the trading floor or on the factory floor.
And so, he was really great. He spent a lot of time before he became King being in the slums of Eastcheap and hanging out in taverns, and he was hanging out with highway robbers and petty pickpockets and prostitutes, sex workers, and all of that. And then, when he became King, that came in very handy when he was then on the battlefield with those very same people as soldiers, and he knew how to speak with them.
But on the other hand, he also did not invite Falstaff, whom he had been hanging with in those very brothels and slums and stuff. He didn’t invite him to be in his inner chamber. In fact, he banished him. So, he knew very well like what was needed in the boardroom versus what was needed out on the floor.
Will Bachman: Yeah, and Henry’s ability to generate that common bond and that sense that we’re in this together, “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother, be he never said vile.” So, you’d be the brother of the king and he says, “We would not die in that man’s company that fears his fellowship to die with us.” So …
Rhona Silverbush: Exactly. He really knew how to bond with them and make them feel that he was there with them and that he understood them and he was one of them. But, at the end of the day, he also knew what he needed to do in the inner counsel chambers and who should be there, and it was not the same. It’s interesting.
Will Bachman: I also love that Henry V almost does a little bit of mystery shopping. We could think about it as going out and getting voice of the customer. So, he goes out, disguises himself, right?
Rhona Silverbush: Yeah, and they didn’t know that he was the king and there he’s like, he’s just getting random samples of feedback. He’s getting anonymous amazon reviews.
Will Bachman: The importance of going to literally the front line to hear what your customers are saying.
Rhona Silverbush: Exactly, and getting that feedback. And they were saying some things that he could have like considered treasonous and he’s like, “Oh, very interesting. Okay, got it. Notes, note to self, note to self.” Yeah, and took it to heart and used it. He respected it. Absolutely.
Will Bachman: So, let’s talk a little bit about your practice. Rhona. You are the author of Speak the Speech, Shakespeare’s Monologues Illuminated, An Actor’s Toolkit. You and Sammy Plotkin.
Rhona Silverbush: I’m a co-author.
Will Bachman: A co-author.
Rhona Silverbush: Sammy Plotkin, yes.
Will Bachman: And Sammy Plotkin, and you have a pretty cool practice here in New York City. Tell us a little bit about what you do.
Rhona Silverbush: It is. I feel sheepish getting paid for it. It’s so good. I coach actors, I coach … Well, I coach not just actors. I do coach professional actors in all of acting, but primarily Shakespeare. I also coach students of acting. I coach want to be students of acting, who want to audition for acting departments in university or grad school. I coach people who are not actors but have always wanted to understand Shakespeare, and that also branches into just people who want to do better at public speaking and feeling more comfortable with public speaking. That’s a natural outgrowth of this. Really, it goes from just the lay person all the way through to people who act in Shakespeare on Broadway, and everything in between.
Will Bachman: All right, part of it obviously is kind of moving your body around on stage and so forth, but in terms of actually speaking the words, tell us a little bit about maybe the different classes or different levels you offer, or the kind of content that you help people with.
Rhona Silverbush: People are very daunted by Shakespeare and, unfortunately, I fear that it’s made to seem daunting back when we’re really young and we’re studying it in school. And the fact is, yes, everybody has to look up the words, because we don’t use the same words, and even some of the grammatical structure is different. This is, it’s not old English, it’s early modern English. It is the beginnings of the English that we speak today, but it’s morphed so much that it’s very hard to recognize. So, there is that element of discomfort around not understanding it, but once you do, actually, just look up what the words are, which I help with, it becomes easier for actors to act.
I had these two students from, one was from Colombia and one was from Puerto Rico, and they were studying with me and they were really, really, really scared. And I said, “You know, it’s going to wind up being easier for you, I think, in some ways, because Spanish is inherently very poetic, and you’re going to find that once you’ve looked up the words, you’re very comfortable with it.” And they did find that, and one of them said to me, “You know, I’ve been acting,” and you’ve seen this guy in every afterschool special, and he’s always on Law and Order and whatever. He just works constantly. And he said, “I’ve been acting for two decades now,” and he said, “but I feel like it’s like I’ve been driving for two decades but suddenly somebody handed me the keys to a Porsche.” And I said, “I think Shakespeare would love that metaphor,” or simile.
So, what I do is I help people become at ease with this and help them see that it really is, ultimately, fantastic and so much fun and, in many ways, easier than when you’re acting the words of somebody who’s just a lesser playwright and hasn’t given you as much and done as much of your work for you as he has.
Will Bachman: So, in terms of the structure of your portfolio of activities, it sounds like you offer some group classes and-
Rhona Silverbush: Group classes and private instruction.
Will Bachman: Private instruction, and do you ever get called in by …
Rhona Silverbush: Production?
Will Bachman: Production to coach folks or …
Rhona Silverbush: Yup, I have. I also get calls from the people that are about to commence working on a project individually who say, “I want to come in really grounded. Can we work a little bit?” And I’ll say, “Sure.” So, yeah. There are also people who, just using the book, have said to me, people who are darlings of Broadway Shakespeare, beloved by the New York Times reviewers who say they never start a new role without going to my book first. Very often they’ll also give me a call, which I just love. Then they’ll give me a call and also say, “Can we just set up a couple of times?” And I’ll say, “Sure.”
So, it could be that, but then it could also just be a student who really, a high school student who is applying to college conservatory programs and needs to get their monologues in shape.
Will Bachman: All right, cool. Well, let’s get into some examples. Maybe we could maybe start, pick a monologue or two or three, and walk through and kind of give us a little bit of a lesson and some of the things that you’d be pointing out to one of your students.
Rhona Silverbush: Okay, sure. So, one of the things that … I’m all about helping you see that it’s actually easy, right? So, one of the things that happens is that no matter what the person’s working on, I always try to really put it in … And you see this in the book as well, Sammy and I put the stuff into very colloquial, conversational tones to show you that that’s actually how he was writing for the times, in many ways. It’s just that they spoke the same way that he was writing so it was easier for them.
And Shakespeare is hilarious as well. That’s something that you just can’t take out of what he’s doing and that makes it so accessible once you’re clued into that. I think in order to do that, I also have to start by saying that Shakespeare really, seriously has layered. I think of it in terms of layers. He’s layered so much into the work, into his writing, that each of those layers does some of an actor’s job for them so that they don’t have to do it.
And I think, I mean, if you’re thinking about business, I think that there’s a parallel to business practice in that as well. You want everybody to be so supported in what aspect of the business they’re doing that it makes it easier for them to do their work and I think that that’s exactly what Shakespeare’s done with the writing. So, I help point out those layers, those various layers.
I think if I were going to point to a monologue, I guess I could … Let’s look at all the world’s a stage.
Will Bachman: All right, sounds good.
Rhona Silverbush: Now, all the world’s a stage is from As You Like It, which is one of the comedies, and it’s kind of famous, but if you don’t know it, it’s this guy Jacques. It’s spelled Jacques, but the British never pronounce things the French way. They specifically didn’t want to back in Shakespeare’s time because they had beef with the French. So, he was Jacques and his name was that, in part, because he was kind of what we think of now as kind of a goth. He wore all black, which you didn’t do in those times unless you were in mourning. I mean, nowadays he’d probably have black nail polish and black lipstick, and lots of piercings and tats. There are references to the fact that he had been to the continent where he studied how to be disaffected and miserable, and was putting that on as an affect. So, that’s his demeanor.
But he was also very entertaining and he did his best, not one on one conversations, but in, in getting up in front of the crowd. And so, Duke Senior, who’s hiding out in the woods because he’s been usurped by his brother, Duke Senior, keeps him around, really cares about him, really loves him, but loves how he entertains all of Duke Senior’s followers. And in this monologue, that’s exactly what he’s gotten up to do.
So, he gets up to say that all the world is a stage, all the men and women merely players, and talks about how throughout the course of your life you play seven roles. Right? Then he gets into each of the roles that you play and he’s definitely putting on a show, but at the same time it really gives you insight into just how negative a spin he puts on absolutely everything. Things that other people would find joyous, he’s going to put this miserable gloss over.
One thing that really jumps out in this is the sounds that he uses. For example, when he talks about the last scene of all, he talks about the old person .. Or actually even the second to last, when the guy’s really old, he talks about his big manly voice turning again towards childish treble and he uses words like pipes and whistles in his sound. You get the sounds of an old person speaking. You can hear how wheezy they get with the sounds that he uses. He keeps repeating the word thons, you know, like without teeth, thon’s eyes, thon’s teeth, thon’s everything. It gives you this sort of sense of how sibilant and thin an elderly person’s voice gets. Shakespeare builds an old person’s voice into the very end of this speech where he’s talking about a very old person.
That’s one thing, how Shakespeare played with sounds. And if I can digress, like when he has, in another play, he has queen Margaret, who’s from France. He has her speaking when she’s young, because we see Margaret over the course of her life, and she’s just newly from France and there’s this one speech where it’s all Z’s and S’s. He’s basically built a French accent into the speech to help the actress sound French just by using the words that they use, they’re going to sound more French. So, he does things like that with sounds all the time.
But he does something else that’s really interesting in the speech. I guess if we go to the beginning … Do you want to …
Will Bachman: Yeah. Why don’t we go to the beginning and you can treat me as your student here. I’ll be your student. So, why don’t I-
Rhona Silverbush: Okay.
Will Bachman: Why don’t I try out … People are familiar with this, but I’ll give a eight or 10 lines.
Rhona Silverbush: Go ahead and then I’m going to stop you and make an adjustment.
Will Bachman: Great. Perfect.
Rhona Silverbush: Go for it.
Will Bachman: All right. So, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women, merely players. They have their exits and their entrances and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. At first, the infant mewling and puking in his nurse’s arms. Then the whining schoolboy with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school.” I’ll pause there.
Rhona Silverbush: Okay. Well, all right. That, you get a solid B plus.
Will Bachman: Okay, I’ll take that.
Rhona Silverbush: That was a really great cold reading. Nice. Nice. Do we all understand what’s going on here? Basically, he’s saying that basically the world is a stage. We all think we’re real human beings, but we’re actually just actors on this stage that is the world. We have our exits and our entrances, and over the course of any one life person plays, has seven acts, right? And in each act they play a different role. As you pointed out, the first role is that of the infant. It’s not like the infant delighting their new parents. It’s the infant mewling, which is making annoying sounds, and puking, which means puking, in his nurse’s arms.
So, you got that. And then the whining schoolboy, and whining sounds like you’re whining, right? It’s hard to even say whining without whining. Once again, he’s building some sounds in there to make that schoolboy really annoying, “with a satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school,” right? Obviously, that’s the moments of childhood that he’s chosen to focus in on.
Now, here’s an interesting thing. Shakespeare wrote in, you remember the dreaded iambic pentameter [inaudible] and your teacher made you parse it out. You didn’t know why, because the teacher never told you why. It turns out that there’s a really good reason for this. If you just keep wrapping it all together, what you’re doing is you’re taking this poetry that Shakespeare has written and you’re turning it back into just a big paragraph.
What Shakespeare really wants you to do is take a breath at the end of the line, or you can think of it as the beginning of the next line, and keep treating it as poetry. And ironically, he winds up speaking a lot more, it makes the character speak much more like a regular person and much less like an actor. We’ve all seen actors sounding really actor-y when they do a monologue, but the fact is by writing it in poetry and having a breathe, it winds up sounding much more like a person.
Because, even if you know exactly what you want to say, you haven’t necessarily picked the exact words you want to use. You haven’t decided exactly how you want to get this across to the person you’re talking to. You make these snap judgements in the middle of a sentence, not necessarily where you would have had a comma. You might’ve been about to use one word and then decided, “That’s not going to land well. Let me use this softer word.” Or how, what’s the word that I’m grasping for that’s in the, at the tip of my brain and I can’t remember it,” and then you remember it. And by writing where you take a breath, wherever he’s put a line ending, you sound much more like a person than like an actor being actor-y. Does that make sense?
Will Bachman: Yeah, it does. And I know from … Go ahead. Go ahead.
Rhona Silverbush: No, go ahead. You know from …
Will Bachman: I was going to say, and I know from your book that it’s mostly iambic pentameter, but then there’ll be places where it strays from that. Like this line, this line is sort of the opposite of iambic. It’s like, “Then the whining schoolboy …”
Rhona Silverbush: Yeah. That has an inversion in the very beginning. Instead of da dum, it’s dum da. So it’s dum da da dum, which brings your attention to what’s about to be said. But what’s interesting here is that he keeps putting a pause right after he introduces the next act. So, he says, “At first infant,” and then there’s a line break. It’s not, “At first the infant, mewling and puking in his nurse’s arms.” It’s, “At first the infant.” Because remember that Jacques is doing this sort of as a little entertainment speech for everybody, right?
Will Bachman: Right.
Rhona Silverbush: And he’s going to keep them waiting like, “Well, what’s he going to say about the infant? Because he always says something interesting. Jacques never says what we expect.” So, he says, “At first the infant,” then there’s a breath. Then he says, “Mewling and puking in his nurse’s arms.” And then, this is one of the only times where he starts the next thing on the same line, “Then the whining schoolboy with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail.” Then there’s a break, “Unwillingly to school.”
But then he says, “And then the lover” …
Will Bachman: Comma.
Rhona Silverbush: … and there’s a line ending.
Will Bachman: Line break.
Rhona Silverbush: Line break, and they’re like, “What about the lover? What about the lover?” And then he says something funny about the lover, and then finishes that midline, says, “Then a soldier,” break. Keeps people hanging while he decides what he wants to say, and he comes up with something really funny again. Right? You know, again, “Then the justice,” line break, every time. He puts it out and then he makes them wait for it, because he’s really good at this. And if you allow yourself to do what Shakespeare wrote, then Shakespeare’s doing your job for you. He’s making it easier for you to keep them hanging, keep them wanting more, keep … You just have to do what Shakespeare asked you to do, and it’s all right there once you know what it is.
Will Bachman: Okay, so you’re asking people kind of like, let’s say, number one, is you’re getting them to think about the real rhythm. I guess you have people scan it and actually really try to go each line by line. Like, what is the actual, is it iambic or is it-
Rhona Silverbush: I’ll give you a couple of other examples. What that does is that it sounds like, “Oh my God, I can’t even begin.” This is the hardest part of the whole thing, by the way, is the meter, and I walk them through every bit of it. I’m actually asking them to think a lot less. I sort of spoonfeed them what’s going on and then they catch on, and then they see it and they’re like, “Oh, Oh, wow. That gave me this idea, that gave me that idea.”
For example, Shakespeare, when he wrote King Lear, and I’d have to go through the whole play, I can’t do this like quickly, but you could take my word for it. A whole bunch of psychologists and psychiatrists in England did the scansion of King Lear’s speech, his way of speaking, throughout, and there’s a point at which he goes mad and then he becomes lucid again and then back into madness, right? So, he like comes in and out of this madness.
When he goes mad, Shakespeare has tweaked the meter, this iambic pentameter. He’s built in some of those variations that you pointed out, where there’s a variation at the beginning. He tweaks it to make King Lear sound like a person who suffers from schizophrenia. You’re like, “How did he do that? How would he know? How did …” He just did? He’d been around people who had gone, who suffered from schizophrenia and he wrote that into the meter, and then he unwrote it when he goes lucid again. And then he added it back when he goes mad again.
It’s in there. You don’t have to like think, “Oh God, now I’ve got to act like, I’ve got to really like go …” I mean, as an actor, you want to do your work anyway, but the fact is that you don’t have to try so hard to sound like a person suffering from schizophrenia when you’re in those places, because he wrote it into your meter. You’re just going to sound like it. When I ask people to scan, it’s not because they then have to do anything differently. All they have to do is keep reading the words the way that the words are written, but they’ll have awareness, because they scanned, of what the meter is doing for them.
Will Bachman: All right, so we have number one, look up all the words and just understand what the words mean.
Rhona Silverbush: First layer, comprehension.
Will Bachman: Number two-
Rhona Silverbush: There’s a sub … Wait, there’s a sub thing in that which is, he also built in a lot of references that his contemporaries would have understood, to mythology and you want to just know what they are. Mythology or history. If there’s a reference to something, if he’s saying, likening somebody to a particular Greek monster, you might want to know what monster that is, so you understand what he’s trying to say. Right? It’s about specificity, because all acting is about specificity. In fact, I think all writing is about specificity, and I would also say that whatever your job is, the more specifically, the more specific you become in doing your job, the better a job you do. So you want to be specific, you don’t want to kind of sort of know that that’s just some monster. You want to know what monster it is, and then you’ll understand why he chose that monster as what you’re calling that woman. Right?
So [crosstalk 00:25:02].
Will Bachman: There’s also a bit of, shall we say, innuendo that maybe they didn’t catch up on in high school.
Rhona Silverbush: A lot of innuendo. And I’ll get to that layer next, because the first is just understand the words and understand the references. The second is, notice what he’s done with meter for you. You, then, don’t have to do anything. It’ll just be there because you’ll read the words the way the words are written. So, it’s not asking a lot of work from you. It sounds, with everything that I just said before, like, “Oh my God, how am I supposed to do this?” But actually, it’s just about noticing what’s there, because it will give you ideas.
For example, in King John, this guy Phillip the Bastard, who is the bastard son of Richard, the Lionhearted, who’s long dad. He grew up not knowing that he was the bastard son of the prior King. But he discovers it and he gets invited to, it’d be King John who’s current King’s right hand man. And at a certain point, it’s a long story, but the Crown Prince of France has picked a fight with King John and brought all his soldiers over. But by the time he gets there, there are reasons that King John doesn’t want to do this fight anymore and tells him to go home.
And he says, “No, I’m not going home.” And he’s like, “Pow pow pow, I’m going to kill you all,” whatever. And Phillip the Bastard just looks at this kid. Then he just says, “By all the blood that ever fury breathed, the youth speaks well,” and he goes on this whole thing that is laced with, as you just mentioned, innuendo. Laced with all this sexual double entendre of what he’s going to do to this kid if the kid doesn’t get back on his boat, he’s cute little boat and go back to France.
You’d think that it would be full of all these like powerful metrical devices that Shakespeare layers in when he really wants to like punch back with your words. It’s not. It is so even that it’s remarkably even, it’s more even than Shakespeare normally even is. And you realize all of a sudden, if you do it the way it’s written, you’re going to sound like Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. You’re going to sound like Christopher Walken when he’s calmly explaining how he’s going to dismember you. It’s terrifying. It becomes way more effective if you don’t punch back while you’re saying these words. Shakespeare asks you to do that, if you notice it. It gives you so many ideas for how to be way scarier with these words than what a young actor would do, which is they would punch back. Don’t punch back. The meter’s giving you those ideas, you know? So, when you notice it, it just tells you what to do and it gives you all these great ideas.
So that’s meter. The next thing is, I started to harken to sounds because Shakespeare used a lot of sounds, and he could, because he was making up words. The language was very new. This is early modern English, and we were missing a lot of words for things, so he just supplied them. And while he was at it, he figured the sounds should support what he was saying, so he made up a ton of words that have the right sound for what he was trying to say. He also chose when he was writing, he chose words that already existed that furthered that. So, the sounds of the piece help you just communicate what you’re trying to communicate. Like I showed you that at the end of the speech, the person just sounds old and frail with the word choices.
But it can also be like when Juliet’s father is furious, because she won’t marry the guy he picked, and he says, “Mistress minion you, my fingers itch.” He’s got all this like [inaudible] sounds, an N sounds. It just sounds so … He’s so dismissive and disgusted and you can feel he’s about to just smack her, and you hear it in the words. You don’t have to do anything. The words just are.
So, the sounds do that and then you get into all that stuff that your English teacher was all harping about like metaphors and similes. And those are pretty fantastic, because they give you real insights into the character and into that moment.
Their presence or their absence. I mean, looking back at Henry V, as we talked before about him, he said, he tries to woo the French princess at the end. And he says, “I speak plain soldier.” He tries to write poetry and it’s terrible. He says, “Forget this, I speak plain soldier. I can’t write poetry. I suck at this and take me, take a soldier and be happy.” And she’s like, “Okay, I didn’t understand any of that anyways. So, sure. Because that’s what my dad wants me to do anyway. So, okay.”
Will Bachman: When you’re working with an actor, then, on the individual speeches, it sounds like you’ll go through a process where you kind of first layer, make sure you understand the basic meaning of the word and then the implications or historical implications of mythology or references.
Rhona Silverbush: And we see what he’s built in, right? We see what else he’s built in to help you do your job, so you just can step aside and do less work and go farther. Achieve more with less, with through the things like the meter and the sounds and the poetic devices like metaphors and other things that are built in there.
And also rhetorical devices like word repetition, there’s so many different things. The rhetorical devices. I just point them all out, and then the actor just goes, “Oh my God,” and the actor’s brain starts firing. “Wow, that makes me think of this. Wow, that made me think of that. I could make this choice, I can make that choice.” They’re all so supported by these things that are built in there. Yes.
Will Bachman: And what’s the process look like of working with an actor who’s preparing for a role in a Shakespeare play? Do you meet with them one time or is it over a series of weeks? What would they do first? What’s the typical process look like?
Rhona Silverbush: I usually, well, I start by meeting with them. It could be meeting with them once. It sort of depends on where they’re at in their career and in their life, and in their exposure to Shakespeare if I’m focusing on Shakespeare, which I usually am. That’s usually why they come to me. I will talk about their concepts of the character and we’ll point out what the arc of the character is over the course of the play. Where they start and where they end are obviously profoundly different or there’d be no play, nothing to watch. So, we help them see what that arc is like and where they are in each of the moments that they appear on stage throughout that arc, how far along in the changes that the character is going through and their understandings of themselves in the world they are.
So, there’s just sort of stuff like that. But then we start to, once we have a sense of that, we start to look at … I am Talmudic about how I approached this. We start to look for textual support, and that’s the stuff that I was talking to you about. If it’s in the text, it’s defensible. They can make whatever choices work for them and their director as long as they’re defensible. I help them, using all the stuff that’s in what he wrote, I help them come up with lots of ideas. Because the idea is that they show up with ideas, and I help them be ready to show up for their rehearsal process with solid footing and plenty of ideas that they can try. Then it’s a collaboration between them and the director as to what, which ideas support the director’s vision of that production.
Will Bachman: I imagine you might, in some cases, meet with an actor before the person has yet memorized all their lines and kind of do an initial read through.
Rhona Silverbush: I prefer that. I prefer that, to be honest. I know that they’re supposed to be off book and ready when they get to rehearsal, but there’s a difference between an acting coach and a director. And an acting coach, wat I’m doing is helping them plumb the material and understand this person that they’re playing, in the context of what’s going on with them in the play. In effect, what are they driving in a scene? When are they the driver? When are they being driven and having a reaction to that? Helping them, again, with that specificity, so they can always be very specific. And the fact is that Shakespeare gives them the opportunity to be specific, myriad ways with the same lines. That’s kind of the gorgeousness of Shakespeare. Then it’s up to them to decide what fits them, for them in their director to decide that, but I help them plumb what those are.
But it’s different if I’m helping them prepare for an audition, because, if it’s an audition, they’ve got basically two minutes and they don’t have the context of the play. They’re not a character that’s going to evolve over time. They have two minutes, and usually it’s two monologues in those two minutes. And so, what we’re looking for in our criteria for what they will do with that monologue, or two monologues, is really different than what they would choose to do with that monologue if it’s part of a larger play. I help them understand that, because they’ve got to accomplish different aims than they would if they have the whole play to be the character. It really depends what they’re here for.
Will Bachman: How do actors managed to learn all their lines? You work with a lot of actors. What techniques do people use? I mean, it’s a massive job.
Rhona Silverbush: Yeah, and I have to speak from personal experience on that, because that’s not something that I really work on with the actors. That’s sort of their own work. But what I find … Hold on. Apologies. What I find in helping an actor be able to learn their lines is, if they are very clear on what their objective is, because with Shakespeare … Well, in all acting you have an objective in a scene, and that scene’s objective is then sort of a piece of your larger umbrella objective in the play. The objectives shift even within a scene, beat to beat, moment to moment, what you’re actually after from the other scene partner or partners. What I try to do is help them get so clear on what they’re doing with their words … And in Shakespeare, the words really are the action. You seldom have stage directions in addition to the words.
The stage direction is actually often come out of the words themselves. Somebody will say, “Here, I hand thee, Richard, to Ann,” when he’s saying, “Go ahead, kill me or marry me,” and he knows she’s not going to be able to kill him, and it actually works. And she’s like, “Oh, okay, pick me up at seven, I’ll marry you.” It’s kind of amazing. He’s killed her husband and he’s killed her father-in-law and he actually … She starts the scene spitting it in his face and by the end she’s like, “Okay, okay, yeah, I’ll marry you.” It’s amazing.
Will Bachman: “I’ll not keep her long,” right?
Rhona Silverbush: And then he says, “I’ll have her, but I’ll not keep her long.” Yeah, and you kind of can’t believe that it worked either, afterwards. He didn’t know how it would go, but it worked. Which is all the more amazing because he, supposedly in Shakespeare’s version has a hunchback and other, he’s misshapen. So, he says, “Here, I hand thee my sharp pointed sword,” and then he says, “and upon my knee I beg the death of thee,” words to that effect.
He’s basically showing, you see him handing her the sword, the little knife, whatever it is, and then you see him getting on one knee, right? And then he says, “Nay, do not pause.” You’d see that she has paused, and part of that is because when people went to see [inaudible 00:37:28], they didn’t say, “I’m going to go see a play.” They’d say, “I’m going to go hear a play,” because they’d be in this big mosh pit in the middle of this theater and they’d be standing and there’d be people, or they’d bring a little stool and sit for a time when they got tired. But people would be taller than they were and moving all around and eating and whatever, and you couldn’t really necessarily see the stage. You relied much more on listening to what was going on.
So, everything that you do with your words is the action, so you really have to get as specific as absolutely possible. And to get back to your question, it’s a long winded answer, but how do you memorize your lines? The more specific you get about what you’re doing with these lines, the more obvious those lines become to you as being the only thing you would say in that circumstance. So, the more you delve into and the deeper you go into why you’re saying these words, the easier it is to just know them.
I don’t set out, I never set out to learn my lines and then figure out what I’m doing. I always set out to really do the actual work that I’ve been talking about this whole time. And through that, I realize I’m 84% of the way there to having the lines down. And then, I just needed to like repeat them with a scene partner or whatever and just tweak it to perfect it.
Will Bachman: So, for someone who’s listening, who is not a professional actor or preparing for an audition, but they’d like to just engage in a deeper way with Shakespeare, beyond attending a performance, are you currently or in the near future planning to offer any kind of classes that are open to the public? Or how could people work with you?
Rhona Silverbush: Yes. There are a couple of different ways. I have, in addition to the Shakespeare coaching, which has been word of mouth, so I haven’t needed to do that much sort of putting things out. And I haven’t really organized a lot of classes lately, because I’ve just done a fair amount of coaching. Again, word of mouth coaching. But I have been thinking about putting another intro class together for the spring, and that will usually be five consecutive weeks, one night a week, Wednesday or Thursday, just doing five consecutive weeks.
I do it in the comfort of my really lovely apartment on the upper West side, so people are comfortable. I find that people actually prefer it to me renting a studio space somewhere. I can tell you the bathrooms are cleaner. I make tea, so it’s nicer, they like it better. So, I do that and I will probably do that in the spring, so I’ll put word of that on my website.
And also my website, there’s a way to just contact me, because the other thing that happens is that sometimes a person contacts me either because they want to work alone, or they say, “There are three of us, or four of us, that would like to do something,” and then I just put together a class with them. So, there are a lot of different ways that we can pull it off. I’m very flexible.
Will Bachman: And you mentioned your website but you did not mention the address, so where can people find you?
Will Bachman: And we will include that link in the show notes.
Rhona Silverbush: Thank you.
Will Bachman: Rhona, it has been fantastic speaking with you today. Thank you so much for coming on the show. This is a lot of fun.
Rhona Silverbush: It’s such a pleasure so much. Well, I geek out on this stuff, so anytime. Happy to talk about it anytime. So, thank you so much for having me.
Will Bachman: All right, thanks a lot.
Rhona Silverbush: Take care. Bye.