'Actors Talk About Shakespeare'

There is no need to tell Ashlanders that Shakespeare represents a commercial opportunity. In fact, it may seem at times that the Bard has become more trademark than theater. An antidote to this notion has recently been published by Limelight Editions in the form of Mary Z. Maher's new book "Actors Talk About Shakespeare." A collection of interviews with the likes of Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Stacy Keach and Derek Jacobi, Maher's book seeks to get at exactly what it takes technically, physically and emotionally to belong to this rarified company of masters.

The book features a chapter on each of ten actors. Using their words in the main, Maher cuts in her own narrative consisting of the biography, acting credential and setting of the interview. In her introduction she provides the questions put to the actors, then steps aside to let her subjects answer. The result is a volume with a considerable variety of voices all addressing the same essential matter: how do they do what they do?

In a recent conversation, Maher talked about putting together this volume, which may well achieve the status of her earlier book, "Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies," as essential reading for classical actors and academicians. As a professor at the University of Arizona, Maher built a reputation teaching performance workshops and classes on Shakespeare as well as modern drama. She developed relationships with prominent Shakespearean actors over the course of this career. Her books express her passion for Shakespearean theater as a particular art form and her concern that the keys to its performance be preserved and passed down.

For the casual reader, digesting specific aspects of each actor's training, education, preparation and process might be compared to a non-baseball fan studying a treatise on hitting by Ted Williams. How specific? Down to the punctuation, literally. In the chapter on Zoe Caldwell nearly two full pages provide the actor's take on the punctuation of a passage spoken by the Witches in "Macbeth," specifically how commas, periods and colons should be interpreted by the voice and what they mean to the listener. If this seems surprising, think again. All the actors at some point in their interviews discuss punctuation. Kevin Kline talks about the director who began rehearsal by instructing the cast that no one was to breathe on a comma or semicolon. Nicholas Pennell relates that he used to attack the punctuation in his script with Wite-Out, reasoning that there is so much disagreement among various editions of any Shakespeare play, there is really no way to tell how the playwright originally punctuated his text. In itself this discussion might seem pedantic were it not that each actor makes the connection between punctuation and the reading of a line to express a specific meaning. To a man (apologies to Zoe Caldwell and Martha Henry), these masters regard close attention to the text as the vital ingredient to making it mean something in performance. The sense of the line trumps everything. Derek Jacobi is quoted as saying, "I think the most important thing is to go for the line . . . Aim for making it accessible for the audience to understand the meaning."

That these celebrated Shakespeareans worry about the text first and assume a personal burden of making the sense clear to the audience through their performances, rather than paraphrasing or dumbing down, is something of a revelation in itself. In a YouTube culture where achievement of celebrity seems to be the overriding objective, it is refreshing to note this concern for performance over performer.

An Ashlander since 2002, Maher lectures at OSF and SOU. She will present a talk on Actors Talk About Shakespeare at SOU's Hannon Library on Nov. 17 at 4 pm.

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