Episode 119: Shakespeare from the Outside In
A talk with teacher, physical performer, director and Drama Teacher Academy instructor Todd Espeland about looking at Shakespeare from the outside in. How can you physicalize Shakespeare? Listen in to get a great punctuation tool!
Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and theatre educators everywhere.
I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello, I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.
You have arrived to Episode 119 and you can find any links for this episode at theatrefolk.com/episode119.
Okay, let’s talk Shakespeare. Let’s talk hate and fearing of Shakespeare. You know it. You’ve seen that look in your students’ eyes. So many students hate and fear Shakespeare. And, let’s be frank, so many teachers hate and fear Shakespeare.
I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that learning Shakespeare in a classroom is so often done sitting down at desks, silently reading, silently struggling, trying to look up words that we no longer use in a form that we no longer speak in. It makes total sense that teachers and students would hate and fear this. It’s boring and it’s not the way that Shakespeare would have wanted it, right?
In Shakespeare’s time, actors did not sit around and analyze the plays. They didn’t even get the whole play. They got their cue line, their line, and the line after. They didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse. They were up, on their feet, and moving. That’s the key to Shakespeare.
So, how can you get your students up on their feet and moving? Let’s find out, shall we?
Here’s my conversation with teacher, actor, physical performer, director, and Drama Teacher Academy instructor, Todd Espeland.
Lindsay: All right. Hello, podcast listeners! I am here in beautiful Kalamazoo, Michigan. Actually, this is a treat because this is a podcast interview that I’m doing face to face and I have, face to face with me, Todd Espeland. Hello, Todd!
Todd: Hello, Lindsay!
Lindsay: I noticed you laughed a little bit when I said “beautiful Kalamazoo, Michigan.”
Todd: It is beautiful. I thought you were making fun.
Lindsay: No, of course I’m not making fun. I’ve spent many times in Kalamazoo because you and I have known each other for many years. I think it’s ’96.
Todd: I was going to say ’96.
Lindsay: Todd and I met at the International Thespian Festival where we were both guest artists and we met – myself and Craig, and Todd and his wife Allison – actually, Allison Williams who you all know as one of our prolific playwrights – and we were both sort of to ourselves mumbling about a show, and then we mumbled together, didn’t we?
Todd: Yeah, we were sitting in the booth and Allison and I were not happy with the show and there was a couple sitting two or three chairs away in the crying baby booth at this theatre. We weren’t, like, in the middle of the theatre saying…grumble, grumble…
Lindsay: Yes, yes, yes. No, no, no, in the overflow booth.
Todd: The overflow booth. And then, we all started talking together.
Lindsay: And it was a beautiful friendship.
So, you’ve been teaching for quite a while.
Todd: Yeah, I was brought to Kalamazoo, Michigan, to be a sabbatical replacement at Western Michigan University in 2000 and I discovered I really liked teaching and, after that, I was a guest artist in residence at Kalamazoo College from 2002 until 2010. I wasn’t working full years; I was spending some time touring shows and directing shows around the country. From 2002 to 2010, I at least taught two or three classes.
Lindsay: What is it about teaching that really appeals to you?
Todd: I mean, I’ve had a really good time being an actor and it’s been fun and I’ve experienced a lot and I’ve experienced a lot of personal growth. What’s really great about being a teacher is helping students experience that same level of personal growth and teaching them to unlock their hidden wells of creativity. I know that sounded totally cheesy but I really mean it.
Lindsay: It really is. It’s the best part I find of any teaching experience is when – and, again, it’s totally cheesy – when the light goes off in their eyes and they go, “Oh! Oh!” and you’ve helped them come to that realization.
Todd: I mean, this is not to knock people who are, you know, my friends who work professionally or whatever, but there is a level of mundaneness that comes to the work or you’re going to work when you’re putting on a play or directing a show or acting in a show. There’s a mundaneness that happens and it doesn’t make the work any worse but it’s really cool to be around people who get really excited by the work because you’ve unlocked something in them.
Lindsay: I think that there’s no other group which is more interesting to write for as a playwright and also teach with just because of that – because they’re so excited and, when they get excited, they’re not afraid to show it.
Lindsay: You do a lot of movement stuff, a lot of commedia stuff.
Lindsay: You went to the Dell’Arte School.
Todd: Yeah. Well, it’s a really weird route. I grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Lindsay: Oh, you’re the one.
Todd: I’m the one. Well, I mean, I lived there since I was fourteen so I didn’t really grow up there. But I went to the University of Nevada in Las Vegas and was studying at a traditional theatre school and a guy that I was in class with was a mime.
Lindsay: I’d like to point out that Todd just did mime hands.
Todd: I did mime hands. He was a mime and he used to perform in hotels and whatnot.
Lindsay: Oh, in Las Vegas!
Todd: In Las Vegas, yes.
Lindsay: I’m sitting there going, “Mime in a hotel? Oh, in Las Vegas.” Yes, yes.
Todd: Like at conventions and parties and stuff like that. Well, he got this gig being Caesar’s royal jester at Caesar’s Palace and they wanted two. I had a movement class with him and he said, “You move really well. Why don’t you do this?” and I said okay. It was awesome because it was 1989 when Vegas was just starting to explore doing more variety theatre in the hotels. So, I was Caesar’s royal jester and I was dressed in a weird kind of toga-y thing with the guy who had been Caesar at Caesar’s Palace for – I don’t know – twenty years and there was Cleopatra and all these performers and then they had all these circus performers that I shared a hotel room – it was our dressing room which was a hotel room with myself and David, the guy who was my partner, and then a guy named David Kesterson who was a human mannequin and a guy named Ming who was from the Peking Circus who did this crazy balancing act. And so, I was around all these circus people and I went, “This is pretty cool.” And then, I went on to become a Chaplin impersonator at a comedy club. These are not typical jobs that you have in college.
Lindsay: But the movement and physical is just really starting to hone in.
Todd: Yeah. And so, I went and took a workshop in Maine and I heard about this place, the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre in Northern California, and I decided that’s where I wanted to go train. It’s a movement theatre school. It was founded by a guy named Carlo Mazzone-Clementi – the first teacher of commedia dell’arte in the United States – and I got into there after college and went and trained with them.
Lindsay: When you have this physical background, how does that translate into your teaching? How do you use it?
Todd: I try and, well, there’s the basic approach to acting in the United States is the Stanislavski which is from the inside out.
Lindsay: Very think-y.
Todd: Very think-y. You have a personal experience or an emotional experience and then you let it out. The crux of the physical work that we were learning at Dell’Arte and through mask was all about either creating a very beautiful physical theatrical world that the play took place in or, in the case of mask, giving yourself a physical experience that translated itself through being physical into an emotional experience, or unlocking emotional impulse in you. And so, a lot of my work is about trying to straddle the line between internal work and external work, and even if I do dabble in internal work, I try and add an external component so that you’re working from the outside in. So, it’s not just sitting there and “look at me having an emotional experience that you can always see beyond my face so that it’s the whole body working.”
Lindsay: And this actually transitions – nicely done – really well into what we’re really going to dive into today and that is Shakespeare – teaching Shakespeare – and about how so often Shakespeare is taught from that inside-out perspective, isn’t it? That it’s think-y, think-y, think-y first till everyone gets bored to death and they don’t take that outside-in approach.
Lindsay: So, why and how can a teacher who is a high school teacher sitting in their classroom – in Kalamazoo, Michigan – who isn’t comfortable teaching theatre, how can they take an outside-in approach?
Todd: Well, part of it was – and I ended up as well as working at these hotels and whatnot – I ended up doing Shakespeare in college and working for a couple of Shakespeare festivals while I was in college as an intern and a performer. I just discovered a methodology of working on Shakespeare so that you can analyze the text and then apply that analyzation into a physical performance.
Todd: Do you want me to get more specific?
Lindsay: Yeah, because I think that that’s an interesting thought. I think it’s really interesting that, instead of analyzing the text and then you read the text and then it’s just it stays very stayed, but to analyze the text and then get up on your feet, I think that’s something that’s really interesting.
Todd: Well, one of the many approaches to it is looking at the punctuation in the next. As I say, there’s just tons and tons of different approaches. One of the reasons why I like this approach of looking at the punctuation in the text is it really gets to the heart of the matter of making specific personal, emotionally connected decisions. Shakespeare, he wrote very fast; they rehearsed very, very fast; and we believe – and nobody knows exactly what was in Shakespeare’s head at the time because he never wrote about his process.
Lindsay: Nor is he here to talk about it.
Todd: Yes. If not, I would say, “Zombie!” and then run away.
Lindsay: And then, Zombie Shakespeare would get up and he’d say, “You know…”
Todd: “You know, iambic pentameter….”
So, what we think is that he put clues in the text on how actors should act the text. Some of it is the way the iambic pentameter is written, some of it is word placement, and some of it has to do with punctuation.
Lindsay: Because there’s no Shakespeare that we know of, there wasn’t really a lot of stage direction and you just only had the text to work with.
Lindsay: Isn’t it true that, when actors of his time too, they didn’t even get a full script?
Todd: No, they didn’t. They got a roll. Your script was rolled up and you got your cue line and then your line and then the line after your line, and that’s all you got.
Todd: Yeah, you had to listen to the actors, you had to pay attention. I actually did a show like this in 1998 at Kentucky Shakes.
Lindsay: Everyone got rolls?
Todd: Everybody got rolls, yeah.
Lindsay: Oh, my gosh!
Todd: Yeah, it was the Scottish play which I’m super superstitious about talking about.
Lindsay: Yes. If you don’t know what the Scottish play is, you’ve got to look it up because we’re not going to say it.
Todd: Yeah. But the guy who played the lead in that, Tim, and it was the fourth time he’d played the role so he knew the role but it was huge. It was huge.
Lindsay: Oh, my gosh. I think that would be such an interesting experience, like, if you wanted to take Shakespeare to a new level – teachers who are listening – give your students rolls. It’s so funny because that kind of flies in the face of some other things that we teach students which is, “You have to read the whole play in order to understand your character.” It’s like, “Well, okay, let’s try this where you just get your cue line and your line and then the after line.” Oh, you’d have to listen so hard.
Todd: Yeah, you totally have to pay attention. You totally, totally have to pay attention.
Lindsay: Ah! I love that. Okay, back to punctuation.
Todd: All right. So, what we think is that Shakespeare – and, again, this punctuation is all theoretical because he didn’t publish any of his plays during his lifetime; his actors put it together so we’re still kind of hinting in the dark about what it could be but one of the big tools in there – and it’s a weird piece of punctuation that we don’t often use – is the colon and the semi-colon.
One of the things is that whatever happens, whatever line is said before a semi-colon which is the dot and the comma, whatever is said before the semi-colon somehow triggers an emotional response in the character for some reason so that anything that happens after the semi-colon is emotionally driven. It’s an emotional impulse that’s pushing it.
With the colon which is the two dots, whatever happens before the colon somehow triggers an intellectual change in the character so that everything after the colon is somehow intellectually driven. It’s free of emotion.
Lindsay: Oh, okay. Well, that’s something that you can actually play, isn’t it?
Lindsay: That, if you have a line and there’s a semi-colon, whatever comes afterwards is either going to be, well, emotion filled or completely calm.
Lindsay: I’m totally putting you on the spot. Do you have any good examples that we could direct teachers to? What good speech be then that has a lot of punctuation in it?
Todd: I’ll talk about a specific speech. One of the things that just occurred to me is right now I’m editing down Richard III because I’ll be directing Richard III in spring and there’s a couple of great moments where, if you don’t know Richard III, he’s a bad guy and he’s completely putting one over on everybody in order to sort of stick a knife in their back, and there’s a great moment where he’s pretending to be really, really holy and really pious in Richard III, he has a lot of semi-colons while he’s acting being this sweet, nice man who only thinks about others. There’s a lot of semi-colons in this particular speech and, reading it through, it’s really funny to me because it’s clear he’s approaching it from a standpoint of trying to pretend to be emotionless and sweet and nice. But then, when we get to some of his private speeches, he’s got a lot of semi-colons in there because he’s pissed. He’s a hunchback. Everybody looks down on him. They call him a bunch-backed toad. So, that really drives him.
Lindsay: Okay. That’s one thing. That’s the analysis where you look at a speech and you go, “Okay, here’s punctuation.” For example, semi-colon, emotional reaction; colon, intellectual reaction. Okay. So, how do students physicalize that? What’s a physical action they can take with the semi-colon and a colon?
Todd: All right. So, the physical action and the way I’ve sort of broken this down to give us a simple place to begin working from is anything that happens after the semi-colon which is the emotional response, one of the things I’ll do if I’m working on a speech or having an actor work on a speech is to begin walking. A lot of times, we want to start working on a speech from sitting. I mean, acting’s about real life, even when we’re giving a monologue in our life – yelling at our parents or arguing with a boss – it’s not us coming at it from a place of sitting and rest; it’s a place of action.
So, I like to get actors up and moving and doing this kind of nice vigorous walk. And then, when we get to that semi-colon, I like to have the actors switch directions as fast as they can without thinking. So, you’re delivering the speech, you’re delivering the speech, and you get to that semi-colon and you just switch directions. That does a couple of different things because we’re reading but our brain is trying to deal with this violent action our bodies have done. And I like to think that, by engaging our physical apparatus, it allows us to travel deeper into that moment of emotionalness or emotional reaction by physically just acting in an emotionally uncontrolled way. When we get to the colon, I like to have actors, as they’re doing this little walk, when they get to the colon, to stop, take a breath, decide what direction they’re going to go in, and then go, especially when we have the actor walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, and stopping, there’s a lot that happens to our physical instrument when we adjust in that way. I like to think it gives the actor a moment to gear shift because a lot of the times we think, “Oh, I’ve got to keep acting, I’ve got to keep acting, I’ve got to keep acting,” and we don’t take those times to gear shift. With this approach of switching directions quickly or stopping and being very meditative about where we’re going to switch directions, I like to think that acts on kind of our inner impulse center where we’re trying to act from.
Lindsay: There’s two things that come to my mind. One is that, when you give a student an action to do, in that emotional moment where afterwards there’s an emotional impulse, instead of saying, “Be sad. Be happy,” you’re not dealing with the emotion or the thinky-think, you’re dealing with actually doing something.
Todd: Yes, emotion’s a by-product. Emotion is a by-product of getting what you want or not getting what you want, and what’s great for me and working with actors – or, more importantly, what’s great for me and working as an actor myself – is that, when I get to that moment of the meditative shift or the quick violent shifting – in the case of the semi-colon – it makes it easier for me to go, “Oh, I’m going to play this action,” and attaching an action, the next thing I’m going to do – you know, on that quick violent shift, am I attacking or am I jumping for joy or vocally or whatever?
Something to think about too is I’m also influenced by a guy named Tadashi Suzuki. If you’re familiar with Suzuki method, the people who do Suzuki method founded the city company and this staging process called viewpoints. Suzuki’s physical method started out as a vocal method and Suzuki said, “We teach voice and we teach movement, but voice and movement are the same thing. The voice is actually the body. The voice is the body leaving the body, traveling across the room to your body and affecting your body.” So, whatever the body can do, the voice can do. So, if the body can hop and skip and jump, then the voice can hop and skip and jump. By using this methodology of the colon and the semi-colon and this other punctuation stuff, I think it makes it easier – for me, at least, as an actor – to discover where the action is either by playing the action and paying attention and going, “Oh, wow! It felt like I was punching there,” or, “Oh, wow! It felt like I was tickling there,” and then saying, “Well, why don’t I try this next moment punching?” or, “I’ll try this next moment tickling or slashing her.” That’s my action.
Lindsay: And, so often with students and working with Shakespeare, everything tends to come across like a monotone vocally and also physically. They never know what to do. They just stand still and they deliver as opposed to, you know, acting.
Todd: Or worse, it becomes just really arm-waving.
Todd: Because students think that Shakespeare has to be done one of two ways. They get that weird sort of phony British accent in and everything becomes very declamatory which I’ve experienced in working with actors on every level of the spectrum. And then, actors, yeah, like you said, they get really monotone. I worked with an actor directing a high school production of the Scottish play and this one actor, the whole time, he was really quiet and you couldn’t hear him past the front row the whole time and he was kind of mumble-y too. The whole time, I kept giving him notes and I was like, “Dude, what are you doing?” and I finally had to pull him aside at the end and, instead of trying to coax a performance out of him, I said, “You’ve got to stop doing this. I don’t know what you’re doing, what’s going on?” and he had watched the Judi Dench-Ian McKellen version of the Scottish play which – if you’ve ever seen it – is really dark and it’s filmed all in close-ups.
Lindsay: Oh, the movie version?
Todd: The movie version, yeah, not the stage version – the movie version.
Todd: And it was filmed all in close-ups and it was, like, the only Shakespeare play he’d ever seen and he thought that’s how you do Shakespeare because, you know, he was told that Ian McKellen and Judi Dench are the greatest Shakespeare actors around and, “Well, that’s how I must do it!”
Lindsay: He must do it mumble-y and in close-up.
Lindsay: Okay. I think that’s really excellent and I think that using anything that we can do to get students physicalizing in acting when you teach Shakespeare, I think that that’s the road to go down, isn’t it? If you were to give one piece of advice to teachers in teaching Shakespeare, would you say physicalization is up there? (As I put words in your mouth.)
Todd: Yes, Lindsay. I would… “Yes, Lindsay. I think physicalizing is brilliant.”
Lindsay: I got in the middle of that sentence and I’m like, “That was the worst question ever.”
Todd: No, I mean, yes, I agree with you. I drank the Kool-Aid. But the thing I like about this method, and as I keep working as a teacher, is I’m constantly trying to come up with ways that students can do analysis so that you’re sitting and you’re being thoughtful about the work, but then finding out how to take that thoughtful analysis and turn it into something that can be put on-stage and presented because, all too often, I mean, I’ve seen a lot of movement theater people that I’ve worked with who it’s all about just putting it out there, putting it out there, putting it out there, and there is not a lot of thought given to the work, and I think you’ve got to find the balance. But I think that the analysis is there to serve the physical work as opposed to the physical work being there to serve the analysis. The analysis has to be the foundation that you then build your house on.
Lindsay: Yes, love it.
As we wrap up here, if this is something that really gets you interested and it’s like, “Oh, this is something I want to learn more about,” Todd, we’re very excited that he is teaching a course called Friendly Shakespeare in our Drama Teacher Academy. It’s this and more – just how we get Shakespeare, how we make it friendly, right? Like, how we make it accessible.
Todd: Yeah, and I want to thank you guys for asking me to do this because I love teaching this workshop and I love teaching this course in Friendly Shakespeare and I’m really, really excited to be able to open it up to a really wide array of people so that this can get out there and people can start using it beyond just my teaching in class or teaching in workshops.
Lindsay: And that we don’t get to, we get past the point of “I can’t do Shakespeare” or even worse, “I can’t teach Shakespeare. It’s not accessible to me. It’s not relevant to me,” when, in fact, it’s so wonderfully relevant and universal. So, any tools we can give, we’re going to do, right?
Todd: And I’m hoping that this can be a foundation for people to love Shakespeare, to explore it further, and to go into those many other methods that are there to learn how to do Shakespeare – you know, become a scansion nerd and learn all about scansion and see how that aids in back to the process that I’m hopefully laying a foundation for.
Lindsay: Awesome. Thank you so much, Todd.
Todd: Thank you. Shake your powerhouse!
Thank you, Todd!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS!
So, I mentioned there that Todd is an instructor in our Drama Teacher Academy and the doors are open for the DTA again! We are accepting new members. Go to dramateacheracademy.com. You can also find the link for this in the show notes for this episode – theatrefolk.com/episode119. Go there. Check out the website. Kick the tires. Read testimonials from existing members. You can check out Todd’s courses – Friendly Shakespeare and Big Picture Blocking: Staging Your Play From The Outside In. Check out other courses. You can watch a couple of modules from each course to see exactly what you’re getting. Look through the lesson play library. We want you to see what you’re getting when you join so there’s no surprises.
Again, that’s dramateacheracademy.com.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on YouTube.com/Theatrefolk and you can find us on the Stitcher app. You can also subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.