Humans of shakespeare north playhouse- Ben

Fri 31 Mar, 2023

Inspired by the original Humans of New York, Humans of Shakespeare North Playhouse aims to document as many of the wonderful people who walk through our building each day. Giving a glimpse into who they are and the story they have to share.

“There is occasions and causes why and wherefore in all things.”
Henry V, Act V, Scene I.


“I’m an actor and author, a creative producer, an educator, a voice-over artist, and I give talks and workshops, usually on speaking Shakespeare and creating Ensemble. I work in community engagement a great deal, and I’m good at making things happen.

In terms of the books that I write, I’m find the gap on the shelf. I come up with an idea and go to a big bookshop and sit cross-legged in front of the Shakespeare section to see if anyone else has come up with the same idea already.

“My theatre-practice is very responsive. I’ll go to an institution or a community and work with them to find out what they’re doing, and then start to look together at what they’re not doing, and see if I can help them fill that ‘gap’, or help them generate interest and excitement in theatre from their community (rather than for their community).

“I grew up watching a lot of concept-driven Shakespeare: there would always be a modern conceit that would be laid over the Shakespeare play as a means of making it more accessible. At drama school I was taught by Patrick Tucker, who’s incredible at showing how all the information that you need to perform a piece of Shakespeare is in the text already, and who introduced me to ‘cue-scripts’ (more on these things in a bit). Around the same time I started to go and see plays at Shakespeare’s Globe, where (for the most part) the explorations tend to strip things back, and let the theatre be the set.

“For me, Shakespeare is great story telling, told from the heart and simply done, though I’ve seen and loved productions of Shakespeare set on the moon! No matter how his plays are adapted, Shakespeare’s Teflon, the original plays lie dormant, waiting for the next brilliant imagination to set them alight, and shape them to reflect a new response to them.
The ‘gap’ with Shakespeare that I’ve been exploring has been this: if we look at the way they used to rehearse plays 400 years ago, how can that help us make exciting Shakespeare productions today? What’s the bare minimum they needed to produce the shows? Often the answer is, Whatever they could find to hand.

“If you’ve got a beautiful playing space (like the Shakespeare North Playhouse), a fascinating and inventive group of artists, and some muscular text, then that’s kind of all you really need. Oh – and most importantly, an audience who’s thirsty for writing that has space and room for them, that reflects their lives back at them.

“An audience 400 years ago came to a theatre space that made their hearts lift – it was architecturally and aesthetically different to the sort of building they live or work in every day, and it wasn’t a church where they had to behave. And rather than being thoroughly or perfectly rehearsed, the actors would play with each other and surprise each other, and involve the audience.

“In Shakespeare’s time the audience were not like most modern audiences that know they have to sit still quietly in the darkness and be entertained. The audience 400 years ago were the battery, the lights and the circuit board of the performance. The show doesn’t work without them: not just them being there, but vocally taking part – they were actively involved in the story-telling.

“There’s an opportunity in these modern original practice buildings like the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre or the Shakespeare North Playhouse to help our audiences feel that they have agency and permission to actively take part – that then these works come alive in a really fascinating way. During a speech, if Hamlet makes you feel like you’re actually being asked what you think, and you dare to speak up – Yeah, you should kill Claudius! – and then Hamlet seems to follow your advice, then you walk away from the show feeling like you’ve had an effect on the outcome. Your voice has been heard. You’ve been ‘seen’. Theatre becomes a power-house of agency, as well as a house of emotional catharsis.

“Relaxed performances are fantastic for that agency, because within those gentler rules audiences know they have the freedom to be however they need to be (within reason). In the Globe and Shakespeare North theatres the audience and the performers share the same quality of light, and so can see each other clearly, so there’s potential for every performance to be a relaxed performance.

“For Shakespeare’s actors, and for my Shakes-plorations, the empty theatre space is the ‘concept’, because instead of saying We’re going to set this play in a particular time and space, the setting is simply the theatre – an inspiring and beautiful but relatively ‘blank’ space. This puts the focus very much on the artists involved, and their relationship to the audience. And the story they’re sharing.

“How an actor responds to that story while telling it to the audience will hopefully be different every night. Every person who picks up the part of say, Lady Macbeth, will play it differently from anyone else; Shakespeare leaves so much room for you. If you bring your life experiences and personal opinions to the part, then we get to see Lady M through the filter of you. Every different swing at these plays reveals something about the characters or the artists involved, or the theatre they’re in.

“400 years ago Shakespeare’s actors would make their shows in 2 or 3 days, so I’ve been exploring how we can make full Shakespeare productions in that time-frame. We started with 2 weeks, then 5 days, then 3 days, and we’ve made a production in a single day! The trust is very much on the individual artists to bring as much as possible in the moment of performance.

“Shakespeare’s actors’ daily schedule went something like this: they would get to the theatre in the morning, rehearse and prepare the dances and the fights (the complicated bits that you can’t improvise, because to get it wrong in the show would be too dangerous, or it’s too difficult to make up, or the effect would be too pretty not to do as well as possible). They’d perform at 2pm in the afternoon (because they’re performing outside and that’s the best daylight hours). They’d finish about 5pm. They’d probably then go home, or go to the tavern (because some things never change). In the summer they’d have a few extra hours of daylight time where they might hold auditions or get bits and pieces together for a new play. Then they’d come back the next morning and rehearse the dances and the fights for a different play to be performed that afternoon.

“Shakespeare’s actors – and their rival companies – would perform a different play every day of the week. They had up to 40 plays in their repertoire at anyone given time, that they could perform off by heart at the drop of a hat. On top of the dozen or so plays that they were actively performing, and the extra couple dozen they had in their repertoire, they were also preparing 3 or 4 new plays at any one given time. How did they do this?!

“First off, they must have had terrific memories to inhale so many parts so quickly. How quickly is the question. Someone worked out they had around 18 hours to rehearse a new play. And when Shakespeare was writing a new play he knew exactly how much time his actors would have, so their ‘quick-raise’ process is baked into the DNA of the writing. We’re aiming towards a slice of that with Lights On / Lights Off, as we ‘quick raise’ scenes from 36 plays this April 22nd & 23rd in the Shakespeare North Playhouse’s Cockpit Theatre.

Shakespeare and his actors spent 20 years working together; they must have known each other incredibly well, and known how each other worked as performers so intimately. The modern version of this sort of acting company is an Ensemble, a non-hierarchical process where everyone has an equal voice, where a huge amount of trust is placed in the actors to make their own creative decisions.

“By the time Shakespeare’s actors did Macbeth they’d been performing together for 16 years. They had their own performance space, and a regular community of returning audience members. So they knew their theatre space really well, they knew each other really well, they knew what their audience liked, and they knew the rhythms and the techniques that their playwright is using. Also, their playwright is writing new characters and situations that lean in to his actors’ strengths – because he knows them really well too. So there’s this symbiotic relationship in their working together.

“Because of the lack of time, as a group of actors you’d think practically about how to manage your time: if we’ve only got a couple of hours every day, what are the things we absolutely have to practice and prepare? And what are the things we can make up in the moment.

“We need to tell the story, that’s something we can’t improvise too much, or Will Shakespeare will be angry, having spent so much time writing fine lines for us. Paper was expensive, and it would take forever to write out the whole play for everybody, and they didn’t have much time anyway. So, say you’re play Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet: Mercutio dies halfway through the show – so is there any point for the actor playing Mercutio to write out the second half of the play? Of course not, it’s a waste of time, and a waste of paper. What about the scenes that Mercutio’s not in? Well, someone else is taking care of those scenes, so, again, it would be a waste of time and a waste of paper to write them out.

“What about the scenes that Mercutio is in when Romeo has long speeches about how he’s upset about Rosaline? Well, you don’t need those either, because the actor playing Romeo is taking care of those. All you really need to copy out is your cue of when to enter, your cue of when to speak, and to copy out what you say.

“Writing out your own ‘cue script’ helps you learn the lines really quickly, partly because you can focus more – in that you haven’t got this big play to carry around, with lots of academic notes in it, and lots of characters that you have to understand… you just have to look after your own part. We’re talking about an acting company that works a little bit more like a modern orchestra, where the person playing double bass doesn’t need to carry around the part of the violin player, they rely on and trust each other.

“For the ‘quick raise’ process for Lights On/ Lights Off we give the performers the scenes and invite them towards parts that they feel resonate with them. They’ll prepare their cue scripts – so they only have the lines they speak, and their cues of when to speak, and nothing else. We’ll probably have the cue-scripts on stage with us just in case!

“We’ll be exploring for the first time the new configuration of the Cockpit Theatre, with its exciting and beautiful Frons Scenae – bringing the effect of doors and windows and columns into the space. And we’ll set two shows by day, and two shows by night, so we can explore scenes by candle-light too – that’s why the project is called Lights On / Lights Off.

“For these four performances we’ll encourage the Ensemble to play with the lines, but not to plan what to do with them. We want them to surprise us – surprise themselves, and surprise the audience – in the moment of performance. That’s the thing we’re doing, plays not plans.

“So we’ve looked for artists who are into improvisation, physicality, and ensemble work. In rehearsal we hone a particular and curious type of listening – practising how to carefully listen each other, to the space, to the text, and to prepare to listen just as carefully to the audience.

“The biggest difficulty to overcome isn’t learning the lines or prepping the scenes, it’s getting out of that 21st century mindset that ‘we need more time’. That feeling of wanting more time never goes away, but one of our maxims in this ‘quick-raise’ practice is We’re running out of time so we must go slowly. The biggest trick for folk new to this work is to trust in the process. It worked very well 400 years ago, and as it worked well then, it can work well now.

“If anyone has ever grown up or experienced Shakespeare as being something that isn’t for them, then come and see Lights On/ Lights Off.

“Shakespeare was so good at holding the mirror to life and making us look at the things humans experience, whether it’s love or loss, laughter or grief. But he also makes us look at the things we’re less comfortable about, the things our species does and says that can make us squirm sometimes. He reminds us that humanity has got more to do and more to learn, that we’ve got to be more compassionate and continually work to be better, to support and love one another more kindly, because our time here is brief.

“Come listen to this local group of actors speak these 400 year words as if they’re their own. Hear these artists from Merseyside share something of themselves, and meanwhile, hear some Shakespeare too.”