Dispelling Myths About What it Takes to Play Shakespeare

Often when Shakespeare is mentioned, thoughts of leathery-elbowed tweed blazers, pipes, and reading spectacles are conjured in the imagination. But nothing could be further from the truth to the reality of Shakespeare’s theatre. Perhaps after this article, you may liken Shakespeare more to the martial arts studio than the library! Here are some common misconceptions about actors and what it takes to play Shakespeare.


Myth: Actors are Oozing Emotional Academics who Can Hold a Tune, but Aren’t very Athletic


We all know that musicians, in order to execute their craft, are heavily affected by the quality of their instrument. A world class pianist with an out of tune piano, would sound like a six year old at their first recital. For the actor? Their instrument is their body. And when it comes to the theatre there is a lot of “tuning” that has to occur to get into shape to perform Shakespeare. Flexibility. Strength. Endurance. Lung-capacity. These are all terms usually associated with athletics, but they are equally as important to the stage actor. Along with the brain power to download thousands of words of text, the stage actor also needs the stamina of a Spartan to wield a sword and shield on stage. I like to think of Shakespearean actors as literary jocks. (Yes, I hear you academics cringe, but hey this is my article). Add choreography to dance numbers, acrobatic blocking that has bodies flailing about the stage, and projecting your voice loudly enough so the person in the back of the balcony can hear you, and you start to see that being in good shape is a prerequisite for being on stage.


Myth: Actors Have Naturally Amazing Memories


During my preparation for performing the title role of Richard III in graduate school, my day started at about 4:30 am with a brisk jog through Midtown Detroit exclaiming three-page monologues as a ran. I’d listen to the script in my headphones as I washed dishes and did other household chores. I’d practice entire exchanges of dialogue as I waited in line at the grocery store--people thought I was nuts. For a play that averages close to three hours with nearly 80% of the text belonging to Richard, playing the role of Richard III is a Herculean task. And so apart from the stamina needed to say all those syllables, an actor spends hours and hours of time memorizing lines. Personally, my process involves writing every single line by hand. Then recording my lines and cues on a recorder, and drilling them until I hate the sound of my own voice. For a little perspective, it takes me about four hours of dedicated memorizing time for a full page soliloquy, maybe one or two hours for a sheet of dialogue. Multiply that by a 200 page script and you see the effort start to stack up. 


MYTH: Actors are Wild Humans With Little Regard for the Morrow


Another misconception about actors is that they are all wild party animals who stay up all night and do all kind of wretched things to their bodies. While there is some truth to that for a few movie stars and the like, you’d be hard pressed to find a serious stage actor who consistently engages in such shenanigans. Between the heat of the lights, the costumes, and the constant movement, a stage performer expends a lot of energy (and sweat). Therefore, proper hydration, diet, and vocal discipline all are part of the equation as well. Surely, you’d imagine, with all that talking on stage your vocal cords must take a beating right? You’d be correct, ma’am! You wanna’ know the best cure for a sore throat? Sleep. Actors have to have incredible discipline when performing several times a week, often presenting two shows a day. A dehydrated, malnourished, sleep-deprived actor, is usually not a very good actor.


MYTH: Actors are Naturally Outgoing Extroverts  


This one is such a big myth! Though a great deal of actors are outgoing, and charismatic many of us like to take it easy. If you polled the vast majority of actors concerning what they like to do in their spare time, I’m confident the overwhelming response would be activities that we would deem traditionally introverted. Being on stage and present and giving out all that energy is taxing, and humans need to recuperate--no matter how outgoing they may be. For me, my privacy and solitude is possibly one of my most treasured possessions apart from my family. Think about it, there are many tales of great actors leaving it all behind to lead a simple life on a ranch in the middle of South Dakota. This unplugging from the ‘scene’ is necessary to recover the energy needed to perform with gusto when treading the planks (our euphemism for acting on stage). As crazy as it sounds, some actors are even shy when they don’t have the words of a playwright giving them courage (and something to say). Furthermore, most of the work involved in the preparation of a role is actually very solitary. As I stated earlier, you spend a lot of time alone learning lines. You spend a lot of time alone researching your role and getting background information. You spend a lot of time alone practicing your steps, honing your monologues, and keeping your instrument in shape. When you’re not in rehearsal the actor’s life can be quite lonesome.


So there you have it! Some common myths about being a stage actor that you may not have known weren’t completely true. I hope this was enlightening, interesting, and maybe a tad humorous. Above all I hope it helps you appreciate the effort and discipline it takes to be an actor...and you thought it was all fun and games. Well it is, but its hard, disciplined fun and games.

-By Edmund Alyn Jones

Edmund Alyn Jones is a classically trained Shakespearean actor, with the brain of an entrepreneur, and the curiosity of a four year old. A Detroit native, Edmund is a husband, father, Associate Biz Dev Director for the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, and a sometime writer. He also enjoys a well-crafted smoothie.

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