Countless notable actors in interviews will speak about how they began their careers acting Shakespeare. They will cite Shakespeare as an essential part of their development as actors, and will encourage actors at the beginning of their careers to do as much Shakespeare as possible. These actors include Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judy Dench and Denzel Washington, to name but a few. There are few other writers in the Western canon who provide a deeper form of practice in performing them. They each speak of the privilege of acting Shakespeare, and the respect of the text and skill required to do a Shakespearean character justice.
So how do we actually start acting Shakespeare? Today we’ll be answering that question. Where do we begin with The Bard’s work, how do we find opportunities to act in a Shakespeare play, and how do we go on to establish a career for ourselves in Shakespeare.
If you are interested in acting Shakespeare, the sooner you start, the better. There are plenty of resources on this site to get you started today. Some of the most common ways to start acting Shakespeare are to join a class, find a mentor, get involved in local/community theatre, go to a drama school, or audition for a Shakespeare production.
- Why Should I Get Into Shakespearean Acting?
- How Do I Get Into Shakespearean Acting?
- Start Now
- Instigate a Reading Club, or Put on a Production
- Go to Class or Approach a Mentor
- Engage with Local and Community Theatre
- Go to Drama School
- Theatre in Education
- Professional Auditions
- What Skills Do I Need to Act Shakespeare?
Why Should I Get Into Shakespearean Acting?
Acting Shakespeare is an undeniably important part of an actor’s development and career. Regardless of whether we seek to make Shakespeare a significant part of our careers, acting in a Shakespeare play must be an element of our training, as the challenges we will face and overcome whilst acting Shakespeare will give us the tools and skills required to act in any other writing style.
The list of actors who credit Shakespeare for their development or who have made a name for themselves as Shakespearean actors is lengthy. These actors include Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judy Dench, Sir Patrick Stewart, Mark Rylance, Ralph Fiennes, Sir Kenneth Branagh, Dame Maggie Smith, James Earl Jones, Brian Cox, Venessa Redgrave, Sir Ian Holm, Christopher Plummer, Laurence Olivier, and Zoe Caldwell.
Acting Shakespeare is challenging. But like any skill or craft we are trying to develop, we can only hope to achieve a high skill level by challenging ourselves and practising deeply. As a football player we might replace the ball with a weighted substitute, so that when we return to the original it feels light and easy to manoeuvre. As a dancer we might practice difficult routines in the rehearsal room so we may perform simpler choreography with ease. This same logic can be applied to Shakespeare. For actors, acting Shakespeare is our form of deep practice. It will challenge us, it may even seem to be an insurmountable task at times, but when we overcome these challenges we will have developed ourselves in such a way that will make all other writers’ work seem achievable.
Hey and on an even simpler note – it’s great fun. Seriously, even if you are daunted by the prospect of acting Shakespeare right now let me assure you, it’s unlike anything else to perform. The way the language and the text carries you through your performance, the way the characters behave and the events unfold is truly thrilling. There are plenty of contemporary plays which may leave you feeling dissatisfied with either the story or your character, but you will rarely find that when involved in one of Shakespeare’s plays. Trust me.
How Do I Get Into Shakespearean Acting?
So, we’ve established the importance of including Shakespearean acting in our training and careers, but how do we actually begin? How do we go about getting into Shakespearean acting? Well, like any question of this nature, there is no one single answer. The answer to this question is actually a combination of several solutions. Here are some of those solutions to begin practicing:
#1 Start Now
The dramatic and performing arts do require several people to bring a project to life. The magic of drama is that many perspectives and personalities come together to create something. It is a polyphonic medium (meaning many voices/sounds) unlike fine arts which are from a singular artist. This being said, actors need to take it upon themselves to practice and develop their skills. When it comes to acting Shakespeare, there is nothing in our way from starting now: picking up a text, (which are all free to access online) choosing a character or a soliloquy and speaking the text out loud. You do this – bam. You’ve gotten into Shakespearean acting. Article over.
Just kidding. Now I know this might sound over-simplistic but it really is true; all you need to do to get into acting Shakespeare is to start acting Shakespeare. Starting to familiarise yourself with the text and the language will only serve to prepare you for your upcoming auditions to really get into acting Shakespeare with a group of professionals.
Shakespeare is challenging, as we have already discussed. It is not something we can just take a glance at before acting. It is something which requires hard work, diligence and practice. So start that work for yourself now. Start reading plays, start speaking text out loud. We have a bunch of articles here for you to read to assist with the challenge of understanding and speaking Shakespeare, you’re in good hands with us. If you would like to add some further reading to your list after you’ve finished this article, I’d recommend these few:
There are endless resources at your fingertips to help you start, so, no excuses. Make a start now.
#2 Instigate a Reading Club, or Put on a Production
Shakespeare comes to life when spoken aloud with other actors. Perhaps you are striving to work for a professional Shakespearean theatre company, perhaps not. Either way, you should experience what it’s like to act Shakespeare with other actors. Short of successfully auditioning for a play, you can always be the instigator of a Shakespeare group yourself. Whether you simply organise a reading club or you go the whole nine yards to produce your own production of a Shakespearean play, you have the power when it comes to instigating your own opportunities to act Shakespeare.
#3 Go to Class or Approach a Mentor
As with any skill, our ability to self-educate has a limit. At a certain point we are going to need to seek external assistance and education.
My interest in Shakespeare began because of an excellent teacher I had in high school, who was an incredible Shakespearean actor and director. With his wisdom and guidance he was able to impart upon me and my classmates the sophistication of Shakespeare as a writer and the potential impact of his plays. When hearing him speak of Shakespeare or watching his productions I was deeply moved and exhilarated, and the enthusiasm for Shakespeare that was sparked by him still exists with me today.
Subsequent teachers, directors and actors have been hugely influential in my development as a Shakespearean actor, too. So many people have taught me so many things about who Shakespeare was, how his metre works and why it is important, how he uses language and language techniques like antithesis and metaphor. All I can really thank myself for is my ongoing curiosity about Shakespeare and the commitment I feel in pursuing it, the rest I owe to other people.
With this in mind, consider how you might begin to seek outside assistance in your quest to get into Shakespearean acting. You’ve already taken a massive step in searching for and reading this article, you’re already on the way. The next step might be looking into a local Shakespeare class or short course at an acting school, or sending an email to a teacher, director or actor you know who has had some experience with Shakespeare.
#4 Engage with Local and Community Theatre
In high school I played fairly minor roles in two Shakespearean plays: Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was never the lead role, and, ironically, I think the lack of validation I felt actually fuelled my desire to pursue Shakespeare into the future. I always wanted more. I saw the actors playing their substantial roles around me and I wanted to experience that. I watched and I learnt from them, storing ideas away for future use. As soon as I was out of high school I embarked on a quest to ‘get into Shakespearean acting’ myself. This was the time before StageMilk, after all, so I didn’t have access to the resources you do – you lucky thing!
The method I used to go about ‘getting into Shakespeare’ was this. One afternoon, feeling like I should really start to try and get into this thing, I typed ‘Shakespeare auditions in Sydney’ into Google. One of the first websites to come up was a community theatre company located about 50 minutes away from my home. They were putting on a production of Romeo and Juliet. I had a monologue I’d prepared in high school which I revitalised for the audition, and I went along hoping for the best. I performed Henry V’s ‘Upon the King’ soliloquy, and was cast as Romeo. Bang, and we’re off. My streak of minor roles in high school had ended, I was now a titular character in a Shakespeare play.
The experience I had in this production was wonderful. The ensemble was dedicated, the production team were enthusiastic and kind, it was a fantastic environment to learn and grow.
Sometimes ‘getting into Shakespeare’ can be as simple as that – a google search and a blind audition. Even if I hadn’t been cast in that production, it still would have given me an opportunity to act Shakespeare, and in completing that audition I’d have been one step more experienced than I had been prior.
#5 Go to Drama School
Now, this step is easier said than done, I know. Getting into drama school is no small task, and committing to a full term of education within one of these schools is only for those who are absolutely sure of the path they want to take. This being said, an education in acting at drama school is sure to include at least one term studying Shakespeare in great detail. Drama schools understand the importance of Shakespearean performance in the development of their actors, and will prioritise it as a subject of study.
Studying and performing Shakespeare at Drama school is a fantastic way to get into Shakespearean acting because it is a safe environment to explore and take risks. Moving too quickly into professional performance or getting in front of a paying audience can be risky, as it may limit the willingness you feel to make bold choices and risk getting things wrong. Growth comes from learning from our mistakes, after all.
Another benefit of acting Shakespeare at drama school is you’ll have the chance to play characters you might otherwise not be cast as. Ensembles at a drama school will typically have a small age range, so someone is going to have to get cast as the much older or younger characters. This might sound unappealing, but remember, many of Shakespeare’s greatest characters were older than fifty, and depending on your age it might be a few years before you’re cast in those roles professionally!
#6 Theatre in Education
From drama school we step into the realm of professional theatre. Many theatre companies, particularly Shakespeare companies, will have an education component to their company. This department may produce productions of Shakespeare plays for young people and school kids, which is a fantastic thing to get involved with. In my year post-graduating from drama school I travelled around the country for 9 months with a Shakespeare company, performing abridged versions of Shakespeare plays for school kids ranging from primary school to year 12 (their graduating year).
In the same way that Drama school provides a safe space for trial and error and development, so too does theatre in education provide an opportunity for quick and exponential growth as an actor. Audiences of school students are unlike any other audience you will experience. They really do wear their hearts on their sleeves: if they like the performance they will absolutely let you know about it, and if they don’t like your performance, the dead silence in the audience or (worse) the sniggers and comments coming at you from the audience will be impossible to ignore. This might sound terrible, but for me it was a baptism of fire into the world of Shakespeare, and now I find myself feeling confident in front of any audience. Trust me, when you’ve performed Shakespeare for 200 14 year olds who absolutely don’t want to engage with what you’re putting in front of them, there’s no theatre going audience which could frighten me.
#7 Professional Auditions
We’re now beyond the realms of ‘Getting into Shakespeare’. Eventually there will come a time when you are standing on a stage in front of an audition panel for a professional theatre company, performing under the pressure of an opportunity to do what you love. This is a momentous occasion, and it’s only a matter of time before it happens for you. Of course, if you come across a professional theatre company holding general auditions and you feel that you’d like to audition, go for it. You have nothing to lose. Even if you don’t get cast, you will have gotten your face in front of the company, and in this industry people remember faces. You’ll be remembered the next time you audition, and you can use all the intervening time to practise and get better to maximise your chances of success.
What Skills Do I Need to Act Shakespeare?
With every medium, style and genre of acting comes its own special requirements. Acting on film requires the actor to demonstrate sophisticated technical capabilities of performing within the confines of the frame. Contemporary plays and dialogue are usually fast paced, with intricate three-dimensional characters for the actor to embody and portray. Shakespeare, like these other mediums, comes with its own requirements for the actor.
When people think of Shakespeare, they think language. Shakespeare was as much a poet as he was a writer of plays, so command of language needs to be number one on the actors list of skill-sets to build. Speaking the text aloud as often as possible is essential to build this skill. The actor must also mine into the text for the many poetic devices at hand: antithesis, meter, metaphor, rhyme scheme, as well as becoming accustomed to the differences between verse and prose.
Along with speaking text and understanding language comes the need for vocal strength. The actor performing Shakespeare must be able to fill a space with their voice and articulate clearly: the detailed and complex language Shakespeare uses needs to be delivered to the audience with immense clarity.
Shakespeare writes of many different circumstances and features a vast rage of different characters. Having the physical capacity to embody different characters and do a range of different physical activities, (fencing, dancing, stage combat, acrobatics ect) is only going to increase your chances of being invited into a Shakespearean ensemble.
‘Getting into’ something can be difficult. We usually begin with a goal or a dream, an insurmountable peak which can be exhilarating and daunting for us, and inhibit our ability to start. But every journey like this, including the journey of getting into Shakespearean acting, begins with a single action. In fact, the most difficult part is the prelude to the action: the decision. The decision to pursue Shakespearean acting. And you want to know something? By you being here today reading this article, you have already made that decision. You have already overcome that most difficult step. Now all that is left for you to do is to start taking action.
Neil Gaiman speaks to young writers about the importance of ‘moving towards your mountain’. He tells them that it doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as that action is moving you a little closer towards your mountain, your goal, your dream. Relieve yourself of the obligation to make each step towards your mountain a leap or a bound, just take a single step. Read a play – no, read a scene, no: read a soliloquy. Pick a favourite character – don’t have a favourite character? Choose a character you know the name of. Type their name into Google, followed by ‘soliloquy’ and click on the first link. Read the soliloquy a few times, try to get the sense and meaning of it, then speak the speech aloud. By doing this – an exercise taking all of 10 minutes to complete, you’ve gotten into Shakespearean acting. You’ve taken the first step.
Tomorrow, take another step.