Have you ever heard anyone say that when acting Shakespeare, the text acts you, the text does the work for you, or something along those lines? I’m willing to bet you have. But what does it mean that the text acts you? How does it do that? Doesn’t one normally act the text? If the text does the work for you, does that mean Shakespeare is easy?
By the text acts you, most people mean that Shakespeare’s text is so rich in meaning and tells the story so clearly that it’s unnecessary to work to hard at showing the audience how you feel or telling the story. In other words, don’t color the picture that’s already colored-in.
If the text acts you, how come some actors sound great speaking the text and others give abysmal performances? It’s good advice to talented actors who tend to try too hard and over-act; it’s clearly an over-simplification that’s not meant for everyone. So when you hear it: Caveat Actor.
The text isn’t going to do the work for you. Not just yet, anyway. Let’s not have the idea that acting Shakespeare doesn’t require lots of hard work. First use the imagery, antithesis, punctuation, and all the other text analysis tools you know and love to discover the text. Once you’ve discovered, explore! Find all the different meanings the lines can have with different stresses, tempos, phrasing, and rhythms. Delve into the images, the sounds, the onomatopoeia. Really KNOW the text intimately. When you speak it, you should be able to do anything with it.
It should be a few weeks into rehearsal (for a play or even just a monologue) when you get to this point. Now that the text lives in you, now that it’s bouncing around inside waiting to be released with immense energy; now it’s ready to act you. Once you’ve done all the work, it doesn’t take a lot of work.
So Shakespeare’s text can act you, just not right away. It’s the final stage in creating a performance. It’s what happens when you’ve mastered your speeches to such a degree that the words seem to be spontaneously created in the moment and flow easily from you, trippingly on the tongue.
It’s a great feeling to have text act you, but don’t think that means it’s easy. Helpful? Very. Easy? Of course not. Would it really be worth doing if it were that easy?