Shakespeare in performance: rehearsal room insights

This July Oxford’s own amateur music and drama group – MaDSoc – will be co-producing Shakespeare’s timeless comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Oxford-based theatre company, Leaning House. The play will be performed by a mixture of professional and amateur actors and set in the picturesque front quad at OUP’s head office.

Jenny Johns (a professional who is playing Titania and Hippolyta) and Jamie Crowther (an amateur who plays Quince) discuss learning the language of the Bard and what it’s like working with a part-amateur and part-professional cast.

Q: What’s it like learning Shakespearean text as opposed to modern text?

Jenny: Working on Shakespearean text is such a treat. In some ways I find the language easier to learn than in modern plays. For a start, lots of it rhymes and the language is so beautifully specific that it’s almost impossible to paraphrase!

Jamie: I have to agree. I often find Shakespearean verse can be a lot easier to learn than standard prose by modern authors; sadly my character speaks primarily in prose in this play, but never mind! It still has a rhythmic quality that can help understanding, although sometimes I find it hard to learn the connective tissue of conjunctions, prepositions, and the like – sometimes what is in the text can seem counter-intuitive to a modern ear and it can be dangerously easy to replace words with more appropriate modern equivalents.

Q: Sometimes it can be challenging to ‘unpick’ the meaning of Shakespeare’s words. As an actor, what can you do to help the audience make sense of the language?

Jenny: It does require some digging in rehearsal to clarify the meaning and often there are multiple possible interpretations. The ‘table work’ discussions have been vital in ensuring that we are all on the same page with how certain moments are to be played out. But ultimately the challenge is to own the language and communicate with an audience as if these words are being spoken for the first time.

Jamie: Like Jenny I enjoy the interpretation aspect – it really can be a fair bit of work to pin down the meaning of the occasional sentence. You get there in the end with most lines, but there are definitely good reasons why judicious editing of Shakespeare is often a good idea.

Q: Is the text of Shakespearean plays poetry and should it be read as such?

Jenny: Meter can be a sticky issue. To stick rigidly to it or throw it out the window? I think Miriam, our director, has encouraged us to tread the line between the two – to be aware of it, explore what it is revealing about the character at that point, and then make the decision as to whether we adhere to or play against it.

Jamie: As I said before, I’m not speaking in verse much in this production, though in other Shakespeare productions I’ve usually not stuck to meter too rigidly. My two pieces of verse here are in the Prologues to the play-within-a-play; the first of these is purposefully so garbled, I’ve thought it not worthwhile to even try for rhythm! The second is far more blatantly a parody of extreme ‘tumpty-tumpty-tum’ style, so I’ve mostly run with it!

Q: What’s it like working with a mix of amateur and professional actors?

Jenny: Working with  OUP colleagues has been absolutely fantastic! They have brought such an amazing breadth of experience and skills to the table, not to mention boundless energy and enthusiasm even after a full day of ‘proper work’.

Jamie: It’s been great to work with our professional actors; they’re all very relaxed and down-to-earth, and it hasn’t been at all intimidating, as I suspect some in the cast may have initially feared! It was a bit nerve-wracking presenting some bits to the pros for the first time without scripts, but it’s nothing if not good practice for a real audience.

Q: The audience are going to be sitting on the ground and very close to the action. Do you think this will have an effect on your performance?

Jenny: We’ve had such an amazing, joyful rehearsal process and I hope that some of that passion will be shared by the audience. The OUP setting is perfect – outdoors yet intimate – some of the audience will be literally at our feet! They will be in the world of the play – part of the performance – the magic simply won’t work without them.

Jamie: I’m excited to see how it all comes together when we start performing for a real audience in the main quad rather than in various rooms at OUP; Jenny’s right in saying that having no very clear demarcation between us and the audience (we will be moving around and through them fairly frequently!) will make it incredibly intimate and, hopefully, energetic. I can’t wait!

Leaning House and Oxford’s MaDSoc will be putting on six outdoor picnic performances A Midsummer Night’s Dream during the first full week of July in the grounds of Oxford University Press. For more information and tickets, please visit