Mastering Shakespeare

By Scott Kaiser

Mastering Shakespeare cover

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When it comes to advice on how to act Shakespeare, the English have recently acquired a virtual monopoly. Nearly all of the books written in the last quarter-century about how to act Shakespeare are written by English authors, like John Barton, Cicely Berry, and Patsy Rodenburg.
Mind you, these are wonderful, ground-breaking books, full of insights into Shakespeare’s plays, his characters, and his language—how to analyze them, how to physicalize them, and how to speak them.

American actors have developed an appetite for these books because they provide the kind of practical, craft-based, no-nonsense advice about Shakespeare that they sorely need. But more than that, American actors have an affinity for these books because they seem to offer a set of clues to the secret, the secret which English actors seem to know from birth—the secret to mastering Shakespeare.

Shakespeare-based movies of the past two decades serve to highlight this notion—that Shakespeare is mother’s milk to the English actor, and ipecac to the American actor. Talented American actors like Claire Danes, Leo DeCaprio, Michael Keaton, Jack Lemmon, Jessica Lange, and Alicia Silverstone seem to blur when sharing the silver screen with classically trained English actors like Anthony Hopkins, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Paul Scofield, Emma Thompson, and Judi Dench in film versions of Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado about Nothing, Hamlet, Love’s Labours Lost, and Titus Andronicus.

Never mind that these American actors were cast in their roles not for their proficiency in speaking four-hundred year old verse, but for their box office appeal on our side of the pond. When it comes to Shakespeare, the Brits just seem to have “it” and we don’t.
It would be easy to say that the reason is training. That the American actor simply does not receive the extensive training in voice, speech, dramatic verse, and classical texts that the English actor does. But this is simply not true.

Since the Thatcher government pulled the plug on aid to arts organizations in the eighties, actor training has been in a steady decline in Britain, with overcrowded classes, ageing facilities, and overworked teachers.

American conservatory training, on the other hand, during the same period, has become robust, with hundreds of actor training programs across the nation offering master’s degrees in some of the finest performing arts facilities in the world.

In addition, the number of regional Shakespeare Festivals in the United States has positively exploded, offering places for young actors to ply their craft in nearly every state in the union.

So, why isn’t the American actor better at acting Shakespeare?

To understand the reason, one must travel back in time to June 8, 1931. That was the day when twenty-eight actors and three directors, Lee Strasberg, Cheryl Crawford, and Harold Clurman, left New York City to begin a great experiment.

On that day, arriving at Brookfield Center in Connecticut, the Group Theatre began its quest to develop a single unified approach to acting based upon the teachings of Constantin Stanislavsky.

In doing so, they would create a style of acting based in psychological realism which would forever change the face of the American Theater, and exert a profound influence on movies and television.

Today, 99 percent of American actors are trained in the tradition of Stanislavsky. It is the universal language spoken in all American drama classes, from junior high school to masters programs. It is the modus operandi used in rehearsal rooms from Bellingham to Broadway.

This is both a blessing and a curse.

It’s a blessing because Stanislavsky-based training produces what is perhaps the greatest strength of the American actor—a muscular, passionate, can-do presence, which perfectly suits the mythology of the American national character.

It’s a way of working which begat Elia Kazan and Stella Adler, who begat Marlon Brando and Julie Harris, who begat Paul Newman and Geraldine Page, who begat Jack Nicholson and Jane Fonda, who begat Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, who begat Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, who begat Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, who begat—who knows who will emerge from American conservatories in the next ten years?

But it’s also a curse, because it has diminished our ability to act in language-based plays, period plays, and plays of style, like those of Sophocles, Moliere, Ibsen, and of course, Shakespeare.

Stanislavsky usually gets the blame for our weakness in the classics—for all the mumbling, slouching, scratching, and sniffing that often passes for American acting. But he doesn’t deserve it.

He doesn’t deserve it, because back in the thirties (at Brookfield Center), the system being taught under Stanislavsky’s name as his “system,” by Lee Strasberg, and later by his disciples, was only a portion of his work.

When Stanislavsky’s book An Actor Prepares was published in 1936, it focused primarily on the internal workings of an actor—on techniques regarding a sense of truth, imagination, concentration, communion, objectives, actions, emotional memory, and sense memory.
Stanislavsky never intended An Actor Prepares to fully represent his way of working. It was always planned as the first of a pair of books about the craft of acting.

Thirteen years later, in 1949, when Stanislavsky’s Building a Character was published, he focused on the external workings of the actor, on the use of body and voice to meet the demands of language, period, and style plays—that is, the skills needed to act Shakespeare.

But the delay of thirteen years made all the difference in this country. Because by 1949, it was already too late. The roots of American psychological realism were firmly embedded in the soil of the American stage. The Group Theatre had already come and gone. The Actor’s Studio had already been founded. Marlon Brando had already appeared on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire. And “the classics” were doomed.

To this day, our uniquely American interpretation of a portion of Stanislavsky’s work keeps the American theater on a short leash and a choker collar, robbing it of poetry and possibility.

And while An Actor Prepares is still required reading for most Intro to Acting classes in the United States, Building a Character is still sorely neglected.

This is an enormous shame, because Building a Character contains the secret that so many American actors are searching for in those books by the British, that is, a way of rehearsing the classics, especially Shakespeare, which is completely compatible with what he or she already knows and does well.

For it is in this book that Stanislavsky reveals how deeply he cares about movement, voice, diction, words, phrasing, intonation, rhythm, tempo, accentuation, pausing, intelligibility, volume, tone, punctuation, vowels, consonants, standard speech, verse, scansion, rhetoric—all of the same things that Barton, Berry, and Rodenburg talk about in their books.
But inexplicably, though there have been dozens of books written about the Stanislavsky system—how to learn it, how to teach it, and how to use it to rehearse a role—no books exist about how to apply a Stanislavsky-based approach to the challenges of acting Shakespeare.

This, then, is the aim of the volume you now hold in your hands—to help the American actor bring what he already knows and does well to the plays of Shakespeare. To apply all of Stanislavsky’s work, including those long neglected ideas about body and voice, to the lifelong pursuit of mastering Shakespeare.

To accomplish these this aim, this book builds upon a form devised by Richard Boleslavsky in his book Acting: The First Six Lessons. A member of Moscow Art Company, Boleslavsky fled the Russian revolution in 1919, arrived in America in 1922, and helped to found the American Laboratory Theater in 1923, where he taught acting techniques learned from Stanislavsky. (It was at the Lab, in 1924, in a class being taught by Boleslavsky, where Strasberg first encountered the Stanislavsky system, and began to dream of changing the American theater.)

In Six Lessons, Boleslavsky imagines a dialogue between a Master Teacher and a young student endeavoring to master the craft of acting. Their conversation takes place over six scenes, as the student struggles, over time, with different aspects of her craft.

The brilliance of Boleslavsky’s book is that it recognizes that one cannot learn acting from a book. Since the Greeks, the craft of acting has been handed down through an oral tradition, by watching other actors work, and by working with other actors, by learning from generous teachers, and by generously teaching what you have learned.

That is why Mastering Shakespeare is also written in dialogue form—as a play—to reflect how the craft of acting is actually learned in this country. Not through the solitary study of exercise books, but by working with great teachers who have engaged in a life-long endeavor to master Shakespeare in their own professional practice.

The action of the play takes place in an acting studio, where a master teacher and his sixteen students grapple with the challenges of acting Shakespeare. The play unfolds in seven scenes—seven master classes which present a logical progression of acting skills, from the most fundamental to the most complex.

Each scene contains several of Shakespeare’s speeches, which present specific acting challenges. Specific techniques are offered to meet those challenges. Each speech is discussed in terms of “given circumstances,” that is, the students are asked—Where are you? Who are you talking to? What do you want? What’s preventing you from getting it?
The dialogue of the play uses terms heard every day in American classrooms and rehearsal rooms—familiar terms from the Stanislavsky system, like “action,” “objective,” and “obstacle.”

Rather than using footnotes at the bottom of each page, difficult words and phrases in the speeches are illuminated for the reader by the students themselves, who put these passages into their own words. The discussion of meaning is incorporated into the dialogue because a complete comprehension of the text is vital before an actor can begin to do anything else. That point cannot be overstated.

The book should first be read from cover to cover in a linear fashion in order to fully understand how each technique relates to all the others in the book. Following that, Mastering Shakespeare can be used as a workbook, allowing the reader to employ specific techniques in a non-linear fashion as the need arises.

One warning to the reader—although each scene takes place in a single class period in a single day, one should not expect to acquire any of these skills overnight. The techniques presented in this book will take a great deal of time—years, rather than days—to master. So be patient, and keep working.

Finally, please keep in mind that this book is not presented to the reader as “The Way.” It is simply “a way.” And if it doesn’t work for you, by all means, seek advice elsewhere.

Even if it means looking across the pond.