Gathering Will Power
BY RODNEY WELCH
In the beginning is the word.
A group of actors are gathered around a table at Benedict College in Columbia, where they will be rehearsing for the next few weeks. Before each of them is a thick blue folder, turned horizontally, holding the text of a play, mimeographed en masse from a published version.
The first version of this same text dates to about 1623, some seven years after the author's death. The writer had published certain of his plays in his lifetime, but had no particular concern for posterity.
Had it not been for a couple of his theater pals, who saw that all 37 plays got a posthumous printing, the plays could have been lost for all time.
Instead, they revolutionized the English language and Western civilization, and they still change lives every day. (More about this later.) But that, for now, is neither here nor there.
Linda Khoury, on this night, is more concerned with bringing Shakespeare back to basics. As a founding member of the South Carolina Shakespeare Company - and the actress who will take on the role of Kate in this production of The Taming of the Shrew - part of her job is a pre-reading workshop on the fine art of speaking in Elizabethan blank verse, hopefully without making Shakespeare sound more daunting than ever.
"Remember," she tells her group, "Shakespeare was an actor before he was anything else."
She talks a little, by way of introduction, about the man and his works. The different printed versions, the clues in the texts, the art and the complexity - the kind of things that take up millions of volumes and many more academic hours.
She could go on, but she gets down to work. Shakespeare, she tells the group, wrote in both poetry and prose. The poetry is written in iambic pentameter - 10 syllables to the line - and the general way of reciting it is a pattern of weak stress, strong stress.
"It's what I like to call the rhythm," she says, "because the meter is duh-DUM, duh-DUM, duh-DUM, duh-DUM, duh-DUM." Five beats per 10 syllables.
She pulls a line from Antony and Cleopatra: "He jests at scars that nev-er felt a wound." But there's more than one set of metrical feet. There's the Pyrrhic route, where you have two consecutive weak stresses: "He jests at scars that never felt a wound." The trochee, where you reverse the process and make it strong-weak: "He jests at scars that nev-er felt a wound."
Yes, it's Technical Theater Arts 459 stuff, and Khoury is the first to say that story means more than scansion. But she doesn't leave it just yet. She reads a line.
"Who can tell me the rhythm?" she asks after one reading.
Someone who learns the ropes quickly answers.
"Strong, weak-weak, strong-strong, weak-weak, strong?"
"Right," she says.
Just as there are a number of ways of playing with the meter, there are also ways in which Shakespeare has adjusted the meter before the actor can get to it. There are shared lines, where the 10 syllables are spaced between two parts, and broken lines that just short of 10 syllables.
"You have to fill that space with something," she says, "and that something is usually a big ol' pause."
A big ol' pause that may well signal death, or some extraordinary turn of events. In the space of 45 minutes, Khoury has reminded anyone who may have forgotten that you don't play Shakespeare like you play Williams or Albee.
Now it is director Cynthia Gilliam's turn. "I want to hear you read because I want to hear what you're thinking about," she says.
"When I think about this play at Finlay Park, I think about entertainment. I feel very strongly about how we play two people, Kate and Petruchio. Petruchio originally wants money, but when they meet, something happens romantically and sexually. His position is: no sex until you submit. She submits to get what she wants."
Gilliam wants it "powerfully sexy." And "light, frothy and very fast." She has in mind a concluding stage picture of the two leads in the missionary position on the table.
During a break, a young actress tells me "Before this evening, I thought this was going to be fun."
Three-and-a-half centuries after his death, the balding, tight-collared, pursed-lipped man in the engraving is still putting actors to work.
Before I started attending the Shakespeare Company's bi-annual performances, Shakespeare had always been my prime source of intellectual guilt.
I am 36 and a bookworm from way back, but Shakespeare was always my greatest weak spot. I endured the usual academic force-feeding, like most people, but I didn't learn to like him or his plays.
The comedies never made me laugh, the tragedies seemed more ridiculous than sad, and all that high-flyin' compare-thee- to-a-summer's-day stuff in the sonnets just put me to sleep.
It wasn't that I had no patience for complexity; I like complexity. I'm a huge fan of Proust, Joyce, Faulkner and a lot of other impenetrable geniuses I can't understand half the time.
My problem with Shakespeare is that he's so frigging immortal - the most immortal of all immortals. It's hard to feel warm or friendly with a force of nature.
I can't really say when I decided to overcome my Bard complex, but it had to be sometime around the time of the South Carolina Shakespeare Company's performance of Much Ado About Nothing. My nine-year-old daughter was with me, forcing me to pay close attention so I could explain it to her.
Did I like the play so much I decided to read it? No.
But somehow I did start liking Shakespeare. I sought out the one play of his I'd ever had much use for: King Lear. I read it, heard it on audiotape, and watched the BBC television production.
Then I read it again. I moved on to As You Like It, and stayed there for what seems like two weeks, revelling and re-revelling in every gloriously absurd scene. Then The Merchant of Venice - a nearly perfect comedy.
All's Well That Ends Well and Twelfth Night - neither of which do much for me. I spent my vacation at Myrtle Beach feasting on the four parts of the Plantagenet saga - well, feasting on the first three and slogging my way through Henry V, the most boring play I've ever read.
I spent a week each on Hamlet and the extraordinary The Winter's Tale, a play whose ending will move me to tears as long as I breathe.
I drove friends crazy comparing The Tempest to the latest film version. I read the first scene of The Taming of the Shrew and laughed like hell, which is more than I can say for the rest of the play.
When I wasn't reading the plays, I talked about them with whoever would listen. I called up a friend who used to teach Shakespeare, and spent hours - hours - on the phone going over and over with her the various mysteries of Othello.
Last week I called the college professor who put me through so much Shakespeare hell 15 years ago, and I bent his ear for God knows how long about Macbeth and The Comedy of Errors.
And somewhere in all this, I called Linda Khoury about doing an article on a company that had served as my catalyst for a discovery I've been waiting to make.
She was hesitant - and not just because I came across sounding borderline obsessive.
Much Ado About Nothing was still on her mind, a fine production that had, quite unintentionally, occasioned a small-class war last year. Finlay Park, the company's home from the start, is also the weekend hangout for loud young people with boom boxes, none of whom could quite be convinced to move elsewhere while the artsy crowd enjoyed their whitebread little diversion.
Lines were drawn, words were hurled, and everyone proclaimed their right to exist. As the production typically only lasts a few days, the ruckus ended at an impasse.
Still, it pained everyone involved in the play; controversy was the last thing they sought.
"That is so completely not what we're about," Khoury said at the time.
Still, Khoury had had quite enough with newspapers of any kind, even progressive monthly rags. I expected as much. The woman at the S.C. Arts Commission positively oozed disdain when I said I was with POINT, and I had to beg her to give me Khoury's number.
Khoury wasn't all that crazy about the idea either. The controversy, I told her, was a lot less important than all the other Shakepeare questions that were going off in my head. We wound up spending a good hour on the phone, and a couple more at a Five Point's cafe.
The idea for the South Carolina Shakespeare Company was hatched between several grad school students in 1990: five Masters of Fine Arts and two actors who wanted to pursue their art and stay in South Carolina - no easy task.
As a lark, they test-marketed public interest by putting on a show which combined the love scenes from several of Shakespeare's plays. Called "Love Out of Joint," it was performed in Finlay Park in full costume, a few props and no set.
The play was "overwhelmingly successful," and the group had no problem gearing up for the next one, a full-length production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
"We had to turn people away," Khoury said, happily recalling the people leaning against the top rail to get a better view.
They had an "even bigger hit" with A Midsummer Night's Dream, complete with wisteria and vine, and an As You Like It set in the New Orleans French Quarter.
The company quickly proved confident enough to take chances with the material. Last year's The Comedy of Errors took the unusual step of casting a black actor as one of a pair of identical twins, further complicating an already complex play.
Since then, they've done The Tempest and Much Ado About Nothing, all to generally great success and good reviews.
"The amphitheatre holds about a thousand people if we sardine them in," Khoury said. "It's great to see a bunch of people, and we've been pretty successful at telling the story. People laugh when they're supposed to."
As one person told her, the group allows people to "experience Shakespeare without feeling elite or highbrow."
For Khoury, it all makes sense. "I'm of the opinion," she says, "that when someone writes about the human condition more cognitively, we'll do his plays. He wrote in a style popular then. If he was around now, he'd probably write like David Mamet."
Khoury says that the company has come "very far very fast," and this year it took a leap forward by performing Much Ado About Nothing at the Spoleto Festival, and will be returning next year.
"They thought we were the deal," Khoury said. "They loved that South Carolina had a repertory company. It's different with us and other professional organizations statewide. We've only been doing full-length plays for three years."
While Columbia, she says, "is a good actor city," the dedication required in making Shakespeare come alive is "not for the weak of heart. People have turned away from it. We've lost those people. But those who have stuck with it are a strong bunch of people."
Rodney Welch dissects Shakespeare, and other authors, from his home in Elgin.