Monday, March 23, 2015

Original Practice?

The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project performs using the unrehearsed cue script technique. We work from cue scripts that are based upon the First Folio printing of Shakespeare’s plays from 1623. Because we choose to approach our performances in a manner that we believe to be comparable to the manner that Shakespeare’s own actors may have used, our model falls under the umbrella term “Original Practices.” Lately, although we have used this term ourselves, questions have arisen: what does “Original Practice” mean, and what value do “Original Practices” have?

There are many aspects of the term “Original Practice:” architecture, costumes, pronunciation, production, etc. This blanket phrase covers so much, it almost has no meaning, except to denote theatrical practices as we imagine they may have been. The truth is that no one knows exactly what “original” theatre architecture, costumes, pronunciation or production methods were. The best we can do is conjecture – and in some cases, we can get very close. But let us not fool ourselves we will ever get it “right.” Anything we do today is merely a modern interpretation.

If that is the case, then what value do “Original Practices” have? If the aim is to recreate an authentic (another fuzzy word) Elizabethan theatrical experience, then they mean nothing but living archaeology. Living history has its place, but that place is not in a theatre. Should a theatre get absolutely everything historically correct (which may in some cases meaning breaking several laws concerning alcohol and/or solicitation), there will always be a missing factor: the audience. No matter how accurate the theatre, the actors, the costumes, the accents are, the performance will never have an Elizabethan audience with Elizabethan morals and an Elizabethan understanding of the world and its place in the cosmos. This is a sheer impossibility.

Everybody’s work should be “original” or else what is the point? What we do is “original.” Other companies in Chicago and Portland that work from the same theories as we do have different audiences than we have in Pittsburgh. The case can be made that we are looking for some sort of historical accuracy in our productions, but what would that matter? We do not create museum exhibitions. We create live theatre for a live audience, not an imaginary historical gathering.

So how would USP describe what we do? We acknowledge that our working practice is based on historical theories regarding the production of theatre during the time that William Shakespeare worked. We work from cue scripts that are designed to give the performer the most pertinent information needed for performance of the role in the most economical way possible. We include our surroundings and audience as much as possible (not to be confused with audience participation, although that is sometimes used). We tell the story without telling the audience what to think or feel about it. Our goal is to bring our shows as close to the audience as possible and to give them an experience that can only be had at a live theatrical production.

Our process has evolved, and will continue to do so as we see how the audience and our actors relate to the approach and the performance. It will adjust as much as necessary to remain relevant to our audience. By stamping a method with any label, especially one with such connotations as “Original Practice,” we suggest something finished and complete. This also supposed that the audience is frozen into certain attitudes, which is another impossibility. As performers our methods must be fluid, and we must be willing to let go of ways of working that we may have held dear if they no longer serve the audience. This does not mean playing to the lowest common denominator (but there is always room for it), but it does mean respecting the audience, challenging them when necessary and always remembering that the performance is for them and not us.

The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project’s practices make our productions unique. As we grow, those practices will have to evolve to fulfill our mission, and as they change they will certainly get farther from what many people consider to be “Original Practices.” Nevertheless, everything we do will always be “original.”

-Andy Kirtland
The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project