The Text, Scansion, and Kinkos

May 6, 2006

I've posted before about how I'm a big believer in scansion; I think actors should be sensitive to Shakespeare's built-in rhythms and aware of the purposeful variations he's provided. Edgar has argued the other side in the comments to a previous post. I see it like this: I think everyone would agree that the worst Shakespearean actor would be one that has no idea what the words mean, how the sentences fit together, or any of it. Edgar would likely argue that the next worst actor is one that has had enough training to be aware of the scansion, and lets that awareness override the intentions behind the lines. "duh-DUH duh-DUH duh-DUH duh-DUH duh-DUH." And I'd agree. We'd both prefer the actor that ignores the scansion, hits the sentences, knows what she's saying, and plays her intentions and actions with purpose and with passion. In my experience, though, the very best actors use the scansion to help them do just that. I think audiences understand the language best when actors use the scansion. And I've found that mucking about with scansion calls forth the deepest emotions, most specific choices, and most compelling acting.

(Reading this over, I'm realizing that I haven't completely defined what I mean by "use the scansion." The quick and oversimplified answer is just being aware that Shakespeare sometimes uses a rhythmic variation to ask the actor to give special emphasis to a certain word, and then identifying those words and exploring the possibilities that emphasizing those words opens up. I'll give specific examples and talk about this a lot more when it comes up in rehearsal.)

If I had my druthers, I'd give each actor the full script in a large font, double-spaced, with big margins. I'm a big believer in marking up the text. The problem that arose over the last couple of days is one of those everyday issues that are the reality of working at this level. Every dollar spent is a big deal, and copying scripts costs money.

Working as a freelance director means hearing the phrase "this is how we always do it" all the time — and it has to be respected. Theaters have ways of doing things that work for them, and they wouldn't do it this way if they didn't have a good reason. It took me a while to figure this out, to be able to tell which battles are worth fighting. I've argued about exit lights, curtain speeches, parking policies, seating arrangements, program notes, curtain call etiquette; all sorts of things. Occasionally I've even gotten my way. But I've also pissed good people off (or hurt their feelings) by sending them the message that I didn't like the way they always did things. And most of the time when I lost, I eventually came to understand and appreciate the reason they did it that way in the first place.

The way they always do the scripts at SBTS is actually pretty great. They give the actors a spiral-bound, 5-and-a-half by 8 copy of the cut text. This allows the actors to hold their scripts in one hand in rehearsal and keeps loose pages from blowing away or getting lost — it's a great idea. But every penny counts, and making all those copies of the scripts adds up to a significant amount.

Reformatting my cut of the script, getting rid of all the spaces between speeches and that sort of thing, cut it from 73 pages to 45 or so. That's a lot of copies saved. Unfortunately, the reformatting also created problems like losing the spacing on the shared lines. My instinct was to scream and shout and write long emails explaining all the reasons why it's important to give the actors a well-spaced script and blah blah blah. But I (mostly) stopped myself because I knew what the answer would be: this is how we always do it.

So the production manager and I each went back through and fixed up the shared lines and other glaring problems. And the script is now at Kinkos, all 45 pages of it. I'm still going to muck about with the scansion as much as I always do. The actors can make it work. Either they'll just write small, or they'll make their own copies of a few important pages, or they'll just copy out their significant lines as necessary. It will work.

And hopefully I haven't offended anyone by arguing about how they always do it.


One Response to “The Text, Scansion, and Kinkos”

  1. Tee Quillin Says:


    Great site! I was compelled to leave a comment about this post. As an actor, I can tell you that having a script that is easy to mark is absolutely crucial to me. Not having a good copy of the script to work from would be like a carpenter without a good tape measure.

    I want to take a second to brag on a project that I’ve undertaken along with Steven Shults at Shakespeare’s Monologues. He has accumulated a great wealth of Shakespearean monologues. It’s a great resource that I took advantage of when I was trudging my way through my Master’s program. Anyway, I have been going through his list and creating scansion- and printer-ready copies of the monologues and hosting them on my site. We are about halfway through with our project.

    Your passion for this play and the works of The Bard have inspired me! I hope your show goes well and I look forward to reading about the progress!

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