When we talk about Shakespeare at the American Shakespeare Center, we talk about language. The meter, the rhetoric, the embedded clues. We wax poetic about how the substitution of a “thee” for a “you” can illuminate a character relationship for actor, how a character engaging in anthimeria is likely to be highly intelligent, how the rhyme can be played. All words, all verbal, all useful.
But a character is more than the sum of his letters, syllables, and phrases, and that is part of what makes Shakespeare–especially Shakespeare played (and studied) with his staging ideas in mind–rich for continued production. The words stay the same, but the non-verbal possibilities shift with each actor, each audience, each moment. Infinite variety.
For clarity, perhaps a definition of “non-verbal” for the purposes of this thought exchange would be useful. When we work with participants in our communication analysis of Shakespeare and Leadership, the “non-verbal” module refers to what a face is doing, what posture is communicating, how open or closed-off someone is–and the message that sends to any audience they may be addressing. But there are far more non-verbal indicators that weigh on a performance and an audience member’s grasp of a play or a moment. What does the actor playing Richard III do with these lines:
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
How does an actor represent this “shape”, this “rude stamp”, this “proportion” that he describes? Other clues in the text speak to a withered arm, misshapen leg, troubled back. Each actor makes of that what s/he will and each Richard is different as a result. The casting director affects the interpretation for audience in non-verbal ways too: if we cast each hero as a person of color, each servant as Caucasian, or each intellectual character as a woman, the message rings differently by virtue of those choices in the audition process.
Our friends around the globe at Shakespeare companies like Oregon Shakespeare and at Shakespeare’s Globe are exploring casting members of the deaf community in roles that expand our opportunity to experience the plays in exciting ways. The teams at Marin Shakespeare and Kentucky Shakespeare give us plays featuring inmates, and their audiences experience the tales of murder, deceit, loneliness, and longing through altogether new lenses. In Prague this January, I was lucky enough to see (and hear–there was verbal communication, too!) Stephan Wolfert explore the characters through his lens as a veteran–knowing the background he brought to “Unto the Breech” transformed the meaning of each movement and each word.
So, the definition of non-verbal for our purposes might well be “everything else,” anything outside of the language–from the performer’s story, to the building the play takes place in; from the color of a performer’s skin, to their ability to hear, to their neurological or medical state. Non-verbal is the fabric the character is woven onto. Without those things, the strings of language and character would fall to the floor.
No wonder theatre classes spend so much time on non-verbal activities, then. It’s not just because non-verbal games give the exhausted theatre teacher a break from the noise–though, perhaps, sometimes it is that, too. Non-verbal communication is what most actors do most of the time on stage–plays generally feature only one character speaking at a time, so paying attention to the story your body is telling is incredibly important.
For the last few weeks, I’ve had the great fortune to join a group of middle and high school students who are in the Autistic spectrum. Many of them are highly verbal, and all of them seem to love theatre games–from story-building to pantomime, and, as we learned last week, combinations of both. We started the day with a quick shake-out warm up, and moved into exploring facial expressions. Then we tried a sort of “telephone charades.” Armed with a short story with a beginning, middle, and end, the first person to play tried to non-verbally communicate what was happening to the next person while everyone else averted their eyes, then it went to another person and another. At the end, the students tried to guess the original story. Not surprisingly, no one was able to say what the first plot was–as we went, everyone made up what they thought was happening in the narrative and then embellished it to get their understanding of the tale across to the next unsuspecting participant. We appreciated pieces of the story that held up through each interpretation, but acknowledged that one turn made it really difficult to keep things straight, as it were. With each shift, though, we saw the creativity and expressivity of the students come out and the story transformed.
Each time we tackle a play, the text gives information about the characters and the action, but it is up to each production and actor to wring the opportunities from it. Opportunities for justice, for new points of view, for deeper insights into humanity. The words and the choices we make can inspire new ways of thinking about Shakespeare and each other. Something we can crow about–verbally and non-verbally.