Thursday, October 29, 2009

killing shakespeare

Imagine going to the cinema, getting your ticket, buying some popcorn and a Coke, then being given a big thick spiral-bound notebook as you go to take your seat. All around you people are munching and guzzling and reading from the notebook. There's some music being filtered into the theatre that's supposed to go along with what you're reading and there you sit, reading voraciously like everyone else. And what are you reading? Why, the movie script, of course. Why else would you go to the movies?

Katie: Did you know her? I mean, was she a friend or what?

Bob: I don't know how to answer that.

[music thread begins]

[cut to memory shot - Bob with Alice in Warsaw just after the Second World War]

Alice: So now that the war is over, what are we to each other? Who are you to me?

[close-up of Bob's younger but war-torn face]

Bob: I don't know how to answer that.

[cut to plane droning overhead]

[cut to Alice staring at Bob]

[cut to Katie staring at Bob]

[cut to Bob staring at a boy on a tricycle in Warsaw]

After reading the movie you take the script home with you and add it to your collection of movie scripts. Then you turn on the TV to watch CSI:Miami. It consists of a script being scrolled up from the bottom of the screen (in colour).

Suspect: I didn't do it, I wasn't there.

Horatio: Are you sure about that?

Suspect: Of course, I'm sure. I know where I was the night Johnson got his head caved in by a Mercury speedboat motor.

[cut to close-up of Horatio Gates tilting his upper body and head and almost hissing at the suspect]

Horatio: Who told you it was a Mercury? That information hasn't been made public.

Suspect: [shrugging and stuttering] Just guessing . . . I guess . . .

[cut to Horatio pulling off his sunglasses]

Horatio: Well, Mr. Hendricks, we'll see how your DNA matches up with the saliva we pulled off the motorboat's propeller . . .

Suspect: Ok, Ok, yeah, I was there, but only for a minute . . .

[cut to screeching tires, a gunshot, and a woman screaming]

And so it goes till you've watched another great episode of CSI. What could be more fun than exercising your imagination in this way?

If we did movies and TV like this, just reading the scripts, no actors, no FX, no sets, no action, no nothing . . . well, you can guess how unpopular TV and movies would suddenly become. We watch movies and TV dramas because we want to see a show, a performance, we want to be entertained and even enlightened, we want some excellence, some great shots, some great acting.

So why do we kill Shakespeare for people by doing it the wrong way?

Why do we give them movie scripts to read and wonder why they don't get excited?

The scripts are for the actors and the sound crews and the lighting and the stunt team so that they can put on a show that we sit back and watch. The scripts are not for us. We want the finished product, we want the performance, we want the whole gleaming structure - not the scaffolding and the cranes and the blueprints.

Shakespeare's plays are the movies of Elizabethan England. You enjoy them by watching them. Not reading them.

That's where English Lit courses have always gotten it wrong. For centuries. And that's why too many people hate Shakespeare. Go read a movie script sometime and see if it holds your attention, especially if you don't have a part in the film. BORRRRRRING!

The only reason I can see for reading Shakespeare is in preparation for watching a performance of Shakespeare. That's it. As prep for a show so that you can understand the language and the plot better (after all, it is Elizabethan English, and that was 400 years ago). Otherwise, unless you're an actor or director or you're reading the sonnets, leave the scripts alone.

Can you imagine taking a course on film in high school or university and never watching a film, just reading the scripts? Absurd. So why do we approach Shakespeare as if we're reading a novel or a short story or a poem? We're not reading novels or short fiction or poetry - we've come to watch a play being performed. Studying Shakespeare - or any playwright and their plays for that matter - should be about watching the plays being staged.

In case you think it won't work, my son watched a series of Shakespeare dvds when he was 15. He did not sit and read the scripts, he watched the plays being performed on film, ones like Hamlet and King Lear and As You Like It. Sometimes we used subtitles and sometimes we didn't. To my surprise, in no time at all, he developed an ear for the language, understood what was going on, laughed at the jokes without prompting, and got into both traditional and modern dress Shakespeare. He got into Shakespeare in the same way we get into Clint Eastwood or Francis Ford Coppola - by watching it. Which, incidentally, was the same way the men and women and children of England got into it way back when. It's still the best way and beats reading movie scripts by a hundred to one.

If you were turned off of Shakespeare in school, try the performance approach. Trust me, the difference between printed page and powerful performance will astonish you.

[Thanks to Ron Reed, founding Artistic Director of Pacific Theatre in Vancouver, BC, Canada, for the germ of the idea for this blog.]

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