For their final meeting of the term, students in Shakespeare and Verse took turns delivering a monologue, sonnet, or scene from the Bard’s repertoire to a small audience. Fifth Former Margaret Pirozzolo stepped onto the barren stage in New Space, bowed her head, and collected herself. When she raised her gaze, she transformed into Lady Percy from the history Henry IV, Part I. Her monologue from Act II, Scene III finds Lady Percy pleading with her husband, the rebel Harry “Hotspur” Percy, to share his burdens as he prepares for battle against the king.
“The main challenge for me in Shakespeare is truly understanding what I am saying and being able to convey that meaning to an audience,” says Pirozzolo. "I think of acting as a sort of puzzle, where the true meaning of the words is the answer, and the script offers hints. For me, Shakespeare is just a difficult level of that, so I find it rewarding and satisfying to find the true meaning of his work."
Memorizing and reciting a Shakespearean monologue or sonnet is a high school rite of passage for many students past and present. Still, the Shakespeare elective adds layers to this familiar exercise. Students must do more than repeat lines they’ve learned; they need to discover the emotion within the piece and bring the antiquated language to life.
“As my students have heard me say many times, you can’t ‘act’ what you don’t understand. Understanding the words and the context is the critical first step,” says Chris Briante, director of the theatre program. “It has to always start with the language and breaking it down. Verse, typically in iambic pentameter, is not how we speak or write. A student actor needs to decode it to unearth all the treasures that Shakespeare has buried in the language.”
The course progresses from sonnets to monologues and concludes with scenes. For their assignment, Sixth Formers Celia Vergara and William Klika brought to life the fiery exchange between Beatrice and Benedick from Act IV, Scene I of Much Ado About Nothing. The duo utilized the space of the stage to live out the dramatic dialogue as Beatrice asks Benedick to kill another for slandering her cousin.
“Before we even spoke our pieces out loud, we looked up phrases and words that we did not know,” explains Klika. “We would then paraphrase the piece so that we had a full understanding, which in turn helped us bring out our emotions. This tedious work paid off as people could understand the core of the scenes without having to know the meaning behind some of the words.”
Briante says the goal for an actor is “to live truthfully under the imaginary circumstances of the play.” “There are many techniques to help actors achieve that goal,” he explains. “The acting technique that I employ most often is Stanislavski-based, commonly referred to as method acting. As an example, Beatrice starts the scene in deep emotional turmoil, primarily anger, sadness, and despair. The question I asked the students playing Beatrice was, ‘Have you personally ever been very upset by a close friend being wrongfully accused of something they didn’t do?’ Most have experienced something like that, and we start to tap into that emotional memory.”