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Performing Shakespeare Unrehearsed:
A Practical Guide to Acting and Producing Spontaneous Shakespeare
By Bill Kincaid. New York:
Routledge, 2018. Pp. 236.

Reviewer: Prof. Jeremy Fiebig, Fayetteville State University

(June 2018 Issue / PDF)

On its surface, Bill Kincaid’s Performing Shakespeare Unrehearsed: A Practical Guide to Acting and Producing Spontaneous Shakespeare presents a handy methodology for prospective practitioners of unrehearsed Shakespeare. Geared primarily for actors and what Kincaid calls “production coordinators” -- essentially directors who do far less in the unrehearsed context than the typical director of a modern production -- the guide spends about half its time examining textual clues and cues from Shakespearean text that Kincaid then, less helpfully, translates into acceptable performance choices in the unrehearsed context. Additionally, Kincaid begins to offer a theoretical and performative framework for understanding this methodist Shakespeare, citing its value in generating well-prepared actors of agency, close attention to textual detail, and an avenue towards an idiosyncratic and enlivened performance.

I did not encounter Bill Kincaid’s book from a completely neutral perspective -- rather as a skeptic of the Folio Technique it champions. In my work as an Artistic Director, I frequently encounter actors who cite the Folio Technique or performance experiences in the Folio Technique as a kind of credential I think they mean to say is legitimizing and, in part, authoritative. As I’ve encountered these actors over the last decade or so, I often find myself torn about what I see them produce at auditions or in rehearsal. There is generally very little question about their forensic attention to textual detail, but I often find that there is a tradeoff between that attention and a kind of myopic performance style that makes words almost lose their meaning. More on this in a bit. There is no way to question the enthusiasm and ecstasy generated by Folio Technique’s true believers -- I believe that they believe -- but I do suspect Folio Technique is a set of orthopraxy that requires a kind of belief about which I am agnostic, if not antipathetic.

Kincaid’s attention to textual detail is admirable and informed. Throughout the guide, he brings to the fore not only frontline textual features (i.e., thees and yous and meter and we versus me and all those favorites), but also a nearly exhaustive set of examples of rules and their exceptions meant to steer the actor’s attention toward the intricacies of the text, and rightly so. One example is in his chapter on thees/yous, which sifts through how these pronouns can be useful across a myriad of character relationships and in contrast with personal pronouns like me/mine/I.  Kincaid clearly speaks from a wealth of knowledge and experience about the plays and presents a worthy toolkit for examining the detail at a granular level.

While the insistence on textual detail has the potential to work well, trouble emerges when Kincaid applies an Unrehearsed Shakespeare practice as the “solution” to a textual feature. Folio technique unquestionably provides actors with  valid choices on the fly (move closer on 'thee' and further apart on 'you', walk toward the audience on 'we') but also treats actors as puppets of the text, sometimes in ways that don’t serve the given moment, or which restrict rather than liberate the actor in performance. A chief example is in the chapter on “We, Us, and Our,” where Kincaid rightly suggests that the actor should consider addressing soliloquies to the audience and oddly instructs the actor to get closer and closer to the audience as a means of establishing a connection with them. Using Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” speech as a proof-text, Kincaid seems to imagine an actor creeping, “by degrees,” toward the audience on key words like “we” and “us” until the actor is with the audience by the end of the speech. His, to me, is certainly a workable performance choice, but isn’t the performance choice that might underline the collective language of the speech. Actors in the original practice context, for instance, may observe that getting closer to parts of an audience can close off the actor from other parts of the audience -- making the “we” or “us” a select or emblematic group as opposed to a universal one. Likewise, an actor nearer the back of the stage, one who is able to take in the whole theater, as one might imagine Hamlet or Chorus or Richard II would do, can have a “we” or “us” so big that it contains the Globe (and the globe) itself.

It is this kind of convergent thinking that underpins the Folio Technique and that risks dissolving rather than encouraging the very actor agency championed by Kincaid as a primary value of the approach. Performing Shakespeare Unrehearsed then is less a midrash on the sacred Shakespeare text and more of an evangelical rulebook on holy practice, charting a path for practitioners which  venerates not only the text to a point of false bibliographic stability (what about Quartos? What about manuscript errors? What about transmission?), but a particular way of reading the text that claims to be freeing, but which is necessarily restrictive. It is an orthodoxy that, like its cousin, original pronunciation performance, may well present an esoteric and idiosyncratic (and exciting) experience, but one which cannot be considered art. To the contrary, Folio Technique seems to be an act of formalist-performance criticism of the art rather than a new creation of any artistic merit, and an act that, ironically, calls more attention to itself than to the text. In his Epilogue, Kincaid suggests that Unrehearsed Shakespeare should “not be thought of as a cute novelty...but as a bona fide theatrical event that strikes awe into audience members because the actors are triumphing at an immensely difficult task.” (211) The convergent thinking in Folio Technique can be indeed so narrow as to make a word like “thee” or “you” or a trochee or a spondee have encoded, abstruse meaning that can rub against the sense of the sentence, the image, or indeed the play.

That said, the Unrehearsed Shakespeare method, particularly as presented by Kincaid, does have some pedagogical value, perhaps primarily inside the classroom or in the actor training context. I’m happy to report I’ve had some success applying the broader philosophical principles presented by Kincaid both in my classrooms and in my rehearsals, including a production of Romeo & Juliet a few years ago that gave actors very limited group rehearsal time, cue scripts, and a deadline. That production and the pedagogy outlined by Kincaid reveal  the tremendous and essential vitality to Shakespeare where actors are empowered with the tools necessary to prepare themselves for rehearsal. Kincaid and Tucker are wonks that present a kind of Shakespeare Sabermetrics I wish all actors and students brought with them to rehearsal. What I also hope for my actors and students is that, even if indoctrinated by the methodology and its evangelism in their training, they will be able to see the texts and its features as gifts which inspire divergent and generous thinking in rehearsal. In this regard, I wish Mr. Kincaid’s book had perhaps been called Rehearsing Shakespeare Unrehearsed.

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