Sonnet Book

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AN open-ended method…

…says the blurb on the back of the book. And I have to agree. Mamet-ian in his no-nonsense approach to the Bard’s writings. Louis Fantasia (what a great name) wastes very little time on versification, poetic devices and rhetorical terms and mentions Iambic Pentameter twice! That’s it.

Taking as contrast Peter Hall’s book ‘ Sh’s Advice to the players’ we are given a historical portrayal of verse through the centuries. Hall himself was taught by William Poel, who in turn taught Granville Barker, who traces back to Betterton, and the Republican Interregnum and Restoration kills the direct line to the man himself.

Louis is a lot looser with canonizing Shakespeare. He wasn’t impressed by Sh until he had seen Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. For him, the Sh. acting tradition had become the ‘banging of swords’. That’s the moment stage combat starts, and all suspension of disbelief is out the window.

But then he met Sam Wanamaker, way back when the Globe was still a dream. Sam enlisted Louis to the cause and Louis took to his brief.

His technique he tells us fits on 2 index cards:

The first card had two columns:
rep. for breath

I. About
II. Tune
III. Texture
IV. End

and a line of code- “u-/u-/u-/u-/u-/” -at the bottom, while the second card said:

why, etc.??

followed by a long squiggly line, and below that:

order/disorder/rebellion-yes? no?-2nd order.

And that is Instant Shakespeare!

Obviously each note gets a chapter and Louis quickly sucks you into bringing a 2 dimensional set of words on a page into a 3 dimensional onstage presence.

The Shakespeare paradigm is this:
Why does this particular character say these particular words, in this particular order, at this particular moment?

He states that four levels of discovery are necessary for the blueprint of performance:

1. Know what the individual words really mean (dialogue).
2. Know where the play is going (structure).
3. Know the rhythm and sense of the line (character).
4. Know what the play is about (the central event).

The first section of this book gives you the tools and techniques needed to acquire these four levels of knowledge. The second section teaches you how to apply them to performance.

He introduces the idea of 5 frog overlays, like dissection sheets in biology class. Applying each layer will lead you to successful verse speaking.

1. Make the nouns sound like what they mean.
2. Push the verbs.
3. Leave the adjectives and adverbs alone.
4. Play the I/Thou and I/It relationships
5. Repunctuate for breath.

Obviously this last point shows Louis’ non-affinity towards editors. Like Peter Hall, he suggests you strip a speech of punctuation and using the stress system he’s laid out you re-punctuate for your sense of the line.

He’s also an adherent of the idea that Sh’s audience came to hear a play not see it. Unlike Sir Peter Hall he doesn’t believe Sh’s language will be unintelligible in fifty years.

He also believes impulse precedes language; and is the heartbeat of a performance. (Talking with a 3D modeller friend yesterday, he said too that preparation of an action, e.g. jumping, is one of the 12 basic principles of animation).

Louis’ take on the authorship question is two-fold: the first concerns the identity (he’s a default Stratfordian, but essentially agnostic on the issue). The second is more politically sensitive, i.e. late 20thC theories (basically he considers them to be non-essential to his method and beware actors don’t limit themselves).

His final chapters deal with his philosophy of Training and Perfomance. Here he opposes

the realism of the past, with its assumptions about the beauty and universal meaning of Shakespearean language and style.

With essentialism of the present, which holds that a being’s ultimate reality, its essence, lies only in what is perceptible to the senses. Here, image, body language, and movement take precedence over speech.

Essentialist Shakespeare is physical and sensory; a Sh of athletics, “empty spaces”, and unifying images. It is often political, with a Marxist or populist bent. It is intent on liberating Sh from the assumed tyranny of the British upper classes.

His plea results in a new nominalism.

First, my neo-nominalism means that “Shakespeare,” “tragedy,” “comedy,” “Hamlet,” “Desdemona,”- or their essential qualities- do not preexist in some pure state; that a real or essential Shakespeare cannot be inferred. If the words are to be more than just sound without meaning (flatus vocis), their agreed-upon meaning must be made concrete only at the moment they come into existence.

And indeed as he says his neo-nominalism logically extended would lead to the death of the Shakespeare industry. Which would mean he’d be out of a job! Except for those productions he himself felt required to do to say something urgent and immediate.

His final foray into philosophy invokes George Steiner’s work about Real Presences and the ontological sensibility.

Presence is the elusive ability of people, places, and things to imprint our lives and leave us transformed.

Is the audience simply observing the actions of the character, or speculating about the whys and wherefores of the character? Create characters that leave a lingering imprint on your audience.

To do this an ontological sensibility is needed.

Ontology is the study of being. An actor on a stage exists on one level of being; the character that actor portrays is a second level; the author behind that character is a third level. The purpose is to fill the plays with beings who linger. It cannot be commanded, ordered up, or even taught. It can be valued, invoked, and wished for.

There are 3 prerequisite levels of presence:
1. The presence of the self.
2. The presence of the character.
3. The presence of the author.

And the prequisite conditions of presence in performance:
1. The text must be significant.
2. The characters must be touched.
3. The actor must be available.

Presence in performance resonates with the audience only when the actor stands with their character and faces the abyss of conditionality, the abyss of “as if.”

As Louis says at the begininng of his book there are no experts, including him. That said there are passionate people with a gift for bringing understanding to an actor or student. It’s also helpful that they are comprehensive in their subject matter.

There’s an underlying sense that Louis Fantasia doesn’t really think the Globe experiment worked. Partly because the Globe measurements don’t match the mathematical precision of the Byrom templates. And partly because of architectural requirements of the 21stC don’t match those of the 16thC. (e.g. handicap access, public restrooms, fireproofing and crowd control).

He also sees the philosophical difference: with Elizabethans being metaphysical and linguistic and us post-moderns as literal and visual.

In closing he stresses that

there are no experts in Shakespeare. Each of us, if we read intelligently and without fear, has the right to our own Shakespeare. There is no authority that can place the seal of authenticity on Shakespeare. Each of the many institutions and individuals who produce, edit, and play Shakespeare offers only an interpretation of a constantly challenging and changing text.

His first ‘unfortunate encounters’ are changed to ‘happy accidents’ and ‘success is not always an accurate barometer of authenticity.’

Louis Fantasia’s Instant Shakespeare is besides being an instant methodology, almost a cautionary tale of getting in too deep into Shakespeare studies. The central message seems to be: stick with the plays and that line by line, and you’ll be alright. Hopefully.

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