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Thou Art Alive: What’s My Through Line?

It was my first experience of playing Shakespeare using parts and cues. As I got up to read I asked ‘what’s my character’s through line?’ It was a gift to the workshop leader. ‘Aha! ‘ said he. ‘That’s one of the main differences you’re about to experience.’

I was perplexed. I was a young student of modern theatre. The ability to sustain a character through a whole play was something I and my classmates were judged on constantly. I had been told, had had it drummed into me, that when working on a role I should look for my character’s ‘through line.’ [1] It was the mark of a good performance. But ‘Aha! ‘ had said the workshop leader. This would have to change.

If only for the duration of this workshop, if I wanted to learn something new – a contradiction in itself given the cue-script technique is so old – a paradigm shift was coming for me. It wasn’t about not sustaining the characteristics of a role recognisably and consistently throughout the piece so much as not deciding in advance too strictly just what those things were, or what the director wanted them to be. The text was the guide. The text was the director. But oh what alchemy was at work in this too? It wasn’t going to be easy. It was going to be exhilarating. Playing with the big kids now. Working with the method for which Shakespeare wrote? What wasn’t to like? Parts and cues. This was going to challenge everything I knew, or thought I knew, about acting. The ‘through line’ thing? A modern convention. More likely to restrict or diminish my grasp of the text’s intentions than guide my performance of it. OK. My confidence wobbled at first. But then I could feel the energy of the text ringing through the whole company around me. The power of it all seized us; the surprise, the quickfire moments of reaction, and the sheer pleasure of discovering oneself in character without weeks of trial and analysis. Just doing it. Right there and then. The roles we were playing took us soaring and diving through the text on wings of fire. It felt at first, as anything new does, like being taken along for the ride but then – then — something magic happened. We found gold

Of course working this way is not the only way to approach a Shakespeare play. Of course not. And it’s understandable that after 400 years of constant repetition we may fear over familiarity will have a stifling effect on creativity and want to ring the changes by setting a play in a different period or place. We may choose to emphasize a single theme, or style, or mood for a production and make a premeditated decision about such things before a show is designed or cast. Such visions will exert their own influences upon how the characters will have to be played and how the text will have to be edited. I am not saying that’s wrong. But being wedded to a through line of a character, in any stripe of production, can also be restrictive — especially with a text that has other ideas — and when you adopt the cue script approach those ideas come at you thick and fast. You’d better be ready to jump on or dive out the way. Agility is required.

The immediacy one feels and the flexibility one must cultivate when working with cue-scripts has to be experienced, however. At the end of the day there’s nothing like doing it yourself to put a theory to the test. You can do that right here of course. On Click on a play. Click on a character. Click on ‘show parts and cues.’ (At our playreading of Macbeth on Sunday I toggled back and forth between my cue script and highlit text, it’s so easy to switch from one format to the other, even scene by scene.)

As a slight digression, shall I tell you something I only found out about the character of Lady Macbeth through using her cue script? It was something she herself doesn’t know — until the electric moment that she finds it out, that is. It was such a surprise. No I won’t tell. You probably already know. But if you don’t, I’ll spoil it if I tell it. The point of mentioning it, however, was the realisation that Shakespeare intended Lady M to be surprised. Having no advance warning and not seeing the other actor’s lines until I heard them being spoken, I was (therefore so was she) suddenly alarmed by this detail. (I had never noticed it before yet it’s clearly there in the text and what an effect it had!) But don’t take my word for it. You might disagree. Let’s have that discussion. If you want to read not only about cue scripts and how to use them but also some amazing discoveries they can reveal, my new book: ‘Shakespeare Thou Art Alive – Cue Scripts and Open Secrets’ is out this month. It’s a short book for readers who may want to make discoveries for themselves about what’s waiting in the text for their characters to reveal.

[See more like this here: Shakespeare Thou Art Alive – Cue Scripts and Open Secrets

Some things are best understood when put into practice. Go on. Do it yourself. You may never look back.

[1] Playing a character and sustaining its characteristics recognisably and consistently throughout the entire piece.

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