Have you ever seen someone attempt to perform in a piece from Shakespeare and end up sounding very stuffy, overly dramatic, and well, Shakespeare-y?
Jeremy Cohn, who teaches Alexander Technique classes at Green Shirt Studio, says Shakespearean performances often come across as artificial because actors get too much in their heads with the language and lose sight of the humanity of the characters.
“When most people encounter Shakespeare, they’re reading it. And because the language is unfamiliar, the way that the actor can connect with it is intellectual,” Cohn explains. “But the more that you let it come from a really grounded… human place, the text because more understandable and a living thing.”
On Dec. 15, Cohn will be presenting a new workshop entitled “Physicalizing Classical Text,” where he will teach actors how to get out of their heads and into their bodies so they can better connect with their characters and the audience when they are performing Shakespeare or other poetic texts.
In this multidisciplinary workshop, Cohn will use his training as an Alexander Technique instructor, as well as his training in imagistic approaches to acting and his background as a classically trained Shakespearean actor to give participants many different tools they can use to help strip away artifice in their performances and make their acting more sensory oriented, visceral and real.
In the workshop, Cohn will use a variety of exercises to help students connect with the rhythm of the verse and create relaxation in their body and breath so they stop trying to push the text and instead allow it to flow naturally, organically, and intuitively.
For example, in one exercise, students will practice sitting in a chair and saying a line of verse and then standing up as they speak to help them physicalize the shape and mounting intensity of the line. Cohn says this helps students recognize the pause at the end of the line in a physical way. In another exercise, Cohn will have students walk around the room while speaking text, helping them to explore the rhythm of the verse in their bodies.
Cohn says Alexander Technique exercises are great at helping actors get more connected to their physical selves, which helps them speak with less effort and be more grounded in their performances. And he says this is especially important for actors working with such complex language.
“Shakespeare appears much more complex than it is,” Cohn says. “You don’t have to work a lot. You don’t have to have a lot of subtext. Because the language is so specific, you don’t have to work as hard because it does the work for you. That allows you to be simple, and all you have to do is be present with the text, and all of a sudden it becomes easy to act.”
An experienced Shakespearean actor himself, Cohn has performed in about 10 professional Shakespeare plays, and he says these techniques have helped him connect with his characters more deeply, which has helped him connect with the audience, too.
For example, when he was in a production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, he realized that the play was filled with obscure references that were basically pop culture references of the time that would be lost of today’s audiences. Instead of trying to get the audience to understand the references, Cohn focused on simply being present with the text, and he found that many of the lines ended up being very funny because of he was able to pair his specific intention with the intuitive meaning of the language, so the audience understood his intention and behavior, even though they didn’t intellectually understand the words.
“If you really are present with the language… some of these things that are really obscure can be really connecting,” he says.
Cohn says when you can get past the unfamiliar language of Shakespeare, you can start to connect more fully with the characters, all of whom are remarkably well-rounded and nuanced. “I think there’s a complexity of experience that is resting on the surface and goes very deep and is richer than any other playwright,” he says.
He says that depth of character lets actors bring new discoveries to each role. “You can see Hamlet 20 times and every time it can be remarkable,” Cohn says.