Hear ye, hear ye! ‘Tis Talk Like Shakespeare Day!

William Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday


Here are a few tips from the official website to teach you how to get your Bard on:

  1. Instead of you, say thou or thee (and instead of y’all, say ye).Hear ye, hear ye! 'Tis Talk Like Shakespeare Day!
  2. Rhymed couplets are all the rage.
  3. Men are Sirrah, ladies are Mistress, and your friends are all called Cousin.
  4. Instead of cursing, try calling your tormentors jackanapes or canker-blossoms or poisonous bunch-back’d toads.
  5. Don’t waste time saying “it,” just use the letter “t” (’tis, t’will, I’ll do’t).
  6. Verse for lovers, prose for ruffians, songs for clowns.
  7. When in doubt, add the letters “eth” to the end of verbs (he runneth, he trippeth, he falleth).
  8. To add weight to your opinions, try starting them with me thinks, mayhaps, in sooth or wherefore.
  9. When wooing ladies: try comparing her to a summer’s day. If that fails, say “Get thee to a nunnery!”
  10. When wooing lads: try dressing up like a man. If that fails, throw him in the tower, banish his friends and claim the throne.

Shakespeare is a man for all seasons

By Alan O’Riordan

“Oh shut up, Baldrick – you’d laugh at a Shakespeare comedy.”

Blackaddler on BBC

Blackaddler on BBC

THAT line, delivered by Rowan Atkinson playing the Elizabethan Edmund Blackadder in the TV comedy, Blackadder, made sense to me as a 14-year-old.

At school, we were reading Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 and laughing, not at the jokes, but at the very idea that they could be considered such. Prince Hal’s putdowns to Falstaff — “Ye fat guts”, “These lies are like their father that begets them: gross as a mountain, open, palpable” — were OK, but nothing as spicy as Elaine Benes’s lines in TV’s Seinfeld.

But we were mistaken to expect these quips to leap off the page. William Shakespeare was a stage craftsman: his comedies’ humour comes from situation, character, context, movement, expression, delivery and reception, as much as the words themselves.

I realised this several years later, at Corcadorca’s wonderful A Midsummer Night’s Dream: I was huddled under trees in Fitzgerald’s Park in Cork, laughing along with everyone else at the rehearsal scenes involving Peter Quince and his band of buffoonish mechanicals.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

But even if we are taught Shakespeare in the wrong context — and through remarkably persistent Victorian ideas about character — that teaching still has benefit 450 years after his birth. If we pay him due heed at school, if we listen properly, we find later that we are ready to join in one of the most vibrant conversations in our culture: our continued engagement with Shakespeare.

If, in all our afternoons of rote-learned essays and quotations, we have opened our ears, we will have left school with an ability to listen through the off-putting strangeness of Shakespeare’s early-modern phrasing and his occasional verbosity.

What do we find on the other side? A timeless artist, an expert in human affairs and language. Like no other playwright in history, Shakespeare made phrases fully alive to all the potentials of dramatic speech and situation: in every line, we are free to question each Janus-faced word, to interrogate every motivation, examine the context. To ask: ‘Who is speaking?’ ‘What is and is not being said?’ ‘Who is or is not replying?’ Even when he seems too obscure and complex, we can ask: ‘Why is this character being too obscure and complex?’ Usually, there is a good reason, as when Lady Macbeth welcomes King Duncan with the confounded knot of language: “All our service, In every point twice done and then done double, Were poor and single business to contend, Against those honours deep and broad wherewith, Your majesty loads our house.”

We might well scratch our heads, until we realise the words are spoken by a person plotting to kill Duncan — she cannot be straight with him and, like any liar, evades and overcomplicates.

Shakespeare’s powers of metaphor and concision are unmatched, but they do not necessarily translate into precision. That is what makes him endlessly debatable. Without being vague (or not often), his language is open to the question: ‘Could it mean this?’ The answer is sometimes ‘no’, and then a production can fail, but more often the answer is ‘yes’, or ‘maybe’, and that is an open door to the interpretive artist, one that never closes. I’ve seen Macbeth the drug dealer, Macbeth the South American dictator, a Second World War Othello, Richard III as fascist, Hamlet as modern Manhattanite. Yet, these are only the most obvious reinventions. Even if he is played in doublet and hose, at the level of line there is endless opportunity for reshaping.

David Tennant in "Hamlet"

David Tennant in “Hamlet”

The essence of Hamlet, for instance, is that of a man wrestling with two concepts of being: is it better to suffer misfortune and trust to God, or “take arms against a sea of troubles”? But around this essence, generations have found a way of seeing themselves. For Victorians, Hamlet’s flaw was Romantic over-contemplation, a dereliction of their virtues of action and ‘character’. But for us, he could be a 30-year-old arts graduate living with his mother, is paralysed by possibilities, unconvinced by duty and reluctant to constrict his personality via one determining action (like working for a multinational).

Sure, it’s a glib description, but it shows how Shakespeare’s characters are evergreen. We’re unlikely to go around pondering whether we should kill our uncle, yet Hamlet is mysterious and recognisable, strange and familiar, in endless ways. Every age is condemned to perform the Shakespeare of their time — that’s why we can never be done with him.

© Irish Examiner Ltd.

A real character: Is Prospero Shakespeare?

Many people reckon The Tempest’s island sorcerer formerly known as the Duke of Milan was actually a self-portrait of the playwright. What do you reckon?

Ralph Fiennes as Prospero

Lookie-likies? Ralph Fiennes gives his Prospero/Shakespeare in The Tempest at Theatre Royal Haymarket. Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

In this article I’ll be considering the links between Shakespeare and his character, Prospero. But before we begin, would you be able to help me in a small literary investigation? Before you read any further could you skip down to the comments section and say whether or not you identify/identified Prospero with Shakespeare when you read the play?



My guess is that most modern readers do see something of the ageing playwright in the wizard. How not to find metaphors in the way he moves characters around the island, conjures visions, makes pointed comments about “the great globe itself” and eventually throws aside his staff and foreswears his art? What greater last words could there be for the genius from Stratford than that famous speech about how “our revels now are ended”, or his final lines in the play asking for the audience to give him their applause and so “set him free”? Following on from that, who wouldn’t find it poignant that The Tempest is widely thought to be one of Shakespeare’s final plays (and many say his very last)? That he probably lived no more than five years after its composition? And that he did indeed quit the stage just as Prospero quit his enchanted island?

Once you start seeing autobiography in these final speeches, it follows that Shakespeare might have written more of himself into Prospero. Bardolators have loved this idea from the late 19th century onwards. Writing in 1875, for instance, Edward Dowden said: “We identify Prospero in some measure with Shakespeare himself … because the temper of Prospero, the grave harmony of his character, his self-mastery, his calm validity of will … and with these, a certain abandonment, a remoteness from the common joys and sorrows of the world, are characteristic of Shakespeare as discovered to us in all his latest plays.”

It’s easy to be cynical about the idea that we know Prospero is Shakespeare because he shares characteristics with all the other characters we’ve also identified with the playwright. Yet it’s also easy to see why this line of thought is so tempting. Shakespeare is a uniquely tantalising historical figure. He gives us a feeling of remarkable kinship and understanding. He stretches out to us, through the ages, and shows that he thought and felt much as we do; he saw his world as we see ours. What’s more, he still speaks our minds. We can still identify with Hamlet, Othello and even Macbeth. And as a result, few historical figures feel closer than the man who created them. Except, of course, we know next to nothing about him.

It’s often said that we know SIX definite things about Shakespeare: he was baptised in Stratford-Upon-Avon in April 1564, his father was an illiterate glover and alderman, he worked in London from 1592 onwards (and wrote quite a few plays) and performed with the Lord Chamberlain’s Company (later King’s Men), he was buried in 1616, he left his wife his second best bed in his will. Even some of those “facts” are open to dispute. Was his father indeed illiterate, or did he just put a cross for his signature on the records we have of him – as plenty of his contemporaries seem to have done – for speed and convenience? How soon after William was born was he baptised? And yes, some people even say he didn’t write the plays… Once you get involved in such disputes, you quickly come to see how little we know about the real man. Prospero conveniently fills that vacuum. He gives us a sense of someone we desperately want to know: the man behind all those wonderful words.  So I understand the temptation of seeing Shakespeare wielding that staff – even though there’s no more hard evidence that he felt close to Prospero than there is that he identified with Caliban, or Ferdinand or Miranda.

But here’s an interesting thing. In a fascinating University of Oxford podcast about the folly of linking Prospero and Shakespeare, the academic Emma Smith points out that for a few hundred years after it was published in the First Folio, most critics assumed that The Tempest was Shakespeare’s earliest play. It appeared first in the table of contents and so was generally accepted as the first to be written. As a result, hardly anyone mentioned the parallels between the playwright and Prospero. They thought it was the work of a young man and didn’t think Shakespeare was trying to say anything about himself through the old wizard.

You might say that it’s only because we have better evidence that we make  these connections. But these varying approaches to the play across the generations also show how partial the business of interpretation really is.

For what it’s worth, I don’t entirely follow this line. Pretty much the first thing I read after listening to Smith’s lecture was Coleridge’s famous essay on The Tempest. This was written before people began to theorise that it was a later play, but Coleridge also calls Prospero “the very Shakespeare himself, as it were, of The Tempest”. He too made the link if only in passing.

That’s not to detract from the broader point Smith makes: different generations interpret the play according to their own concerns and knowledge almost as much as anything in the text itself.

She also cites Frank Kermode’s 1952 introduction to the Arden edition of The Tempest in which the illustrious critic writes: “It is as well to be clear that there is nothing in The Tempest fundamental to its structure of ideas which could not have existed had America remained undiscovered … ” It’s hard to imagine anyone writing that now, after other critics have spent so much of the last 50 years banging on about the play as a response to colonialism.

It’s similarly difficult to imagine such questions even occurring to Coleridge. For him, “The Tempest is a specimen of the purely romantic drama, in which the interest is not historical, or dependent upon fidelity of portraiture, or the natural connexion of events – but is a birth of the imagination, and rests only on the coaptation and union of the elements granted to, or assumed by, the poet.”

You don’t need me to point out the happy coincidence that a leading romantic poet realised that the play reflected his own outlook.

The truth is that if we’re looking for anyone in The Tempest, it shouldn’t be Shakespeare, it should be ourselves. The wonder of the play is that it is flexible enough, and polished enough, to keep on reflecting back at us, through all the warpings of time and space. That it is (to quote Coleridge again) “therefore for all ages”.  We’ll never find the original poet, but we will find our own concerns, interests and sensibilities. Which brings me to the second part of my investigation, a question: what do you think The Tempest is about?

Tuesday 15 April 2014 07.15 EDT

Audiences in Theatre

son0-003a“The horror of movies is that they’re always the same – they never acknowledge the audience reaction. What keeps theatre alive is that each experience is unique. Each audience does affect the material, it affects the way that actors perform. Clarity is particularly important to me. I want the audience to at least understand what I’m doing. And then, if they don’t like it, they don’t like it.”
-Stephen Sondheim, on audiences in theatre.


The Way We Light

After a few weeks away, let’s get back to the world of lighting. This week I take a look at the way the stage is lit. This is not about fixture types or what is normally placed on what truss. This week is about the different areas on stage you can place lights and how it can affect your show.

It is important to remember that shows will incorporate most of the styles discussed here. Not only that, but many the styles can, and normally are, combined together (front and back light, as an example). When you have the time, I suggest you play around with the different style and see what you like best. I’ll let you know my favorite style when we get there. Off we go…

Front-Light: Just as the name implies, this is light hitting your performer from the front. Most often this is achieved with follow spots and a downstage truss. This is the most common of all stage lighting. If you are in any bar with a stage, they will at least have eight or so par cans on the downstage so you can see the performers. Front-light is one-half of the nuts and bolts of a lighting rig.

Sammy Hagar - Lighting Designer Jim Greenawalt

Sammy Hagar – Lighting Designer Jim Greenawalt

Back-Light: The other half of the nuts and bolts of the lighting rig. This is most commonly an upstage truss. Generally you get more dramatic looks with back-light. This is where you get nice silhouettes of your artists and when you have haze (please have haze), you start seeing the beams of light from the fixtures.

Warren Haynes Xmas Jam - Lighting Designer Preston Hoffman

Warren Haynes Xmas Jam – Lighting Designer Preston Hoffman

Side-Light: Side-light can be placed anywhere on stage but most often it is in the downstage to midstage area. This is my favorite kind of light. You can achieve some amazing shadowy looks using side-light, especially low side-light (also called shin-kickers). I once had a tour with a very limited budget (that tour’s budget is much bigger now) and to really change it up I used a section of PRT with color scrollers on the downstage of each corner as my only non-back light. It gave the show a grungy, rock and roll look. If you have the ability to do it, throwing a song only lit by side-light is a great way to change the feel of the show.

Top-Light: As with everything else so far, top-light is self-explanatory, it’s light from overhead. Wait a sec, then isn’t every light in the air a top-light? In this case I am using the term to be a fixture directly over the artist’s head. Using just top-light leads to interesting shadows on the face of your artist. This happens a lot in venues where the downstage truss is actually over the stage. This also leads to cranky LDs because the truss went from being front-light to top-light. You may be able to tell that I am not a huge fan of this type of light by itself.

Selena Gomez - Lighting Designer Nathan W. Scheuer

Selena Gomez – Lighting Designer Nathan W. Scheuer

Floor-Light: Floor lights could almost be a post on their own. Floor lights can be used for aerial effects (we’ll get there), low side-light, and lighting backdrops and set pieces. Floor lights can be some of the most versatile fixtures in your rig. Some of you might be thinking, what about…yup, I’m going there right now.

Up-Light: These are also floor lights, but when talking about up-light, it is generally referring to a fixture on the floor right in front of the artist to light him up. This can be done with individual fixtures (such as par cans) or across the front of the stage (such as mini-strips). These are used on a lot on shows shot for TV.

Aerials: This is using the beams from the lights to make a pattern in the air. These looks are normally used to light the space around the artist and not the artist themselves. These are often done in symmetrical patterns and most LDs have a handful of go to looks they use.


Misc: A few of these are Truss Toners: lights that are used to light the truss. Set Lights: another from the self-explanatory category. Backdrop lights: often times these are cyc lights.

Like I said above, take time to try different styles and see how they work together. Find what you like best and what works best with the shows you light.

Until next time: “Lighting is an essential way to change the mood of a room, especially if you can use dimmers.” Of course! Dimmers are old school fun.


When the technical director asks the crew if anyone knows who used the last of the gaff tape and didn’t tell anyone

Everyone’s like


Color Part II: Color on Stage

I’m guessing I had to pry you away from practicing coloring mixing on your consoles to read this. What? The color picker? Sure you could use that, but that would be cheating now, wouldn’t it? For those of you that don’t know what the color picker is, let’s start there…

Color Picker: Most consoles have a feature that let you pick a color by just touching the screen to the color you desire. This is fun for about the first five seconds as you drag your finger across the screen and watch the lights scroll through colors. After that, I almost never used it. I just preferred to use the color wheels to get the colors I wanted. How many colors should you have for presets in your console? This is an age old question that goes back to the dawn of time (well, maybe not that far, but you get what I mean). I think you need one shade of each of the standard colors (red, yellow, amber, lavender, etc.) and then a couple of colors that have a few options (primary blue, cyan, dark blue). There are many, many LDs out there that need to have five different yellows and five different reds. That’s fine for them, just not for me.


You’ve got your preset colors in your desk and now it’s time to program, but what colors work for what type of songs? At this point many LDs will launch into cool v. warm colors and what works best where. I won’t be doing that. The fact of the matter is, you, as the LD, can take any color and make it work if you want to. If you want, you can take yellow and NC for a somber ballad by using shadows and intensity correctly. That is not to say that certain colors don’t work better for certain moods because we grow up learning to associate colors with moods (mood ring, anybody?). It’s about what feels right. And that’s what putting color on stage really is: feeling.
So, color on stage is about feeling.

Until next time…

Wait, that’s it? There has to be more, some other tips, tricks, insight, nonsense or otherwise, Right?

Fine, fine. There are a few things that are pretty standard, so I’ll go over a couple for you.

Listen to your artist. Color is where the artist tends to be the most picky. Normally they will have one or two colors they never want you to use (or in case of one artist I was with, only three colors I could use). I don’t care how much you like blue, if the popstar on stage says, “No blue,” you better figure out a new favorite color.

Have a congo, or dark blue stage wash ready between songs. Most acts like a glow on stage because they will trip and kill themselves if it’s pitch black (I had an artist slip on a piece of confetti one day. I can’t make this stuff up).

Red and green usually only work in a Christmas show. This is the toughest color combo to pull off because these colors have been drilled into our collective conscious to mean Christmas. So use at your own risk unless you are singing about jolly old St. Nick.

The jelly bean effect. This is caused by a large number of colors on stage at one time (like all the colors in a bag of jelly beans). Some people really enjoy this look, and for certain songs it does work (one of the best uses was HonkyTonk Badonkadonk). I prefer…

Widespread Panic. LD Paul Hoffman. Photo by Joshua Timmermans.

Widespread Panic. LD Paul Hoffman. Photo by Joshua Timmermans.

No more than two colors, please. As I progressed in my touring career I realized that I only like two colors (with some NC, maybe) for any given song. I had some favorite combinations (cyan and yellow, red and yellow, amber and blue) that I used pretty often. Instead of lots of colors on stage, I tried to use the fixtures and how they were placed to change the feel of the show.

Here Come the Mummies. LD Jake Tickle.

Here Come the Mummies. LD Jake Tickle.

The color wheel, friend or enemy? For you new programmers out there, learn the way the colors are lined up in your color wheel. If you are in yellow and you want to go to blue but there are three colors between them, you need to fade your fixture out or else you will see the other three colors before you get to the blue. Needless to say, this could be very distracting at times. With color mixing this is not an issue because of the way the CMY works in fixtures. Most fixtures can do a split color where you get half a beam of the two colors you split. While I don’t recommend you do this a lot, every now and again can be interesting.

Let’s end this week on something fun, the color roll. This is where the fixture just spins the color wheel going from color to color. You can set the speed as needed for the song. Once again, this is not normally something I use but, two of my favorite looks that I have personally been involved with use color rolls (one by Steve Campbell on the Newsboys and one I did on a Winter Jam tour).

Once again, I didn’t get into color temperature, lighting on video, or even talk about gels and scrollers (yes, scrollers). Another post for another week.

Until next time, “If you want 100,000W of red, the only way you can do it is with scrollers.” Howard Ungerleider talking about the Van Halen tour in 1998.


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