Drew Davidson

Actor - Comedian - Scholar

Patsy Rodenburg and Three Simple Questions

Summer, Shakespeare, and the Outdoors. What a great combination! This summer I have the privilege of directing Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” on a brand new outdoor stage in Richmond, KY. In preparation for the work, I found myself going to a staple resource for any Shakespearean practitioner: “Speaking Shakespeare” by Patsy Rodenburg. ***If you don’t have this book, and you want to speak and/or understand Shakespeare, this book is a must-have on your shelf.***

‘Take pains; be perfect.’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I.ii)

Before beginning my process and starting work on a piece of Shakespearean text, I always go back to the three questions Rodenburg asks her actors who are attempting to play Shakespeare for the first time. Even though this is not the first time I will be playing in Shakespeare’s world, these questions are grounding, revealing, and helpful in establishing a sense of focus. To my mind, the use of these questions stretches beyond beginning Shakespearean actors. I have found these questions useful when I teach acting in the classroom or when I work with non-classical texts. So, the purpose of this blog post is to introduce those who are not familiar with a fantastic resource in Patsy Rodenburg’s “Speaking Shakespeare” as well as to share and discuss these three questions in the context of the theatrical process; using this summer project as a point of reference. While I anticipate my audience for this post will primarily be composed of theatre practitioners, it seems clear to me that these questions are beneficial for non-theatre persons as well. So even though I won’t be discussing the relative beneficialness and application of these questions to the non-theatre persons, (maybe a post for another day, or a conversation for the comment section) I hope you still read and enjoy. 

The Three Questions: 
Are you prepared to work and put in time and energy? 
Do you have
courage and are you frightened?
Do you have enough humility? 


“Are you prepared to work and put in time and energy?” On the surface, this fundamental question may seem obvious and patronizing. But, it is a necessary consideration. Too many times I have seen people begin a process and come to the realization that this “Theatre Thing” (as I've heard the uninitiated call it) is a lot more demanding than they had originally thought. The theatre practitioner must be diligent and willing to give over his mind, body, and spirit to the work if he desires to achieve more than the average. Whenever I properly commit to a project, I usually come out of it exhausted; this is a good thing. A runner doesn’t finish the race saying to himself, “Well, at least I didn’t give it my all.” For the actor, in particular, this ‘theatre thing’  is a total organism workout. Externally: Muscles in the body, breath, voice, and speech are stretched and utilized; Internally: Intelligence, emotion, and spirit are pushed to places beyond the everyday. You have to be a philosopher as well as an athlete to get the most out of a role. While I won’t be performing in “The Taming of the Shrew,” I hope to leave this summer exhausted. I want to finish the project and feel like I gave myself over entirely to the show. So, I suppose another way to phrase the question, “Are you willing to leave the show exhausted?” This mindset requires a strength of will and a fitness of self. I’m confident the more work, time, and energy I put into the show that my cast will do the same. The mind is willing, let’s see if the body is able.

“Do you have the courage and are you frightened?” To quote Nelson Mandela (which is something that I can’t say I do on the regular) “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” When you hear someone say, “Yes I have courage. But, I am not afraid.” You should know that they don’t truly have courage, they have a sort of blind confidence. There seems to be a desire from some folks in the theatre community who want to eliminate fear completely from our world. Caution: without fear, you lose Bravery and Courageousness —among other things. I believe, as Rodenburg puts it, “You have to be frightened in the right way.” I intend to take this notion further at a later date (there is good fear and bad fear; there is a usefulness of fear in the theatre). When you start exploring the human condition, as Shakespeare and all great playwrights do, you will find a hefty helping of fear in their stories. The powerful thoughts and passionate feelings have to be faced head on, and in their totality.  Rodenburg goes on to say, “Recognizing your fear and working through it allows the actor to release the plays.” There is no short-cut to the Work. When you short-cut, you undercut™. (One of my sayings.) Don’t try to get around fear. You have to recognize your fears -whatever they may be-  if you intend to explore the human issues Shakespeare addresses. Fearlessness, as a result of denial, prevents you from truly getting to the heart of the work and there is no opportunity to have courage. This summer, I hope I can inspire my cast to face the ‘hard-problems’ that “The Taming of the Shrew” addresses with the right kind of fear and the necessary bravery.  Besides the content of Shrew, there are personal habits that have formed over the course of a lifetime that can impede the work. As far as technique and craft are concerned, I have an arsenal of exercises, games, and explorations to help break bad habits. Some of the members of the cast have never done Shakespeare before, and I'm sure others have a very specific way of doing Shakespeare. Fear will manifest itself in a few different ways on this front: 1.) Fear of trying something new for the first time and 2.) letting go of bad habits is frightening. We all know why trying something new is scary, because you don’t know what the outcome will be. But letting go of bad habits is terrifying because you have first to admit that this thing you’ve been doing hasn’t been efficient and is therefore wrong —artists tend to have fragile egos, so this doesn’t feel great. And then you have to put your trust in something new, which brings you to the fear of trying something new for the first time and not knowing if it will work. My hope is that my cast will trust me, be brave and jump head first into the work! 

“Do you have enough humility?” You have to have a certain amount of pride and ego if you go into the performing business. You have to think “People want to see me do things.” But at a certain point, you have to realize that you aren’t as important as you think. As theatre artists, we become servants to the work and the others around us. ‘How do I make the work better?’ and ‘How do I make my partner look better?’, These are the questions we have to ask ourselves. Many get stuck on self and on “How do I make myself look better?” The battle between ‘Me vs. The Others’ and ‘Pride vs. Humility’ wages on throughout an artist's career. Rodenburg says, “I have never met a great artist without humility.” I want to be a great artist, and I’m inclined to believe there is no greatness without humility. (I would love to explore this notion of ‘greatness in humility’ further). This question serves as a great reminder to stay humble. Not the false humility used to attract compliments after phrases like “I’m just a screw-up” or “I’ll never be as pretty a her” etc… Nor is it the bastardized version of humility where you lose confidence in yourself and undermine your abilities. A true kind of humility comes with openness. Open to the possibilities within the text. Open to the suggestions and ideas from your teammates. Vanity gets in the way of your potential. The irony is, when you get caught up in your needs at the expense of those around you,  this is when you are least likely to be fulfilling your desire do great work. Rodenburg encourages the actor to “avoid starting any discussion along the lines of ‘I wouldn’t do that,' ‘I don’t believe in that,' ‘I don’t think my character would do that’ ‘Can we change that line?’, ‘This scene is unreal.’” I’m a strong proponent of the ‘Yes and…’ improv principle. When you start from a place of denial and prejudgement, you are displaying a lack of trust. The work shouldn’t be about the self; it should be about transforming and the other beings around you. Humility allows you to search for the answers and then change to meet the demands of the show. Trust, Humility, and Openness form a grand alliance with Bravery to overcome the Fears produced when creating your art. My goal this summer is to stay humble and open to the ideas and emotions my Shrew team brings to the rehearsal process. I have ideas in my mind, but I don’t want to stop searching and limit myself to the possibilities the people and the text might reveal along the way.

Thank you so much for reading! I hope that you will take these questions and apply them to your next project, or find some use for them in your day-to-day lives. Again, if you haven’t read Patsy Rodenburg’s “Speaking Shakespeare” it is a no-nonsense, practical training manual for the Shakespearean actor and enthusiast. Also, I would love to know your thoughts on some of the ideas posted above. 

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