theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Text by Prunella Scales : Text by Timothy West
This is an exclusive extract from So You Want To Be An Actor? [pp52-60], courtesy of its authors, Prunella Scales & Timothy West, and Nick Hern Books, which focuses on phrasing, stresses and soliloquies.
Acquire good phrasing – for one thing, it will help you to useful work in voiceovers. Phrasing is a subject often ignored in modern training. The principle of single stress – that is, one main stress in each grammatical sentence – is generally not taught in Drama Schools, and often not understood by today’s actors, or indeed teachers, possibly owing to the decline in or absence of grammar instruction in modern education. When I say to a drama class, ‘Don’t stress prepositions and particles unless you’re meant to be a politician or a presenter of the weather forecast: when in doubt go for the noun’, they say, ‘What’s a preposition?’ So the explanation might take two minutes – examples are, ‘I have been working IN my constituency ON the question OF crime prevention FOR the benefit OF the local residents…’
Following the explanation, doors seem to open for most of the class, and they come up to me in the coffee break saying, ‘Why didn’t we learn this at Drama School?’ Below is a list of the ‘Principles of Stress’ that I’ve collated over the years, and which young actors seem to find useful. Our son Samuel West is an actor and director, and gives occasional workshops, at the end of which he distributes these notes, entitling them ‘Ma’s Principles of Stress, or If You Can Phrase Properly You Will Earn More Money’.
SOME PRINCIPLES OF STRESS IN SPOKEN ENGLISH
Observe these principles for the sake of (a) clarity, (b) variety and (c) speed. Ignore them, sometimes, for the sake of (a) sense and (b) character.
1 Assume that there is only one main stress in every grammatical sentence.
2 Stress nouns before adjectives, and verbs before adverbs. When in doubt, go for the noun.
3 Don’t colour ‘colour words’: e.g. ‘vibrant’, ‘brilliant’, ‘rolling’, ‘pomp’, ‘terror’ etc – they have been deliberately chosen to work for themselves.
4 Don’t stress negatives – they should also work for themselves.
(To Frank Hauser, a director very demanding about the delivery of text, this was a particular bugbear. An actor in rehearsal might declare, ‘I have NO spur to prick the sides of my intent’, and a shout would come from the back of the stalls: ‘Nobody said you had!’ To Portia’s observation that ‘the quality of mercy is NOT strained’, Frank would retort: ‘Whoever thought it was?’)
5 Don’t stress personal pronouns and possessive adjectives (I, me, my, mine, you, your, his, her, etc). They are strong enough and don’t usually need help.
6 Let subordinate clauses ride without stress or emphasis; also phrases in brackets or any form of parenthesis. Also look at the possibility of saying them all on one note. This will allow you to take them as slowly or as quickly as you like.
7 Don’t stress prepositions, conjunctions or particles unless playing newsreaders, sports reporters or any other users of ‘Media-speak’.
8 In compound verbs, go for the main verb, not the auxiliary e.g. don’t say ‘Much HAVE I travelled in the realms of gold’ or ‘I WILL arise and go now.’ (except when arguing, or playing users of ‘Media-speak’).
9 Don’t make heavy weather of titles, formal phrases of introduction, vocative phrases such as ‘Good my Lord’, ‘Nay, I protest Madam’, etc., or casual oaths such as ‘Odds my life’, ‘Pox on’t’, ‘For Christ’s sake’, etc; often they are there only as courtesies, rhythmic aids or to draw attention to the speaker. In Restoration Comedy particularly, it is often useful to take whole phrases on the ‘upbeat’, like anacrusis in music, i.e. unstressed notes before the first bar-line.
SOME EXTRA POINTS IN THE SPEAKING OF VERSE
1 Observe contractions: ‘Smil’st’, ‘cunning’st’, ‘splitt’st’, etc. The poet intends the unusual sound, and it is wrong to correct or re-expand it to ‘smilest’, ‘cunningest’, ‘splittest’, etc.
2 Look out for similar-sounding adjacent consonants, ‘led to’, ‘like cousins’, ‘and down’, etc; often to mark them separately will sound affected or academic, but sometimes the poet may intend the distinction to be made.
3 Don’t be afraid to breathe at commas, as well as at full stops.
4 Look out for lines of monosyllables; e.g. ‘and slew him thus’, ‘Why, we have galls; and though we have some grace’, ‘I do not know why yet I live to say this thing’s to do’. Sometimes it can indicate that each word should be stressed, or given a specially measured delivery.
5 Don’t insert ‘ah’s and ‘oh’s, or sighs or gasps into the text; poets usually provide any they want and to add extra ones can spoil the rhythm.
6 Enjambment means when a line of verse ‘runs on’ to the next. Before an enjambment, breathe well at the beginning of the sentence, then take it steadily, not rushing round the corner, letting the word at the end of the line have its due weight, but not ‘lifting’ it to indicate the enjambment. Example:
‘And then my state (like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate.’
It also helps to hit the first words of the second line quite hard.
Two sophisticated points:
Lists: When you have ‘lists’ of words or phrases, separated by commas, be aware that to lift the inflection on each creates an expectation of further words or phrases in the list, i.e. it will sound literary and prepared. If you want to sound spontaneous, as though the character is thinking up each addition as he speaks, repeat the inflection you would use on the first word if it stood alone.
Antithesis: In general, don’t anticipate the second statement, it is more elegant to deliver the first statement as if it were going to stand alone, then pick out the sense of the second: e.g. ‘From me far off, with others all too near.’ Or: ‘Ninetynine per cent of the people in the world are fools; and the rest of us are in great danger of contagion.’ Don’t lift the inflection on ‘fools’ at the end of the first statement, thus anticipating the joke. Again,‘Marriage is a bribe to make a housekeeper think she’s a householder’ – not ‘Marriage is a bribe to make a housekeeper think she’s a householder.’
One further point about phrasing. I’ve noticed that people who read music, or at any rate know how to do so, have an instinctive idea about phrasing; and I think this must be because they subconsciously picture the line of text on a musical stave – with bar-lines, time-signatures and dynamics. A lot of dramatists (Oscar Wilde, Noël Coward, Harold Pinter, David Mamet, Joe Orton spring immediately to mind) seem to write almost according to musical notation. You have to get the phrasing right, or you won’t, in crude terms, get the laugh, or the shiver.
‘Who am I supposed to be talking to when I’m alone on the stage?’ It’s a perfectly proper question to ask. Modern writers of course use the convention in a variety of ways, but in classical drama soliloquies fall into three distinct categories, depending on the direction in which they are aimed: let’s call them Outward, Upward or Inward. The Outward approach is the obvious one, directed at the audience who are there that night: the Chorus in Henry V, Shakespeare’s clowns and his cynical commentators like Thersites and Autolycus; Iago of course uses the device all the time, taking the audience into his confidence, and indeed so does the playwright himself in the person of Prospero at the end of The Tempest: ‘Now my charms are all o’erthrown . . . ’
The Upward address is the character’s appeal to a higher authority: God, Nature, Fate, whatever. It could be a demand for divine justification, compassion or support: Macbeth’s ‘Come, seeling night’, Juliet’s ‘Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds’, Othello’s ‘It is the cause’, or Lear’s call for sympathetic elemental activity: ‘Blow winds, and crack your cheeks . . . ’
The Inward address means, literally, talking to oneself; weighing arguments aloud, trying out ideas in the privacy of one’s own brain: Hamlet’s ‘To be, or not to be’, Henry V’s ‘Upon the king!’, Leontes’ ‘Too hot! Too hot!’
One might imagine a general guide for the delivery of these three kinds of soliloquy: a fairly robust approach for the Outward, a heightened, rhetorical style for the Upward, while a more introspective, contemplative manner would be more appropriate for the Inward. In fact, though, a survey of some of the better-known speeches in this last category reveals switch-back vertiginous flights of inner turmoil, demanding considerable intellectual agility from the actor.
Originally published on R&V 19-01-05
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