Great shakes at Butler

January 16, 2008
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“I just pass on the enthusiasm and make it about them.”

That’s what Roger Rees, one of the world’s most acclaimed Shakespearian actors (and perhaps familiar to you for his stints on “Cheers” and “The West Wing”) modestly told me when I asked his goal in teaching a master class in acting today at Butler University.

Rees, who first burst on the international scene starring in the Royal Shakespeare Company's eight-hour "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby," is in town to provide some narrative enrichment to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s weekend double header of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” and Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” (In tomorrow’s A&E e-mail I’ll be urging you to go, so you might as well get tickets now.)

But today, it was about helping actors find the real person in the verse of Shakespeare.

He did this through a series of exercises built around the “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” sonnet. Actors spoke the verse in groups, alone, after running around the theater, while being carried aloft and in the midst of a torrent of shoes. They recited to the deaf ears of loud catcallers. They recited while being rolled across a road made from their fellow students. They recited to an empty theater space with the rest of the actors out of the room.

To an outsider, it may sound silly. But Rees used this you-are-there-ness to pull something special from the actors. And the results, in many performers, were transformative. Without ever saying a word about the meaning of the verse, the words—and the actors using them—developed meaning. They communicated.

It was kind of magical.

“The next generation of young American actors,” Rees told me while his temporary students were busy collaborating on original sonnets, “is probably better than most anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Remember: This guy worked with Helen Mirren, Ben Kinglsey, Ian McKellen, et. al.

Talk about hope for the future.

Your thoughts?
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  • I was watching the second season DVD of A Bit of Fry and Laurie recently and it had, in the special features, some skits from the Footlights days, with Emma Thompson and others. Hugh and Stephen did one sketch that was a drama exercise that had me and my husband in tears, and sounds very much like what he did with the Butler students.

    I remember when I was at FSU, Rees had one of the named chairs in the theater department and his Lord John Marbury episodes are among my favorite on West Wing.
  • Too bad you couldn't have given away tickets for this. A lot of people would have killed for this opportunity.

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