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Pages from the Green Notebook
by David Sparenberg
2015-08-21 11:01:11
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Pages from the Green Notebook:


This is an exercise system that was developed for use in my Acting Shakespeare class.  Some variations can be applied and the exercise used in a multiple of acting and performing arts classes and workshops.  The teaching and these exercises will be used in rehearsals for the upcoming project WILD SHAKSEPARE & Then Some: a Dramatic Entertainment of Renaissance & Ecosophy.

Michael Chekhov: “Atmospheres enable the actor to create the element of the play and the part that cannot be expressed otherwise.  For example, imagine Romeo speaking his words of love to Juliet without the atmosphere of love.  Although the spectator may understand the sublime text and enjoy the beauty of Shakespeare’s verse, he or she will still miss something of the content.  And what is this content?  It is love itself.  All feelings require a specific Atmosphere to be conveyed to the audience.  Without this proper Atmosphere radiating from the actor, Shakespeare’s words of love, hate, despair and hope reverberate meaninglessly in empty psychological space.  Atmosphere reveals the content of the performance.”

(Making the invisible emerge into visibility and the deep or hidden become felt for those who are gathered to listen and view.)

fore01_400“The Atmosphere, like the well-developed imagination, stirs and awakens Feelings within us that are the essence of our art.  One cannot live in the Atmosphere of the scene or the whole play without immediately reacting to it with one’s Feelings.  The Feelings…arise organically of themselves, without being forced or squeezed out of our soul.”

IN THE EXERCISES that follow we will learn to identify and cultivate sensitivity (a feeling-sense) for the atmosphere of the words, rather than laboring to locate, call up and embody the emotion of the spoken situation.

Remember the actor’s work, the art and artistry of it, is not to have the emotions of the speaker but to communicate these moments, inner movements and intensities to your audience, and this in Shakespeare is primarily through your voice.

In Shakespeare’s play what you say is who you are.  And how you are experienced outward is augmented and enhanced by how you say this what and who each time you speak.

For our Exercises there is this—every performance space has and even is an atmosphere and so does and so is every dramatic articulation.

The Steps

Imagine and envision the atmosphere of each of the sets of lines that follow.  Here is the process.

See the atmosphere as an intimate context—feel it, listen to it, smell, taste and touch it.  Be aware of color, texture, shape, temperature etc.

Embrace and breathe the atmosphere into you.

Feel the atmosphere as it processes into a mood.

 House the mood as a dynamic tension, a living presence inside your body. 

Fully experience this mood as physical, sensual, sensorial, inhabiting or possessing, restraining or moving you into action.


Before the mood becomes words, can you identify and express a sound at the level of your primitive voice that gives direct, immediate utterance to the mood? 

Feel it. Now sound this out!

Next, discover within your personal sense of human pathos and dignity the discipline of heightened and refined language.  Begin to develop and apply this sensibility, a discipline controlling the energy of the mood, to the speaking of the given lines.

Exercise Examples

Lear from King Lear, act 2, scene 4: “I will do such things, what they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.”

Key words: do things, know not, terrors.  Associations: anger, rage, outrage, indignation, wrath.  There is power and furious determination here.  But is there also impotence and confusion.

Constance from King John, act 3, scene 1: “I am not mad: this hair I tear is mine, my name is Constance, Arthur is my son and he is lost: I am not mad.”

Key words: mad, tear, mad.  Associations: sorrow, grief, insecurity, despair; moving toward the edge of a fateful precipice, losing grasp of reality, being lost.  As she says and repeats the “not mad” does she also doubt her sanity?

Shylock from the Merchant of Venice, act 3, scene 1: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh?”  Key words: prick (to stab or cut) bleed, tickle, laugh.  What associations? Pain, affliction, giddy joy, spontaneous happiness, or: Is there is a powerful playing of the antitheses here—of feelings in sharp and jagged contradiction: the outsider, stranger, the alien, persecuted, demeaned, mistreated, being touched playful to stimulate joy?

Richard from King Richard 2nd, act 3, scene 2:  “I live with bread…feel want, taste grief, need friends.”  Key words: bread, want, grief, friends.  Or: bread, feel, taste, need.  Associations: pity, pathos, self-pity, vulnerability, empathy, mutuality (a common ground of universal humanity).

Nick Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, act 4, scene 1: “The eye…hath not heard, the ear…hath not seen, (the) hand is not able to taste, tongue to conceive, nor…heart to report.”  Key words: eye, ear, hand, tongue, heart.  Associations: a state of synesthetic transport and transposition, where one sense take on the role of another—confusion, bewilderment, amazement, enchantment, delight, euphoria.

These five examples set out and call for playing the antitheses, sometimes ominously, sometimes with absurd humor.  And “playing the antitheses” or apposition is a key to successfully understanding and acting Shakespeare.

Ok—now everyone move into a private space, choose two from the five examples, imagine an atmosphere for each, ingest each atmosphere, process each into a mood, physically discover a primitive utterance that makes heard the feeling of the mood, its tension and dynamic presence, sound this and keep as much as you can as physical memory.  You have five (5) minutes to work this out.

When called, return to circle and in turn show the complete process for your first choice, concluding, without interruption or explanation, with speaking the lines.

Once we have come full circle, we begin again, moving in turn, each sharing and speaking their second atmosphere-mood-set of chosen words.

When both rounds are completed, we will have a lively discussion on the results of the exercises.

And then… We will tackle two further examples, retaining what has been experienced while adding a new element to each.

Last Examples

Juliet from Romeo & Juliet, act 4, scene 3: “Shall I not be distraught, environed by all these hideous fears and madly play with my forefathers’ joints?”  Key words: distraught, hideous fears, madly play, forefathers joints (ancestral skeletons).  Where is Juliet when she speaks these words?   In your exercise be aware and moved by the imagined sights, sounds, smells, even atmosphere temperature when you speak.  How does your mouth feel and move; how your eyes; what might your hands do?

Richard, from King Richard 3rd, act 1, scene 1: “So lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them!”  Key words: lamely, unfashionable, dogs, me, halt by.  Richard 3rd is a crippled and hunchback.  Focus on the physical traits and decide, how, when and to what extend to show them and have them drive his speaking.  Is he a victim here or a Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together by rage and resentment out of the body parts of violent politics and civil war.


Along with such techniques as atmospheres and moods, derived from Chekhov, and the study-practice of “sats” from Eugenio Barba (of “sats” awareness, the alertness that “sats” brings, and doing “sats” exercises), and too the “universal poetic sense” of Jacques LaCoq, it is useful to me to consider a characterization—a personating or putting on of the costume and mask of somebody or some life form that is other—a speaker-in-situation-being-revealed-by-what-is-spoken, to consider what I call the coil of dramatic intensity.  However, do not imagine the coil as a humanly contrived mechanism, rather as a natural, organic, living energy to be formed into various shapes, heated or cooled, overtly or subtly nuanced, textured and colored.

Now if you have an attentive and lively feeling for the words you are given (your performance work), this is very easy to do.  It becomes immediate.  Poetic and dramatic words are energy units and whoever feels them, ingests them and is infused.

Allow yourself to be aware of the degree to which the person you are personating is dramatically, passionately wound up.  Accompany this awareness and focusing on authenticity (being genuine enough to be believable) cultivating with precision, precise overall and in details: all of the foregoing leads to your locating and positioning what you are given onto a vertical pole.  Any performance will have its sun above, its earth underfoot, it moon, its radiating and reflected light and its light obscuring or light devouring shadow. 

Here you can ask:  Is this speaking/action of this and this and this present moment a tightening of the coil or a loosening?  Does it heighten or relax dramatic tension.  As example: Tightening the coil may express a depth of emotional identity or of conflict, and loosening could come through as comic relief, or as resignation, denial, letting go, smoothing over, submerging, intellectually coming to terms with what has been recognized or is yet to be done.

If the winding of the coil; the degree to which it is coiled up in the danger or excitation of the moment; is let to run or spin out, or to unfold, is compared to breathing, you can ask:  What sort of breathing happens here and now, for this particular life in this specific situation?  Is the breathing shallow, labored, fast, forced, smooth, flowing, deep, restful, or pained and gasping?

Now the actor does not necessarily wish to breathe this way or that on stage.  In rehearsal the actor explores and experiments.  The breathing responses or breathing patterns of the played person in the real life situation must be brought into the performance make believe through aesthetic selections and disciplined precision being made visible through effort qualities.  This is how Tadashi Suzuki put it: “Breathing is not respiration, but the pivot on which a word or a tension or a rhythm comes alive.”

Then the tightening or loosening of the coil of dramatic intensity is not to be alien or invasive, or detached, outside the parameters of the aesthetic structure; not either necessarily made visible as an isolated, singular happening.  If revealing the coil to an audience is singular, let it be an-anomaly-of-distinction, of shock, or horror or of the sublime; be sure it is poignantly memorable.  And always keep in focus that it is a process arising from what is given—a shadow of it and not an arbitrary subjective intrusion.  It begins at a level, moves outward, and ends at another.  Never let the expression be anemic or monotonous (unless anemia or monotony is the purpose and can be set in sharp contrast to the opposite).  Howsoever the play of the coil is a felt-awareness and brought into a performance, to be felt by the gathered listeners and onlookers, it must be attention holding—a quickening or a relaxation out of excitation.

Sometimes the internal presence of the coil of dramatic intensity may be shown as a wordless aside.  Always it tells something about the emotional and intellectual engagement of the player—something of the intensity of character passion and pathos.

Here there comes to mind what John Gielgud wrote about his one man Shakespeare performance, which removed speeches from the contact of their plays, so needing to create independent vocal actions and moods for each of them.  This is his reflection: “When I devised the solo recital Ages of Man, I discovered that, in doing speeches out of their proper context, I had to remember that in every speech there was a rise, a climax and a fall, having in mind where I was going to and where I was coming from, and then I could put any amount of variations in between, while keeping the essential architecture of each speech intact.

See then—as Gielgud successfully used the process, so the same can be done when working up performance materials based in various free standing types of poetry and ecosophic episodes.  And with whatsoever materials one performs it is paramount to remember, remember, remember, always to remember: Live performance, theatre, is the art of time.  The performer lives, breaths, speaks and moves within the rhythms of time.

A final note to help with understanding the use of the mystery word “sats”  Speaking of Eugenio Barba, American director and acting teacher Anne Bogart writes: “Eugenio Barba, Artistic Director of the Odin Teatret in Denmark, asked the question: What do all actors around the world, despite language and cultural differences, share in common?  He calls the answer to this question “sats,” a Norwegian word that describes the quality of energy in the moment before an action. The action itself, post-sats, is particular to the culture of the performer.  But the quality of energy before the action is what all actors around the world share.

She adds that “sats” can be made visible and palpable and then: “If sats energy is attended to qualitatively, the movement appears more necessary and visible.”  Movement or lines spoken are enriched, distinguished: empowered.  The dramatization is a heightened articulation and visibility of a believable (not life but true to life) event, or episode of the pathos of humanity and passion of the human soul.


 David Sparenberg has a new book in the Ovi Bookshelves,
"Life in the Age of Extinctions volume 2 – Threshold"
Download for FREE HERE!




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