Seattle Shakespeare Company Education News

The Rhythm is Going to Get You

Suzy Hunt and Bhama Roget, photo by John Ulman.
Suzy Hunt and Bhama Roget, photo by John Ulman.

As Shakespeare fans, we’re used to hearing the rhythm of iambic pentameter and occasional rhymed verse. So it may be a little surprising just how much the rhyme and rhythm of Tartuffe take center stage in this production. Unlike Shakespeare, the rhyme scheme doesn’t come and go. Why is that? Here’s a look at the language of Tartuffe from our Education Director, Michelle Burce:

Molière wrote during a time when French theatre was highly regulated. The Académie française, formed in 1635, was responsible for regulating French language, grammar, and literature. Beyond publishing the first French dictionary, they also had standards for what constituted “good” theatre, and in Molière’s time the preference was Neo-classical theatre.

Neo-classicism refers to theatre that is inspired by the classical art of ancient Greece. Specifically, the Académie française based their guidelines for good theatre on the writing of Aristotle. Aristotle wrote that a tragedy contains three unities: unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action. Unity of time means that the entire play takes place in one day. Unity of place means that the play takes place in a single location. Unity of action means that all of the action in the play is related to the central plot of the play, and there are no diversions or sub-plots.

Beyond conforming to the three unities, French plays of this period were also expected to conform to a strict language standard. French plays were written in alexandrine couplets, or what the English would have called iambic hexameter in rhyming couplets. (Shakespeare wrote largely in iambic pentameter, but only a few of his lines rhyme. He often also wrote in prose.) Each line was to have twelve syllables, and every two lines were supposed to rhyme. Each rhyming couplet was to form a complete thought. In addition, it was also common for there to be a short pause in the middle of lines, between the 6th and 7th syllable. This is called a caesura.

Molière’s Tartuffe conforms to this standard in the original French, and the Wilbur translation used by Seattle Shakespeare Company makes only minor changes to the text meter. In translating Tartuffe, Wilbur preserved the sound and structure of the play, since it was so important to Molière in his time, but substituted iambic pentameter (10 syllables*) for the hexameter (12 syllables) used in the French. Other translations are more directly literal, but do not preserve strict alexandrine lines and rhyming couplets.

Look at the examples below. In the first, Molière’s original French has 12 syllables per line, and the two lines rhyme. In addition, there is a short pause, or caesura, between the 6th and 7th syllable in each line. This is easy to see in the second line, where the pause is indicated by a comma. Compared below is a quote from Madame Pernelle in original French and Wilbur’s English translation:

Rhyme and Rhythm - French

In the translated English, the lines are a little shorter, but they still have the same iambic meter.

*As a note, it is generally accepted that one additional, unaccented syllable may be added at the end of a line of iambic pentameter without it disrupting the verse. These lines also preserve the rhyme at the end of the two lines.

Rhyme and Rhythm - English

A Path to Shakespeare

They meet in a room called “Faith” at the Recovery Café, around the corner from Cornish College of the Arts and a stone’s throw away from the offices of They range in age from young adult to senior citizen. They come from women’s shelters, get referred by therapists and case workers, or sometimes a friend tells them, “Hey, you might just like this Shakespeare guy.”

For eight weeks teaching artist Nikki Visel is taking students through A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Shakespeare Troupe class is a partnership between Seattle Shakespeare Company and Path with Art, and it is unlocking Shakespeare’s plays for people recovering from homelessness and other traumas.

“We wanted to try to find material that people across classes could identify with,” said Path with Art Program Director, Adam Doody. “We thought Shakespeare would be an interesting place to start.”

Path with Art offers a variety of arts-based programs to help people by combining the powers of creative engagement and community connection. “Many, if not all of us are recovering from some sort of trauma in our lives,” said Doody. “Recovery can take many different forms and be from many different things. We think that creativity is an essential part of that healing process.”

This is Seattle Shakespeare Company’s second collaboration with Path with Art. A four-week pilot project class in the fall helped to test the waters to see if studying Shakespeare would be popular. It was a hit. To keep the momentum going, a longer version of the class was created.

Up On Your Feet
Believing that the best way to learn Shakespeare is to get up on your feet and do Shakespeare, for each session the Path with Art students dive right into the text. They start in a circle and perform warm-up exercises, bending and stretching their bodies; and then they get their mouths ready with tongue-twisters to prepare for Shakespeare’s complex language. The class will culminate with performances of scenes from the play, so this is not just an exercise, it is actor preparation.

“What I’ve gotten is the delight of giving ownership of all this great literature,” said Visel. “I had a student say she took the class because she didn’t get to go to high school. She felt that if she had gotten to go to high school she would know these things, but she didn’t get to, so this was her chance.” Visel described how one day the student’s face suddenly lit up in recognition as she was reading out loud. She got it. “That’s letting someone in on something that we should all own together.”

This is Melodie Clarke’s second time around with the Shakespeare Troupe. With her wheeled walker and beaming smile, she is among the first to the class. “I love Shakespeare,” she said. “I love the drama. The comedy. Someone is always after someone else. The kinds of creepiness sometimes, like the ghosts or the witches.”  As a performance poetry artist Clarke says she took the class to become well-rounded and help out with her nerves and memorization. Her goal is to be able to easily whip out a poem without having to read it off the page.

Clarke and her husband had been evicted from their apartment and were living in the Nicklesville camp. “I couldn’t stay there because of the weather, so they sent me off to Angeline’s women’s shelter.” A case manager told Clarke about the classes at Path with Art. “It helped me deal with being at Angeline’s, because Angeline’s is not…I was thankful for having a place to stay, but it’s not the most pleasant of places to be. So it helped me deal with that.”

Are You Sure This Is A Comedy?
Exile. Loss. Confusion. Death Threats. “Are you sure this is a comedy? Because that doesn’t seem so funny,” was one of first questions Visel had to contend with when discussing the early scenes of Midsummer where Egeus drags his daughter Hermia before the Duke. “We’ve spent a fair amount of time talking about the difference between comedy and tragedy,” said Visel.  Determining how something so seemingly tragic can be funny wasn’t the only challenge with the play. “The hardest thing that we’ve encountered with this play is that the mechanicals, the working class people, are portrayed as idiots.” They asked her if Shakespeare thought that people like me are stupid and that only the nobility are smart. “We talked about that and how this is the only play that he really does that,” said Visel. “Usually the common people, the fools, are the brightest.”

It’s not just studying the play that has been a challenge.  Getting to class has been a struggle. Some come every week and others can only make it to the class when the rest of their difficult life doesn’t interfere.  Jonathan Agnew likes the structured nature of the class. “I’m really bad at self-motivation, which is part of the therapy stuff,” he said. When he expressed an interest in writing and acting to his therapist at Seattle Counseling Services, they turned him on to Path with Art.

Agnew had performed some stand-up and sketch comedy prior to the class, and really gravitated to the physical comedy of the play. “We were doing a scene a few weeks ago and I was Lysander. I thought it would be funny if I fell down. It was a great thought in the moment, but when you have to fall down four or five times, the shoulder gets a little sore.” It turns out the falling down has been his favorite part.

“The creative act is a fundamentally vulnerable thing to do,” said Doody when asked if he thought the class was a success. “That in and of itself breaks down barriers between people and builds community. And community builds stability and connection to yourself and to others.”

The Shakespeare Troupe actors still have a few more weeks of study before they have to present their showcase performance. Until then it’s more text work, more laughs, and more connections as the group unlocks Shakespeare in their unique way.

Wrapping Up a Momentous Year

We’ve been taking time to reflect on the year gone by and to start setting our sights on the horizon. It’s been a busy and exciting time for the company, and we are enormously proud of the achievements of the past year. When we compared our personal lists of highlights, they differed slightly, so we decided to share them both with you.

George: Richard II was definitely a highlight. Rosa Joshi’s simple yet beguiling production really resonated with audiences. It was heartening to learn that our audience would respond to this challenging and infrequently produced work.

John: Our subscriptions have grown for the 8th year in a row, reaching another all-time high. A 75% increase in season ticket purchases over the past 10 years is something to celebrate.

George: Victor Pappas crafted a sparkling, side-splittingly funny The Importance of Being Earnest that once again showed Oscar Wilde as one of the wittiest writers in the English language. It was great to see houses packed night after night.

John: Every year it just gets better and better. Our Bill’s Bash auction is surely the most fun that anyone will have at a fundraiser, and last spring it hit a high mark. Big thanks to everyone who rolls up their sleeves to make it happen.

George: From March through May a 6-actor troupe serve as our ambassadors across the state. Last spring’s touring productions of Romeo and Juliet and Othello played to more than 15,000 people from Spokane to Orcas Island. They really are our unsung heroes doing the work of inspiring a new generation of Shakespeare lovers.

George: Having director Shelia Daniels back is always a high point. Her King Learwas achingly sad with Dan Kremer’s Lear and Michael Winter’s Gloucester together for a devastating and pitiful Act IV encounter. I was moved every time I saw it.

John: How could anyone not enjoy our rollicking and rocking Wooden O production ofThe Two Gentlemen of Verona? It was also thrilling to see so many powerful and accomplished actresses bring an all-female Julius Caesar to life in the parks. Wooden O is truly my greatest summer treat, and it’s wonderful to know that nearly 10,000 people in 11 different cities also enjoyed free Shakespeare.  And, we returned to Walla Walla after a two year absence to perform Julius Caesar at the Gesa Powerhouse Theatre. A great cap to the summer.

John: I was tremendously proud of George’s staging of Waiting for Godot at ACT Theatre. He captured both the dark tones and the extraordinary humor of the play. George was also the driver behind the Seattle Beckett Festival, a unique, city-wide celebration of Samuel Beckett, with 20 different organizations involved. A wonderful and wide-ranging representation of this great artist’s work.

George: Bringing director Jon Kretzu back for Twelfth Night was a delight. His moody yet merry production surpassed sales expectations and had several folks returning to see it more than once.

John: Our Education Luncheon this fall, chaired by Laurie Stusser-McNeil, drew a full-house of supporters to help fund our state-wide education efforts. And our Power2Give campaign to help underwrite free Shakespeare workshops in schools hit its goal.

John: It was an honor to be invited to participate in ArtsFest with the Spokane Public Schools for the first time this past November. Our education staff provided the theatre component and taught acting skills, stage combat, Elizabethan dance, and scenes from Romeo and Juliet to 10 students from each of the five high schools that participated.

Clearly we (and that means you, too) have a lot to celebrate in these accomplishments. So what’s ahead? Well, for now it’s Measure for Measure with award-winning director Desdemona Chiang at the helm. Then it’s a very full spring filled with Tartuffe andOthello, a tour that already has 60 different schools set in its schedule, a full slate of school residencies, our blow-out auction Bill’s Bash, and much more.

Thank you for being a part of our community and our success.

Have a Happy New Year Year!

Best regards,

George Mount
Artistic Director

John Bradshaw
Managing Director


Who were these people? Audiences in Shakespeare’s Day

Globe audiences 2

In Shakespeare’s day, London theaters like the Globe could accommodate up to 3,000 people watching popular plays. With theaters running most afternoons, that could mean as many as 10,000-20,000 people could see a play every week! Who were these people? Shakespeare’s audience was the very rich, the upper middle class, and the lower middle class. All of these people would seek entertainment just as we do today, and they could afford to spend money going to the theater. Royalty might attend the theater in a private gallery, or they would summon the players to perform at their court, as Elizabeth I and James I did.

Globe IllustrationTo get into the Globe, it would cost a penny (there are 240 pence to one pound). In Elizabethan England, one penny would buy a loaf of bread, a pint of ale, or a ticket to the theater. Those who paid just one penny would be known as Groundlings, because they stood on the ground in what was known as “the yard,” which is the area closest to the stage. For another penny, they could sit on a bench just behind the yard. For a penny more, they could sit more comfortably on a cushion. To get into the upper galleries, which were covered and had seats, cost would start at 6 pence.

Audiences in Shakespeare’s time behaved much differently than what we think of today when we go to the theater. In general, audiences were much more rowdy and directly involved in the show than we are today. There was not electricity for special theater lights, so both the stage and the audience were in broad daylight, allowing them to see each other and interact. Shakespeare’s soliloquies would be said directly to the audience, who could potentially answer back! The audience would move around, buy food and ale in the theater, clap for the hero, boo the villain, and cheer for the special effects. The audience might dance at the end of a comedy along with the characters onstage. If an audience didn’t like a play, they might even throw furniture and damage the theater!

Globe audiences 3Shakespeare used several tricks to get and hold his audience’s attention. One that you may notice is that his plays rarely begin with the main characters onstage; usually a minor character begins the first scene. This was because at an Elizabethan theater the lights could not dim to indicate the beginning of a play, it would just begin with characters walking onstage and beginning to speak, usually over the audience’s noise as they settled in to watch the play. The first scene would usually set the mood of the play, but the opening dialogue would not be vital because it might not be easily heard.

Another trick that Shakespeare used was to break up the main action of the play with clowning. In most of his plays, there is comic relief in the form of “clown” or “fool” characters sprinkled throughout the show, making jokes or clowning around onstage. This ensured that even during a 3-hour history play, there would be something that appealed to everyone.

Being an Audience Today

Audiences today can take a cue from Elizabethan audiences to inform how to watch a Shakespeare play. Here are some tips:

  • Remind yourself that the first scene mostly sets the mood of the play, and rarely has vital dialogue, so if you miss some of the words at the beginning, that is ok. It can take a couple minutes to tune your ear to Shakespeare’s unusual language. It’s a little bit like listening to a friend with a heavy accent speak; at first it can be difficult to understand, but after a minute or two it’s easy. Our actors are professionally trained to make sure that you understand the words, so you’ll catch on quickly!
  • Enjoy the play, and feel free to express your enjoyment. Laugh at the clowns, clap for the heroes, gasp at important revelations, and applaud for the actors at the end to thank them for their work. This will keep you engaged in the show, and help let the actors know that the audience is paying attention and enjoying the play.
  • Remember that in a play, unlike in a movie, the actors can see and hear you, too! Even with more sophisticated theater lighting that keeps the stage lit and the audience dim, the actors are often very close to the first few rows, and they can definitely hear the audience. That means please don’t talk to your neighbor during the show, don’t allow your phone to make noise, and don’t text (it lights up your face!) – these can all be very distracting.
  • And finally, remember that the theater is for everyone. In Shakespeare’s day it was a very affordable form of entertainment that appealed to everyone. Theater is not meant to be only for the upper class, only for college graduates, or only for older people. Shakespeare’s plays can speak to you whether you have seen lots of plays or no plays at all, if you’re rich, poor, young, old, or if you enjoy cheap jokes, amazing speeches, or action sequences. Shakespeare wrote his plays to be for everyone, and that still shows through today.


Illustrations from “Rebuilding Shakespeare’s Globe” by Andrew Gurr and  John Orrell.

2013-2014: An Outstanding Season

The cast of “Much Ado About Nothing” (2013)

After closing out the financial records for Seattle Shakespeare Company’s 2013-2014 season, Managing Director John Bradshaw announced that the company ended the year in the black with revenues of $1.6 million, a record high for the company.  This is the 13th straight year that the company has ended the year with a positive fund balance.

“In a year when we thought we would be pulling back due to a loss of one production at the Cornish Playhouse, it actually turned into a banner year,” said Managing Director John Bradshaw.

Performances of its indoor productions – Much Ado About Nothing, Richard II, The Importance of Being Earnest, and King Lear – at two different venues – played to 76% of capacity, a 5% increase in attendance from the previous season which also had a larger capacity. The Importance of Being Earnest played to 99% of capacity and was sold-out for the majority of the run.

Seattle Shakespeare Company renewed its partnership with Shakespeare Walla Walla and transferred its productions of Richard II and The Importance of Being Earnest to the Gesa Powerhouse Theatre in Walla Walla for eight performances. The company also partnered with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra for a presentation of Duke Ellington’s Shakespeare-inspired Such Sweet Thunder Suite in February.

The theatre’s state-wide touring productions of Romeo and Juliet and Othello had 60 performances and played to more than 15,000 people across Washington State, from Spokane to Orcas Island, during its three month tour from March through May.

Attendance at its free Wooden O summer productions of The Tempest and Henry V increased by 14% from the year prior, playing to nearly 12,000 people in park venues as far north as Lynnwood, as far south as Des Moines, and as far east as Sammamish. Roughly half of the total attendance was at Luther Burbank Park on Mercer Island.

Seattle Shakespeare Company’s Education programs reached more than 2800 students in their classrooms with more than two-thirds of those students experiencing multi-day residencies. The company’s student matinee performances served 3,350 students from than 94 different schools and homeschools throughout the region.

At Bill’s Bash, Seattle Shakespeare Company’s annual gala, funds totaling $220K were raised to support the organization’s programs, a record for the event.

Seattle Shakespeare Company employed 95 actors (28% AEA, 100% local) and 111 directors, designers, stage managers, artisans and technicians for its productions during the season.

“What all this says to me is that classical theatre is an important part of contemporary theatre,” said Seattle Shakespeare Company’s Artistic Director George Mount. “There is not only a need, but a hunger for the great stories of the past in today’s world. We’re so pleased to be fulfilling that need for people throughout the Seattle area and across the state.”