Ben Crystal Lecture Liveblog — Original Pronunciation

Sarah Enloe begins by introducing Ben Crystal as brought to us by good fortune and our connection with Tyler Moss and Sybille Bruun of The Shakespeare Forum in New York City. She opens by noting similarities between the work we do at the OCS and in the Mary Baldwin graduate program, and introduces Crystal as an actor, director, producer, and author. His biography and links to his books are available on the OCS website.

Crystal opens by stating that this year, he will be taking Original Pronunciation techniques into the new Sam Wanamaker theatre in London, and he begins with a history of his work with Original Pronunciation practices. There have been numerous Original Pronunciation productions of Shakespeare in the United States, but none in the UK for almost a decade. Crystal relates a conversation with his father, a linguist, and Mark Rylance about whether or not the pronunciation is recoverable, and, if so, how it would play to an audience. After two initial productions at the Globe, “it just sort of drifted away”. A few years ago, Crystal was asked to record a section of Richard III in Original Pronunciation for a museum display, so that museumgoers could hear the language while viewing quartos of the play, and to record an Original Pronunciation video for the Globe’s Open University. Last September, the video went viral, renewing broader interest in the practice.

To demonstrate the difference and how it changes him as an actor physically, Crystal delivers the opening Chorus of Henry V first in received pronunciation, then in Original Pronunciation — though he jokes that, with the opportunity to work on the Blackfriars Playhouse Stage, he might just “ignore all of you and just do some Shakespeare….and now, the entirety of Hamlet.” Crystal then asks what the Original Pronunciation reminds us of. Julia Nelson suggests “pirates,” and Crystal notes that that is the most popular response when he takes this lecture into schools. Another attendee suggests “a very broad country accent;” another “a bit of Irish;” others “Appalachian,” “upstate New York,” “American.” Crystal says he’s also heard Canadian and Australian. Matt Davies notes that with the pronunciation of “stage” in a long, open A, “you’re heading up into Lancashire.” Sarah Blackwell notes that “it seems to waver between accents.”

Crystal notes that, “the thing is, everyone is right,” thanks to the melting pot that London was at the time, mixing a broad variety of English accent of the times. From there, the accent moved out (voluntarily or note) from Bristol to the United States and to Australia. He then notes what the accent does physically — the vowel shifts tend to drop the voice into a lower register, as well as helping him to ground his feet. A visiting actor from the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory states that he “can hear the alliteration more.”

Crystal further discusses the tendency of Original Pronunciation to speed up a production. A Romeo and Juliet became ten minutes faster, awkwardly so when Romeo and Juliet, meant to finish their shared sonnet at the same time as their dancing, ran out of lines considerably before running out of dance.

Discoveries Crystal has made about the text, which he will cover in the lecture, include jokes, rhymes, meter, and “this lovely emotional quality” that he believes comes out more strongly in certain moments. Beginning with jokes, “the greatest example that we’ve found is As You Like It.” Jacques’s “fool in the forest” speech, Crystal points out, has a joke that is not at all funny in regular pronunciation — “from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, and from hour to hour, we rot and rot, and thereby hangs a tale” — but in Original Pronunciation, the similar pronunciation of  “hour” and “whore” (both more like “oar”), the joke works spectacularly (as evidenced by the appreciation of the Playhouse audience). Crystal notes that he doesn’t think this means we should always use Original Pronunciation in productions, but that there are great discoveries to be made. Gower in Pericles and Edgar’s Poor Tom in King Lear are two examples of characters he thinks work well in O.P. He also notes the rhymes in Midsummer that don’t work in received pronunciation, and that O.P. is not the only option — it works in a rural Southern drawl as well.

The new Wanamaker theatre is giving Crystal “the opportunity to explore what this sounds like in a really, really small space”.  Since the Wanamaker is an even cozier performance space than the Blackfriars Playhouse, “We’re going to find out what it’s like to choreograph a fight for Macbeth in what is essentially a wardrobe.” He’s curious to find out how the tendency of the O.P. to change physicality will work in a new, smaller space.

Crystal then discusses how he’s sussed out precisely what O.P. sounds like: the rhymes, particularly in the sonnets; the Folio, “spelt much more like they used to speak”; and the work of linguists and translators in-period who published books discussing pronunciation. He claims that they can figure out all but 10%. “And that last 10% drives my father crazy.” But Crystal loves it, because “that last 10% is what I can fill up with me.” The accent draws him more out of the head of the standard accent and into the heart. This, he believes, brings “an ownership over Shakespeare that is rare,” both for the actor and the audience. Americans, he notes, have sometimes told him that they feel like Shakespeare isn’t theirs because “we can’t do your accent,” but that many of the vowel sounds in O.P. may in fact be more accessible naturally to Americans than to modern Brits.

Crystal then delivers the opening speech of Richard III in both received and O.P., drawing attention to the line “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature”. Original Pronunciation alters the rhythm of the line considerably, giving it a more active “canter”, particularly in creating a greater similarity between “feature” and “nature”.

He ends with “probably the second most-famous sonnet… which you’ve probably heard at a wedding… because it has the word ‘marriage’ in it.” Speaking it in O.P. opened up the true meaning of the sonnet for him as less to do with marriage and more to do with “the truest love that stands the test of time,” long beyond the physical.

Crystal then opens up to questions. An audience member asks Crystal to explicate further how O.P. changes actors’ movement, particularly with regard to the speed. Crystal thinks it’s “something to do with the center dropping,” less declamatory and “more fight-ready” in a way. He also thinks that O.P. brings out a lot of “directness” and a lot of the speed with which Shakespeare’s characters think. Crystal also discusses the tendency of productions to “use a Southern or a Birmingham accent to denote stupidity”, and how that affects the presentation of various characters in O.P.

Rebecca Hodder asks “How do you teach this?” Crystal answers that he’s not a voice coach, but thinks there are several avenues. The International Phonetic Alphabet is one route, though he states that the most common source on using IPA for O.P. “tends towards the Irish” accent, particularly in the vowels. His father is “up to J in creating an O.P. dictionary”, due for publication in 2016.

Patrick Midgley asks “how O.P. made your Hamlet more active” and requests part of the first soliloquy. Crystal relates a story where a friend complained that he rushed through that speech, though the rushing is really appropriate because, “He wants to leave. Oh, man, I’m really mad at Claudius, but I’m going to give a speech first.” He also points out that O.P. resolves the solid/sullied problem, since they are the same in O.P. He then examines “to be or not to be” and how slow many actors deliver that speech. “My god, look at David Tennant’s video on YouTube! Get on with it!” O.P.’s rapidity of delivery presents a different, less ponderous Hamlet — rather, a Hamlet anxious to get the audience to catch up to his own mind. Crystal delivers the speech in O.P. (then dissolves into giggles of glee). He also notes how the meter ought to drive speed, particularly when it comes to choosing pauses.

Charlene Smith asks “Have you done any O.P. works with other early modern playwrights.” Crystal answers, “I know nothing about other early modern playwrights. I slander Marlowe all the time.”

Another audience member asks about how the other O.P., Original Practice, works with Original Pronunciation, and asks what value Crystal finds in that. Crystal discusses the restrictiveness of the costumes, but thinks that his greatest discovery was regarding the pillars at the Globe and how they inform entrances and stage pictures. “I adore the pillars; I climbed one once.”

Michael Hendry asks about the future of O.P. — if it will come to dominate performance. Crystal isn’t sure, but thinks that “if in fifty years, we’re speaking Shakespeare in accents that let the rhymes work, that would be great.” As his final statement, Crystal says he hopes that the discoveries possible in O.P. will become more commonly used, even if the accent itself isn’t, helping to move further away from received pronunciation.

Introducing the BFC13 Blogging Team

As we did in 2011, OCS Education will be live-blogging the Blackfriars Conference in its entirety. Every Plenary, Staging, and Colloquy Session, as well as lunch meet-ups and assorted other events, will have a devoted post here on the blog, updated in real-time, so that those of you who can’t join us in Staunton next week will still be able to follow along with the proceedings. I am pleased and proud to introduce the following individuals who will be helping me to document the 7th Blackfriars Conference in all its glory:

Whitney Egbert
Whitney has been a theatre actor for 20 years.  She has been based in NYC for 4 years, adding work in the midwest and east coast to her west coast beginnings.  She has been the Managing Director for The Shakespeare Forum in NYC for the past year. She has been a teaching artist with Shakesperience Productions, Inc., Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, The Shakespeare Forum, South Dakota Shakespeare Festival, and LaGuardia Community College.  Theatre credits include: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost (The Shakespeare Forum); As You Like It (South Dakota Shakespeare Festival); Platonov (Columbia Stages); Romeo and Juliet (Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival); Much Ado About NothingOthello (Hip to Hip Theatre); Romeo and JulietJulius Caesar (Shakesperience Productions); Fat Pig, It’s A Wonderful Life: A Radio Play (Salem Repertory). B.A.: University of Portland.

Nora Manca
Nora Manca is a 2nd year MLitt student working on her thesis on Shakespeare as an Other. She was the founding artistic director of Storefront Shakespeare in Chicago.  After graduating Nora plans to establish a new professional Shakespeare theater company, probably in New Orleans.  

Sarah Martin
Sarah Martin is a second year M.Litt student at Mary Baldwin College. She is originally from Florida and holds a BA in Theatre from Florida State University.

Ashley Pierce
Ashley Pierce is a current student in her second year at Mary Baldwin Colleges Shakespeare and Performance program. Holding a B.A. from Florida Southern College and a A.A. from Northampton Community College both in Theatre Arts Performance, her background is primarily in performance. As an actor, direction, costume designer, stage manager and much more, she had a firm understanding of play performance from original concept to opening nights. 

Charlene Smith
Charlene V. Smith is an actor and director from Washington, DC and co-founder of Brave Spirits Theatre. She has a BA in English and theatre from the College of William and Mary and studied at the London Dramatic Academy. She is currently in her final year of the MLitt/MFA program in Shakespeare and Performance at Mary Baldwin College.

Clare Von Rueden
Clare Von Rueden graduated from Ave Maria University with a degree in literature.  The majority of her stage work has been centered in violin performance, but she has been helping with plays since high school. Her love of Shakespeare began with a love of literature, and some of her first Shakespeare memories come from reading Shakespeare out loud with a group of friends in high school, and having lengthy conversations about Shakespeare with her sister. She is currently a second year in the Shakespeare and Performance program at Mary Baldwin College.

Molly Zeigler
Molly Zeigler is a post-bac student with the Shakespeare and Performance program. Her major areas of focus include Shakespearean dramaturgy, directing, and theatre history. Molly received her MA in Shakespearean Studies from the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. From Buffalo, New York, she is happy to be back this side of the pond and she’s excited about studying with another world-class institution. Molly is the proud Mom of eight year old Isabel and she looks forward to sharing her passion with family, friends, and future students.

Those of us on Twitter will also be making quick updates there, so follow #BFC13 for those tidbits. Check out the schedule of events on the OCS website, and come back here starting at 8am, Wednesday, October 23rd for all of our real-time updates.