Rules Weren’t Made to be Broken

We’ve been learning rules all our lives. As children we are given rules of the classroom or rules at home of what not to do or what we should do. And there were, of course, consequences to breaking those rules.

When learning to act Shakespeare (or any classical and poetic texts for that matter) there are often rules we are taught. That is, if you are taught by anyone who has had some real Shakespearience. Rules like observing the scansion, speaking to the end of the though, breathing only at the end of a verse line, having good diction, pronouncing words a certain way. The rules are never exactly the same depending on who you ask, but there are always rules.

I once heard from an actor that he felt limited by the “rules of Shakespeare.” He said it was something like acting inside a box because he had to follow so many rules that his own creative process felt muffled.

This was a good observation and I’m sure that many actors feel this way. So before we talk about breaking the rules, let’s talk very briefly about what the rules are for.

(If you’re new here, I discuss many of the rules and some of their significance in the Speaking Shakespeare section and a few in more specific detail in my dissection of the “Speak the Speech” speech.)

The rules of verse speaking make up a form. Sort of like the rules of a game of sports. If people are playing by different rules, we get lost. I’m reminded of an account of a game played several decades ago of between a group of Baseball-playing Americans and Cricket-playing Brits. When the end the game arrived, both sides claimed the victory.

A better example would be the form of opera singing. Regardless of how you feel about opera, it has an undeniable set of rules that make up the form. The way a singer produces sound and phrases pieces of music have been practiced over many years of instruction. If an opera features a soloist who only had a rock-music background their performance would fall flat. They’d be unable to communicate the proper sounds that the audience expects.

The rules work similarly in Shakespeare, but are perhaps less limiting than those of opera. The form of Shakespeare is inexorably linked to its content. You might even say Form=Content. This means that the way the verse is structured and composed has a heck of a lot to do with what the character is communicating. I could write a whole book on the subject but that’s not what I’m talking about now. In the end, it’s all about communicating the story to the audience. When the rules aren’t followed the story becomes opaque to the listener.

Recently I heard an actor in conversation (on the merits of verse) with a director say something to the effect of, “I don’t see the scansion stuff as rules to follow, maybe just a tool you can choose to use. I heard about opera singer who said she would rather hit a note a little flat or sharp than only concentrate on getting the notes exactly right.” A terrible paraphrasing of what was said, I’m sure, but you get the gist of it.

It’s an attractive thought for one who doesn’t understand the form to find an excuse not to use it. What’s wrong with the above statement? The actor forgets that the opera singer has already mastered his/her form. The rules are not the alpha and the omega of the art, but just as every skyscraper has a steel frame, so must every creative artist have some form — however invisible — guiding their work.

The opera singer has already spent years being able to hit every note on the correct pitch with the correct rhythms so that performances can be done with ease. Without thinking about hitting the right notes. What they can think about instead is conveying the meaning and emotional content behind the music. So if they happen to go sharp or flat, it is because they have much more behind their performance than just hitting the notes. Because this opera singer has mastered her form, she can afford to bend the rules.

The actor who felt like he was “acting in a box” did not throw away the rules even though they felt constricting. Once the rules are learned, practiced, enforced, and finally mastered, there are infinite possibilities.

Form will set you free.

Why do you think greats like John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Kenneth Branagh are so great at what they do? Not because they bend or break the rules. But because they have mastered them. The guidelines they learned have nearly become instinct and they are free to be free above the super-solid foundation they stand upon. This is the place where you are able to act outside the box. Not because you threw it away, but because you used it.

To deny the form is to say that you know better than the aforementioned brilliant actors who have had a lifetime of experience. The form doesn’t change, though the way it is expressed does. The foundation will remain the same, but what you build on top of it will be unique to you and the time you live in. So remember, because it is worth repeating:

Form will set you free.