With Tony Butler, the words come first. Shakespeare's words, that is.
For the past 11 years, Mr. Butler - a wordsmith himself and author of several successful radio plays - has run what he calls "The Shakespeare Workshop."
He has been to the prestigious Edinburgh Festival four times. Advertising at last year's festival, he offered "Shakespeare's most dramatic scenes - your chance to take part.... Join a group of Hamlets, Juliets, or Lady Macbeths. There's nothing quite like it, here or anywhere."
Butler offers three different workshops: a weekend (with theater visits) in Stratford-upon-Avon for about $360; one-day workshops (with visits to the Reconstructed Globe Theatre) in London for about $140; and 90-minute workshops in Edinburgh for about $10. They are not aimed at professional actors, although he does get some aspiring ones. The workshops are for anyone who buys a ticket.
Shy types find themselves speaking out with unexpected boldness; academic types find themselves challenged to perform the lines rather than discuss them; histrionic types have a ball - but are encouraged to consider meaning as well as show off.
At last year's workshops, people with long experience of Shakespeare and people with very little were thrown together to act out scenes from "Macbeth," "Hamlet," "Much Ado About Nothing," or "The Winter's Tale." The chosen scenes were moments of fraught, tense drama - scenes that would test great actors.
In one workshop, participants were divided into groups to do the sleepwalking scene from "Macbeth." A young German woman tried to tackle the guilt-tormented queen, but decided it was too much for her limited command of English. So an older English lady switched from attendant gentlewoman to Lady Macbeth. She proceeded to play the part straight, without pretension and with dignity.
"I wish I'd caught her before she left," Butler remarked later, "to say to her how wonderful she was." He also mentioned a man who had arrived, saying he would just observe the workshop. By the end, he was delivering a speech from "The Winter's Tale" with no-holds-barred passion.
Before the acting begins, the group is quietly taken through a discussion and dissection of Shakespeare's words. At first, it's a kind of party game. Cards with single words are placed face down on a chair. Everyone takes one, and they all wander about saying that word to everyone else, exploring its potential for expression and effect.
For the "Hamlet" workshop, one participant picked "uncle." Not the most promising word to dramatize in a thousand different voices, but a crucial one to Hamlet, who discovers that his uncle has murdered his father.
After a while, participants may swap words. One man liked the word "wrath" so much that he refused to give it away. "Wrath! Wrath! Wrath!" he repeated.
In Butler's hands, participants almost unwittingly learn a great deal about Shakespeare: about his poetry and his meanings, both clear and ambiguous.
When the time comes for acting, participants have become conscious of the ways in which the playwright uses words to intensify complex emotions, to promote action, or to build character.
"My workshops are entirely about meaning," says Butler, who was a teacher of English and mathematics for 15 years at Eton College. Sometimes a Shakespearean word is archaic or obscure. To help understand it, Butler advocates:
"Say it in different ways, try out the vowels, and then hear this word and think, 'What are the echoes? How does it fit in with the rhythm of the line?' And then, it becomes quite exciting."
Butler feels that professional actors might be embarrassed to make themselves appear vulnerable in front of nonprofessionals. But he also recognizes that "for some reason I do not understand, drama schools are failing to cure actors of their fear of Shakespeare."
The "physicality" of acting in England "has improved so wonderfully over the last 30 years. We get so many excellent, agile actors who ... move properly and interact - which fits, of course, with Shakespeare. But they mustn't lose the words when they're doing it."
Butler would address this problem by "doing exactly what I do with ordinary people: that is, just get them to notice the words and to really believe the words. Go straight for the vocabulary. Then you quickly lose the fear of it."
The next sessions of The Shakespeare Workshop will be residential weekends in Stratford-upon-Avon, with visits to the Royal Shakespeare Memorial Theatre to see 'Twelfth Night,' May 25-27, and 'Hamlet,' June 22-24.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor