First posted October 29, 2014.
The most terrifying cue script one of our actors can receive is:
Lady #1 Cue
ENTER ANTONY, CLEOPATRA HER LADIES,
THE TRAINE WITH EUNUCHS FANNING HER[1.1.2]
…………………………………………………….Speake not to us.
EXEUNT WITH THE TRAINE
There are many Lords, Ladies and soldiers populating the scripts of William Shakespeare with such cues. What is the actor faced with such a cue supposed to do on stage? There is no indication of how long this Lady is to be on stage, what is happening around her or who it is happening to. The actor is in many ways in the same situation as her character. She must ‘use it.’
These characters often are not given stage directions by the other characters. Inexperienced or overly excited Unrehearsed actors will often times execute, with great enthusiasm, what they believe to be stage directions that are in fact not intended for them when they are playing these parts. This results in confusion for the audience (and the actors), or inappropriate actions and stage pictures leading to confusion for the audience (and the actors). The speaking characters should be clear about what, if any stage directions, they are throwing to other characters. Discretion is called for, and that comes with experience.
The silent actor still should be listening for pertinent stage directions, but she must react to what is happening on stage. If she is listening as actively as the technique demands, then she will not fail in making her presence on stage a benefit and not a distraction. The interesting thing is that her reactions are not important to the story telling. If the character’s opinions and / or reactions were, then the character would have lines expressing her thoughts or directions regarding her reactions. Sometimes characters are given an outlet. Maybe it is in a different scene, or after the main action has left the stage. In the moment however, her true reaction is correct – as long as it does not upstage or detract from the scripted scene.
The question when preparing the text is whether to present these nameless wordless characters. Are their reactions worth the expense of costumes and the (quite often) quick-changes that actors must undergo between their exits and their next entrance? In theatres with budgets, the audience watches supernumeraries standing in the background holding spears or looking as though they are waiting for a bus. For the many theatres that cannot afford these characters, they are simply cut from the scene – or a retinue is represented by one faithful courtier wordlessly following the King.
If money and cast is no object, then by all means we should represent these characters because at some point, their presence was thought necessary. However, when money is a concern, these characters often fall by the wayside in favor of economic story telling.
The other time that silence comes into question is when main characters become silent. Most notably Isabella (Measure for Measure) and Sylvia (The Two Gentlemen of Verona) come to mind. Both of these characters, very strong and rounded female characters, fall silent in the final scenes of their plays after their betrothals are announced. Celia (As You Like It) has no lines at all in the fifth act of her story – and she gets married on stage! (For more thoughts on this character, see Elizabeth Ruelas’ earlier post “An Inexplicable Romance in the Forest of Arden” from Sept. 12, 2014.) Critics and audience members have expounded on the possible meanings of such mute characters, but when approaching the texts as we do, through cue scripts, it is important to remember that the actors portraying these characters have no idea what is not in their scripts. These actresses do not know for how long they do not speak. All they know is that they do not have the last line in the scene. The actress playing Celia knows that she is getting married because she must rehearse the dance, and most likely at some reading of the text or telling of the general story, Isabella and Sylvia will know their fates (or maybe not, just to keep it interesting for everyone involved). But these are moot points, because the actors should be playing by the rules, and in doing so make no comment on the scene. Any interpretation belongs off stage.
For everyone involved, the audience included, it is paramount to remember that everything pertinent to the stories is spoken. We listen to who is speaking. We watch who speaks. We do not ignore the silent characters, but they should not be the focus, and it is the actors’ job to make sure that we are always focused on what is important on stage. It is a discipline that comes with discretion and experience. The reasons why the silent characters are needed will only be evident in performance.
So in the first scene of Antony and Cleopatra, according to the above cue, the actor must follow Antony and Cleopatra onto the stage. She must exit with everyone after the line “Speake not to us.” Everything else must happen in the moment, and that is what creates interesting theatre.
-Andy Kirtland, The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project