Folger Spotlight has shown you components of As You Like It‘s first rehearsal, had Matthew Pauli guide you on using the First Folio to explore Shakespeare’s verse, and taken you backstage with Tony Koehler to find out what there is to eat in the Forest of Arden. Today, we talk to actor Aaron Krohn about his approach to acting and the discoveries he made in bringing Shakespeare’s witty Touchstone to life.
What are the first things you do when beginning a new role?
Read the play, read it out loud. These plays were meant to be heard and therefore spoken. Learn the lines. No matter how much thinking you do it’s an active-reactive skill. The best stuff usually comes from playing not planning. That said, I always research a bit. If it’s a historical figure or a Shakespeare character there’s always plenty to read. Though one must remember it is a play not a history lesson. And, in the case of a Shakespeare character, though much has been written; and by some very smart women and men, it’s often scholars not actors that are giving the advice. So I use what’s valuable, enjoy the reading, but finally make my own choices when I get on my feet with the other actors.
How much do you discuss with others, and how much is the result of experimentation?
I think it’s dangerous for scene partners to plan and discuss a scene. When it’s been mutually explored, things inevitably get “set” and possibly stale. How can you surprise each other if you discuss a common goal for the scene? Chances are the characters have conflicting “goals” and needs. That’s relationship and that’s drama. For safety’s sake, fights are set, and inevitably most, if not all, of the blocking is set. But I find more adventure and freedom in trying things in rehearsal before discussing them.
Table work is useful and necessary with a Shakespeare play. Archaic words and jokes must be understood. The verse should be respected and practiced. And the company must be on the same page in terms of how the director envisions the world of the play. But when actors get up on their feet and begin to explore and play, that’s when things really start to happen. And, like life, you don’t know (nor should you) what the other person is going to say or do.
Do you find yourself preparing for a Shakespeare role differently than for other roles?
I find the sooner you know your lines the freer you are to play and explore. In this respect all plays are the same. But as I’ve said there’s a lot of writing on Shakespeare. Playing Hamlet is different from playing a character in a new play. So many people have played Hamlet and Rosalind and Touchstone, and so many scholars have written about them. Having said that, besides Shakespeare’s much due respect, his plays should be treated as “new plays” each time you do them. They should be read with fresh eyes and ears. Be true to what’s on the page and bring your full creative self to the part you’re playing.
If the play is in verse, then it requires a skill that prose plays do not. But that is a skill unto it self, so to speak. Shakespeare’s verse is “living thought” (not my phrase). Spontaneous, passionate, and present…I think Shakespeare and Chekhov are two sides of the same truth: Shakespeare lets his characters speak abundantly from the eloquent heart and Chekhov’s speak sparingly from the heart whose eloquence no words can fully express. There are various techniques and approaches to speaking the verse. One need not agree with all of them, but speaking the verse well is a skill.
One must think and act on the line, consider rhythm and line endings. But like any play one is pretending not to know what one will say next. Hamlet’s advice to the players is a great summary of how to speak Shakespeare’s words – or in fact act in any play.
As Touchstone, you have a number of sight gags and props. How are those developed?
I had an idea, gathered from the circumstances of the play, that Touchstone (and perhaps everyone?) becomes more himself in the forest. Duke Frederick is running a dark and questionable government: What role does a “clown” have in such a regime? Perhaps he’s forced to perform broad and tasteless gags? Maybe he’s the brunt of Duke Fred’s jokes? In the early scenes of the play, in Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s (and the cast’s) version, Touchstone, Rosalind, and Celia clearly enjoy each other, but we tried to create a sense that play and fun are frowned upon.
I also thought about his role as a clown. Is that really what he is? Most of Shakespeare’s clowns are articulate, thinking, and sometimes melancholic figures. They tend not to be “wacky.” And so I thought maybe he’s shedding the shallower parts of his clownish nature in Arden. That’s why in the William and Audrey scene I pull out all of my gags and, in a sense, dispose of them in the nobler pursuit of fighting for his/my love: Audrey. As usual, a lot of this came once we got on our feet and started working/playing.
How did you tackle the dense wordplay that characterizes a lot of Touchstone’s humor?
I look at it as a gift. One gets to say those lines/words. And then the actor has to make them clear to an audience. What do I throw away? What needs a gesture to go with it? And, as Eddie Izzard says, your presentation – that is: how you say something – is 70% of how you’re perceived. If I deliver something with confidence and in a comic tone, I can get a laugh even if an archaic reference isn’t completely understood. And one must enJOY it while doing it! Dense though the language may be, what your character is doing, what he or she needs or is feeling, must come clear. And this, in turn, makes the language necessary and therefore more easily understood.
How are audiences responding to it, and do you make adjustments through the course of the performance run?
Audiences seem to be responding fairly well. As I said, the part is not “wacky”. It’s a very fun part to play. The more I’m enjoying myself in, let’s say the Corin and Touchstone scene at the top of our Act 2, the more the audience enjoys watching it and hence the bigger the laughs. I find it’s easy to forget this.
Up until opening the director is guiding and shaping the show and your performance. You get notes from her/him after each performance and then try to incorporate those notes into the next performance. After you open it becomes self-correcting. The director knows this. They shape the show and guide you to help tell the story. Then you get to continue that on your own through the run. Often there is a relaxing after opening. It’s not a finished product (it’s always changing and the actor is always learning), but it is a well oiled machine now.
Laughs will come and go throughout a run. New laughs will come. One hopes to delve deeper and deeper into the play, find new moments, and discover fresh nuances.
Finally, do you have a favorite line or part?
A favorite line from As You Like It might be: “the more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly.” It’s a great example of his intelligence and sensitivity to what’s happening in his (and Celia and Rosalind’s) world. And it’s relevant to our world in 2017.
Also, I love the first scene with Audrey and Jaques.
Thanks so much to Aaron for sharing his insights! You can see his Touchstone on stage in As You Like It at Folger Theatre, playing until March 5. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.