Thursday, January 23, 2014

Gallop apace

Recently, I was watching a bit of the BBC’s heroic, if rather dated, 15-part production of Shakespeare’s history plays—available on Netflix for all those anxious to devote the better part of a decade to watching. It was originally broadcast in 1960, back when Judi Dench, one of the series’ many stars, was a mere lass. I was watching snippets of this production as a consolation prize. Sadly, at present I am unable to pop over to Stratford-upon-Avon to see staged productions of the history plays that commenced during the Winter 2013 season with a new production of Richard II.  Also, I have not yet seen the new BBC film adaptations of some of these same plays—Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V—being aired as part of PBS’s “Great Performances” series under the title of The Hollow Crown.  (Some I missed; some haven’t even aired yet.)

I know, I know: this intro does no more than establish that I am a Super Nerd, and an antiquated one at that. But here is what struck me as I was watching the quaint, black-and-white, video-taped stage productions: I was reminded why the Brits do such a better job with the Bard than Amuricans do. The reason is two-fold: diction and pace.  Perhaps this seems obvious, but I will explain myself anyway.

Diction—as in: clear enunciation of one’s words—helps animate Shakespearean text because, after all, the text is rather dense. Lots and lots of words involved. If you cannot make out what the actors are saying, you have little hope of understanding them. And most of what makes the plays beautiful is a function of the language itself; plot and character are compelling, but really only play a supporting role.  When it comes to diction, most British actors start out way ahead of their American counterparts. Let’s face it, unless they begin life in some god-forsaken place like Lancashire or London’s East End, they sound prettier than we do on this side of the pond without any training whatsoever. Those who want to be actors then devote a lot more time working on their speech than American actors do.  They train their voices as intently as professional musicians train on their instruments and athletes train their bodies. By contrast, most American actors focus on the mere surface itself (appearance) and/or the deep psyche, ignoring the middle ground that involves drilling things like diction.
Pace—as in: going fast—also helps animate Shakespearean text by making it approachable, if not exactly naturalistic. If a person takes too long to get through a sentence, the listener is more likely to get lost—even if one’s diction is superb.  That is, even if one speaks slowly out of reverence for the poetry, the language seems ponderous and inordinately theatrical.  The poetic form is theatrical enough as it is.  So a good actor “plays the opposite,” working to make the unnatural seem as natural as possible by allowing the words to flow trippingly off the tongue.  As with diction, being able to speak “apace” requires physical dexterity.  But this skill also requires mental dexterity, knowing what you are saying so well—not just the words but what they mean—so that you don’t have to take time to think through lines as they are uttered. For as we all know, in the real world, much of human speech comes right out of people’s mouths without much of a filter.  If you can “see” an actor thinking through his lines, he is not entirely “in the moment.”  Working really hard on pace allows actors to give the impression that they aren’t working at speaking at all—which makes for a more convincing performance.

I am not suggesting that performing Shakespearean text effectively can be reduced to a mere formula:  just enunciate well while racing through all of your lines at a breakneck pace, then you’ll be great.  But as a mechanical starting point, excellent diction and the capacity to speak the lines as fast as one would “ordinary speech,” in my view, are two phenomena that explain why British actors are more likely to perform Shakespeare effectively than even some of the very best American actors.  The latter tend to be simultaneously too sloppy and too reverential with the words.
Compare John Stewart as John of Gaunt:
Sorry, Al. I love ya but. . . . Although both of these performances are fraught with passion, I suggest that the first is far more masterful because the passion is supported by both beautiful diction and a brisk pace.
So, okay, like, uhm, lawyers do a lot of speaking too. They speak to clients, co-counsel, opposing counsel; occasionally, they speak in court to judges or jurors. And, I suspect, most lawyers—even those lucky few who spend a great deal of time speaking in public, as opposed to private, arenas—spend little or no time thinking about their diction or pace. Arguably, paying attention to such things would be really useful to those folks because, on the most basic level, lawyers, like actors, are in the communication business.  But even if we treat diction and pace as metaphors, not just as descriptions relevant solely to the act of speaking, it should be obvious that lawyers can benefit from giving them some attention.
“Good Diction” could mean committing to precision when articulating an argument, describing a legal proposition, telling a client’s story, giving advice, setting up client expectations.
“Good Pacing” could mean being as efficient as possible when preparing a legal strategy, conducting legal research, drafting legal briefs, shifting through a sea of largely irrelevant documents,  responding to professional emails about the status of things that are making others anxious.
At the same time, just as lawyers can’t do any of the things that lawyers are hired to do well if their diction is sloppy and their pace is sluggish, they also can’t thrive when their diction is too precious and their pace too frenzied.  But we can take this hint from the Brits when performing the Bard: doing the underlying work that makes clear diction and effective pacing possible may mean better results than worrying only about surfaces and/or deep truths.

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