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Plenary Interview: Dr. Abigail Rokison-Woodall and Ed Woodall on Shakespeare and Lecoq: A Practical Guide for Actors, Directors, Students and Teachers

By Clare-Louise Rhys-Jones (Co-Registrar 2024)

What advice would you give those hoping to pursue a career in academia, the creative arts, and or both?

Abigail: I'd say be open to every opportunity. I think, at the moment, if you fix your ambitions on getting a full-time academic post, or indeed a full-time post somewhere in the creative industries, you'll be endlessly disappointed. Be open to the idea that one thing might lead to another thing. Take the opportunities that are given you. If I think about things that I did at various points, apart from acting and doing some directing, I went to the BBC and worked as a researcher; it was really interesting, I made some really useful contacts and I just think, be flexible and be prepared to sort of build your own career from a range of different things that are available to you. You don't know where the full-time job will come from.

Ed: As somebody who's had a very mixed career, I can say that the thing that keeps me going, and happily engaged in the kind of core creative work that I do, is to keep curious, is to be humble, and not try and be the grown up. Sometimes you have to be the grown up to be able to organise things correctly in order to be able to convince other people that you're worth working with, or worth working for, but at core, I notice in myself and the other people who are still really thriving, either as academics or as creative types, is a kind of humility in relation to the world around them. Just make it your job to see things freshly on a daily basis. 

What is your favourite Shakespeare play?

Ed: I've got a fresh experience of one of the plays, and I suppose a favourite from the moment I read it as a late teenager, and that is King Lear. It's a monster. I've seen it many times, and yet I weirdly, often can't remember it that well. I've directed it as well. I find it very difficult to get a handle on; it's a sort of enormous universe that is created in King Lear like nothing else. There are many reasons it's my favourite play, but there is one particular scene which is quite a refined taste: a scene in the middle of the play where Lear and his motley crew stage a mock trial of King Lear’s daughters. It is so mad, like properly mad, in the middle of this extraordinary play to have this, this sort of ridiculous child's make-believe mock-up of this pathetic cause. It's such an extraordinarily clever and peculiar theatrical set-up. I love everything about the person who wrote that. It's the mad king, the poor beggar, the professional fool running a court, it’s so Bouffon, it's the essence of fooling. It just struck me as perhaps one of the greatest scenes in all of Shakespeare because of its daring. 

Abigail: I think I swing between Hamlet and Macbeth. I'm always excited to see another production of Hamlet; I think it's a really brilliant play: a brilliantly crafted play. I think it's too long, so like seeing short versions of Hamlet. I think Macbeth is a brilliant play; I like the fact it hasn’t got any subplots. I like the simplicity of it, and I would say that I think it's pretty much performance proof. It’s exciting and fast moving and I’m always interested to see what they have done with the witches and what they do with Banquo's ghost, and you know there's all those theatrical moments. 

Are you able to tell me a little about the book please, Shakespeare and Lecoq?

Abigail: The first thing to say is that the book is part of a series; it's part of the Arden Performance Edition Companion series which are the companions to the Arden Shakespeare Performance Editions. It's a series that Michael Dobson, Simon Russell Beale and I are the general editors of. We’d done one on Shakespearean Rhetoric, Shakespeare and Personal Pronouns (You and Thou), we’d then done on Shakespeare and Meisner, and the Shakespeare and Meisner one has been selling really well. People are aware of the work of different practitioners, but the way in which actors work means that things are often passed down to them by word of mouth. When I was at Lamda, we used to do this thing called ‘Weight, Form and Speed’, and it was only years later that I realised that that was basically Laban’s effort actions. Because a lot of drama training has had to become degree courses, for various funding reasons, there's much more of an imperative for actors to be able to understand and write about some of the work that they are doing, and so we felt that having books that present practical work and practical exercises to students and actors, but at the same time trace where these exercises come from feels like a really important thing. Shakespeare and Lecoq will come out the week of BritGrad! Next will be Shakespeare and Stanislavski, then Shakespeare and Laban and Shakespeare and Brecht.

Ed: Personally, the book was an opportunity offered to me by Abi, having done some workshops at the Shakespeare Institute. She had been excited by the exercises, and as she's just explained, it would be great if they’re made more available to people in a form that doesn't involve having to go to Paris. They are available, but in this potentially watered-down version in drama schools. It struck me as a wonderful opportunity to share what I've been doing over the last nearly 30 years of teaching Lecoq’s stuff, like putting a kind of pole in the ground. Bringing Lecoq’s work into text, into Shakespeare. I’ve mixed clowns with Shakespeare over the years very successfully as a teaching tool, so the opportunity to get those down on paper and see what other people think, it's very exciting. I'm really looking forward to what people make of it. 

Can you tell me about something you found surprising or inspiring whilst working on the book?

Abigail: I think it's fair to say that Ed and I had talked about doing the book and then it had a very slow genesis, then, one day, I thought ‘I'm going to write a draft introduction’. I started trying to write the introduction and thought ‘crikey Shakespeare and Lecoq, actually we've set ourselves quite a challenge!’. I've seen Ed apply the work to Shakespeare, and I've seen it be successful; but, a whole book on applying somebody who basically, as Toby Jones originally wrote in the Foreword, ‘Lecoq is so much about silence’. But as we started to think about it there was this kind of revelation. There’s so much shared perception of the world, the way that the early moderns the way in which they viewed emotion and physicality, the way they talked about it in terms of, you know, ‘he's a man of steel’, ‘he's a man of stone’, the constant elemental imagery through Shakespeare, and the constant colour imagery through Shakespeare. The more I talked to Ed, the more I was sort of going ‘my gosh this is extraordinary!’. I was struck by how many connections there were. I already thought that the clown connected, the Shakespearean clown and the Lecoq clown. First of all, you're thinking maybe that's really the main thing, and it wasn't at all. As we got going with it, there was almost a point where there wasn't a chapter on the clown, and we were like ‘oh bloody hell, we need a chapter on the clown’. 

Ed: Yes, Christmas ‘22 became clown-chapter-gate!! To answer the question, I sat down one afternoon and thought, ‘OK, Shakespeare and Lecoq – is there anything in this?’ I wrote out the first speech from Twelfth Night, ‘if music be the food of love’, and thought ‘what happens if we apply the famous seven levels of tension to this speech?’ I was still there two hours later!! That's when I thought ‘ah this, this really works; there's something about the energy, rhythm, playfulness, which signals to us that Lecoq’s approach, or view of the world, somehow meets this poetic vision that Shakespeare also had. I spoke to some wonderful people who cross the bridge between Lecoq and Shakespeare. One was a woman who is a movement director at the RSC who has a brilliant quote, ‘Shakespeare writes the body’, and it really blew my mind. That period was so invested in the body, how the body does its thing, how the body is in touch with nature, how it's battling with nature in a way that we simply don't have anymore, and that was one of the things at Lecoq which was so interesting and worrying in a way, because a lot of his exercises derive from manual work, digging the road or firing an arrow, and as a young man, I sort of thought ‘yeah well it's kind of interesting but most of us don’t dig the roads, we don’t fire arrows’. As I get older, I realise how these movements are written into the human body as a very profound engagement with the world around us. Maybe we're losing it; the more we sit in front of screens. It's revived my enthusiasm, my sense of a need to connect myself, my students, and other actors, to a physical embodied connection to the world. 

What do you think academics can learn from approaching Shakespeare creatively?

Abigail: Fundamentally, Shakespeare wrote plays; he wrote things to be performed by a bunch of people, he didn't write something to be analysed. He didn't write, expecting people to sit down and analyse his image clusters or something. I know some of the most brilliant scholars hated Shakespearean performance and loved analysing image clusters, but fundamentally they’re plays to be performed. So much of the meaning is made in performance, you learn so much, there are bits of the plays that you can only understand once they're in performance. I find it quite bizarre, I remember an academic when I taught at Cambridge saying, ‘oh thank God you're teaching the performance stuff so we don't have to’, I just thought ‘Oh my gosh you really, really genuinely, just want to look at this stuff on the page? You want to spot linguistic patterns, but you don't want to think about the implications of that for performance?’ I find that really odd. 

Ed: I studied English language and literature at university, enjoyed studying poems, looking at patterns and all that stuff, Shakespeare clearly had to be included in that, and then I left university, and I went to this place in Paris called Lecoq. This old man, Lecoq, said on the first day ‘you're going to go on a journey’, no one ever said that at university, and then, the next thing he said was ‘the way you will learn, and the way that we teach is experiential’. I wasn’t entirely sure I knew what that meant, but it meant that my body, mind, my breath, my emotions, were all going to be called on to do something. In that education system I had to put my very self on the line, whereas at university, you can go to the library and you can read a load of books, you can learn a lot, and, you know, in a way the formation of my enjoyment and passion for debate, for investigation, has partly been created by being in an academic surrounding, but I would say going further, onto the experiential learning stage, that changed that me. I filled up with something learned something, but the doing - this really shifted my whole being. 

What would you say to tempt people into the plenary?

Abigail: It's going to be very relaxed and chatty. It won't require huge amounts of brain power to listen to what we've got to say, and neither are we going to make everybody get up and pretend to be a tree! It will be informative and playful and fun, and we're going to show some videos, because one of the things that we've done with the book, is link to web pages on the Bloomsbury website, so that we've been able to embed some videos into the book, and I think it's absolutely crucial, cause I have to say there were times when Ed would suggest an exercise and I'd read it and think ‘really?’ ‘really?’. One was the journey of the river; we went to the Oxford School of Drama, and I watched Ed do this and just went ‘Oh my God yes yes yes yes yes yes!!’. We’ll show a couple of those moments on video at the plenary.

Ed: I think the book is potentially a really useful one, and the thing that we keep coming back to in the book, is how it's not a recipe for how to do something; it’s a guide to how to explore things playfully. What a director ultimately wants to see people willing to try different things, really that's all that's needed, and then the director can help to shape whatever the work is going to end up being, but without that essential kind of playfulness, there’s less chance of really discovering something fascinating. We have got some clues as to how to do that.

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