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Audition Hints on Performing Blank Verse

Updated: Apr 29

While many actors auditioning for Archive Theatre productions are well-versed (pun intended) in performing plays written in poetic verse, some may not be. For those unfamiliar with acting in Shakespearean plays, we’d like to offer a primer on rehearsing the sides provided for our upcoming audition.

The poetic device of iambic pentameter in the English language dates back to the 14th century. However, what has truly endured through the centuries for us is the work of William Shakespeare. Many of his plays from the 16th century were written in iambic pentameter, either in rhyming or blank verse as opposed to the standard American format dialogue we use today. The Archive Theatre’s upcoming production of “The Three Musketeers” is written in blank verse. But do we understand how to convey the playwright’s intent and keep the poetry intact?

What exactly is blank verse or iambic pentameter? According to Merriam-Webster, the meter of blank verse is iambic pentameter: each line has five metrical feet, meaning it consists of five groups of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable, making a total of ten syllables per line. Dah-dum, Dah-dum, Dah-dum, Dah-dum, Dah-dum like 5 heartbeats is one way that you can think of it.

The challenge when reading aloud with the beat scheme of iambic pentameter is that it doesn’t always convey meaning to modern audiences, so the rhythm is sometimes more fluid. once you use the basic rhythm to learn the speech, then look at how the words are normally pronounced and use that to influence how you perform the speech. Where are the beginning and ending of thoughts within the speech? How does this dialogue flow? Let’s look at the sample dialogue from our sides below below:

“But you are young, my son, a Gascon.

You should be brave. So fight when’er you can.

You’ll prove your value at sword’s point, for courage Is the true mark of any gentleman.

Never let pass an insult unavenged,

Save from the King, and Cardinal. Fear not!

You’ve thews of iron, and a wrist of steel. 

And he who hesitates is lost!”

Typically when performing a speech like this, you want to drive toward the end of the poetic line especially if the line ends in a period and marks the end of a thought. When thoughts move across several lines or end with a period in the middle of a line (at a caesura) you'd need to be more sensitive.

Three things you absolutely don't want to do:

  • Run completely over the end of one line into the next when speaking. Even if the thoughts run into the next sentence there should always be at least a change of tone or tiny space to honor the poetry.

  • Put giant breaks at the end of lines or in the middle of the lines. Shakespearean verse is like a flowing stream that catches the audience and pulls them in. Pauses need to be earned and used too often will destroy the pace of the story.

  • Perform the verse at a very slow pace. Other theatres in Austin may prefer a slower pace for Shakespeare. We at The Archive Theater enjoy verse that has energy, intention, and passion behind it. Blank verse is the closest poetic rhythm to normal speech. How fast do you talk when you are enthusiastic about something? Use that as your basic guide for how to perform the sides.

Here are a few specifics about reading the sides that may come in helpful

Short Lines are a big clue that something is happening. In the side below Aramis and Porthos both start a line and Athos completes them. This is called a shared line because the 5 feet of the verse line are shared between multiple characters. Actors who follow the first actor who speaks will want to pick up very quickly on their cues so that there is no pause in the rhythm of the text. Shared lines are often used to create comic effects (as below) or sonorous effects in the poetry.

If you see a short line that has nothing following it, then that is calling for a short pause after the line (usually the pause is filled with a physical action). If you see an ellipses in the middle of the line (...) it often means that a beat of silence should be added.

Contractions, Ellisons, and Extensions (Oh My!) Sometimes when performing blank verse certain syllables are left out, joined together, or extended to make the text flow more smoothly when pronounced. Jennifer Rose Davis who translated/adapted/wrote the verse of the script has kindly marked these moments for you. If you see an apostrophe in the text (as introduc'try below), pay attention because it is telling you to contract the syllable. If you see an accent (such as éd at the end of a word) it means to pronounce that syllable.

We hope that this helps you have the best audition possible. We look forward to seeing you soon!

All for one and one for all!

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