Ham & High, 22nd May 1998

All the World may not be a stage, but for a group of Bard lovers there is a corner of London that most definitely is. RUTH COWEN took the opportunity to Brush Up On Her Shakespeare.

A Convent was not the obvious venue for a comic strip routine. Against a backdrop of whitewashed walls dotted with portraits of the Pope, Sarah ripped off Jon’s shoes and eased the shirt off his back before moving down to tug at his shorts - just as the scene ended in a burst of applause.

Sarah and John (a/k/a Maria and Sir Toby Belch) are two of the more regular participants of the London Shakespeare Workout, a new weekly meeting of actors and Bard buffs who gather together to work on plays for fun rather than performance. It is, says founding actor Bruce Wall, ‘a gym for the soul’.

Indeed the Sunday meetings have much of the discipline and routine needed for an effective physical workout; although improvisation plays a role, any egocentric hogging of the limelight is quickly stamped on, and the afternoon follows a fairly rigorous schedule.

First on the agenda came a regular feature called ‘WitSlings’, orchestrated by Bruce, in which everyone is given two minutes to come up with an original (and preferably witty) iambic pentameter verse of their own, based on a pre-chosen first line. The idea is after handling the raw material themselves, the actors become more confident with the texts. The results were amazing, with so many excellent comic couplets that I was shamefully relieved when the Ham & High’s photographer arrived just in time for me to miss my slot and sling my wit into the bin before Bruce could scoop it up with the others for publication in the members’ newsletter.

After WitSlings came another circle and another segment: ‘Clumps’, in which participants step forward to present up to fourteen lines that they have learned during the week. Again I was amazed by the quality of the performances and the way the different pieces seem to flow into one another quite naturally. Prospero took over from Shylock before Bottom stepped in to help out Titania and Hermione somehow melted into Ophelia. Almost like a game of tag, an actor would simply have to look at someone else to provide a cue, a feed line or a cleverly linking couplet. It was absolutely engrossing. The rest of the group put in sterling service as the most adaptable chorus of faries, birds, clocks and even at one point, a full-blown tempest.

By now the actors were in their element, although poor Tony, the web site designer, who had been looking increasingly uncomfortable confessed it all to be ‘a little out of my depth’.

Next up was David Cottis from The Etcetera who is currently directing a production of Shakespeare for Breakfast for the Edinburgh Festival and who had been roped in to conduct a mini-workshop on Shakespearean comedy. This involved everything from a Stanislavskian debate on needs and objectives ("What is my character’s obsession. How do I raise or lower his status? How do I make the thought process visible?) to improvised exercises with a lot of daft paper hats and finally a rehearsed scene from this week’s play, Twelfth Night.

The idea was originated in New York where Bruce lived until recently and a famous Shakespeare Workout which has been run by the formidable actress Eloise Watt for the past ten years. For a few dollars actors can work on their Shakespeare while socialising with other actors and slotting in a little useful networking.

Before a mass exodus to the Seattle Coffee House, Bruce wound up the Workout with news, plans and bits of warm encouragement and a tin rattle. The Workout costs just 2 for professional actors/waged and 1 for professional acting students. For an afternoon’s stimulation and entertainment, it must rank as London’s prime bargain. In the six months since he started the venture, numbers have risen to almost 150 people on the occasion of the first Shakeathon, and all from word of mouth recommendations and few magazine listings.

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