Actors and Phrasing

Phrasing is one of the most important elements of character.

Phrasing is a term that may be foreign to you as an actor. It was for me when I first heard it from the great Canadian actor, William Hutt. I was working at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, assistant directing As You Like It and Measure for Measure. I was always an eager young director, approaching senior members of the company and asking them if I could buy them a coffee and “chat about the work”. Bill was already in his 80’s and was, in many circles, known as our greatest classical actor. He had been at Stratford since the founding of the Festival with Tyrone Guthrie in 1952 and had played many of the major roles in the canon of Shakespeare and many others. He was in the original production of Tiny Alice with Gielgud, for example. His capacity for language and character was outstanding. He was a giant of a man and a giant of an actor. I can still hear the way he phrased certain speeches and his voice still booms in my head.

While sitting down with Bill for the very first time, he began to talk about phrasing. I remember thinking, “What has this got to do with acting!?”. I am not sure what I expected him to say, but I guess I expected to hear what my acting professors would talk about in theatre school — exercises, sense memory, obstacles, your needs and wants, etc. In any of our conversations about acting, Bill never mentioned any of these acting methods or “catch” phrases.

It finally hit me when Bill said, “Young actors need to learn how to ”. He was adamant that if you wanted to be a classical actor or director, you needed to learn how to think on stage. Phrasing is another term for “thinking” really. It is the structure of a character’s thoughts written on a page, put another way. A simple example would be recognizing the difference between principal thoughts and qualifier thoughts. Here is an example:

“The man went to the store to buy eggs, bread, and butter.”

Or…

“Eggs, bread, and butter were bought when the man went to the store.”

The principal thought would be “The man went to the store to buy” and the qualifying thoughts would be “eggs, bread, and butter.” I say ‘qualifying thoughts’ plural because each one of “eggs, bread, and butter” is its own thought. For example, “The man went to the store for eggs (hmm, what else), bread (darn, what was that last thing he needed?), and butter.” It is all thinking. You sell the acting through your thoughts. And depending on what the (hmm, what else) and (darn, what was the last thing he needed) beats are, gives you the “music” or “subtext” of that word. You never have to worry about “how to say” a line or word if you break down the phrasing and make them real, living, thought out loud.

Phrasing would also include breaking down the punctuation. Here is an example of that:

“Oh speake againe bright Angell, for thou art

As glorious to this night being ore my head,

As is a winged messenger of heauen

Vnto the white vpturned wondring eyes

Of mortalls that fall backe to gaze on him,

When he bestrides the lazie puffing Cloudes,

And sailes vpon the bosome of the ayre.

This is Romeo from Shakespeare’s First Folio. Where is the period? Playwrights are writing human speech on paper. Periods are used by writers at the end of a thought. In real life, we usually take a breathe at the end of a thought. This could potentially be a very long thought depending on how you phrase it. Do you complete the thought in one breath? Maybe. Do you use one of the commas to sneak a breath? Maybe. My point is, it is our job to investigate the phrasing and the thoughts. Is this long thought a clue to Romeo’s character? Maybe. Is the long thought based on how Romeo is feeling at this very moment, seeing Juliet? Maybe. :)

The phrasing and breaking down of the thoughts is what leads you to these questions.

Where are the short thoughts vs. the long thoughts? What is happening within them? Why? What is the principal thought and what are the qualifiers? Is the principal thought, “O speak again bright Angell”? How does that affect the way to approach the speech? How do the qualifiers work? Why does Shakespeare give you the commas? Do you use commas like mini trampolines to propel into the next thought?

Now let’s look at Leontes from The Winter’s Tale:

“To see his Noblenesse,

Conceyuing the dishonour of his Mother.

He straight declin’d, droop’d, tooke it deeply,

Fasten’d, and fix’d the shame on’t in himselfe:

Threw-off his Spirit, his Appetite, his Sleepe,

And down-right languish’d. Leaue me solely: goe,

See how he fares: Fie, fie, no thought of him,

The very thought of my Reuenges that way

Recoyle vpon me: in himselfe too mightie,

And in his parties, his Alliance; Let him be,

Vntill a time may serue. For present vengeance

Take it on her: and

Laugh at me: make their pastime at my sorrow:

They should not laugh, if I could reach them, nor

Shall she, within my powre.”

The punctuation is a huge clue to the phrasing. Is there a lot of punctuation or very little? How does Leontes compare to Romeo above? What does this say about the character? The character’s thinking?

Now look at the words. What types of words are being used? Long words? Short words? Mainly vowels? Consonants? Where does the writer capitalize words or not? How are the spellings of words different? Why? What is Shakespeare telling you?

Verse or prose?

These are just a few examples of the many things we are looking for when . We are breaking down the character’s thoughts. We are unravelling how they speak and the way they use language. It is, as Bill always said, the key to acting and the key to making the speech one with the actor. The ultimate way to make an audience believe you are saying these words for the first time is within the phrasing.

Young actors need to learn how to think. It is all in the phrasing.

Thank you, Bill.

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Lee Samuel Wilson

Lee Samuel Wilson

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Lee holds Canadian, British & Irish citizenship. He is an actor, director, dramaturg, professor, and artistic director.