JEFFREY BROWN: What does it take to be a Shakespearean actor?
ACTING STUDENT: I have told thee often, and I will tell thee again and again, I hate the moor.
JEFFREY BROWN: What does it take to make a Shakespearean actor?
ACTING STUDENT: Help me this once, that France may get the field.
JEFFREY BROWN: Those are the questions raised by the Academy for Classical Acting, a unique, year-long Master's degree program now in its third year, run by George Washington University and The Shakespeare Theatre of Washington: "One of the world's three great Shakespearean theatres," according to the British magazine 'The Economist'.
Just after Labor Day, teachers and this year's students gathered for the first time to introduce themselves.
ERIC JORGENSEN: My name is Eric Jorgenson, from the metropolis of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin.
JEFFREY BROWN: These are professional actors, from their 20s to 50s, all with some experience — some with a great deal — in musical theater, television and more, but not in performing the classics.
ACTING STUDENT: I've been in musical comedy pretty much my entire career.
ACTING STUDENT: There has always been that wall, that thing that I was doing good but not good enough.
ACTING TEACHER: Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars.
JEFFREY BROWN: They're paying thousands of dollars and in many cases uprooting themselves and their families for a year of high-level training.
ACTING STUDENTS (In unison): A balmy breath, that doth almost persuade justice herself to break her sword.
They scan dramatic verse.
ACTING TEACHER: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12 and a punctuation.
ACTING STUDENT: I can thwart his intent and tweak his ear.
JEFFREY BROWN: They practice the moves of stage combat. They stick out their tongues, wiggle their noses, take deep breaths, learn the mechanics of producing sound, all aimed, whether it's obvious or not, at making them better Shakespearean actors. Three participants talked with us one evening after an exhausting 8-hour day of classes.
ANDREW PHILPOT: There's so much work we're doing right now just to get us to a clean slate, just to find out what we are as stage animals, as actors.
ACTING STUDENT: Sir, the King is a noble gentleman and my familiar. Very good friend.
JEFFREY BROWN: Andrew Philpot has worked in TV and theater in Los Angeles, and moved cross-country with his wife and their young child.
ANDREW PHILPOT: You can be in a play and it's just great but suddenly in class you just feel more judged and under the microscope. That's what we've got a whole year of here. It's really scary in one way but in another way, it's like, bring it on.
ANDREA FRIERSON-TONEY (Acting): Arm, arm, you heavens, against these perjured kings! A widow cries; be husband to me, heavens!
JEFFREY BROWN: Andrea Frierson-Toney has been in musical theater since age nine, including a number of Broadway shows. She says taking on Shakespeare is not so intimidating, but going back to school and learning to learn again might be.
ANDREA FRIERSON-TONEY: What is intimidating is making mistakes and being free to make mistakes. Because I started very young, you kind of want to be like a perfect kid, and you're precocious so you're good at it early. So you don't really like making mistakes in front of people or just failing. And so I hope to make big mistakes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Sheila Hennessey, by contrast, began acting much later in life, and has spent most of her adult years raising her three children.
SHEILA HENNESSEY: Off with the crown, and with the crown his head, and whilst we breath, take time to do him dead.
JEFFREY BROWN: Still, she had no problem getting up in front of the others to do her monologue.
SHEILA HENNESSEY: I think that's what acting is always about though. It's going to places where most grown-ups don't normally go, letting yourself be very vulnerable, letting yourself play, letting yourself respond to impulses rather than being programmed in terms of how you ought to be.
JEFFREY BROWN: The man taking these and the other actors on their year-long journey is Michael Kahn, artistic director of The Shakespeare Theatre. We talked after his first day of working with the new students.
I wondered as I watched these people, what does it take for you to see that there is the potential for them to be a fine actor?
MICHAEL KAHN: Something original, something that's not like everybody else, something that -- a little moment where they connect with something in a play, in a monologue where you know, they really are -- they really know what that character's going through and they're somehow connected to it. Or that they have a kind of idiosyncratic way of thinking that comes through in the dialogue, or that they can really make language that's not their own, in a way their own, even without a lot of training, and what's sort of special, has a spark.
JEFFREY BROWN: Kahn, who also heads the drama division at New York's Juilliard School, has worked with skilled classical actors for decades.
MICHAEL KAHN: Okay, that was absolutely perfect, Philip. Perfect. That had all the right colors in it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Here, he helps Philip Goodwin prepare for the lead role in "A Winter's Tale", this season's opener at The Shakespeare Theatre.
MICHAEL KAHN: If you are going to be a very good actor, especially in today's world, which is mostly television and films, and some theater, you really don't have to have as interesting a voice because the dialogue you're going to do is not as lengthy, is not as complex or complicated. In a classical role, you really have to fill a very large space, and you have to play a character who's usually almost always larger in life than you are. How do you play Hamlet? How do you play Lear? How do you play people whose problems are in one way the same as yours and yet universal and cosmic. Somebody actually defying the universe like Lear does, as opposed to us when we're defying our boss, or our wife, or whatever.
ACTING TEACHER (IN MASK): Ehhh? What are you all looking at?
JEFFREY BROWN: One way to learn to play characters like Lear is in mask class, where students must set aside their own faces and personalities, and let their bodies go some place new. In a sense, the acting academy is about breaking down old habits to develop new strengths.
ANDREA FRIERSON-TONEY: So maybe the better actor I become, the worse I'll seem (laughing). For a while.
JEFFREY BROWN: For Michael Kahn, the point is to create a vibrant community of actors in this country who can make Shakespeare come alive.
MICHAEL KAHN: I really believe American actors can be as good at classical material as anybody. We have the emotional life for it. We have the physical imagination for it. We have the, somehow, belief, sort of internal belief in characters that really belongs to us. And we also have this energy which is why we're so great in musical comedy.
I believe when people go to a play by Shakespeare and they don't understand it, it is the actors' and the director's fault, not the audience. It's got nothing to do with their education. It's got nothing to do whether they read it before. It's that the actors have done something to get in the way of the clarity and understanding of this material with the audience. I don't want those actors to be guilty of that particular theatrical sin, as I want more audiences to love Shakespeare as much as I do.
JEFFREY BROWN: In the coming months, Kahn will choose a Shakespeare play for his actors to present when their year of training ends next Spring.