Melinda Hall was a pure delight teaching her class “Cold Reading and Exploring Shakespeare” as part of SAG-AFTRA’s Conservatory. She made his words sing as she unraveled the meaning behind the words. Her positive energy infused her explanations.
Melinda’s background bodes well for what she offers in her monthly class, which is held at SAG-AFTRA’s headquarters at 1900 Broadway in New York City.
Melinda is a writer, director, producer and actor who lives in NYC. Her current project is: “How Shakespeare Changed My Life,” in which she interviews people who share a pivotal moment about how Shakespeare literally changed their lives. It features: Sir Ben Kingsley, James Earl Jones, Liev Schreiber, Jim Beaver, Brenda Strong, Earle Hyman and many other notable Shakespeare lovers.
Her production company, Willful Pictures, produces the annual Shakespeare's Birthday Sonnet Slam at the Bandshell in Central Park.
Her table read class is an exploration into the world of Shakespeare. “We study the meaning, context, grammatical devices and characters found in Shakespeare,” she explained.
“Students share all the parts and we focus on comprehension. By cold reading Shakespeare aloud, the students find that their ability to analyze and cold read any other text improves significantly.”
Understanding the words of Shakespeare is all about translating their true essence. With each phrase and each paragraph, Melinda helped those in her class dissect the words in order to understand their actual meaning in everyday English.
“The principle of comedy is their pain is our pleasure. You don’t literally believe the meaning like someone breaking a leg. It’s funny as long as it’s not real,” commented Melinda as one person in the class added that it’s about laughing at someone else’s discomfort
Melinda began by explaining that when you are cold reading Shakespeare it is important to understand each person in the play. “You need to understand who is who,” she commented.
“I think that Shakespeare is for everyone,” she remarked adding, “but some people don’t think that.”
For those who have been reading Shakespeare for a while it was easier to interpret the meaning. For those of us who are new to the subject, it took a little time.
Melinda had each person read the part of one of the actors in the play she had chosen for that class and then she helped translate the meaning.
The scene that we covered took place in the woods and in order to help us understand the meaning she targeted some of the words and offered synonyms.
For instance, for the word “note” the meaning was to “hear.” Instead of saying “murder” the word was “murther.” A “goat” was called “goth.” And to “receive” was verbalized as “receptacle.”
For this phrase: “A precious ring, that lightens all the whole,” Melinda translated to mean some type of jewel that would shine.
“A lot comes from Greek theatre,” Melinda explained.
After reading, then dissecting so that we would better understand the meaning, the class then reread the piece to help bring it to its intended life.
Here are a couple of sentences that we read in the class including some translations into present day English.
- Lavinia: “O, be to me, though thy hard heart say no, Nothing so kind, but something pitiful!” (Please have mercy on me)
- Tamora: “I know not what it means; (I have no clue how to pity) away with her! (Take her away)”
“You have someone innocent, you have evil, you have vicious, you have bad,” commented Melinda acknowledging that what we were reading was typical of Shakespeare with lots of hidden meanings.
With Shakespeare it is also not just about the words.
There are many sites that Shakespeare creates as his backdrop to help bring more meaning to the words. Some of these are often dark places such as graves or churchyards, because “his stories are almost dark comedy in that it can go from good to bad in an instant,” Melinda explained.
Those in the class added their thoughts noting that in Shakespeare’s plays there is clearly more to it than meets the eye.
Shakespeare also often uses images when referring to people. For example in the piece we were reading he compared a person to a panther.
Melinda was also not going to make it easy for us because her goal is to help actors improve their cold reading skills by providing very difficult material.
She chose Shakespeare because of the stories, characters, grammatical devices, and word repetition, noting, “these are all the types of copy you would have to read in order to land a job.”
When explaining her reasoning such as the fact that reading Shakespeare “is stimulating – it is a great workout for your mouth your brain and your heart,” her words showed the passion that she has for his material. This helped us to appreciate what a talented writer he was.
While I left the class as one of the people that has the most to learn, seeing her passion gave me and everyone in the class a reason to want to understand Shakespeare.
Understanding the Elizabethan era helps get to the meaning of the words
Melinda clearly loves sharing Shakespeare with her students. “It is truly my pleasure because I learn a lot,” she explained. “If I didn't have a group I would be home alone doing this and Shakespeare is meant to be shared. It is the more the merrier principle.”
One of her favorites is the Elizabethan frame. Melinda has a curiosity to understand what was happening then; how was the theatre staged and what were the religious and sexual views at the time when the plays were originally performed.
“I think that my students and clients appreciate that because not a lot of people spend time on how a word might have sounded or how an audience might have interpreted a bawdy word. So my students are able to get a handle on what the words mean. If you know all the dimensions of what that word meant you can then act it.”
And whether it is performing as one of the actors in a play by Shakespeare or a current person in a present day scene, the goal is always the same. You have to understand and become that person in order to portray them.
Melinda noted that some things have changed over time. “A lot of the words we use today have changed and they have a flatter meaning. In Shakespeare’s time the aural sound of the word was the most important aspect of hearing the play. It wasn't about set design or concept, it was about hearing the word.”
Melinda further enlightened us about what things were like back then, when computers were non-existent. She explained that the word “role” came from “roll” because in Shakespeare’s time the parts were handed out on rolls of paper.
“They would hand you the role to play, which came from them handing you a rolled up piece of paper with your lines on it.”
Teaching us about what things were like back then really did help us better understand the setting of the stage and the meaning behind the words.
“When you understand the background I think you can act it better. I think it is more fun for you and more fun for the audience,” she concluded.
In 2013 and 2014, Melinda gave Shakespeare lectures at the New York Public Library, South Court Auditorium for Shakespeare week.
Clearly, Melinda is the perfect choice to teach this class. She is an expert in Shakespeare and along with being the Shakespeare moderator for the SAG-AFTRA Conservatory, she privately coaches actors for film and theater auditions. She is a member of SAG-AFTRA, AEA, and The Dramatist Guild.
Go here to see a trailer on “How Shakespeare Changed My Life,”
For more about Melinda Hall visit her web site at www.willfulpictures.com, or follow her on Twitter: at @willfulpictures @sonnetslam.
SAG-AFTRA’s Conservatory is the educational component of this organization. For just $35 a year, you can take one class a week from one of the 15-20 teachers who donate their time teaching a variety of acting classes.