Working with Cue Scripts

I’m back from Italy, which was mostly sightseeing, but a little bit work. I was invited to give a guest lecture and workshop at the Shakespeare Summer School run each year by Dr Victoria Bladen of the University of Queensland. This year it took place in Verona, which is a town entirely built of pink marble and therefore primed to absorb and retain every last beam of the Tuscan summer sun. It held the heat even at night, like a blush in the cheeks.

The roughly thirty students who make up the summer school are drawn from a mix of Australian and local universities; the teaching is done in English. My contribution was a brief overview of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but more significantly a workshop on speaking verse drama and using cue scripts as a tool for understanding Early Modern dramatic texts. This is very hands-on, on-your-feet stuff, and is possibly my favourite thing to do of all the things.

Anyone working in the field of coaching Shakespeare performance worth their fee will be able to show actors how to mark up the scansion in verse drama. Scansion is the rhythm of a line of poetry, and few education systems include instruction on how to read it, unless you go to one of those very ancient private schools or stumble upon a teacher with a particular passion in that direction. So I usually assume I am starting from scratch when explaining the fundamentals of how to analyse the metre in a line of verse drama. I teach a much simplified version that would not pass muster at Cambridge or RADA, but from experience I have identified how much you can hope to get done in a single workshop and leave people with enough of a foundation for them to build on.

Teaching the workshop, with Australian, Italian and French students

Lots of teachers of Shakespeare also experiment with cue scripts, which is a related but separate topic. Actors in companies of Shakespeare’s time were never given the full script to work from, only ‘parts’ written up by a scribe that contained just the actor’s lines and his ‘cue’ – the three words spoken before his line, telling him when to come in. Directors and scholars like Patrick Tucker, Tiffany Stern and Simon Palfrey have written fascinating works on the impact this would have had on performance. I have developed my own way of using cue scripts with students to show them what it really feels like to encounter Shakespeare’s plays with the kind of motion and spontaneity that is so difficult for us to recapture when they have been set texts for study for hundreds of years. I love the way they can get people thinking about acting, meaning, poetry and history all at once.

Cue scripts only work the way they do because the lines are mostly arranged in a verse structure, rather than in the ordinary prose of dialogue. Cue scripts can certainly be made out of regular prose plays, but the process of marking up the scansion to see where the emphasis lies is so entwined with the business of using the pared-back script as a guide to how to respond to the other actors and the situation you are all in on stage that I feel learning about speaking verse drama without cue scripts or vice versa is like reading only every second page of a book.

Verona was certainly the place to take my method out for a spin. Such a venue and season predisposes everyone to openness and willingness to have a bit of a go at new things. And I’m convinced that if all my teaching was showcased in pink marble I would always be brilliant (fact. It’s an Italy thing).

I have published a chapter on my approach to teaching with cue scripts and you can find it in this book.

10 thoughts on “Working with Cue Scripts

  1. I remember a week on scansion in high school and then another week in university — but I didn’t major in English so I’m sure it was just there to point out to us that it existed, i.e., we might want to be aware of it.

    I did not know about cue scripts. So in essence at least at the beginning, the actors respond to each other without knowing in advance what their interlocutors will say?

    • Exactly, on the first run through most people on stage won’t know most of what’s about to happen. Also you have no idea of how long the gaps are between your lines. It makes everyone into brilliant listeners because you can’t tune out during a long speech because you don’t know whether it’s going to be a long speech, or whether you might have to give a reply at any moment.

      • wow — so true, esp the way some of the exchanges in Shakespeare are written. I understand better now the significance of scansion for actors.

    • well, okay, maybe it’s not the most useful thing I’ve ever learned, but really you never know when a bit of knowledge will come in really handy. Admittedly I’m a bit of a compulsive attention-payer, but even some of the school classes I thought were most pointless have turned up a bit of useful info over time.

    • That was a charming and interesting post, thank you for linking it. I do, as it happens, use “‘Twas the night before Christmas” to demonstrate anapestic metre. And “Here is a candle to light you to bed” for dactylic. I had to wrestle with the quirks of ballad-metre-with-a-twist when scanning “Sigh no more, ladies”, which is in ballad metre with a feminine beat added at the end of each triameter. There is always so much to uncover. And, yes, I have been known to (gently, I hope) correct people when they refer to a trochaic line as iambic.

      • I’m glad you liked it. I also liked it because I really appreciate the art of adapting new lyrics to old tunes, too (something that shows up a lot in the Reformation, which I used to study on a scholarly level) or using old tunes for new content — the technical term is contrafactum.

      • There’s also a connection to early theater — one of the most famous Reformation contrafacta, O du armer Judas, had a history as a folk song, a liturgical interpolation in certain settings of the mass, and as a song sung by the audience in a passion play.

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