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O.P. Experience At The Classical Studio.

Despite the relevance of Shakespeare’s work to modern life, what theater-maker hasn’t fantasized about getting a glimpse of what an original production of these plays sounded like?  This year, The Classical Studio took a step towards expanding the “original practices” movement by learning O.P. (Original Pronunciation) in preparation for the Studio’s production of Hamlet this past spring.

O.P. is the culmination of research by linguists who have spent recent years re-constructing the Elizabethan dialect.  With the assistance of dialect coach, Jennifer Geizhals, the actors of The Classical Studio learned O.P. and presented Hamlet as it would have sounded at its premiere over 400 years ago.

David Crystal, who with his son Ben created the invaluable Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary and Language Companion, and is perhaps the leading authority on O.P., pieced together the dialect by examining Elizabethan spelling practices, the use of puns, metrical signposts in the verse, 16th-century references to pronunciation (including the few surviving pronunciation manuals), and rhyme.  The last proved to be of particular value for this linguistic excavation project, as many rhymes in Shakespeare’s plays and, especially, the sonnets provided significant clues for pronunciation.

Throughout the fall, while the studio rehearsed and performed its production of As You Like It, students took class with Jennifer Geizhals to begin learning the idiosyncratic vowel sounds of O.P.  Through the winter break, they continued their lessons with Jennifer via Skype and returned in late January fully prepared to rehearse Hamlet in what is now thought to be its original dialect.

To read about the results of the O. P. of Hamlet, read the following article entitled, “Production of Hamlet in O.P.“.
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Production of Hamlet in O.P.

Results of Hamlet in O.P

Rehearsals of Hamlet in O.P. proved revelatory, and the students initiated a blog to track their discoveries.  New wordplay emerged from a text with which the directors were thoroughly familiar.  The personalities of the characters attained greater contours than they would have in either Standard American or in R.P. (Received Pronunciation, or what used to be known as “BBC English”).  While the text at first seemed somewhat foreign to the actors and directors, it grew to sound utterly natural over time.

What does O.P. sound like?  A blend of Irish, Scottish, Southern American, and, as many folks have half-jokingly noted, “pirate.” Intriguingly, it sounds nothing at all like what people often presume to be a “correct” or appropriate pronunciation of Shakespeare replete with plummy vowels.  The diction sounds more colloquial and conversational than the patrician dialects most often associated with Shakespeare productions.  The O.P. had the effect of rendering all characters, whether royalty or commoner, of the same class.  This buttressed Shakespeare’s almost forgotten habit of eliminating differences between princes and paupers.  The O.P. had the effect of erasing the all-too-standard distinction between the cockney speaking Gravedigger and the characters of the court.

The Classical Studio shared its many discoveries with the community of the Department of Drama by hosting a symposium that brought together students, dialecticians, directors, and historians.  Noted dialect authority, Paul Meier, Skyped in from the University of Kansas to address the conference.  In addition, the Studio partnered with Laura Levine, an Associate Professor of Theatre Studies, and her “Shakespeare and Epistemology” honors seminar, on our exploration of the value of O.P. for both production and scholarship.

A rewarding and enlightening experience was had by all.