With no rehearsals, cast bonding or even full scripts, the idea of cue-script Shakespeare left actor and comedian Viv Groskop terrified. Now she believes the magic it conjures deserves a mainstream audience
When I first found out about ‘cue script performance’, the very idea of it blew my mind. No cast rehearsals? You’ve got to be kidding. No one has read the play in full? You don’t even meet all the other actors in the cast? No group bonding? And, scene by scene, you don’t know who else is performing with you or what they are going to say?
I’m no slouch when it comes to experimentation on stage. I’m a stand-up comedian with three Edinburgh shows under my belt. I’m an actor and Equity member. I’ve done a lot of improv and am the proud winner of Spontaneity Shop’s Maestro Impro. Not much scares me.
But this? The idea of it was completely terrifying. And yet it has turned out to be one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences on stage that I’ve had. As a method, it deserves greater recognition.
The idea behind cue script is simple. Instead of the entire script, you are just given your lines and the cues immediately before your lines. That’s it. Of course, if you Google ‘Shakespeare cue script’ you will find much to make you shudder: ‘Unrehearsed Shakespeare project’ (three words to make any audience member cringe); ‘Cue script for pedagogic invention’ (please talk English); ‘The unrehearsed technique’ (run for the hills).
But cue script is in the middle of a revival, with several US companies experimenting with the practice, which is seen as an authentic recreation of conditions from Shakespeare’s time.
The American Shakespeare Center at Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia offers a cue-script workshop on The Taming of the Shrew, in which players are presented “only with their individual parts in the shape of cue scripts”. Shakespeare’s Globe also has occasional such workshops, and performances by MA students (of Shakespeare Studies, for example). Drama Studio London uses it for training.
I have worked with Lizzie Conrad Hughes, artistic director of Shake-Scene Shakespeare, since 2015 and given cue-script performances as the nurse in Romeo and Juliet and Lance in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
In both, I found myself going into the audience. This had been semi-planned in rehearsals but I couldn’t know if it would be an option in reality until I knew who else was in the scene and what they had to say. It made me understand a lot more about the role of characters who talk to the audience in Shakespeare. When you’re working off a cue script, it turns out there are certain roles that propel you into the audience at certain moments, whether you intended it or not.
And before you judge: no, I had not read or seen The Two Gentlemen of Verona, or Romeo and Juliet (with the exception of Baz Luhrmann’s film version of the latter a long time ago), so I genuinely had no idea what was going to happen.
This is one of the big challenges of cue script, though. With actors’ training, the prevalence of versions of Shakespeare and the temptations of Wikipedia, it’s almost impossible to replicate accurately the circumstances in which Shakespeare’s actors would have come to the plays, fresh and unknowing. But if you can find the rights actors with the right mindset, it’s extraordinary.
Competing academic views abound about how exactly the staging of Shakespeare’s plays worked. I can speak only about what I’ve absorbed from working with Lizzie. Her method assumes that Shakespeare produced ‘sides’ – not whole scripts. Sides had your lines and an indication of the cue you were listening for. Not the entire speech. Just the cue. This saved copying time when this had to be done by hand. And it meant it was harder for an unauthorised publisher (or theatre) to copy the script.
The best thing about cue-script performances is that the reactions-in-the-moment on stage are entirely improvised because the actor is discovering the information at the same time as the audience. A prompt is on hand as a safety net, by the way. This method is challenging but not suicidal.
This high-stakes immediacy is what makes this work really magical. We all love that moment of discovery, whether it’s on stage or screen. It’s like reading a novelist who has voiced everything you thought but hadn’t quite admitted to yourself. An acting performance is more visceral, though: you see and feel that connection immediately, without having to engage your logic or intellect. That experience is at the heart of cue script: actors having real reactions in real time, unrehearsed and completely raw.
Obviously the actors performing are doing a professional job and are not going to burst out of their role and say: “I was not expecting you to say that.” But there are so many tantalising moments where you can see the natural human reaction layered on to the character’s reaction. These are clearly the moments Shakespeare wanted to play with. And they explain why there are so many moments of misunderstanding, identity confusion and sudden reveals in his plays.
The test of cue script in the 21st century is whether it stands up to audience scrutiny. Judging by the scenes I have performed in and watched, audiences are ready for this. A review of Salon Collective’s Two Gentlemen of Verona at London’s Cockpit Theatre for the Independent said: “I could not have guessed how good it would be to see it staged in this way.”
This critic, Arifa Akbar, feared it would be a gimmick or a desperate attempt at authenticity: “Instead, it captivated.” Is this method better than Mark Rylance in Richard III at the Globe? Of course not. Is it exciting, innovative and important? Definitely.
There’s a theory that in Shakespeare’s time these once-in-a-lifetime performances were so captivating at the debut staging of a play that audiences would pay considerably more to see them. Not just because it was a premiere. But because cue script meant the actors’ performances were so heightened. It’s a romantic theory, perhaps. But I’ve seen it work with my own eyes.
It’s time for this method to come out of the academic shadows, seek mainstream audiences and spark a new, more nuanced understanding of the magic of Shakespeare.