“Here is a play fitted”: Directing Midsummer — Act 1, Scene 1

Our Drama Club’s first outing with Shakespeare has been full of nothing but positive surprises. I’m sure it’s a honeymoon and road blocks are ahead, but you know what? I’ll take it.

At our first rehearsal my objective was to disabuse the students of their fears: Shakespeare is not scary, and you can figure out what the words mean without any help from me.

To do this I employed a few tactics learned at the Globe this past summer.

Language Basics

theeThis first strategy, however, was my own. I provided them with a Shakespeare Cheat-Sheet to familiarize them with some language basics. Elizabethan syntax still resembled its parent French and was largely Romantic in character. More than half of our cast is Latino, and the other half has learned Spanish in school, so I drew comparisons between Usted(es)/tu/te and you/thou/thee. Their usage is nearly identical – if you know how to tell the difference in Spanish, you know how to tell the difference in Elizabethan English. Similarly, if you know when to use I/me, then you know when to use thou/thee.

 

Scene Study: Change It Up

helena demetrius 2After dealing with the language speed bumps, we got to the good stuff. I gave them a scene from the play where Demetrius tries unsuccessfully to shake Helena off his tail in the woods outside Athens. (Full disclosure: this entire activity can be found in Fiona Banks terrific resource, Creative Shakespeare.) It’s a brief exchange where each character speaks about four times, but each of their objectives is very clear. The students performed the scene five different times in five different ways with five different partners and were asked after each rendition what they discovered about the characters and their own performance. After we debriefed the fifth performance, I asked them to summarize the scene for me, line by line, which they were able to do with clarity and precision.

It’s important to note here that I hadn’t told them anything about the scene (and even though they had their scripts, very few – if any – had read the entire thing all the way through). I didn’t prep them by explaining the situation the characters were in, and I didn’t need to: they figured it out all on their own.

This is the bane of every English teacher’s experience with Shakespeare: trying to figure out how much to tell the students. When you are only reading the texts, it’s so much easier to just tell the kids what’s going on rather than wait for them to pick through it. But when you get them on their feet and get the text in their bodies, so much of the meaning reveals itself. And the students learn, and you don’t feel like you’re just showing off.

Status: Who’s Who…and why…

The_Great_Chain_of_Being_(1579)

The Great Chain of Being (1579)

Our third activity during the first rehearsal was a status “game” (also detailed in Creative Shakespeare). While it’s meant to get the students thinking about the status of certain characters in relation to other characters, they can’t help but observe the game’s relevance to their own lives.

The instructions are simple: each student gets a card, but they can’t look at it – they hold it up for others to see. When everyone has a card, they begin to walk around the space and react to each other based on their perceived status. At first, no one knows what their status is, but very quickly they understand if they are a person of high status or low, and once they come to that realization you can see how their movements change. Those with royal cards walk confidently, and those with aces and deuces begin to slump along dejectedly. Not surprisingly, once they understand their status, they also begin to treat others differently.

The insights they shared regarding group dynamics were deep and personal. I don’t know the degree to which it will shape their performances, but it definitely allowed them to walk out of rehearsal feeling like something profound and different is happening with this production. Likewise, the idea that Shakespeare is somehow too erudite and out of their reach is quickly melting away.

Mission accomplished.

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