Stolen Child

When I was in high school I had a recording of Loreena McKennitt singing W. B. Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child,” only I didn’t realize that it was a Yeats poem.  In fact, I didn’t know who Yeats was at the time.

A few years later I was in college (Denison U., Class of 2000!) and idling through the library.  I found a copy of poems by Yeats — and had heard of him, albeit only nominally, by that point.  As I was acquainting myself with his work, flipping through the pages, I came across this poem.  I only half remembered the Loreena McKennitt song, so as I read I had this sense of knowing the poem as a distant, unplaceable memory.  It was 1996, so the internet was in its infant stage and there was probably no way for me to search the lyrics to find the connection anyway.  So it stuck in my brain for about a month until I happened to play the McKennitt CD.

My face lit up with a smile.  The poem and song found me.

They’ve been in my head of late because of Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Our production will make use of the changeling Indian Boy mentioned in the text but not (usually) seen. Why does Titania really take him in?  What would Oberon do with him?  What is life like living with the faeries?  What is it like to be a stolen child?

Is the world really less full of weeping with the faeries…?

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My nephew in Connecticut.

The Stolen Child
by William Butler Yeats

WHERE dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

“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.

Midsummer teaser

I just started a more substantial blog post about the experience of directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream so far, but I’ll be honest: I’m tired.  So it’s coming, but here’s a teaser — it’s been a really incredible learning experience for both the students and myself, and I have a lot to share.

But until then, here’s a photo of me wearing the cowl I knit for Titania.

(And no, it isn’t finished yet…)

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And here are its component parts.  wp-1452821308842.jpeg

Cutting Shakespeare

Wait…You want us to remove what from the text?

Nothing was more shocking to the ears of twenty-five English teachers than to hear that we could — and should — edit Shakespeare’s texts to fit the needs of our students.

What?  Preposterous!

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“Enough; hold, or cut bow-strings.” Bottom: Act 1, scene 2

To many an English teacher, the Complete Works of Shakespeare may as well be a sacred text.  To make matters worse, we were all Americans, which is to say we’re far more likely than the Brits to be overly sentimental, and our general attitude is that the students should rise up to Shakespeare: He should never stoop down to them or us.

But British Shakespearean experts from no less an institution than the Globe Theatre were telling us to make edits!  What is the point of making your students bang their heads against something they have no ability to comprehend; you may as well just give them a brick to hit themselves with.

Furthermore, we were assured, we have never seen a production of Shakespeare that wasn’t cut (barring Branagh’s Hamlet, of course).  Every director makes cuts.  They’re necessary for the audience’s comprehension.  They’re necessary for the flow and the aesthetics of a particular production.  They’re necessary to get the audience out of the house before the theatre management charges the company overtime.

And as a teacher, they’re necessary to help kids come to love writing that the twenty-five of us admired enough to apply for scholarships and crowdfunding grants in order to study Shakespeare at his home theatre.

Having said all that, I didn’t think I would actually ever have the gall to chop up a Shakespeare play.  But, well, today I did.

I’m about to lead my drama club through A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I needed it to be as accessible as possible for them.  I had bought an edition that had already been edited for a younger audience, but two things stopped me from using it.  The first was that it required permission from the editor in order to use the script.  Now, it was nice of them to edit the thing, but it’s still Shakespeare’s work, and it’s still very much in the public domain, so the idea of paying royalties irked me.  Furthermore, I saw Shakespeare the actor playing Ned Stark from Game of Thrones in my head, and he said, “If the demands of your time and your audience require you to chop up a script, then you have to chop it up yourself.  You can’t let somebody else do it for you.” (Incidentally, this is the second time the work of George R. R. Martin has been referenced in one of my Shakespeare posts; apparently I see them linked somehow…)

All in all I cut a good ten pages out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and you know what?  Our production is going to be better for it.

There are certain rules that the Globe follows — as I imagine the RSC and other prominent Shakespeare entities do as well.  I followed them, too:

1. Find a good online copy of the text.

They recommended using the full texts provide by MIT.  (http://shakespeare.mit.edu/)

2. Make cuts, but don’t rewrite anything.

It’s not our job to change the story.  That’s been done, and the man most famous for doing so gave his name to the process of revising with a political or moral agenda: bowdlerizing.  Don’t do it.  No one will like you.

3. Don’t make cuts that would disrupt the rhythm or rhyme.

Pretty important, really.  You’ve gotta keep those elements that make Shakespeare ‘Shakespeare!’.

4. Always think about your audience.

This was the most important criteria influencing my decisions with the text today: I needed the text to be comprehended by my actors, all of whom are under 18 and have limited experience with Shakespeare, which will also be true for their mostly student audience.  Because I want both the audience and actors to remember this as a truly positive experience, I also needed it to be short enough for their 21st century attention spans; the goal is to build them up so that they have the stamina for a four-hour Branagh Hamlet, but you can’t start there.

Here are some of the particular realizations I took away from this exercise.

First, there is an excessive number of allusions to Greek mythology, and they go far beyond the basic knowledge of the Olympians that most of my students do possess.  I didn’t cut all references to ancient lore because some of it is needed for color, but it’s clear that Shakespeare expected his audience to know the names he was dropping, and this generation isn’t the same.  They won’t be charmed the way Shakespeare’s original audience was by referencing Philomel in a lullaby; they’ll try to understand for about one second, and then they’ll be bored.  Which isn’t to say that others would react the same way; I certainly wouldn’t, but I’m not acting in this performance, nor am I the intended audience.  Some classical allusions needed to go.

There are also several instances where Shakespeare has the characters tell the audience what’s going to happen before it happens.  Perhaps in his era where one went to hear a play (the word audience does, after all, imply a group of people listening…) it was necessary to do this in order to reinforce the storytelling.  But today we’re so used to watching things happen that it feels unnecessary to have Oberon dictate exactly what Puck will do as he dabs the eyes of the lovers with the magical elixir just moments before we see Puck do it.  If anything, my students are more likely to comprehend what they’re seeing visually before they comprehend it aurally — hearing about it after seeing it might be beneficial, but it isn’t as necessary to include before.  Same with the “Pyramus and Thisbe” dumb show; I’m sure it can be fun to stage, and there certainly are historically interesting reasons to include it, but for my kids — no.  It got cut.

And then there were the occasional bits that just felt extraneous (do we really need Philostrate?), so they met with the axe.  But for the most part, the text is still there, still so clearly recognizable that only the most studious devotee of the play would be able to pick out what was cut.

Most importantly, the students will still find the play to be very challenging and (I hope) deeply rewarding.  The prospect of mounting this production has some of my actors bubbling with excitement while others shy away in dread.  My hope is that it will be challenge enough for the go-getters and approachable enough for the wary.

As for myself, I’ve skinned my first Shakespeare and it wasn’t as bad as I thought.

Next time will be even easier.

 

Winter of Content

All hail, great master!  Grave sir, hail!  I come
To answer they best pleasure, be’t to fly,
To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
On the curled clouds.  To thy strong bidding, task
Ariel and all his quality.
~The Tempest, I.iii

It’s been four months since my Summer of Shakespeare ended, and my days have been nearly Bardless since then.  For three weeks in July I ate, slept and dreamt Shakespeare with an incredible team of colleagues, directors and coaches as part of Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance at the Globe Theatre.  As a teacher and director, it was the most exciting and engaging professional development I’ve ever had; as a lifelong student of literature and theatre, it was thrilling to explore Shakespeare’s works in such depth and in as authentic a context as one can hope to achieve in the 21st century.  We were all incredibly sad when it ended, but, as Shakespeare reminds us in many a play, our time on the stage of life is brief and the moments that shape it are even briefer — which is part of what makes every minute so precious and our need to make the best of our time here so crucial.

There's rosemary, that's for remembrance.  Believe me, love -- I've remembered.

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Believe me, love — I’ve remembered.

That’s why I’m so pleased that a new season of Shakespeare is about to begin, and unlike my three week Summer of Shakes, this Winter/Spring of Shakespeare will be a season of indefinite length, like a George R. R. Martin winter (Winter is coming, but it shall not be a winter of discontent!).  It begins in two weeks when the drama club I direct at PACE High School will begin work on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This will be my first time directing a Shakespeare play, something I’ve wanted to do for years now, but never felt competent enough as a director until my experience at the Globe.  This means I’ll be teaching the play to my 12th graders in drama class, and hopefully creating lessons for the rest of the grades at school to make the play approachable for all the students.

I also have an intrepid crew of thespians who are participating in the English-Speaking Union’s National Shakespeare Competition.  Between now and February when we hold our school competition, I’ll help nine contestants develop their monologues into strong, stand-alone performances.  One of them will go on to compete regionally, and from there, if chosen, he or she will represent New York in the national competition.  At the moment we have a grand assortment of characters chosen by the students: Petruchio, Gertrude, Desdemona, Isabella, Viola and a few Richard IIIs.  I can’t wait to see what the kids do with them!

Additionally, my English class studies whichever Shakespeare play BAM happens to offer through their fantastic education program.  This year in April we’ll go once more unto the breach with the highly-acclaimed RSC production of Henry V.  I’m taking it upon myself to study the whole tetralogy (Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV and Henry V) and the Hundred Years War more broadly in order to teach the play from a place of deeper understanding.

(And there’s one other very exciting Shakespeare prospect on the horizon, but I’m not at liberty to share it until it’s official.  So stay tuned!)

Suffice it to say, I’ll be steeped in Barddom from now until at least May, and I plan to blog quite a lot about all of it.  I want to document my students’ responses and insights to their work with the plays and parts, share my own thoughts (and, likely, frustrations) as a director, and my questions as a reader.

The winter of content has begun!  And like Ariel to Prospero in the quote above, I’ll be rendering my services unto the Gentleman from Stratford as a teacher, a director, a coach, a writer — whatever he needs me to do, I’m his willing acolyte.

So you’ll have to excuse me now; I have a lot of fulfilling, life-affirming work to do.

Recess: Children’s Stories for Adults (A Jersey City Writers Genre Night)

Greetings, all!

It’s been a busy three months since my last post.  The start of the school year always demands my full attention, but a few months in and I usually find my groove.  Now I can manage to blog a bit.  Oh, and write a novel!  Finished the first draft of my second novel thanks to the kick in the pants provided by NaNoWriMo and the creative energy and support drawn from the hundreds of thousands of others who participated.

More on that later.

JCW Bear says, "Come to Genre Night in Jersey City, because I make a dirty martini that will change your life!"

JCW Bear says, “Come to Genre Night in Jersey City, because I make a dirty martini that will change your life!”

I’ve also been buoyed lately by the camraderie and smart, really useful criticism I’ve experienced through the Jersey City Writers.  Lots more on this wonderful writing group to come, but before I get ahead of myself, I wanted to invite you all to a really fun event the group sponsors.

Every other month they host a “genre night” where short works of a particular genre are chosen by a panel of judges to be read aloud by professional performers.  The next genre night — which happens to be tomorrow (12/2/15)! — is “children’s stories for adults.”  Here’s the description from their Facebook invitation:

Please join us for a whimsical literary reading event where you can pretend to be a kid again…because “adulting” is hard.

Think Curious George slaving in a cubicle, or Green Eggs and Ham and Boozy Brunch, or the Pevensie siblings discovering a nightclub in their wardrobe instead of Narnia. Plus candy, coloring and stuffed animals, because when you’re an adult, why not?

You know you want to, right?   Because you’re just never too old.

For all the details, click here for the Facebook invitation.

And even if you can’t make it for whatever reason, why not just go ahead and like the JC Writers page — your inner-child will shower you with gifts and joy if you do.

ADDENDUM: Dr. Johnson’s Cat

Johnson's House

Johnson’s House

Reader Hampshirehog pointed out that I neglected to mention Samuel Johnson’s cat, Hodge, in the previous post.  I confess this was out of ignorance rather than willful neglect; as I stated in the post, my knowledge of Johnson prior to my visit to his house was practically nil.  I definitely wasn’t aware of the significance of his cat.

But I’ve done my homework now and learned why Hodge has a statue dedicated to him in the courtyard outside the house, and Hampshirehog is right: it’s worth mentioning. Johnson’s love for his cat further illustrates what I wrote about him being ahead of his time.

Apparently it was not common to keep cats as pets in London at the time, but Johnson had a fondness for the felines who lived in the neighborhood.

His biographer, Boswell, noted the following:

Nor would it be just, under this head, to omit the fondness which he showed for animals which he had taken under his protection. I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;” and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”

This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. “Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.” And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, “But Hodge shan’t be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.”

Hodge shan't be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.

Hodge shan’t be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.

So not only did Johnson have a modern person’s love for his kitty, he bought oysters for Hodge specifically, and because that act would strike others as odd, he didn’t make his servant – Francis Barber, a former slave – buy them because it would be beneath his station to do so.  Johnson allowed the eccentricity to be his own.  A charming anecdote indeed!

Today Hodge’s statue is a popular point of literary pilgrimage. He’s shown atop Johnson’s Dictionary overlooking a few oyster shells. Visitors will frequently leave coins in the shells for good luck and to pay tribute to Hodge and his quirky, fascinating master.

Every new detail I learn about Johnson makes me more intrigued.

Thanks, Hampshirehog, for bringing this to my attention.

Summoning the Scriveners: A Visit to Samuel Johnson’s House

Lexicógrapher. n.s. [λεξικὸν and γράφω; lexicographe, French.] A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Samuel Johnson.

My days in London weren’t all Shakespeare. I spent a considerable amount of our limited free time chasing down some of my favorites among London’s other literary luminaries: Chaucer, Dickens, Keats, Woolf, Blake.  I planned out a walking route that would hit upon some of their major sites, but the writer I want to discuss today is the one I didn’t plan for: Dr. Samuel Johnson.

A Johnson skeptic no more!

A Johnson skeptic no more!

No lie: I only went to Dr. Johnson’s house because it was marked on my city map and I figured that if it was important enough to locate on a general map, it was worth visiting.  Obviously I’d heard of Johnson: Dictionary, Boswell, lots of famous anecdotes**, etc.  No self-respecting English major hasn’t heard of him.

But I’ve never met anyone who was a Johnson specialist.  In my experience, he’s been more discussed than read, a frequent footnote in literary criticism. I assumed that this was because he only wrote the Dictionary and, being a witty bon vivant and raconteur, was primarily known through Boswell’s biography.

Obviously, if you are a specialist in Johnson and the 18th century then you’ll be sniggering at my ignorance, and rightly so.

But if you, like me, were not aware of how amazing he was, then keep reading.  This entry will be an account of my time at the Johnson house and the details that have managed to stick in my head from the experience.

First, a word about the house. I love how they’ve curated it. The rooms are simply furnished, the walls adorned with prints and images of people who were important to Johnson’s life.  Rather than complicate the walls with lengthy explanations alongside each image, they’ve created small booklets of information to accompany the images that you can read while sitting comfortably at a table in each room.  I don’t know if the tables are period or not, but they look it, and anyway it feels right to sit and read in rooms where Johnson and his coterie would have sat, read, discussed and thought, versus moving through just another gallery of what used to be a famous person’s house.

In the first room I flipped through a binder of news articles of sundry Johnsonalia.  Two in particular caught my eye.  The first was by Virginia Woolf, and since she was already on my list of people whose traces I planned to stalk that day, I read the whole thing.  It was (of course) beautiful – an argument for secular sainthood, nominating Johnson for beatification on the 150th anniversary of his death.  She argued that he’s one of few writers who genuinely loved humanity in all of its forms and colors, beauty and flaws.  Most writers, she said, are singular, moody, mercurial and only like people insofar as they see themselves separate from them; subjects to write about.  But some, like Shakespeare and Johnson, really loved people. It shows in their writing, but it also shows in how the people have adopted them: cabbies in the 20th century, she wrote, would quote Johnson — and perhaps they still do.  Again, like Shakespeare, he’d entered into the collective imagination and the collective voice of the people.

My photo of Barber's portrait in Johnson's house

My photo of Barber’s portrait in Johnson’s house

I was intrigued. I thought of him as being very stodgy (if only because I think of everyone in the 18th century as being very stodgy), but I was very much open to being wrong. I read about the people pictured in that room. The most interesting to me was Johnson’s valet and heir, Francis Barber, a Jamaican who had been sent to Johnson as a recently-freed slave.  Johnson — a vocal abolitionist — certainly didn’t treat him as such.  He saw to it that Barber was properly educated and could keep up with Johnson’s crowd.  As Johnson died without children, Barber was made sole heir. He retired to Lichfield, the town where Johnson was from, married a white woman (a fact I found particularly surprising and heart-warming given the time period), started a school and raised a family.

One of Barber’s descendants was profiled in the second article that caught my eye in that room. He hadn’t known that he was a descendant of Barber’s, and – being outwardly white in appearance – was shocked to learn he had a slave ancestor.  Anyway, long before he knew of his relationship to Barber, he himself had done humanitarian work in parts of Africa and taken a young man under his wing whom he educated and supported and thought of as a son. So Barber’s descendant ended up mirroring Johnson’s beneficence 250 years later.

Wow. Only the first room, yet it was clear to me that Johnson’s legacy was much more formidable than I had realized.  There was a magnificent spirit present in those walls, someone whose mind and heart seem to have been far ahead of his time, and yet so much present within his time that his name, words and character would basically define it.  A true man of the Enlightenment.

View from the second story window. Wonder who among this crowd might have been part of 'The Club'?

View from the second story window. Wonder who among this crowd might have been part of ‘The Club’?

In the upper chambers I learned that, true to Woolf’s assessment, he surrounded himself with artists and thinkers, politicians and plebeians, movers and shakers of all sorts. He and Sir Joshua Reynolds would regularly hold club meetings at the Turk’s Head Tavern where they would surround the dinner table with a representative from a variety of fields – business, law, theology, art, music, and so forth – and they would put forth a controversial subject for the group to discuss, just to see what ideas might come forth (with only one verboten subject: politics). Women, too, were included in his circles, some whose opinions he very highly esteemed.

The uppermost room — his garret (or attic) — is where he and his troupe of amanuenses put together not the first, but the most comprehensive and thorough English dictionary. It may as well have been the first; the others had entries like: DOG, n., An animal with four legs. By that definition, cows and cats and ferrets could all go by the name of DOG. By today’s standards, Johnson’s Dictionary was also flawed as far as objectivity was concerned, but let’s give the guy some credit: the tome included nearly 43,000 words and around 114,000 quotations from major authors of the English language to illustrate a word’s usage in each definition. And he didn’t have Google to find the multiple references to the words, he had his own memory.

Impressive.

I sat in the garret by myself, looking up from the copy of Johnson’s dictionary on the table and out the window to the street below.  The room and street were both very still.  In my journal I wrote as I sat there, “I wish I could summon the ghosts.”  I wanted to be able to hear the noisy silence of the fervent writing, page flipping, the occasional “Aha!” at the discovery of the perfect quotation to illuminate a definition.  As it was, I contented myself with the quiet and allowed myself to absorb the special significance of the room.

Dr. Samuel Johnson was born in the early 1700s and died near the end of that century, so he was every inch a man of the 18th century, a century that I, in my studies, have always glossed over as that period between the Elizabethan/Jacobean/Restoration and the Victorian where lots happened in the world politically, but little seemed to interest me in terms of literature. Spending time with Johnson in his own house where the English language was consciously shaped and codified left me profoundly moved and deeply interested in learning more about the man, his writings and his era.

I really can’t recommend it highly enough: if you’re in London, please go visit Dr. Johnson’s house. You’ll be surprised by how much you learn

 

**My favorite anecdote, which I learned in my high school English class twenty years ago: Johnson was seated next to a woman at a dinner party.  When she got a whiff of his intense body odor (a fact which the exhibition confirms: he would go weeks without changing his clothes), she said, “Sir, you smell!”  To which the good doctor-grammarian replied, “No, madame: you smell; I stink.”

Here are some shots of the Johnson House’s materials.  Gives you a sense of the kind of thorough, yet very readable literature they have set out for your perusal as you move through the house.  The three pages pictured go together and should be read in succession for more information on Johnson’s Dictionary.

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TEACHING Shakespeare Through Performance

At play on the stage of the Bard

Teachers at play on the stage of the Bard

As I stated in my previous post, I had a blast learning about Shakespeare pedagogy this summer.  But I was already a Shakespeare devotee before this experience, and I’ve been performing as an actor/musician for most of my life, so it was sort of a given that I would tremble with a frisson of delight and wonder at regular intervals during the course of the three weeks.  That said, I wasn’t awarded a generous scholarship from the English Speaking Union so that I might go and have a personally fulfilling experience — it was granted to me that I might bring knowledge back to share with my students and my colleagues.  The programme, after all, is called Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance.

How, then, will my teaching be different this year?

Something the teaching artists and practitioners at the Globe stated on several occasions was that the exercises and theatre games we were playing were all born of the rehearsal room: vocal exercises meant to consciously connect the voice with movement; activities to help us embody archetypes to enhance performance; the encouragement to play the words completely differently than you did before. “We do this in preparation for all the shows here,” they told us.  We weren’t made to do watered-down versions of of the actor’s practice, we were treated as professional actors.

This ethos the first thing I will bring back to my classroom: I’m going to treat my students like they’re professional actors.  This seemed to help even the most reticent performers among us to break through the fear.

So did the scaffolding.  This is edu-speak for the way you build your lessons toward a final objective or goal, and it’s the aim of every educator in the course of our unit development to structure lessons so that each bit of information and each activity builds on what came before.  The educators at the Globe taught us ways to scaffold Shakespeare so that a student who felt totally stupid confronting his words for the first time (which is most of us, really) could be performing his works with total comprehension in a very short time.

How?

Start small.  Don’t give students the entire intimidating text right away.  Build up to it. Pull short, specific scenes to use with certain acting exercises and expand the students’ comfort zone.  Don’t be afraid to cut text to fit your students’ needs — don’t rewrite or change words, but remove the parts that are confusing, then reintroduce them in time. Help them towards early success with a text so that they won’t feel as resistant to it as you go.

Once you’ve got a chunk of text you can work with, there is any number of exercises you can do with it, many of which can be found in Creative Shakespeare by Fiona Banks.  Fiona was our programme director and she took us through many of the activities in the book as if we were the students.  I won’t go through all of them, but here’s one that I’ll definitely do with my students and will likely do with other teachers when I run professional development workshops.

In the book it’s called “Adam’s 10 Point Plan to Performance” (p. 174-184) and — in an extremely condensed description — it works like this.  You assign students into two groups and give each group a text with multiple roles (we used the thumb-biting quarrel from act one of Romeo and Juliet, cut so that young students could understand it).  Once the students have arranged themselves in a circle and assigned themselves roles, they proceed to read the text in a variety of ways and from a variety of positions around the room.  Each reading brings something new out of the performer, whether it be a sense of the rhythm of the words, the emotional value, their relationship to the other characters and the audience, appropriate movement.  By the tenth reading of the passage, your students will have created a fully-staged scene without realizing that’s what they were working towards all along.

This is just one of very many activities, techniques and strategies that we’ve been given to bring to the classroom, and the list could go on for many more blog entries than anyone would care to read.  Suffice it to say, this was one of the best professional development experiences I’ve had.  There are still several weeks to go before school starts back in New York, and I’m almost wishing it would get here sooner so that I could get started putting into practice everything I’ve learned.

Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance has given me not only the courage but the savvy to produce A Midsummer Night’s Dream with our drama club this year — my first time directing a Shakespeare play.  This, of course, means my drama classes will study it so that they’re prepped to see it; my hope is that by the end of the unit they’ll wish they had auditioned because it will be so much fun.  My English class will study Measure for Measure (as part of a semester exploring the concepts of Justice and Mercy, which, incidentally, was my plan before I learned that this was also the theme for the Globe’s season.  Synchronicity!) and Henry V (which we’ll see at BAM in April — I hope!). Most years I’ve taught only one Shakespeare play and usually slogged through it as a chore; this year we’ll take on three and I absolutely cannot wait — that’s how confident TSTP has made me feel!

So: confidence, know-how, strategies, activities, passion, fun.

That’s what I’ll be bringing back to the classroom.

 

 

Fun with Bill: Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance

To be or not to be?  Well, one thing is for certain: you have to just be and enjoy the moment before you can write about it.

To be or not to be? Well, one thing is for certain: you have to just be and enjoy the moment before you can write about it. (This is one of the walls in the staircase of the Sackler Studios at the Globe.

I believe it was Byron who advised writers never to write about an experience until it was fully past; trying to capture all the beauty and detail while in the midst of it keeps you from living the moment. (How he would hate our modern impulse to document each minute as it happens!)  In this spirit, I wasn’t as efficient a live-blogger of my time at the Globe as I had intended, but in the whirlwind of rehearsals, workshops and the establishment of new friendships with the many inspiring teachers who were part of the programme with me, I found myself too tired by the end of any given day to write very much.

At the moment I’m on the train from London to Paris where a whole new experience will commence, but I wanted to take some time to gather my thoughts and establish a bit of closure on the past three weeks.  (UPDATE: It’s been two weeks since I originally wrote this entry and my time in France is now over, too.  As in London, so in France: I was too immersed in the moment to write about it.)

It seems odd to feel the need for closure. Three weeks is not a long time. I’ve been part of classes with other people in the past for longer stretches of time and not felt more than a twinge of sadness when the inevitable end finally arrived. This was different.

For one thing, as participants in Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance, we arrived as teachers, but soon realized that we were to become actors. I suppose it should have been obvious through the name of the programme, but if you’re going to teach Shakespeare through performance, you’ll have to learn how to perform.

And so we were introduced to our tutors and guides, all of whom have either performed in Globe productions or work with the actors who do on their voices, movement, costumes, etc.  We spent hours in rehearsal building an ensemble that would present abstract scenes that would tie our small group scenes together. Our small group scenes were from As You Like It, and we spent even more hours of rehearsal preparing these.

In this way, we explored Shakespeare’s text and ideas on our feet. There were brief moments of textual analysis when the words were just too dense, but for the most part we made meaning with each other in rehearsal. We figured it out as we went along, moving and laughing the entire time.

Shakespeare, my friend.  (The Chandos Portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London.  This was the first portrait in the museum's entire collection, the one that started it all.  Appropriate.)

Shakespeare, my friend.
(The Chandos Portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London. This was the first portrait in the museum’s entire collection, the one that started it all. Appropriate.)

I can’t overstate this: it was so much fun and we learned many new techniques and ideas for approaching Shakespeare. Fun and learning, hand in hand, and with Shakespeare no less — who’d a thought?  We crammed a semester’s worth of study into three weeks and it hardly felt like work at all. In this brief time we spent so many hours laughing together, creating together, discovering together.

So. I can’t remember another 3-week period of my life where I’ve experienced so much personal, professional and artistic growth, all at once, and all derived from the same source, which happens to be the greatest writer in the English language and the stage for which he wrote.  Which is why I need some closure to really solidify everything this experience has meant to me.  The next several blog posts will aim to tackle this.