Myths and Hymns

I’m long overdue in sharing this, but my chorus, MasterVoices, is producing something incredibly special this season: Adam Guettel’s “Myths & Hymns” presented in four chapters. The piece thoughtfully places Greek myths alongside freshly orchestrated Episcopalian hymns to meditate on the ways we strive — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — to bring meaning into our lives: through Flight, Work, Love and Faith.

“Chapter 1: Flight” premiered a month ago, and I think it’s one of the most impressive performances I’ve been a part of. It includes six pieces, each presented as a video, each video directed by a different talent, and featuring a truly remarkable array of soloists from Renee Fleming (!!!) & Kelli O’Hara of the opera & Broadway worlds, to Take 6 of gospel and a cappella fame, and many others you may recognize if you’re a regular theatergoer in NYC…or, if you’re not, then they’ll be new voices for you to discover! (And, of course, if you pay attention, you’ll spot me a few times; vocally I contributed to all of the songs except for the opening piano duet and Pegasus ūüôā )

If you enjoy this (and I’m confident you will), consider joining our watch party for “Chapter 2: Work” on YouTube, February 24th, starting at 6:30pm. Also, if you enjoy this, please consider making a donation. The video is completely free, but, as I’m sure you know, the arts — and performance arts in particular — have been hit hard during the pandemic. MasterVoices has done a lot to keep people working and producing inspiring, joyful pieces like this one, but with no ticket sales this season we’re depending on individuals to give freely — and any amount helps! (Donation links are in the video description). And now (finally!) I give you, Flight!

Notes from a Pandemic

Looking ahead.

The clever reader will notice that my last blog post was from February 2019, nearly two years ago, so my absence from this site cannot be attributed to the covid-19 pandemic that ignited the now clich√© “dumpster fire” that was Anno Domini 2020. No, it’s had much more to do with the fact that, simply put, I had nothing to say. Or, rather, nothing to say that I felt like sharing. It wasn’t just my blog either. I haven’t revised the novel I worked on so painstakingly. I’ve barely even written in my physical, personal journal, which has been a matter of habit for decades. I suppose I’ve been on retreat for the last two years or so, very much engaged with the people who are physically in my life and intimately connected to me, but approaching society at large — and social media — with a permanently raised eyebrow.

2020 didn’t help much.

And let’s face it, 2021 isn’t off to a very auspicious start, but after sitting out awhile, I feel like putting my toe in the water to check the temperature, and maybe I’ll dive back in.

My goal, if I can see this through, is to write about books and wine and theatre and art just as before, with a special emphasis on my own creative projects and what they mean to me, why it is I feel compelled to write and produce and make them.

The difference with this go around is that there will be a lot of focus on knitting. I can’t tell you how many miles of yarn I’ve shaped into garments while in lockdown, but I can tell you that, whereas my desire to write diminished in the past year, it was replaced by a desire to make things by hand and to revisit an art form I learned how to do fifteen years ago, but have only now begun to inch towards mastery.

The desire to make things led to a desire to show them off to people who would appreciate them. In order to do this, I created an instagram account (@knitphen) almost exclusively dedicated to following people involved in the fiber arts. Interactions with other knitters, crocheters, dyers and makers of all sorts really pushed my skills forward and made my stance towards social media soften a bit. So here I am, back at it on the blog, with a focus on sharing and growth, inspiring and being inspired by others.

Let’s get (re)started.

‘Babes’ in Review

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Look two heads to the right of Kelli O’Hara, hovering over the female cellist in the second row of the chorus: c’est moi!¬†

Our two performances of Victor Herbert’s¬†Babes in Toyland¬†took place this past week at Carnegie Hall and the Tilles Center; the reviews are in, and — by and large — they’re all great! ¬†I want to contribute my thoughts to the conversation with the chorister’s-eye-view of the experience, but it’s late on a school night, so for the moment let it suffice that I merely round up the official opinions.

Broadway World

Theaterscene

Berkshire Fine Arts

Classical Source

La Scena

Huffington Post

Voce di Meche

ZealNYC

 

The Sun Also Rises, Book One — in pictures!

Something that helped me to get through The Sun Also Rises this time around (my third attempt…) was to read it as a travel book. ¬†In the years since my second attempt at the novel, I’ve had the good fortune to travel to Paris several times. ¬†Those trips really helped me to visualize and enjoy the beginning of the book (which, in my opinion, is the most difficult part) much more. ¬†While I can’t bring students to France merely for the sake of enjoying a single work of literature (#teachergoals…), I can replicate here in this blog post what I did the entire time I was reading the book: pull out my phone to look up images of the places Hemingway name-dropped.

In other words, I used my smart phone to…you know…make myself smarter.

Hemingway is famous for following his early mentor Ezra Pound’s diktat eschewing adjectives. ¬†He describes scenes with action mostly, but does do an awful lot of name-dropping of places. ¬†I can’t imagine he expected his audience back home in the States to know what the places he named looked like. ¬†His intention was probably to say “This glamourous place with this sexy foreign name exists, and I’ve been there, and aren’t you just so jealous?” ¬†He might not have been quite that arrogant, but it is true that his writings for the Toronto Star and the writings of other American expats in Paris did much to contribute to Paris’s (and France’s…and Spain’s…) romantic allure, which thereby led to increased tourism that over-saturated the city with Americans and Brits, and caused the original expat community to shudder and look for the next great hipster beehive.

Anyway, I digress (was that last sentence a wee too judgy?). ¬†My point is this: We don’t need a ticket on the QEII and a million dollars and two months of time to follow in his footsteps the way his original audience would have; all we need is Google.

So this post will try to illustrate as much of the book as possible in order to help students develop a mental picture of the setting.  Page numbers refer to the First Scribner trade paperback edition, 2003.  All photos, unless they are mine, were pulled from the internet, so if one belongs to you and you would prefer that I remove it, just let me know and I will.

PARIS (Book One)

We had dined at l’Avenue’s and afterward went to Caf√© de Versailles. (14)

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I’m sick of Paris, and I’m sick of the Quarter. (19) ¬†
(NB: “The Quarter” refers to the neighborhood of Montparnasse that was the hub of the American expat scene in the 1920s, not to the Latin Quarter (as I mistakenly thought)

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This is a view from the Montparnasse Tower that was not there during Hemingway’s day. ¬†Too bad for him.

Then I sorted out the carbons, stamped on a by-line, put the stuff in a couple of big manila envelopes and rang for a boy to take them to the Gare St. Lazare.  (20)

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Gare St. Lazare.  (Gare is French for train station.  Paris has quite a few.)

We went out to the Café Napolitain to have an apéritif and watch the evening crowd on the Boulevard.  (21)

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We turned off the Avenue up the Rue des Pyramides, through the traffic of the Rue de Rivoli, and through a dark gate into the Tuileries.  (23)

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The Joan of Arc statue where the Rue des Pyramides meets the Rue de Rivoli

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The ferris wheel in the Tuileries, which is the giant park in front of the Louvre Museum that runs along the River Seine.

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Your humble blogger in front of the Louvre Pyramid.

The dancing club was a bal musette in the Rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève.  Five nights a week the working people of the Pantheon quarter danced there. (27)

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A bal musette (i.e., A dance club)

The taxi went up the hill, passed the lighted square, then on into the dark, still climbing, then levelled out onto a dark street behind St. Etienne du Mont, went smoothly down the asphalt, passed the trees and the standing bus at the Place de la Contrescarpe, the turned onto the cobbles of the Rue Mouffetard.  (33)

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The Church of St. Etienne du Mont

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Panorama of the Place de la Contrescarpe

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Rue Mouffetard

We were sitting now like two strangers.  On the right was the Parc Montsouris. (35)

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Parc Montsouris

“Caf√© Select,” I told the driver. ¬†“Boulevard Montparnasse.” ¬†(35)¬†

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I went out onto the sidewalk and walked down toward the Boulevard St. Michel, passed the tables of the Rotonde, still crowded, looked across the street at the Dome, its tables running out to the edge of the pavement. ¬†Some one waved at me from a table, I did not see who it was and went on. ¬†I wanted to get home. ¬†The Boulevard Montparnasse was deserted. ¬†Lavigne’s was closed tight, and they were stacking the tables outside the Closerie des Lilas. ¬†I passed Ney’s statue standing among the new-leaved chestnut trees in the arc-light. ¬†(37)

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La Closerie des Lilas (Hemingway used this particular cafe as his office.  Waiters in France will never make you get up and leave.)

leDome

Le Dome, a major cafe in the American expat scene. Hemingway hated it; too gossipy.

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La Rotonde, another major expat cafe.

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Ney’s Statue in Montparnasse near Closerie des Lilas. ¬†Marshal Ney was a military commander during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

The horse-chestnut trees in the Luxembourg gardens were in bloom.  (43)

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Le Jardin du Luxembourg

From the Madeleine I walked along the Boulevard des Capucines to the Opéra, and up to my office.  (43)

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The Madeleine is a church that is built to resemble a Greek temple. It’s incredible.

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I took this photo inside the Madeleine, August 2015

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The famed Paris Opera House

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Inside the Opera

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As a Drama teacher I’d be remiss not to point out that the Paris Opera is where The Phantom of the Opera takes place.

At five o’clock I was in the Hotel Crillon waiting for Brett. ¬†(48)

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The Hotel de Crillon. Not too shabby!

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Inside the hotel, where Jake was supposed to meet Brett.

It was three days ago that Harvey had won two hundred francs from me shaking poker dice in the New York Bar. (49)

Harrys-New-York-Bar-Paris-photo-by-Jonathan-Savoie_1200Harry's

Finally we went up to Montmartre. ¬†Inside Zelli’s it was crowded, smoky, and noisy. (69)

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My grandmother, Mary, in front of the iconic Sacre Coeur church atop Montmartre.  Montmartre is a hillside neighborhood famous for attracting artists an bohemians the generation before Hemingway.

And there you have it: The Sun Also Rises, Book One.

As a bonus, and unrelated to the book, here are a few shots of my students in Paris (April 2015) as well as videos of myself in France (July 2014 & August 2015; video credits to Gabino).

Versailles

Versailles

Versailles fountain

Versailles

Isaiah

Notre Dame

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Pigeons at Notre Dame

Zarriea

 

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 A¬†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 ‚Äď 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‚Äôs important to note here that I hadn‚Äôt told them anything about the scene (and even though they had their scripts, very few ‚Äď if any ‚Äď had read the entire thing all the way through). I didn‚Äôt prep them by explaining the situation the characters were in, and I didn‚Äôt 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…

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The Great Chain of Being (1579)

Our third activity during the first rehearsal was a status ‚Äúgame‚ÄĚ (also detailed in Creative Shakespeare). While it‚Äôs meant to get the students thinking about the status of certain characters in relation to other characters, they can‚Äôt help but observe the game‚Äôs relevance to their own lives.

The instructions are simple: each student gets a card, but they can‚Äôt look at it ‚Äď 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.

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.