A little video compilation I put together to celebrate my 40th birthday and my Grandma Mary’s 80th.
120 years, collectively, and we’re rollin’…
A little video compilation I put together to celebrate my 40th birthday and my Grandma Mary’s 80th.
120 years, collectively, and we’re rollin’…
During Spring Break 2018 I’ll be leading a group of students to Ireland and the UK. I’m really excited about this particular trip because I’m planning to align my English curriculum to it, unlike the first trip I planned in 2010. That trip abroad was to London and should have linked effortlessly to what I teach, but, being my first student trip, I was too much of a newbie organizer to connect it with my teaching — I just wanted to make sure it went off without a hitch.
Only six students attended that particular trip, and this trip already has sixteen — I’ve gotten better at recruiting. But I want to take even more than that, especially since so many of my English students will be studying curriculum designed especially for the trip, it would be a waste if I couldn’t bring as many of them along as possible.
So I’ve established a scholarship that will allow us to bring two to four more students along for the ride.
Please consider making a donation to the cause and helping students experience the world. You can do so by visiting our GoFundMe page. And click here if you’re interested in seeing our itinerary (just don’t enroll, please, without permission!).
And while you’re at it, check out this video from our trip to Greece in 2016 so you can get a sense of what an enriching experience student travel can be.
Be sure to read/look at the previous entry if you haven’t already. It explains my purpose with this post. As before, 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.
[Bill] wrote that Vienna was wonderful. Then a card from Budapest: “Jake, Budapest is wonderful.” (76)
At the juncture of the Rue Denfert-Rochereau with the Boulevard is a statue of two men in flowing robes. (78)
“Is she really Lady something or other?” Bill asked in the taxi on our way down to the Ile Saint Louis. (82)
We walked along under the trees that grew out over the river on the Quai d’Orléans side of the island. (82)
We walked on and circled the island. The river was dark and a bateau mouche went by, all bright with lights, going fast and quiet up and out of sight under the bridge. Down the river was Notre Dame, squatting against the night sky. We crossed to the left bank of the Seine by the wooden foot-bridge from the Quai de Bethune, and stopped on the bridge and looked down the river at Notre Dame. Standing on the bridge the island looked dark, the houses were high against the sky and the trees were shadows. (83)
“Say, there’s plenty of Americans on this train,” the husband said. “They’ve got seven cars of them from Dayton, Ohio. They’ve been on a pilgrimage to Rome, and now they’re going down to Biarritz and Lourdes.” (91)
The train stopped for half an hour at Bordeaux and we went out through the station for a little walk. (94)
Bayonne is a nice town. It is like a very clean Spanish town and it is on a big river…We went out into the street and took a look at the cathedral. (96)
We past lots of Basques with oxen, or cattle, hauling carts alnog the road, and nice farmhouses, low roofs, and all white-plastered. In the Basque country the land all looks very rich and green and the houses and villages look well-off and clean. Every village had a pelota court and on some of them kids were playing in the hot sun. There were signs on the walls of the churches saying it was forbidden to play pelota against them, and the houses in the villages had red tiled roofs… (97)
Then we crossed a wide plain, and there was a big river off on the right shining in the sun from between the line of trees, and away off you could see the plateau of Pamplona rising out of the plain, and the walls of the city, and the great brown cathedral, and the broken skyline of the other churches. In back of the plateau were the mountains, and every way you looked there were other mountains, and ahead the road stretched out white across the plain going toward Pamplona. (99)
At the end of the street I saw the cathedral [of Pamplona] and walked up toward it. The first time I ever saw it I thought the facade was ugly but I liked it now. (102)
We sat in the Iruña [cafe] for a while and had coffee and then took a little walk out to the bull-ring… (105)
We’re going trout fishing in the Irati River… (108)
As we came to the edge of the rise we saw the red roofs and white houses of Burguete ahead strong out on the plain, and away off on the shoulder of the first dark mountain was the gray metal-sheathed roof of the monastery of Roncesvalles. (114)
In the evenings we played three-handed bridge with an Englishman named Harris, who had walked over from Saint Jean Pied de Port and was stopping at the inn for the fishing. (130)
They’ve never seen a desencajonada. (136)
For the following quotations, see the videos below:
At noon of Sunday, the 6th of July, the fiesta [of San Fermin] exploded. (156)
Before the waiter brought the sherry the rocket that announced the fiesta went up in the square. It burst and there was a gray ball of smoke high up above the Theatre Gayarre. (157)
People were coming into the square from all sides, and down the street we heard the pipes and the fifes and the drums coming. They were playing the riau-riau music, the pipes shrill and the drums pounding, and behind them came the men and boys dancing. (157)
The afternoon was a big religious procession. San Fermin was translated from one church to another. In the procession were all the dignitaries, civil and religious. (158-9)
[Pedro Romero, the matador] was the best-looking boy I’ve ever seen. (167)
“No. I can stay another week. I think I’ll go to San Sebastian.” (232)
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.
We had dined at l’Avenue’s and afterward went to Café de Versailles. (14)
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)
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)
We went out to the Café Napolitain to have an apéritif and watch the evening crowd on the Boulevard. (21)
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)
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)
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)
We were sitting now like two strangers. On the right was the Parc Montsouris. (35)
“Café Select,” I told the driver. “Boulevard Montparnasse.” (35)
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)
The horse-chestnut trees in the Luxembourg gardens were in bloom. (43)
From the Madeleine I walked along the Boulevard des Capucines to the Opéra, and up to my office. (43)
At five o’clock I was in the Hotel Crillon waiting for Brett. (48)
It was three days ago that Harvey had won two hundred francs from me shaking poker dice in the New York Bar. (49)
Finally we went up to Montmartre. Inside Zelli’s it was crowded, smoky, and noisy. (69)
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).
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.