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.