“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.

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Justice & Mercy

Well, we’re a week into Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance and all I can say is, “Wow!”

(Actually, that’s not true — I’ve got a bit more to say…)

I didn’t realize how much I needed this experience.  I’m definitely not burnt out after twelve years of teaching, but I have gotten set in my ways.  I’d change texts from one semester to the next, true, but not always tactics.  When I consider all the things I’ve learned in this week, how much more engaging my lessons will be in September, I feel guilty: I could have been doing such a better job for years now.  I let myself stop growing as a teacher.

But, as Richard II so callously says in the two-and-a-half lines he takes to eulogize his uncle, John of Gaunt, immediately after hearing of his death, “So much for that.”  Not that I mean to be callous, but where will bemoaning my faults get us?  Nowhere.  Let’s move on.

I’ll get into the details of the programme and what I’ve learned, but the first thing I want to do is write about the plays we’ve seen.  At this point, we’ve attended all of the Globe-produced plays that we’re going to experience (still have Richard III tomorrow, but it’s a Chinese touring company — should be amazing, but it isn’t a part of the Globe’s repertoire this season).

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These are the Globe programs. They’re so thorough; excellent teaching resources. British theatres don’t provide programs for free the way American ones do — they cost four pounds — but they’re far more substantial in terms of information. If your brain is still playing over the performance long after the final bow, these will help you as you continue to think about it all. I highly recommend them.

The current offerings are united thematically by the concepts of justice and mercy.  They include:

  • A duke who has allowed the laws to become lax, so he leaves town and empowers a regent who decides it’s high time the laws be enforced as written, even if it means executing anyone caught having sex outside of wedlock.
  • A king, divinely appointed, who has used his land and people as his personal bank account, living extravagantly on the country’s dime until he is called out and punished for it — and learns the true value of his life.
  • A princess banished for the supposed sins of her father, who finds the power in banishment to arrange people, events and outcomes as she likes them to be.

I’ve got quite a bit to say about each one, but I’ll take them one at a time (along with the additional performances I’ve been privileged to see here: The Death of King Arthur, The Beaux Stratagem, and, hopefully, Everyman).  

Let’s get started!

Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance – Day 1

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Fiona Banks, our Course Director, teaching us about the new Sam Wanamaker space.

Today was the first day of our coursework here at the Globe.

Wow.  In this single day I feel like I’ve learned enough to revamp my teaching of Shakespeare and Dramatic Arts to merit the price of tuition…and there are 20 more days to go!  But rather than catalogue the fantastic ensemble-building exercises we learned from Colin Hurley, who recently played in the all-male Twelfth Night/Richard III on Broadway, I want to reflect on the talk given by Patrick Spottiswoode, the Director of Education here at the Globe who worked with founder Sam Wanamaker from the beginning, before they’d even broken ground to build the theater.

According to Patrick, Sam made his name in radio soap operas in Chicago and New York before being offered work in the UK.  He might have returned to live in the US but for the fact that he’d made Sen. McCarthy’s infamous list and his friends told him to stay in the UK for the time being.  Because he listened to them, the UK benefitted from his work at setting up the nation’s very first Arts Center (in Liverpool, I think he said…), and eventually he got the idea to recreate Shakespeare’s famed Globe Theatre.  The project met opposition from all sides: from the political left and right, from the arts establishment folk to the “who-cares-about-Shakespeare?” philistines. Their reasons were many, but among them were the fact that the visionary Wanamaker was an American son of Ukrainian Jews and the chief architect, Theo Crosby, was South African (who were these foreigners to tell the Brits about Shakespeare?).  But they were tenacious, and now it’s here.  The Globe has now been open since 1997 and is now a beloved point of pilgrimage for Shakespeare devotees the world over.

The Heavens of the Sam Wanamaker

The Heavens of the Sam Wanamaker

In a sad twist of fate, neither Sam nor Theo lived to see the Globe’s opening.  They did, however, dream of one day building an indoor theatre that would be a functioning replica of one of the earliest 17th century indoor theatres (the next generation after the open air theatres like the Globe).  That day came last year when the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opened alongside the Globe.  It’s built according to the oldest surviving plans for an indoor theatre that anyone can find.  There’s no evidence that any theatre was built using those plans prior to now (they seem to have been drawn up but then put aside for whatever reason), but it clearly matches general descriptions of the theatres that existed at the time.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is stunning.  In our group of teachers there are several who have been to London many times and some for whom it’s their first visit.  One teacher of the latter group was so moved by the experience of seeing the Globe for the first time that she cried.  I thought, “Awww, bless her!  Wouldn’t it be nice if I could feel that feeling all over again?”  I was at the Globe shortly after it opened and have visited several times since then.

Teachers looking up.

Teachers looking up.

But I’d never seen the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until today.  I can’t even tell you why it moved me so much, but as soon as we stepped inside I had a feeling of being transported in time, even more than I feel in the Globe.  It’s candlelit and incredibly intimate; much smaller than the Globe — I can only imagine what the dynamic between actor and audience must be like in a space like that.  I won’t have to imagine for long though: not only will we see a performance there, we’re going to be the first teacher group to perform in the space!  Before coming here, I was giddy at the prospect of performing on the Globe stage, and I still am. But I knew nothing of the Sam Wanamaker stage: even if I’d known we’d perform on it, it wouldn’t have meant anything to me.  Now I’m giddy for two performances!

Me getting all weepy.

Me getting all weepy.

So anyway, I cried.  The story of what it took to create the space, from the visionaries who dreamt it, to the plans drawn up 400 years earlier that sat quietly awaiting their day, to the incredible words of Shakespeare that continue to motivate people to dream and build and create and perform…it was too much for me.

I’m proud, excited and extremely grateful to have a moment on these stages and be a part of their stories.