I am pleased and proud to announce that all five of this year’s study guides for curriculum shows are live and loaded onto our website. Just visit our Educator Resources section for further information. We’ve completely revamped the guides this year, adding new material and upgrading old, so that these guides can be the best resource possible for teachers to draw from when taking their students through Shakespeare. Eventually, we hope to have a full set, one for each play in the canon; this year we’ve started with Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, As You Like It, and The Comedy of Errors. Why those five? The first two are from our resident season, currently running, the second two come are on the road with our touring company, and the last is in our Actors’ Renaissance Season, running January through April.
For anyone who has used OCS Study Guides before, here’s what’s changed, and for anyone who hasn’t used them before, here’s why you should:
We’re gearing the new guides towards getting students off of their feet to engage with the texts. Shakespeare belongs on a stage, not confined to the page, and so we’re helping teachers turn their classrooms into mini-theatres. We walk through the basics of Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions and encourage teachers to make theirs an “Elizabethan Classroom,” arranging the room to resemble a thrust stage. This setup allows students to explore the opportunities presented by the space — lights-on, working diagonals, audience contact, all the things that make Shakespeare so vibrant and alive at the Blackfriars Playhouse. We’re keying in on playable choices, on the opportunities Shakespeare offers an actor. Lots of the activities offer suggestions for playing a scene in two distinctly different ways as a means of examining the dynamics between characters. For example, in the opening scene of The Taming of the Shrew, how does the story change if Bianca is the spoiled brat her sister calls her instead of the meek and mild maiden that Lucentio sees? In As You Like It, how does an actively irritated Celia change the dynamic of “Ganymede” and Orlando’s wooing as compared to a passively observing Celia? Playing a scene in multiple ways offers students a chance of ownership of their choiecs and gives them an opportunity to read the text closely in order to make decisions about their actions and delivery. They get to decide what they think works and what doesn’t, what ideas flow with the text and which fight against it. Students can discover the infinite variety of possibilities that the text and the theatrical space offer, empowering them to make the play “their own,” vivid and immediate, rather than thinking of it as a distant and obscure relic.
Now, we know that not everyone has had directing training, and as much as teachers might be enthusiastic about the idea of getting kids on their feet, it’s not always easy to know what to do with them once they’re up there. It’s something I find hard to do on the spur of the moment — it’s all too easy to let them run the scene and then talk afterwards, but then you lose opportunities for redirection, which is where discovery and choices live. So, to combat the urge to just let the scene run without comment, we’ve provided a number of guides to scenes. The teacher’s copy of the text has a number of callout boxes along the side — one at least every four to eight lines, and often even more frequently — indicating places where a teacher can choose to pause the students running the scene. It may be to point out an embedded stage direction or an opportunity for audience contact, or to encourage a student to look closer at the scansion or rhetoric of a certain line, or to offer a suggestion for playing the moment a different way. Look at this preview example from the As You Like It study guide.
All of this work stems, of course, from the text itself, and we spend a lot of time in the guides helping teachers attack the nitty-gritty of the words. We have an activity aimed at making students familiar with scansion and iambic pentameter, as well as an activity which focuses on textual differences between editions of the text, to illustrate that the words have not been immutable through time. We also include a section rhetoric, to help students discover how Shakespeare constructed his words and lines to create a certain emotional effect on the stage. Engaging with the text in such a deep and focused way can open up so many incredible avenues of thought, and we want to put those tools in the students’ hands.
Possibly my favorite change to the guides is what we’ve done to the Perspectives section, which used to be called Viewpoints. Formerly, this section was sort of a vague, nebulous catch-all for miscellaneous activities. Now, we’ve focused it down to a specific purpose: to help your students draw connections between the world of the play, Shakespeare’s world, and their own world. In The Comedy of Errors, for example, the issue on the table is marriage, as I talked about in my last post. Another section in the same guide looks at the idea of adaptation, something Shakespeare certainly practiced and that writers do all the time today. In Othello, Perspectives looks at race relations, inside the play and in 16th century England, and asks teachers to make the brave choice to let their students talk about what makes that issue uncomfortable or difficult to talk about. In Macbeth, Perspectives looks at the rights ad responsibilities of a ruler, not just a medieval king or the monarchs in Shakespeare’s life time, but also in our own political system. These are just a few examples — I’m so pleased with how those sections turned out. I come from a strong background in historical studies, moreso than theatrical, and Perspectives gave me a great opportunity to stretch my research limbs.
Not only in Perspectives, but in other sections as well, we’ve also tried to create more cross-curriculum opportunities. The Comedy of Errors, for example, offers opportunities for classic teachers to get in on the Shakespearean fun, comparing the Latin source material to Shakespeare’s work. In As You Like It, one activity focuses on music. We even managed to work in a math crossover, in an activity related to cutting a play for performance, where students fill in a table of lines per scene and then determine what percentage of the play needs to be cut in order to make a certain time limit. Shakespeare doesn’t exist in a literary/theatrical vacuum; his plays have applications in so many different spheres, and we wanted to encourage that exploration.
Finally, for Virginia teachers (since most of the teachers who bring students to our shows are from our Commonwealth), we’ve added a section at the end which matches up each activity in the guide to corresponding Standards of Learning. We hope this will help with lesson planning and show that having to conform to standardized tests doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to just one way of approaching the material.
The end result of all of these changes and additions is that our new study guides are better than ever. We go deeper into the meat of the plays, encouraging teachers to have students explore scansion, rhetoric, and staging choices. Hopefully, these opportunities will make the plays vital and vivid for students in a way that dry text left to itself on the page doesn’t. Our goal isn’t just to get kids to test well on Shakespeare — we want them to love it. I enjoyed putting these together so much that I can’t wait to start on next year’s — Julius Caesar, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry V.
With all of that said, I’d like to take the opportunity to plug our study guide video contest: If you’re a teacher using our study guides in your classroom, film your students engaging in an activity from one of the guides, and you could win tickets for you and your class to attend a student matinee of The Comedy of Errors this winter. Further information is available on our website.