The gift of the Magi(c)

I distinctly remember the first time I read O’Henry’s Gift of the Magi as an adolescent. The bittersweet irony contained in the tale of two lovers sacrificing treasured possessions in order to purchase one another Christmas presents colored my view of relationships and of gift-giving ever since. As a girl, I loved receiving tangible gifts, but opening the packages, like in the O’Henry story, never lived up to the imagined expectation … until this past week.

The story begins last fall, when two women from UVA’s Health Science Center contacted me with an idea. Kate and Laurie work for the university in positions as American Sign Language interpreters for a Deaf UVA professor, his students, and others as the community has a need. They wanted to offer the professor a chance to take advantage of his proximity to the American Shakespeare Center, and, since they would already be doing the hours and hours of preparation demanded to execute a translation for him, they offered their time to interpret for the students of the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind, located in Staunton, as well. This gift of talent and time taught me a tremendous amount as I conferred with them and others about approaches to bringing Shakespeare to Deaf and blind audience members.

Within a short time of their contacting me, I was able to find grant funding through the National Endowment for the Arts Shakespeare in American Communities Grant that the OCS won for 2010-11, which not only allowed me to offer the students the opportunity to attend Macbeth for free but also provided enough support for OCS actors and Education artists to go to the school to prepare the students to see the play.

At OCS Education, we firmly believe that students need little help to understand Shakespeare. We, and the teachers who bring students to our shows, have found that if people have the opportunity to see good productions of early modern plays, they find the plays not only easy but also entertaining. We think that almost two century’s practice of removing Shakespeare from the context of the Playhouse for which he wrote his plays and placing his words in literature books and classrooms has created an atmosphere in which students think the plays have little to offer them and fear Shakespeare. We think that these symptoms are the result of a curriculum more concerned with his amazing (and it does amaze) poetry than with the fact that he was writing plays as entertainment, and, if we could, OCS Education would love to wake up a world in which every teacher teaches Shakespeare as a playwright, and–perhaps more importantly–gives every schoolchild the opportunity to experience his plays produced well by good actors and artists in playhouses like ours. But the students at VSDB challenged these firmly held beliefs and that challenge turns out to be a lovely gift.

Ralph has taught Cass and me to lead workshops and lectures that are all about seeing the stage and hearing what the text can offer actors and audience alike. We work with our colleagues in teacher seminars, at No Kidding Shakespeare Camp, and at conferences to help their students see the stage when they read the page. We emphasize, with word-for-word paraphrase exercises and rhetorical study, how wonderfully the sounds of the words make audience members think on multiple levels, and how the actor interacting with both his fellow cast mates and with audience members sharing the same light creates a multifaceted prism experience in a theatre. Did you notice how many sensory words I used in that description? As we prepared for the work ahead of us, each contributing member became more and more aware of how many words we use by course that do not fit with the experience our students would be having.

An O’Henry gift I had already received from our OCS intern David Techman made the trepidation around word choice much less prevalent. David is legally blind and, when he and the OCS on Tour actors — Kelley McKinnon, Johnathon Holzman, and Chad Bradford — were preparing a tour workshop, we all learned from David for the first time that there was a “language barrier.” Having never seen–or, rather, experienced– a play the way David does, I didn’t know the best way to phrase questions to get at his experience and to consider the best approach for the workshop. We muddled through and eventually discovered a workable language that relied on discussions of when stage action works–in short, it must be big enough to be clear, but specific enough to be believable. Interestingly enough, we discovered in our conversations that textually based information is often more effective than a director’s invention. For instance, David attended a Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare’s Globe in which Lavinia was raped with a dagger at the end, rather than just stabbed. This choice has no textual basis and it did not read at all to David, he found out the gist of the action only after the play’s end when his colleagues discussed it and he had an “a-ha” (though not an “uh-huh”) moment. Learning how to talk about “good fights” or good “moments” for David, helped us to figure out how to approach the workshop. When we finally met with the students, their enthusiasm and joy immediately pushed away any lingering doubt as they swash-buckled and died with gusto. Watching them enjoy the play a few days later was all the more vibrant for having seen them experience for themselves what the moments onstage felt like for the actors.

The day after sword-fighting with the visually-impaired, Cass and I returned to the school with our adviser and interpreter, Mike Ernst. Mike came to our rescue when we hosted our 2009 conference at the Blackfriars, and one of our scholars was Deaf. He bravely stepped in to interpret hours and hours of papers and shows — I never realized just how brave and kind he had been until the tables were turned at VSDB. American Sign Language is its own language, and, as such, our regular approaches to dwelling in Shakespeare’s words for workshops were not going to fly at VSDB. For one thing, as Mike, Kate, and Laurie patiently explained to Ralph and me, the play that the students and our other Deaf audience members would see was a translation. The action was all there, but the words and their arrangement were going to be different.

I, foolishly, had thought: “Well, the kids are reading the play, also we can still approach it in the same way we always would–use the text to stage a scene.” I thought we’d have a lot of fun with the banquet scene — the murderer, the ghost, the seeing and not-seeing. I thought we’d look at the text to find all of this out. When I arrived, I quickly found that the kids couldn’t look at the text and “listen” to me at the same time, so we adjusted. Rather than play the entire scene, we went for just the first 20 lines. 20 lines in a scene of Shakespeare is about one minute of playing time — and this is an exercise that we use often in our graduate program, as a great way to consider the infinite choices theatre offers.

And, boy, did we get some wonderful choices, but, boy, did we over plan for the time we had. The students eagerly jumped in as one of the VSDB interpreters, Rene, gamely balanced the room by placing himself opposite Mike so that a student in any position could visually link up with an interpreter, and so that we could work in “thrust.” Some of the choices they made were completely instructive — our Lady M in the second workshop busily gave instructions to the attendant so Macbeth would have impetus to speak “our hostess keeps her state.” Continuously, the kids came up with amazing solutions, though, sometimes, a little too amazing. In one instance of playwrighting, for example, that occurred in our first class –“ We can just have the murderer say….” Cass and I had to draw the line, citing meter, and authority of the text, but loving the heart behind it. That first group did add some action that, while not in the text, could have worked — the blood-thirsty murderer in that group, not satisfied with killing just Banquo and the other two villians in the previous scenes, upon his first entrance, also slashed the throat of the nearest servant and replaced him at the door. Surprising, dramatic, creative.

Then, they came to see it. They talked afterward about the choices the actors made versus the ones they figured out. They spoke with authority and passion about, yes, Shakespeare and the magic of Theatre. They inspired us with their passion and creativity and made us eager for the next opportunity to explore theatre with them. You can hear our actor’s responses to playing for them in our Macbeth podcast, you can chat with me anytime about my hopes to keep this relationship going–and the funding that will require. Meanwhile, I will relish remembering what a wonderful array of gifts we received. The generosity of Kate, Laurie, Mike, Kelley, Chad, Johnathon, Rene , and those wonderful students, all made our mission achievable for a new audience.

The American Shakespeare Center recovers the joy and accessibility of Shakespeare’s theatre, language, and humanity by exploring the English Renaissance stage and its practices through performance and education.

2 thoughts on “The gift of the Magi(c)

  1. I love it–particularly the reference to "Gift" at the beginning–and the way you tied the gifts of the students to that….Mom


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