I play for Shakespeare

I am among the fortunate group of people who can claim “I work for Shakespeare.” Strangely, that statement is often used, almost, defensively–as in “We all work for the same guy, let’s stop competing.” This past week, however, at UC Davis outside of Sacramento, California, I had the pleasure of celebrating with my fellows from other Shakespeare companies the fact that we all engage with the plays for a living (or, we play for work). This meeting of minds and practice, called Shakespeare Works when Shakespeare Plays (and the brain-child of Patrick Spottiswoode at Shakespeare’s Globe in London), renewed me in ways I will continue to use for as long as the memory lives.

Memory is a funny thing. Though I work for Shakespeare, a writer whom many people can quote with ready abandon at the slightest provocation, I have never been one to hold onto his exact words for long. I have played a few parts in my time. I have directed several productions. And I talk all the time about our OCS actors’ portrayals of specific moments in the plays. Yet, the sentence “I’m paraphrasing here” is probably the most frequently used in my collection. This weekend, however, I re-discovered what physicalization can do for memorization. I was reminded what playing–really playing–can do to help your brain hold onto a line. Kevin Coleman, from Shakespeare & Company, based in Lenox, MA,took the 80 teachers at the conference through a workshop titled “Air Broadswords.” After we all learned the defensive moves, the aggressive moves, the killing blow, and the dying, we put the action together with lines from Macbeth,

MACDUFF Turn, Hell-hound, turn.
MACBETH Of all men else, I have avoided thee.
But get thee back! My soul is too much charg’d
with blood of thine already.
MACDUFF I have no words, my voice is in my sword.

I have been repeating that last line to myself all weekend, and thinking of all of the lovely metaphors and connections Shakespeare concocts with 10 beats of iambic pentameter.

Not surprisingly, iambic pentameter figured heavily into Ralph’s plenary presentation called “Bill’s Advice to Dick: Clues for Actors (and Students) in the Text.” Teachers were delighted to hear the methods our actors engage with in their preparation for a role at OCS, and to discover ways to engage those practices in their classrooms. The teachers split up for workshops: mine, Asides and Audience Contact, built on Ralph’s ideas, while Kevin Costa, from the Folger Shakespeare Library, worked with teachers on pre-reading activities next door. Across the courtyard, our friends from LA Shakes, Oregon Shakespeare, and Shakespeare’s Globe engaged teachers by helping them learn to find tactics for differentiation, to do instead of to read, and to work with archetypes, respectively. Rebecca Ennals, from San Francisco Shakes, opened the conference with a plenary session which asked students to engage with visual elements in the exploration of the text . The teachers enthusiastically responded to the workshops, but I think if pressed, they would concur that the most enjoyable part of the weekend was the jig taught to them by Sian Williams of Shakespeare’s Globe.

Like the OCS presenters, Sian drew on contemporary (and historical) Globe practices to engage the teachers in a concert of movement. Teaching anyone to move to music is a challenge unto itself, but putting together two dances with 80 participants in less than 2 hours is an amazing feat. As I watched the rehearsals and talked to my colleagues about the glowing joy exuding from the participants’ faces, I tried to suss out what makes us so responsive to dancing. I don’t think it was about taking it back to the classroom–I think it was a very “in the moment” experience–much like the joy an actor would find in a discovery onstage. It seemed like the teachers weren’t thinking about anything but their motion, about the movement to get from the step they were on to the next one–and so they let go of all of the crowdings of life for that moment. Rather than being concerned about themselves singly, they were engaging with the collaboration of the other bodies onstage–helping their dance partners to look good by doing their own jobs. I think they were relishing the music telling them what to do (instead of their bosses), the grace and beauty every body can express (with just a little nudge), the gift of power imbued by appreciating audience eyes.

These feelings, linked to the performance of dance, are transferable to performance of many kinds, including performance in a classroom. When we give our teachers tools to create safe performance explorations in their classrooms, we give students a chance at the gift of grace, beauty, discovery, a glow of joy, power, appreciation, and collaboration. Are these traits useful only in the arts? Only with Shakespeare? No. We need our students, our future leaders, to learn the traits of humanity Shakespeare painted for his actors in rich and lasting characters. And performance is the surest way to unlock them all. Shakespeare works when Shakespeare plays could easily be called People work when People play. So, I’m going to change my mantra to “I play for Shakespeare” and see where that takes me.

P.S. Speaking of playing, some of the best times during the weekend were just being silly with people who love Shakespeare as much as I do, quoting the plays at one another, singing Sondheim (the Broadway Musical’s Shakespeare) and The Fantasticks, pulling up Edna St Vincent Millay on our iPads, and reading poetry aloud. Nothing better than playing with your workmates.

-Sarah Enloe