Finding Shakespeare in ‘Serial’

In November, I read a blog post by Mike Godsey, a California teacher who became so frustrated by teaching Shakespeare to his students that he decided to ditch the world’s most prolific playwright, structuring his English class instead around Serial, the recent hit podcast spinoff of NPR’s This American Life.

Serial is a 12-part podcast in which listeners hear part of a single story told week by week – in a serial format. The first season featured a journalistic investigation of a 1999 Baltimore murder case. Hae Min Lee, a popular student at Woodlawn High School, disappeared after school one day. Police found her body in a park several weeks later. The cause of her death was manual strangulation. A jury found her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, guilty of her murder. As the podcast reveals, however, the evidence against Adnan was scant. Along with the podcast, the Serial website provides digital copies of various pieces of evidence, timelines, maps, and call logs.

I came across Mr. Godsey’s post while I and the rest of our OCS Education team were attending the National Council of Teachers of English conference in Washington, DC. We were surrounded by thousands of English teachers, hundreds of whom were clambering for resources and professional training in how to revitalize their love of teaching Shakespeare, while also finding methods for reaching their students on a different level – a level that would engage them as much as Serial intrigued millions of attentive weekly listeners.

My reaction to the post was one of both delight and disappointment. My husband and I dedicated our Thursday evenings to Serial, turning our living room into a classic radio-listening den à la the days of FDR’s fireside chats. I was delighted that another teacher had found in Serial the same qualities that I admired in the podcast and had taken steps to introduce his students to the riveting journalism of Sarah Koenig and her producers. I didn’t go one day without wondering whether Adnan was innocent, if we would hear more about Jay’s testimony during the next episode, or if an entirely new twist would surface from the legal team’s research at the University of Virginia, just 40 minutes from our own Blackfriars Playhouse.

What disappointed me, however, was that this teacher did not seem to make the connection that we love Serial because we also love Shakespeare. Shakespeare may not have been a journalist trying to solve a twisted murder case, but he knew how to keep an audience’s attention through the swelling drama of his tragedies and the laugh-‘til-you-burst scenarios of his comedies, and the true-to-life circumstances when tragedy and comedy collide. Ira Glass might not be a fan, but we certainly owe all due credit to the playwright from Stratford for the drama craze that is so ingrained in our culture and modern media.

Mr. Godsey outlined 8 reasons behind his syllabus overhaul:

  1. The teacher (me) doesn’t know how the story ends
    Whenever I teach a novel for the first time, the students believe they might be answering my questions and solving problems in original ways. No matter how much I fake it, however, they can tell when I’m teaching Hamletfor the eighth straight year. TeachingSerial is even better than teaching a book for the first time – the story is literally not finished yet, so they know I don’t know the answers.
  2. The non-fiction “murder mystery” genre makes it more conducive to problem-solving
    We want our students to be critically thinking problem solvers, and Reading Standard 7 of the Common Core State Standards specifically asks students to combine multiple sources to solve a problem or question. “How much should we believe Jay’s story?” is an interesting, real-life question that could literally be solved; student engagement with this question is much higher than, say, “Should Hamlet listen to his father’s ghost?”

Any well-prepared teacher will know the ending of the story they are teaching, but knowing the end of the story is not the same as knowing the answers to questions about the story. Students may respond positively to questions about Serial that they can explore on their own by listening to the podcast: “How does Serial expose the flaws of our justice system?” or “What possible motives does Sarah propose to explain the inconsistencies of Jay’s testimonies?” Teaching students to mine the text for clues, like actively listening to the podcast, will empower them with the tools they need to decipher questions about the play without the teacher having all the answers.

When students encounter Shakespeare for the first time, they have just as many opportunities to make new discoveries and to propose original solutions to the play’s problems as their teacher does. Teaching Shakespeare using his original Staging Conditions allows students and teachers to examine the text in ways that demand innovative solutions and problem-solving strategies. Your students will surprise you every time they start to reevaluate characters based on subtle shifts in Shakespeare’s verse, or when they propose five different ways to stage the first scene of Hamlet after they learn to recognize embedded stage directions. Our co-founder and Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen has been teaching Shakespeare using these methods for over 40 years and still makes new discoveries about the plays he teaches.

  1. Serial is hip and fresh
    My students really, really don’t care about what a dead critic thinks about Hamlet’s sexual feelings for his own mother, but they definitely take notice when women are tweeting about how they’re looking for men who have an opinion on Adnan.
  2. My students’ opinions might actually matter on social networking sites. Or in my class. Or in real life
    Nobody on the internet really cares about their thoughts on Hamlet’s suicidal tendencies, and after eight years, I frankly don’t either (I’ve pretty much heard them all). But in this case, there’s a good chance they can blow my mind by uncovering a clue, and even a (very small) chance that their research could help bring justice to an imprisoned man.

If you think Shakespeare isn’t hip and fresh, think again. The teens that come to the OCS Theatre Camp would certainly convince you otherwise. “The Hollow Crown” BBC series is still drawing attention even three years later, with over 11.3k followers on Twitter. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch are two heartthrobs getting international acclaim for their Shakespeare performances, and even Johnny Depp is developing a new TV series based on Shakespeare’s plays.

Students’ opinions about Shakespeare absolutely matter, and encouraging students to share their opinions with others is key to developing their critical discussion skills and self-confidence. Pair up with a class at another school that is covering the same play and use Tumblr or Google Communities to inspire student discussion and interaction; have your students send Shakespearean actors and scholars questions about their work through Twitter; create a Pinterest board for your next production and let your students post and share their design inspirations and dramaturgical research. Your students will be delighted to see when others start reposting their Tweets or sharing their Pins.

  1. The multimedia aspect encourages (requires) the students to synthesise information from a variety of sources
    Yes, I know we can watch Shakespeare on YouTube and make models of the Globe Theatre, but this does not compare to Serial‘s collection of documents and photos. Not only does this multimedia aspect really help with the state standards and 21st-century skills, it’s just a good time. Maps, call logs, Google Maps, handwritten letters…it’s fantastically fun and totally engaging. Today we put the Google Maps street view on the big screen and “drove” the exact route that Adnan allegedly took from his school to Best Buy. Creepy, but engaging. Speaking of which…
  2. They actually listen to the story
    Sorry, but the kids these days are not doing the homework like we imagine we did when we were in high school. Their SparkNotes (on their phones) are in their pockets at all times. Even at university, my friend (an English professor) says that students are watching the movie on their iPads while he lectures on Much Ado About NothingIn this case, the students say “Wait, Mr Godsey. Can you play back that last 10 seconds?” about every 10 minutes.

Shakespeare’s plays are inherently multimedia-based. Shakespeare’s actors used cue scripts, containing only their character’s lines and the few words before them. This technology required that actors had to synthesize information about their own characters and the action of the play by listening to other actors. When your students have to listen to their fellow classmates for plot information, character development, and staging clues, suddenly, class is much better than a movie or podcast. Show your students that Shakespeare’s plays were meant for performance, and you have a cacophony of sources from which they can create the story themselves – cue scripts, doubling charts, props, costumes, and musical instruments; Each element is a piece of the puzzle that your students must decipher together, and they must listen to each other during the process.

  1. It’s easier to teach the state standards with Serial
    Not only can I justify the use of Serial as a primary text, but the podcast actually helps the students learn these fundamental skills more efficiently than most traditional texts, especially longer novels.
  1. The state doesn’t really care if the students read Shakespeare
    I don’t know if this is hyperbole or understatement, but it’s how I feel right now. Serial does not teach anything about iambic pentameter, English history or the Renaissance, but none of these things are tested on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) exam, the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), the SAT or any other test they might take outside my class. Generally speaking, we’re being asked to teach the skills rather than the content (said to be easily accessible in 2014). More specifically, there is no school-wide, district-wide or state-mandated test that has a single question about a particular piece of literature. “To be or not to be?” is not a multiple-choice question that has any place on a state-mandated test, and nobody seems to care; I’m not even sure I do. As long as I teach students to read well and think critically, they can read Shakespeare on their own time.

I agree that Serial can provide a fresh approach to teaching the critical analysis and close reading skills required by some standardized tests; however, Shakespeare stands the test of time, and his inclusion in the Common Core Standards is a testament to the influence of his works across all areas of modern literature and drama. Even Sarah Koenig recognizes the significance of her podcast’s parallels to Shakespeare:

I read a few newspaper clips about the case, looked up a few trial records. And on paper, the case was like a Shakespearean mashup — young lovers from different worlds thwarting their families, secret assignations, jealousy, suspicion, and honor besmirched, the villain not a Moor exactly, but a Muslim all the same, and a final act of murderous revenge. And the main stage? A regular old high school across the street from a 7-Eleven.

-Sarah Koenig, Serial, Episode 1 Transcript

If you are inspired by Serial and want a way to tie it to your class, I propose a hybrid unit that integrates Serial with Shakespeare. The story of Hae Min Lee’s tragic death invokes the story of Othello more than any other. Hae Min, like Desdemona, was a well-liked young woman who found herself in a controversial relationship with a man whom society deemed to be an outsider. Adnan and Othello are the exotic “other,” accomplished and admired by their communities, yet doomed to suffer through their own tragic endings.

Questions for your class to consider as they listen to Serial and read Othello might include:

  • How do characters in Othello refer to Othello’s otherness? What sets Othello apart from the Venetians? Do the same descriptions apply to Adnan? In what ways are Othello and Adnan similar to and different from one another?
  • If you were a juror on a case in which Othello was being tried for Desdemona’s death, what sentence would you give him? What would Iago’s charge be? Would you be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Iago was involved in Desdemona’s murder? Who would be your witnesses?
  • Review the Timeline and People Map on the Serial website. Make a timeline for the events in Othello and a People Map to show the characters’ relationships. Compose a brief explanation for your group’s choices based on information available in the play. Insert quotes from the text in your timeline and People Map.
  • Read Shakespeare’s source for Othello, Cinthio’s “Un Capitano Moro.” What evidence surrounding Desdemona’s death changes in Shakespeare’s play from this story? How would the difference between these endings change your verdicts for Othello or Iago? Discuss these changes in relation to the evidence presented in Adnan’s case.

–Kim Newton
Director of College Prep Programs

Beating the Audition Blues: How Collaborative Auditions Reinforce Ensemble-Building

The OCS Theatre Camp kicks off each summer session with a group audition held on the second day of camp. Over the years, our audition process has evolved so that even our shyest campers walk away from their audition feeling confident and proud of their performance. Key factors to the success of our audition process, and why it is such a hit with students who attend OCSTC, include a balance between solo performances, group activities, and structured redirection. While this process certainly does not completely alleviate all of the “audition blues”that students might have, the collaborative nature of the audition helps students to feel included and appreciated, not isolated or judged. If you are looking for a different way to engage your students during an audition, consider these activities to boost ensemble building from day one of your rehearsal process.

OCSTC Auditions 2014

Counselors teach campers a song during the 2014 OCS Theatre Camp auditions.

At the OCS Theatre Camp, directors want to see not only how our young actors will perform on their own but also how they will interact with others in the rehearsal room. For this purpose, our auditions include collaborative exercises, and all actors perform for each other. Everyone stays in the room and becomes an audience member, even if only one person is performing. This “lights on” approach to our auditions mirrors the staging conditions that the campers will experience during their final performance festival. Actors and audience members share the same pool of light at the Blackfriars Playhouse, which allows them to share the world of the play. Collaborative auditions also imbue the campers with a sense of mutual trust and respect even before they learn each others’ names.

Audition Prep

Students arrive having memorized 10 lines of a Shakespeare monologue. We provide a thorough online guide to assist the campers in preparing their monologue text, including scansion notation, rhetorical analysis, and paraphrasing. Once at camp, the students have an audition workshop during which they review their monologue text with a camp counselor and then perform in front of a small group of their fellow campers. The monologue performances are only a small section of our audition process, yet taking the time to ensure that the campers are prepared helps them to feel supported even before the audition day.

The Song

At the audition, campers participate in a group warm-up followed by a singing exercise. This past summer, our counselors led the campers in a round, which they sung in chorus and then in parts. The tune fits to the text of Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia:

Doubt Thou The Stars Are Fire - Round

Campers first listen to the counselors sing the round and then repeat the tune after them. After everyone learns the lyrics, the counselors lead the round sections with each successive group starting after the first phrase of the song, “Doubt thou the stars are fire.”

The song exercise helps to alleviate several audition anxieties that teens often face: No one has to be the first to perform. Everyone starts out with the same amount of information, and the focus of the casting directors is on the group as a whole. This structure also permits those who are nervous about singing solo the chance to feel comfortable singing in a group.

Campers’ Take on the Song

The song leads to the first collaborative exercise. In groups of three to four, campers must refashion the song into a different musical genre, such as country western, opera, jazz, or rock n’ roll. They create their own choreography, and incorporate any additional musical instruments that they bring with them to the audition. This activity allows the directors to see the campers’ ability to improvise and to practice choreography, as well as giving them the opportunity to note who can play a musical instrument. Their willingness to try something new and to commit to a performance that they have helped to shape is what matters most.

Dumb Shows

The second exercise introduces text from the plays, from which the campers create a dumb show. Shakespeare uses dumb shows, or silent pantomimic stories, in several of his plays including Hamlet and Pericles. Counselors choose six to ten lines from each of plays and read them aloud to their groups. The campers must then tell a physical story inspired by the images and emotions reflected in those lines. The dumb shows last no longer than 3 to 5 minutes each. During the time that they are devising their shows, the directors rotate to each of the groups and observe the campers’ work and interactions with each other. Counselors guide the devising process by reading the text aloud and by making blocking suggestions so that all campers remain visible to the audience.

Monologues

Following these two activities, campers have generally released some anxiety about performing their monologues. The feeling in the audition room is usually one of enthusiasm, elation, and excitement from the fun of creating theatre together. This is an excellent place to begin the monologue performances because the students are already primed to support one another with smiles and cheers. Each camper must also practice “slating”, or saying their name and the play title from which they chose their monologue.

Re-Directions

After each camper has the opportunity to perform once, directors and their assistant directors re-direct the campers to perform a second time. Campers come to the stage in pairs to receive their re-direction situation. Situational re-directions allow the two actors to interact with each other instead of focusing on any critique about their own individual performance. Re-directions can of course address individual performance critiques in constructive ways. Re-directions can be silly, imaginative, and playful. The campers perform the situation using the text of their monologues as dialogue. Students who are less comfortable with this type of improvisation tend to respond positively to having a scene partner and to being able to rely on performing text that they have already memorized.

The re-directions get the entire room laughing, sometimes to tears. The campers clearly feel in their freest, most creative mode. All those feelings of what auditions used to be – stressful, isolating, and competitive – have given way to confidence, team-spirit, and excitement about what the next three weeks will hold as they continue to collaborate on their plays. The audition is truly transformative, both for the campers and for those of us lucky enough to watch.

-Kim Newton, Director of College Prep Programs

OCS Theatre Camp by Numbers

The OCS Theatre Camp is in its 17th summer, and our first session of 2014 began yesterday. We’ve been counting down the days to camp with our OCS 38 Days / 38 Plays Challenge, during which campers and Blackfriars Playhouse patrons alike posted and shared quotes, photos, and music inspired by one Shakespeare play per day. Our Session 1 Challenge winner was Matt Gieseke and the runner-up was Rachel Hubble!

In the months leading up to camp, we spend hundreds of hours planning, preparing, and waiting with sheer excitement for the arrival of our campers. They come from all over the United States and beyond to work for three weeks, training, rehearsing, and preparing to perform the plays in each session. As you can imagine, we’ve been very busy preparing for both sessions. The best way to appreciate the joys of camp is to come and be a camper! If you’re not between the ages of 13 to 18, then you can still enjoy the campers’ free, public performances on July 13 and August 10 at the Blackfriars Playhouse. To give you some more insight into just how great the OCS Theatre Camp is, I’ve broken down some of our important camp numbers for you. Drum roll, please!

  • 2 camp sessions of 3 weeks each
  • 2 lectures with eminent Shakespeare scholars and professors
  • 4 field trips for fun in the summer sun
  • 5 amazing interns keeping us organized, and helping with dramaturgical research, costumes, and props
  • 5 plays, including Measure for Measure, The Tempest, Henry VI Part 3 (performed by two casts), All’s Well That Ends Well, and the Anonymous Fair Em
  • 6 directors, all of them with amazing talent and passion for Shakespeare
  • 10 counselors, many of whom are former campers
  • 12 performance master classes with OCS Actors and Education Artists
  • 19 US States represented by our campers, including:
    • California
    • Connecticut
    • Florida
    • Kentucky
    • Louisiana
    • Maryland
    • Massachusetts
    • Michigan
    • New York
    • North Carolina
    • Ohio
    • Pennsylvania
    • Texas
    • Utah
    • Virginia
    • West Virginia
    • Wisconsin
    • Wyoming, plus
    • Washington, DC, and 
    • Haiti.

AND

  • 74 campers campers aged 13-18, bravely working together and rehearsing for a total of 339 hours for all 6 shows.

These numbers doesn’t even include the many hours that campers will spend rehearsing and performing their own pre-show and songs, gaining college-prep experience in discussions and seminars, researching college programs with the help of our counselors, seeing performances at the Blackfriars Playhouse, observing rehearsals for our resident and touring troupe shows, participating in special events like our masquerade ball, and enjoying fireworks and s’mores on the Fourth of July!

These numbers can’t quite capture how much camp means to so many people, but one thing is certain: We are off to the start of an amazing summer filled with joy, friendship, and great theatre. You can follow along with updates and photographs all summer at the Camp Blog.

-Kim Newton

 

 

 

The Benefits of Summer Camp: “Here’s a change indeed!” — Othello, 4.2

Summer camp marks an important time of growth in the life of teens, and the effects of camp reverberate with them long after they leave a summer program. The OCS Theatre Camp provides more than just an intensive theatrical performance program for the students who study with us. OCSTC also meets teens’ developing social and psychological needs in an environment that provides more individualized and positive support than what most students receive at school alone.  Campers gain skills that are essential to spreading their wings as independent thinkers, no matter what they end up studying in college.

From OCSTC13's Pericles; photo by Miscellaneous Media

From OCSTC13’s Pericles; photo by Miscellaneous Media

Anyone who has been to the OCS Theatre Camp performances can attest to the incredible depth of skill, heart, and bravery that the campers bring to the stage during each of their shows. The performance festivals are just the capstone to what many campers describe as a life-changing transformation. The challenges which campers face in the three weeks that they spend here help them to grow into better performers and set them on a path to being conscientious leaders and artists.

The teens that find a home-away-from-home at OCSTC know that being part of our community will imbue them with a spirit of creative generosity, which is something that they can apply to any discipline. Some of our incoming 2014 campers already know their “dream jobs”; many applicants indicate that they want to be actors, but many more share that they are thinking of other paths – being musicians, anthropologists, teachers, writers, psychiatrists, journalists, lawyers, engineers, computer scientists, and astronomers.

Performing Shakespeare is just one way for all of these talented young students to celebrate their collective diversity and their inherent need to communicate about all the complexities and challenges of life, things that Shakespeare can capture in the turn of a phrase. Shakespeare speaks to teens in a way that sometimes their parents and teachers cannot.

At the conclusion of each camp session, we survey our campers about their experience. Sometimes, they write to us to share their heartfelt reflections on their time in Staunton:

“One of the first things I remember hearing at camp was “I am enough.” This was a phrase that constantly resurfaced in my mind while at camp and even now three months later and 900 miles away from Staunton …At the American Shakespeare Center Theatre Camp, I experienced abundant support from each person with which I made contact.”

Many teens come to camp burdened with the social weights of high school peer pressure. Although our students are already bright, confident, and mature, they leave camp with an extra boost of self-assurance that propels them to another stage of independence – that stage where being yourself is cool, nerding-out is acceptable, and Shakespeare’s words transform into personal mantras. “We have heard the chimes at midnight” is one of my favorite quotes from Henry IV, Part II, which OCSTC produced in 2006. I might not be as old as Falstaff, but recalling the days of youth and summer will always remind me of the transformative power of camp.

“It’s a place where you don’t have to worry about being judged. Camp takes you out of your comfort zone, but in a good way. It really allows you to be yourself as well as figure out who you are.

My self-confidence improved monumentally during the time I was at camp. I went into camp shy and quiet, constantly fearing that I was going to be judged negatively. By the time camp was over, I truly believed that it didn’t matter if people judged me because I am enough just how I am.

The support that our campers receive from our staff, counselors, and guest artists reverberates through their lives, especially as they prepare for college and the daunting experience of starting their careers. Building positive, professional relationships with trusted adults helps campers learn to articulate their own ideas as well as fostering self-efficacy.

From OCSTC13's Volpone; photo by Miscellaneous Media

From OCSTC13’s Volpone; photo by Miscellaneous Media

“Every single one of the teachers seemed very concerned with giving us all the advice, guidance, and knowledge they could offer so as to improve our theatrical craft; the classes, rehearsals, and performance experiences truly helped me grow as an artist in so many ways. I feel OCSTC was the perfect vehicle for college preparation for me.”

“OCSTC has helped me further discover who I am and what I love to do. The environment and people have helped me thrive into becoming a more confident and happier individual.”

Perhaps the most profound impact that camp has on our students is that they leave inspired to continue to share their joy of Shakespeare with others. We do our best to stay in touch after they “graduate” from our program. Many campers return as counselors in following summers to share their knowledge with the next crop of young Shakespeare enthusiasts. Here are some of the other great activities that our alums have been doing after they leave our program:

  • Managing and working for many professional theatre companies across the country
  • Working as engineers, computer programmers, filmmakers, librarians, business managers, producers, and entrepreneurs
  • Teaching Shakespeare to middle and high school students
  • Forming and sustaining collegiate Shakespeare companies at Exeter University, Yale University, New York University, the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, and many others.
  • Touring Shakespeare’s plays to schools
  • Pursuing graduate work in many disciplines, including Shakespeare and Early Modern Studies at Mary Baldwin College and King’s College London.

The OCS Theatre Camp is a community of students, young professionals, and seasoned teachers and artists who continue to create theatre, to support each other’s artistic and educational goals, and to build professional opportunities long after the summer fades away. My hope is that we enrich the lives of the campers who study and perform at the Blackfriars Playhouse and that we always cherish the contributions of young artists to the rich history and new horizons of Shakespeare in performance.

This summer, Session 1 campers will perform Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Measure for Measure, as well as Fair Em by Anonymous on July 13. Second session campers will perform Henry VI, Part 3 with two casts along with All’s Well That Ends Well on August 10. We hope you can join us.

“I will return to camp next year because camp is the most wonderful place in the whole world. I learn so much, I make so many friends, and I get to be 100% of my nerdy self 24/7. It’s fantastic!”

 

-Kim Newton

Teaching Shakespeare on the Road: OCS Education Residency at Roanoke College

The American Shakespeare Center has a unique Educational Residency program that brings our education artists and workshops to high school and college campuses. In the last two years, we have completed weeklong residencies at high schools in Kansas and Ohio. Last week, we were at Roanoke College in Salem, VA for our first-ever college residency.

After a whirlwind summer of directing the 2013 sessions of the OCS Theatre Camp, I was curious about what it would be like to spend a week working with older, college-aged students, guiding them through nearly half a semester’s worth of workshop materials. Daniel Kennedy and Andrew Goldwasser, two OCS actors, made up the rest of our residency team. Daniel is a long-time OCS actor and is a former director for the OCS Theatre Camp. Andrew is a veteran of our touring troupe, and he will return to the Blackfriars Playhouse for our upcoming holiday season.

In the weeks leading up to the residency, I worked with our contact at the college to arrange our trip; we distributed fliers to promote the residency during the touring troupe’s production of Othello at Roanoke College, and our campus coordinator scheduled us to visit 3 classes throughout the week. In total, I planned 13 workshops, and Sarah and Cass taught 6 additional workshops for a weekend teacher seminar. In addition to the workshops, we scheduled multiple rehearsals for the students to have individual coaching on selected scenes and monologues from Shakespeare’s plays.

We arrived in Salem just past noon on Monday, in time to take a brief tour of the performing arts building and other campus facilities. The campus reminded me of Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, but without the hills. Roanoke College is small, with only 2,000 undergraduate students. 10 students are enrolled as theatre majors, but several students from other departments take acting classes to fulfill their elective requirements. We visited the acting class first, and I led an introductory workshop on the basic building blocks of Shakespeare’s text: iambic pentameter, scansion, verse, and prose. None of the students in the acting class that we visited had ever performed in a Shakespeare play, and the material was completely new to them.

As the week passed, I noticed our students engaging with their texts in the cafeteria before workshops, diligently and carefully marking the stressed and unstressed beats in their scripts. One student that I worked with found paraphrasing in the OCS style to be especially helpful as she prepared to play Imogen, a character in Cymbeline.

Daniel and Andrew led workshops in rhetoric, clowning, stage combat, music, and acting choices. During one of the acting classes, the students had the opportunity to direct us as we played the first scene of Richard III . Using their newly-learned skills for identifying embedded stage directions, character and relationship clues, and the various forms of asides, the students directed us through the opening scene. Twice during the week, we met with an English class and explored embedded stage directions in the party scene (1.5) of Romeo and Juliet, and I led them in a discussion about the textual variants in the play and their effect on character development, staging, and other production choices.

On the final Friday in-class performance, there was excitement in the air. The students were nervous, even in our informal setting; we spent the week in a small black-box studio with warm honey-toned wood floors, soft lighting, and mix-matched chairs and small sofas collected through the years and re-purposed from old set pieces. We created a makeshift Elizabethan stage with the chairs surrounding the playing space on three sides.

Their performances began. We saw the brash and rude struggle between Katherina and Bianca in the Taming of the Shrew, followed by the frightful and foreshadowing scene between COCSa and Cassius on the stormy evening before Caesar’s murder; Imogen scorned Iachimo after his vile attempt to plant seeds of jealousy in her heart; Ophelia’s haunting songs gave way to the street brawl between Mercutio and Tybalt; Antony mourned over Caesar’s body; Viola evaded pursuit by Olivia in the garden while attempting to maintain her composure, even as Olivia exposed her heart to a servant who could never requite her love. The students’ scene showcase was a testament to the work that can be accomplished with only a few hours’ rehearsal and a careful analysis of the performance clues that Shakespeare provides in the text of his plays.

In our final wrap-up session following their scene showcase, I asked the students for their feedback and to help us brainstorm ways of making the residency program better. If we came back to Roanoke College, what would they like to do differently or the same? The program technical director suggested that we come back for several weeks or even a whole semester to direct a play rehearsal process from start to finish. The students enthusiastically agreed. I noted that this model was certainly something we could consider doing for them in the future. Our residency program is flexible, and currently our longest program offering is three weeks. Other students said that they would love to plan a trip to the Blackfriars Playhouse, and they all arrived at the consensus that they would commit to participating in another residency if given the opportunity. I was touched and warmed by their responses. Just as much as we would love to go back to Roanoke, we also wanted to provide advice to help them beyond the classroom. We encouraged the students to keep in touch with us throughout the year, and I encouraged several of them to inquire about our year-round internship opportunities.

Neither we nor our campus host and coordinator anticipated just how enthusiastically the students would respond to our presence and to the work we accomplished together in just a few days. The students were eager to absorb all they could from our workshops, and many of them stayed for several hours late into the evenings to work with us individually. Students re-arranged other commitments to attend our classes, and others came even when they probably needed that free time to study for other exams and tests; but Shakespeare is fun, and Shakespeare brings people together.

I’ve been fortunate to see other young students bond and create lasting friendships through collaboration and their collective pursuit to learn more about Shakespeare and the theatre of his time. This experience showed me that even in a small theatre program struggling with low enrollment, Shakespeare empowers students by giving them all the tools they need to create theatre that is engaging, inspiring, and community-building. I look forward to sharing similar experiences at other schools and campuses.

Kim Newton
Director of College Prep Programs