One if by PDF, Two if by Print

The study guides are coming, the study guides are coming!

Not just yet, but hopefully we’ll be rolling out the first two new study guides, Julius Caesar and Hamlet, sometime in the next week or so. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry V, Much Ado about Nothing, and Richard III will follow between now and mid-October. Last year’s guides were already an upgrade from our previous offerings, but this year, we’ve expanded the material even further. Our Basics section now includes in-depth instructions on getting students intimately familiar with their text and how it works, with lessons on scansion, paraphrasing, rhetoric, working with the audience, and transforming your classroom into an early modern stage. My favorite concept that goes along with these lessons is Line Assignments. We’re encouraging teachers to give each students a segment of text, between 25 and 100 lines, depending on the student’s skill level, to take ownership of during their Shakespeare unit. Teachers have their own Line Assignments — the first 100 lines of the play, to use as examples and for group exploration. Those are the segments I used in my previous posts on scansion and Wordles earlier this summer.

Beyond the Basics, we’re thinking more critically and creatively than ever about how to get students engaging with the text up on its feet. Staging Challenges in Julius Caesar examine mob dynamics and how Shakespeare crafts the feeling of unpredictable violence into the script. We also examine the visually striking moments surrounding Caesar’s assassination and the conspirators dipping their hands in his blood — and what important character choices that blood can reveal. In Hamlet, we look at playing darkness, at the impact of realizing that Hamlet’s most famous speech is not actually a soliloquy, but overheard by several people, and at the challenge of dealing with all those dead bodies left on stage at the end of the play. We also examine Perspectives, to help students link the world of the play, Shakespeare’s world, and our modern world. In Julius Caesar, this means looking at adaptation throughout the ages, whether it’s Shakespeare borrowing from Plutarch or Christopher Nolan rebooting Batman, as well as examining ideals of honor and virtue. In Hamlet, we examine revenge tragedies, then and now, and their vicariously vengeful appeal, as well as the idea of media influencing behavior, whether it’s a conscience-catching play or a violent video game.

Our Study Guides will be available for purchase online soon — and they’ll always be included as a perk of our Teacher Seminars and of bringing your class to a student matinee. In the meantime, you can see a sneak-peek 10-page preview of the Julius Caesar Study Guide on our website.

Wandering through Wordles

As one of the activities in our Study Guides, we ask students to examine closely Shakespeare’s vocabulary — because what they’ll discover is that it actually isn’t as alien as they fear. Shakespeare’s language is their language, not antiquated, not Old English, not in need of translation. One of the ways we introduce this idea to students, in our Study Guides as well as in workshops and lectures, is through the Wordle. The Wordle program allows you to create a visual representation of a speech, a scene, or even an entire play, if you’re so inclined. The more times a word appears in the text, the larger that word will be relative to others on the page. Wordle automatically excludes articles and most pronouns (though it doesn’t recognize “thou” as a pronoun). Wordles help to show students that Shakespeare’s language is not really that far removed from their own — typically students are hard-pressed to find unfamiliar words in the bunch, apart from character or place names. What makes Shakespeare “difficult” is not the vocabulary, but rather the syntax and word order, the way he constructs his ideas, and that is almost always to a purpose (which we explore further in the rhetoric section of the Study Guides). Wordles can also provide an insight into other aspects of the language, especially if you look at a single speech or a smaller portion of a scene. They might point to a dominating concept or idea. They might tell you what characters are the focus of the selection. They can even impart a sense of mood, based on the vocabulary — on whether there are a lot of names, or an abundance of informal pronouns, or almost entirely active verbs.

To help teachers with this idea, we created Wordles for the first 100 lines of each of the plays I’m building a guide for this year. So far, I’ve taken a good, close look at Julius Caesar, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Henry V. When preparing the text for conversion, I edited out the speech prefixes and stage directions, so that the Wordle would include only those words that the audience hears. I was surprised, looking at some of them, to see what that exercise told me about the first five minutes of these plays. In many cases, it’s easy to see just what the focus of the scene is — who’s important, what they’re talking about, what issues are at stake. These Wordles crystallize the ways in which Shakespeare introduces the audience to the world he’s bringing them into.

First: Julius Caesar, which opens with two tribunes, Flavius and Marcellus, attempting to scatter plebeians who have gathered to watch Caesar’s triumphal parade. The Wordle gives a clue as to the nature of the struggle in the scene:

The two largest words are “thou” and “sir” — indicating, just at a glance, that the conversational partners are not of equal social status. “Sir” is a term of respect (even if it might be sarcastically delivered), and “thou” indicates informality, either to an intimate or an inferior. The juxtaposition with “sir” would make me think, even if I didn’t know who the characters were, that this “thou” marks a status distinction, not intimacy. The next biggest word is “Caesar” — unsurprising, since even though he does not have the bulk of the play’s lines, he is the focus of the play’s action. Everything that happens in it derives from his actions, his importance, his dominance over Rome. The audience hears his names many times before he even appears on the stage.

Next, in Hamlet, the largest words give a fairly good indication of the mood of the opening scene:

Horatio is the highest-ranking person in the first scene, but, unlike with Caesar, the repetition of his name does not directly reflect his status or relative importance. Instead, it stems from Barnardo and Marcellus calling on him to interact with the Ghost, pushing him forward as the earthly representative to their supernatural visitor (an element I’ve always found highly humorous). Another interesting thing to do with this Wordle is to go through and pick out all the words related to some sort of sensory perception: look, hear, speak, eyes, appear, etc. Deprived of sight in this dark scene, the characters nonetheless seem obsessed with seeing and visions — but they also compensate for the impairment of one sense by relying heavily on another. This scene is also full of imperatives, as the Wordle shows — all of the characters issue commands. Taken together, these clues provide insight into the pace and mood of the first scene.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Wordle for the first 100 lines reveals that the issues at stake are all about people and how they relate to each other:

Several names feature prominently: Demetrius, Lysander, Hermia — and many of the other large words describe relationships: father, child, wed, marry, love. Right from the start, this play is a tangled mess of who relates to whom (and who would like to). I’m also intrigued by the relatively large size of the word “may” — a word that could mean so many things. In this scene, I believe it refers both to permission and to possibility — what Hermia may do, as allowed by her father, the duke, and Athenian law, and what may happen in the future, whether she obeys those rulings or not.

The Henry V Wordle, by contrast, is interesting to me not for what it reveals about the play, but for what it conceals:

This is the only Wordle out of the set I’ve been working with where I wouldn’t immediately know which play it’s from just by glancing at it. No names feature prominently — a stark contrast to the three previous examples. Still, the Wordle does give you a sense of the matter at hand through the two larges words: “king” and “like.” The first 100 lines of Henry V covers both the Chorus’s prologue and about 60-odd lines of the opening conversation between the Bishops of Canterbury and Ely. Both the prologue and the dialogue concern themselves with one main topic: what is the king like? What did he used to be like, and what is he like now? Both the Chorus and the Bishops offer the audience any number of analogies and examples with florid vocabulary — the reason why there seem to be fewer larger words here than in the other Wordles. The vocabulary of the first 100 lines of Henry V is more diverse than in the other plays I’ve looked at so far.

Wordles aren’t a catch-all. They won’t always cut straight to the matter or offer particularly valuable insights, and they certainly shouldn’t become a substitute for actually studying the lines of the play and looking at the words in context. They can, however, be a useful supplementary tool, providing avenues of creative exploration. For this reason, we recommend them to teachers, to help combat ShakesFear in their students — and I recommend them as an interesting graphical toy to any readers who are always looking for new ways to play around with the text.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits – 22 July 2011

A smattering of links for you today, on performance and education:

Hope everyone’s keeping cool!

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits – 24 June 2011

Just a few links for you this week, with a focus on the idea of what Shakespeare continues to mean and what appeal his plays continue to have in modern society.

  • A blog post asks “Do we stage too much Shakespeare?” Or, rather, are theatres staging the same few plays too many times? Cass says: Not a problem at the Blackfriars Playhouse, given how many near-unknown (outside of academic circles, at least) plays we revive each year. Who’s ready for Tamburlaine the Great this fall?
  • From London, we have some more information on Shakespeare’s prominent place in the Cultural Olympiad of 2012. Celebrations will include televised versions of the plays, a series of plays staged by foreign companies at the Globe, and a two-part documentary by Simon Schama. With some wondering why Shakespeare takes so much precedence as England’s cultural ambassador (over others like Dickens, Austen, Chaucer, or the Bronte sisters), Schama says first that Shakespeare has a more universal, less-Angleophilic appeal than many post-Industrial authors, and that unlike Middle English authors like Chaucer, “The amazing thing about Shakespeare is that if you actually deliver Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet, to teenagers they actually do get the language.”
  • Our Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen gave a radio interview yesterday with WOSU in Columbus, Ohio on the enduring appeal of Shakespeare in modern life. Dr. Cohen discusses the interplay between actor and audience that Shakespeare and other early modern authors offer — the interaction which makes theatre a fundamentally different form of art than movies.
  • Our college prep theatre camp started up this week — If you want to follow along with their activities, check out the OCSTC Blog, and come out to see their final performances on July 10th.

Scansion Discoveries

I have begun work in earnest on the OCS Study Guides for the 2011-2012 artistic year. One of my first projects has been formulating our “Basics” section, the building-block skills of exploring Shakespeare: scansion, paraphrasing, rhetoric, using the stage, and using the audience.

As part of this process, and in conjunction with OCS Education’s intention to develop Unit Plans for teachers to follow, I’m preparing the first 100 lines out of each play as an example of the Basics for the teachers. I just completed the scansion for all six of the plays I’m building Study Guides for this summer — Hamlet, Henry V, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard III, and Much Ado about Nothing, from our upcoming artistic year, plus Julius Caesar as a bonus. Doing these small blocks of text has reminded me why scansion is so important. It illuminates so many subtleties that could easily pass a reader or an actor by otherwise, and many of those distinctions give actors choices and opportunities to work with.

The first scene of Julius Caesar volleys between verse and prose, as Flavius and Murellus chastise the plebeians who have decked out for Caesar’s triumph. The interesting bits of scansion here are subtle, but crucial. Some telling pronouns fall into stressed positions — Murellus and Flavius stress “you” and “thou” more than is typical, indicating their accusatory tone. These instances could also give an actor the opportunity to single out an audience member: “Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft / Have you climb’d up to walls and battlements.” The first 100 lines bleed over into 1.2, and the oddity I noticed there is something that I can’t tell if it’s intentional or not, but either way, it amused me: Caesar uses an awful lot of caesuras (mid-line breaks). This doesn’t seem to be any key character indication, and I haven’t scanned enough of the play to know if the trend continues past the first few lines of 1.2, but, if this was intentional on Shakespeare’s part, I think it’s a pretty cute joke.

The most interesting thing about the first 100 lines of Hamlet, at least from a metrical perspective, are the number of shared and short lines. In many places, characters — particularly Barnardo and Marcellus — share lines, especially when discussing the Ghost or questioning Horatio. In some instances, the split occurs mid-foot, which indicates that the second speaker’s line really has to follow rapidly upon the first’s. In other places, the shared lines, put together, form an alexandrine — a 12-syllable line — which could indicate some overlap in speech. These lines have to come quickly, and that, in turn, creates the sense of panic, right on the edge of hysteria, that the watchmen experience when the Ghost appears. In contrast, in other parts of the scene, some lines fall short, indicating the potential for a pause. These irregularities seem to work with the darkness of the scene, allowing space for the watchmen to confirm identities when someone new enters. The other significant short lines fall around the Ghost’s entrance and exit, which makes me wonder if those breaks leave room for the trap opening, or for some special effect.

Henry V opens not with a scene, but with a prologue. The speech is a little trochee-heavy, but other than that, there’s not much irregular about it. The scansion does bring out some sly little delivery indications, however. Consider the following lines:

But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France?

The stressed “this” interests me because it places such immediacy on the physical space in which the actor delivers these lines — all the more intriguing when you consider that Henry V was probably the first play performed at the Globe. In the new building, reconstructed from the stolen framework of the Theatre, Shakespeare puts the stage itself foremost in his audience’s mind during this prologue. I also like the stressed “can,” which puts such strong emphasis on that question. An actor could do a lot with that little stressed “can” — it could be a real concern, with the actor looking to the audience for support, or it could be cheeky, a tease. The prologue is full of these little gems, and they’re particularly great when performing Henry V in an early modern space. The words call attention to the inherent qualities of the space and the staging conditions, giving the prologue a layer of meaning which loses force in a production that relies on elaborate sets and lighting designs. I don’t have as much to say about the 1.1 portion of the first 100 lines, except that Canterbury’s lines require some really odd elisions in order to scan something resembling normally. I would be interested to see if this remains true in his infamous “Salic law” speech in 1.2.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the first thing I noticed is that while Egeus retains regular meter while he’s talking to or about Demetrius, his scansion suddenly goes wild whenever he has to talk to or about Lysander. Hermia, meanwhile, is the only character who remains perfectly regular throughout the scene (or, at least, throughout the first 100 lines). Her father is threatening her with death, the ruling Duke is telling her her only other option is a nunnery, her boyfriend is about three seconds away from engaging in fisticuffs with her father’s favored suitor, and yet Hermia remains completely composed. Those are both great clues for actors. Something about Lysander, clearly, just rubs Egeus the wrong way, to the point that he can no longer control his speech patterns. As for Hermia, it gives the actress a great choice to make — Is she just so sure of herself that she can remain entirely unflustered, or is she so scared that she’s gone numb, and can only allow herself to express emotion once her father, Demetrius, and Theseus have left the stage?

The scene as a whole also has a higher than usual percentage of stressed pronouns, in a way that focuses a lot of attention on possession, particularly of Hermia, but also of love, desire, and rights. Egeus can’t stress enough times that Hermia is his property: “As she | is mine, I may dispose of her” … “And what is mine my love shall render him. / And she is mine, and all my right of her / I do estate unto Demetrius.” Lysander and Demetrius throw some stressed “him”s and “his”es around as they jockey for the Duke’s favor, while Hermia stresses her right to full knowledge of her circumstances, and ultimately, her right to make her own decision, whatever the consequences: “But I beseech your grace that I may know / The worst that may befall me in this case, / If I refuse to wed Demetrius.” The high number of stressed pronouns in the scene subtly underscores the interpersonal conflicts driving the plot.

In the opening of Richard III, the only thing that seems regular is the irregularity. Richard’s verse halts and limps as much as he does — or is it just that he disdains the proper way of speaking as much as everything else? His most frequent variants seem to be feminine endings, alexandrines (6-foot lines), and oddly-placed trochees — as though, while telling us that he is “deformed, unfinished… scarce half made up,” he compensates by cramming his lines full of extra syllables. Many lines have more than one irregularity, as in “Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here Clarence comes,” which piles a spondee, a mid-line trochee, and a caesura together. There are also many lines with ambiguities, that could easily scan more than one way. Bardweb’s analysis and mine, for example, disagree on several points, largely because I try to stick to the iambs wherever possible, and they’re a bit free with the pyrrhics. Even with conservative application, however, there are still far more pyrrhic-spondee combinations and more mid-line trochees than seem usual. I’ve also never wished I believed in medial stresses as much as when working with this speech. The discrepancies, though, leave room for choice, depending on what an actor wants to emphasis in performance. The opening of this play is definitely one of those moments when there is no single right answer, just myriad possibilities.

As for Much Ado about Nothing — Well, its first 100 lines are in prose, like most of the play, so I didn’t have any scanning to do there. That doesn’t mean I won’t have plenty to get into with the other Basics, though, so Much Ado fans (like myself) have plenty to look forward to as my work continues.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 10 June 2011

Just a few links today: Shakespeare reaching across language boundaries, new research into old records, and a good laugh for the end of your week.

  • “Shakespeare as a Second Language” examines using Shakespeare to reach students in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Langauges) classrooms. The author of the article believes that Shakespeare shouldn’t be “saved for high school English class or reserved for only gifted students,” but that early experiences with his works can have great benefits.
  • Speaking of the benefit of Shakespeare to other languages, the “Learning English” website has a radio feature on Shakespeare’s treatment of law, justice, and human conflict.
  • Shakespeare in the Park not for you? How about Shakespeare in a Bar? As the website posits, “Where else can you sit next to Caesar after his death and share a pint as you both watch the rest of the story unfold?” Cass says: This sounds like such an entertaining way to spend an evening — Who’s up for starting this at Zynadoa or The Mockingbird?
  • On the more erudite end of things, research into Tudor England coronary reports has revealed a possible inspiration for Ophelia’s drowning. Cass says: Whether or not you buy into this possibility, the article is worth reading just for the Darwin-Award-worthy list of accidental deaths. Who knew that Christmas games and maypoles could be so dangerous?
  • Is theatre good for you — as in, potential-health-benefits good? Is it possible to overdose?
  • And finally, if you need a laugh, check out’s 6 Most WTF Moments in Shakespeare (this article has an adult language warning) — and as a bonus, one of the pictures for King Lear is from an OCS production! So what do you think? Does the article feature your favorite moment of stage insanity? Or did they miss out on something spectacular? Cass says: If that author thinks Shakespeare has some crazy stuff going on, we need to introduce him to Middleton and Ford. (And, er, as always on the Internet, don’t read the comments if you value your sanity).

Preview: The Playhouse Insider – Summer 2011

Summer at the American Shakespeare Center is an exciting time, with two troupes in rehearsal, preparing three seasons’ worth of new shows. The Summer issue of The Playhouse Insider will offer readers an exclusive look at the making of the eight plays that comprise these seasons. The issue will be on sale in the Box Office or by mail order in a few weeks, but for now, I thought I would give our blog readers a special preview of what will be in the issue.

In this issue, our Artists section features two directors and two actors. First, Nick Hutchison shares his experiences directing The Importance of Being Earnest for the OCS back in 2004. Producing Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play presents different challenges in an early modern space like the Blackfriars Playhouse, and not all of them stem from Wilde’s expectation of lights and dropped curtains. The text also asks different things of actors and directors: “Where Shakespeare has unfathomable depths, Oscar is all surface, and rejoices in the fact. Start to try and analyse the text as you would in Shakespeare, and it doesn’t work, but when you luxuriate in its brittle elegance, its superficial brilliance, it comes alive, clearly and hilariously.” Hutchison confesses that he was initially skeptical of Earnest‘s playability on the Blackfriars stage, but that he ultimately found that “the play doesn’t just survive the transfer to the Blackfriars but rejoices in it.”

Our second director’s piece comes from our own Ralph Alan Cohen, who will be directing Henry V for the Fall season. Cohen explains his admiration for the play he describes as “an odd work.” He sees Henry V as Shakespeare’s first experiment with deconstruction and as his “great essay on the power of an audience.” After all, the Chorus explicitly instructs the audience on what they will have to do with their imaginations to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” Cohen sees this play as Shakespeare saying to his viewers: “Here are some Lego pieces – a bunch of well-written speeches and a few great, stand-alone scenes. Make a play, Audience, have some fun.”

Rounding out the Artists’ section, touring troupe actors Rick Blunt and Denice Burbach share their experiences of life out on the road. They discuss issues both professional and personal, from the challenges and opportunities for discovery presented by having to adapt to new spaces to the sense of community they build in towns across the country, from the reality of living out of a single suitcase to the great adventure of traveling the United States. The Almost Blasphemy Tour takes off for the first leg of their run in September, returning to the Playhouse for the holiday season in December. Summing up their experiences on tour, both Rick and Denice express that the process is an ongoing one, a continual process of learning and of change. Rick says that he continually strives to discover “how to get better, how to be better,” while Denice states, “It’s unlike any job you will ever have in your life. I forget sometimes how unique a path we’ve chosen.” For ongoing details on where the tour is headed, friend us on Facebook or check out “OCS on Tour” on our website.

Since the OCS focuses so strongly on research and education, we ask leading minds in the field to share their thoughts on our upcoming plays in our Scholars section. Roslyn Knutson, Professor of English, Emerita, at the University of Arkansas and President of the Marlowe Society. Knutson shares what makes Tamburlaine so fOCSinating for her, from the visually striking stage moments to the challenge of a modern actor who must “negotiate with [Edward] Alleyn’s ghost” in performing this larger-than-life role. Tamburlaine is Knutson’s hero, she says, because “his exceptionalism is not just the testosterone of Marlowe’s mighty line. It is also the charisma of the over-achiever.”

Our second scholar is our own Christina Sayer Grey, who examines the storytelling patterns in Shakespeare’s Romances, two of which the OCS will have in production this year (The Tempest, opening June 24th, and The Winter’s Tale in the Almost Blasphemy tour). As Grey explicates, the thread that links the Romances is “a shared concern with the stories of lapses in historicized time – the space between something being lost and its being found, the time between Before and After.” While The Tempest and Cymbeline dramatize only the gap itself, Pericles provides a triptych of Before, During, and After, and The Winter’s Tale shows a diptych of Before and After. Grey examines how these different structures bend the typical expectations of Comedy and Tragedy, creating the nebulous generic classification of the Romances.

Finally, our Audiences section in this issue focuses on our student audiences. Two teachers, Kerry Kisa of Cape Henry Collegiate School in Virginia Beach, VA, and Linda Nicholson of Highland Springs High School in Henrico, VA discuss how bringing students to see shows at the Blackfriars Playhouse and using the OCS methods of teaching through performance has enriched their learning experience. Kisa describes how her students last year explored the staging of Othello, arguing over the intricacies of bed placement and actor blocking. “As I stood watching my students quarrel over the scene, I couldn’t help but think, ‘I’ve got them.'” Nicholson talks about the “Blackfriars Fever” that has taken over her school, where students scramble to be the first to sign up for field trips to the Playhouse. “One young lady told me she went the first time as a means of missing classes, but after the show, she wanted to hide in the bathroom and live in the playhouse.” While we’re pretty sure the Playhouse staff would have some strong opinions about that, we love the enthusiasm! Both Kisa and Nicholson share their students’ opinions about an active exploration of Shakespeare in their own words, and it’s wonderful to see how much they’re enjoying what they once dismissed as boring or irrelevant. If you’re a teacher who would like to bring your students to the Blackfriars Playhouse, read up about our matinees or contact Group Sales Manager Ben Ratkowski.

Putting this issue together has me excited for what’s coming up at the Playhouse over the next few months, and I hope it will imbue all of you with the same eager anticipation. I’ll be sure to let everyone know when the issue goes on sale — look for the announcement early in July.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits – 3 June 2011

This week: debates about the value of a degree, and some insights into acting.

  • There’s been quite a bit of hullabaloo in the news cycles recently about the value not just of a college education, but of the economic advantage given by one degree over another. Turns out that majors like engineering, math, and computer science earn 50% more than the humanities. (Cass says: Raise your hand if this comes as a major shock to you). The idea of “gainful employment” may soon be affecting how much college students pay for courses — or how much they’re allowed to receive in loans. (Choose a low-earning major? Like, say, English or education? Sorry; we’re cutting you off).
  • The humanities, however, aren’t taking this lying down. One clever article assumes Shakespeare’s voice for its rebuttal. Another op-ed states, “No matter how much they earn or don’t earn, no one can ever take from them their poetry, literature, music or art. Many, probably most, never lose their love of Shakespeare, Mozart, Cezanne or whatever the source of their youthful passions.” Cass says: And for my part, I’d rather have the job satisfaction I have right now than be making twice as much in a job that made me miserable.
  • And, for what it’s worth, President Obama’s new education plan includes strategies for teacher retention.
  • The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC Santa Cruz reports exploding popularity for its adult-learning programs. The OCS encourages lifelong learning through programs at the Playhouse and by hosting excursions for the Road Scholars program.
  • British actress Eve Best, currently on stage at the Globe in Much Ado About Nothing, talks about performing Shakespeare, including this tidbit on cross-gender casting: “There’s something really interesting about crossing genders because you’re no longer caught in the sexual politics of your part… I think with some roles like Lady Macbeth and Isabella [in Measure for Measure] as an actress one is always trying to exonerate the character slightly. When you cross genders you don’t have to worry about that stuff – it’s unbelievably liberating.”
  • ABC News has a lovely piece on the art of acting, as voiced by 81-year-old actor Christopher Plummer, which includes thoughts on how his approach to acting Shakespeare has changed over time.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 20 May 2011

This week’s Imprimis features several articles on non-traditional approaches to getting students to enjoy Shakespeare, as well as some thoughts on the enduring place of Shakespeare in modern culture.

  • This blog post examines different versions of Hamlet (Q1, Q2, and F1) through Wordles.
  • A new play uses Shakespeare to talk about issues of teen bullying. In “Cruel to Be Kind,” rehearsals of As You Like It are disrupted by harassment, and it’s up to Shakespeare to set things straight.
  • The BBC is running a new recitation and performance competition for secondary schools: “Off By Heart Shakespeare,” through which they hope to show that “the best way to get to know and love Shakespeare is by performing his words.”
  • “How do you get kids into Shakespeare? Get to them before they know it’s supposed to be tough” — a lovely article on teaching Shakespeare through performance. Cass says: This is exactly my philosophy, and it’s why we’re so enthusiastic at the OCS about our summer programs for teenagers and pre-teens.
  • Then, check out 7 Quirky Ways Students Learn Shakespeare for some more exciting, performance-based approaches that teachers and students are exploring around the country.
  • An article from The Huffington Post about the new Shakespeare High documentary also suggests that bare-bones Shakespeare, without elaborate costumes, sets, or lighting designs (rather like how the OCS performs…), could be the answer to keeping theatre and the arts alive in our current era of budget-slashing (when the arts are too often the first thing on the chopping block).
  • This blog post relates current technology-induced changes in the English language to the revolution of vocabulary during the early modern period. Cass says: Interesting premise, but I’m not quite sure that netspeak is as ultimately beneficial as Shakespeare’s creative inventions.
  • Finally, the Staunton Newsleader has given Shakespeare his own page. This aggregate collects Shakespeare-related news within Staunton, from the OCS, and from around the world.

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.