“And you that love the commons, follow me”: Shakespeare and the Demagogue

Salon put out an article last weekend decrying the commandeering of Shakespeare by conservative think-tankers who believe that “Shakespeare offers future CEOs and business leaders the models they need to achieve ruthless success behind the veneer of ethical behavior.” While we at the OCS certainly believe that Shakespeare offers some lessons for leaders, the subjects of the article seem to have missed the mark and learned the wrong lessons. The article’s author, Chris MacDonald, does an excellent job analyzing where Shakespeare’s plays send messages that are conservative, liberal, or a little bit of both, pointing towards the concept that it’s not so easy to put him in one box, particularly since he does such a good job showcasing the vast spectrum of human experience. It got me thinking, though, about one element in Shakespeare’s plays that is resonating particularly loudly in this election year.

If Shakespeare has any consistent political message, it seems to be this: Beware the demagogue. Beware the one who tells you only what you want to hear. Beware someone who drives you towards chaos rather than towards construction. In a political climate where success seems to depend on little more than out-shouting one’s opponents, that’s a lesson we could all benefit from revisiting.

Visitors to the Playhouse this fall will have the opportunity to see one of Shakespeare’s finest examples of populism gone horrible wrong in The Rise of Queen Margaret (Henry VI, Part 2), in the figure of Jack Cade. Though he claims he has noble heritage that entitles him to the crown, he appeals to the masses with promises that are so extravagant as to be ludicrous — but the crowd heartily cheers them:

OCSh4_283

The cast of 2010’s 2 Henry VI; photo by Tommy Thompson

CADE
There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops; and I will make it felony to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in common… There shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score…
I charge and command that, of the city’s cost, the pissing-conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign.

This would all be laughable if not for the fact that Cade’s followers take him seriously. His promises are ludicrous, and he has no plan for their implementation — he just assumes that, once he’s in power, he can do as he likes. Unfortunately, Cade’s influence shows what can happen when this fervor spins out of control. His supporters quickly turn violent, with the famous and almost-always-removed-from-context cry to “Kill all the lawyers.” Cade’s response is alarming because it uses the sort of logical fallacy that modern politicians also employ when they hope to make something absurd, offensive, or dangerous seem rational:

CADE
That I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings: but I say, ’tis the bee’s wax; for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.

This turn demonstrates the anti-intellectualism that also permeates much modern political discourse — the sense that, somehow, intelligence and education aren’t things we should want in our leaders. Cade and his followers express distrust of learned men, they claim that men who can read and write must be villains and that those who speak French are traitors, and they hang a clerk for confessing his literacy. From there, the violence blooms outward to encompass pretty much anyone that the crowd doesn’t like or that Cade thinks hasn’t shown him enough respect — “The proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head on his shoulders, unless he pay me tribute” — leading to the gruesome beheadings in Act Four, scene seven.

Eventually Clifford turns the fickleness of the crowd against Cade, invoking the name of the popular hero Henry V. Realizing he’s been out-maneuvered, Cade states, “The name of Henry the Fifth hales them to an hundred mischiefs, and makes them leave me desolate.” Clifford proves ruthless, however; after promising the rebellious citizens amnesty and glory, he has them prepared to be hanged. King Henry VI pardons them, earning their loyalty — and making the audience wonder if Clifford intended that, making them all unconscious actors in a play staged to bolster support for the king. If so, it’s a psychologically cruel ploy, but an extremely effective one, and one that demonstrates the inherent danger of a populace too willing to hand over power to a speaker who flatters them and makes empty promises.

Shakespeare shows us another drama meant to manipulate the populace in Richard III, when Richard and the Duke of Buckingham stage a scene to win support for his usurpation of his nephew. Richard appears with two churchmen, feigning pious study and claiming he has no desire to the throne, whereupon Buckingham, surrounded by the Lord Mayor of London and various citizens, has to “convince” him both by praising his supposed virtues and by threatening to set someone else up in his place:

RICHARD
Alas, why would you heap these cares on me?
I am unfit for state and majesty;
I do beseech you, take it not amiss;
I cannot nor I will not yield to you.

BUCKINGHAM
If you refuse it,—as, in love and zeal,
Loath to depose the child, Your brother’s son;
As well we know your tenderness of heart
And gentle, kind, effeminate remorse,
Which we have noted in you to your kin,
And regally indeed to all estates,—
Yet whether you accept our suit or no,
Your brother’s son shall never reign our king;
But we will plant some other in the throne,
To the disgrace and downfall of your house:
And in this resolution here we leave you.—
Come, citizens: ‘zounds! I’ll entreat no more.

The Lord Mayor ends up begging Buckingham and the citizens to come back and entreat Richard once again, and he begs Richard to accept. Richard knew how to play against their expectations, gaining the crown by pretending he did not want it.
Even some of Shakespeare’s finest rhetorical speeches can be seen as examples of a leader using clever language and popular appeal to ignoble ends. Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech is perhaps as fine an example of persuasive wordcraft as one can find in the English language — you can see Dr. Ralph’s mark-up here — but it’s persuading men to die for a cause that (as other characters in the play point out) is not necessarily just. Mark Antony eloquently whips the Roman plebeians into a fervor in Julius Caesar, skillfully manipulating them to turn against Brutus, the man they had lauded only moments before. Both Henry and Antony feign modesty of some kind — Henry says he does not care for gold, or clothes, or “who doth feed upon my cost”, and Antony claims “I am no orator, as Brutus is” — but both are playing their own attributes down in an attempt to align themselves with the common interest.

JULIUS CAESAR rehearsal-45

Patrick Poole in rehearsal as Antony; photo by Jay McClure

Antony’s speech is more effective than Brutus’s partly because while Brutus makes an argument designed on logic (even if it’s often false logic), meant to appeal to the listener’s head, Antony goes straight for the heart. He appeals to emotions, and he receives an emotional response. He also offers the commons a more concrete reward than Brutus does, however. While Brutus says that the benefit of Caesar’s death will be the somewhat nebulous “place in the commonwealth” for every citizen, Antony pulls out Caesar’s will and promises them their inheritance — 75 drachmas to each man, as well as access to public parks, given to the populace in perpetuity. By the end of his speech, the citizens of Rome set off to burn houses and murder anyone they connect with Caesar’s death, including the hapless Cinna the Poet. Antony openly admits — to the audience, at least — that his purpose was manipulation: “Now, mischief, thou art afoot; take thou what course thou wilt.”

So, what political message can we truly consider Shakespeare’s legacy? Conservative, liberal, or moderate, Shakespeare’s message seems to be to think. Listen carefully and critically. Don’t accept what any potential leader says at face value, even or perhaps especially if they’re promising you something you want — because they want something, too.

–Cass Morris
OCS Academic Resources Manager

Leadership Seminar: Cue Scripts and Killing Caesar

IP15-2

It’s IP week here with OCS Education! Since 2012, we have hosted an annual leadership training event for International Paper, a truly massive corporation producing paper goods of all kinds and total ubiquity — chances are good there’s an IP product within your arm’s reach at this very moment!

One of the most rewarding components of the week is watching our groups grow from day to day, both in the work they do on personal presentation and structuring their personal statements, as well as in the scenework we do with them. On Tuesday, small groups of three or four put together short scenes from Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew. Yesterday, groups of six and seven tackled Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra. And today? Today they killed Caesar.

Killing Caesar is, as I’ve noted before, one of my very favorite things to do. What makes it extra special during IP week is seeing how far these folk have come in just a few days. On the first day, many are hesitant, both of the words and of offering their ideas. This morning, they hardly needed the coaches in the room at all. They could find embedded stage directions, make suggestions to each other, and negotiate the needs of the scene to tell a story, all with very little guidance.

They’ll have their final performances tomorrow, but for now, I wanted to share a few pics from today’s rehearsal:

Shakespeare’s Influence, Far and Wide

It’s April 23rd again, and that must mean it’s time for the Shakespeare Birthday Project. I’m pleased to once again be taking part in this celebration of Shakespeare’s life and the great joy he’s brought to so many people for so many years.

The thing of it is — I wasn’t quite sure what to write about this year. I’ve already devoted a post to how Shakespeare shaped my life path, and last year I discussed his inspirational power to teachers. Fortunately, circumstances aligned to provide me an avenue for discussion, because this year, Shakespeare’s birthday falls swift on the heels of an incredible eight-day stretch of OCS Education seminars. We began on Friday the 12th with our Spring Teacher Seminar, and that barreled straight into this year’s second annual week-long International Paper Leadership Seminar. Having these two events back up against each other allowed me to see the full spectrum of engagement with Shakespeare, from our super-excited educators, eagerly throwing themselves into immersion, to a group of business professionals, lawyers, and mill foremen, most of whom had little lifetime exposure to Shakespeare, and some of whom primarily spoke languages other than English.

There are ways in which our Teacher Seminars are like shooting fish in a barrel, because those educators (particularly those attendees who come multiple times a year) are always hungry to indulge their love of Shakespeare. That can be a double-edged sword, however, because it means I feel a lot of pressure to give them new, exciting material. So, for this event, I was pleased to be able to give them over to our Tempt Me Further tour actors for two workshops. I think they always get different insights from such active practitioners, even if they’re covering the same material that Sarah and I would. They also got to listen to a Master Minds lecture from an MBC graduate student and had the opportunity to discuss common misconceptions about early modern female performance with her. Best of all, though, they threw themselves willingly into every activity, listening attentively, offering their own viewpoints, and feverishly scribbling notes to take back to their own classrooms. Thanks to their enthusiasm and cheerful participation, I finished the weekend feeling, as I typically do after Teacher Seminars, more energized, rather than drained.

Our Leadership Seminars are a different animal, since the people we see for those typically come from well outside the world of Shakespeare or even of education. On the first day of this program, the International Paper coordinator asked the participants to rate their impression of Shakespeare on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning “would rather eat glass” to 10 meaning “have a secret crush on him.” We heard a few encouraging responses of 8+, but we also heard (not unexpectedly), a few in the 1-3 range — so we had our work cut out for us. We know that going in, though, and we’re always up for the challenge. 

The Leadership Seminar involves three major focus points: exploring Shakespeare’s examples of leadership through demos led by our actors and discussed by Dr. Ralph; writing and performing personal statements about a work-related challenge; and building short scenes in small groups through the use of cue scripts. Many of the challenge statements, perhaps unsurprisingly, focused precisely on the obstacle of communication — some of those quite literal, from those facing language barriers, others more abstract, as new leaders learn to negotiate team motivation or the transmission of information between departments. Others don’t feel like their team’s needs are always heard and recognized by those higher up in the organization. Our goal in a Leadership Seminar is to give participants the tools, using Shakespeare as inspiration and the vocal and physical techniques of the actors as a form to build around, to address these issues effectively once they return home. We examine both the technical construction of their statements as well as their presentation skills, adjusting each day. The difference from the start of the week to the end is always dramatic — and the great joy of it is getting to watch people get better at something through the coaching and exploration. We see the participants start to use their voices and their bodies to greater effect; we see them train themselves to plant their feet, stand up straight, and make eye contact; we hear them reconfigure their thoughts to be more evocative and persuasive.

What impressed me the most about our group from International Paper, though, was how game everyone was to try things out, even if they were uncomfortable, even if we were asking them to dig into something that was not their native language. It wasn’t easy work much of the time, but the participants were willing to engage and to make the attempt — and that makes all the difference. What they discovered was that Shakespeare is funny, moving, expertly constructed, and, the greatest surprise of all, often relevant to their own lives. The cue script activities taught them lessons about communication, leading by listening, and working as a team. The work they did showed the group that Shakespeare’s company faced many of the same basic problems they do in their positions. The demos, and the scenes themselves, often illustrated how those issues of communication, credentialing, and empathy speak across boundaries of time and language. Several participants ended up working Shakespeare’s lines, in direct quotation or in more oblique reference, into their challenge statements. Are all of these people likely to refer to Shakespeare often in their everyday lives? It’s unlikely. But they may think a little more positively about him — I think we converted some of those 1-3s into at least 5-7s by the end of the week, and we got at least a few lines into their mouths and into their brains. 

So, happy birthday, Mr. Shakespeare! Thank you for continuing not only to provide me with a career, but with the opportunity to share positive experiences with so many, so different people. May we continue to celebrate your natality for centuries to come.

OCS Theatre Camp and the Four Little Words:

Camper:   Um, excuse me? I think I may have a spondee?
Asst. Director:   Spondee? Spondee? Really? That sounds serious; you should put something on that.
C:   Ha, ha! I see what you did there.
AD:   What, my using your question to create epizeuxis?
C:   Epizeuxis? Epizeuxis?
AD:   See, I totally just got you to turn ‘epizeuxis’ into an epizeuxis. 
C:   Epizeuxis, epischmooxis!
AD:   Well, now that is not epizeuxis, epizeuxis is an immediate repeat, epishmooxis indeed! Now, how do we feel about epanorthosis?
C:   Bless you.
AD:   Nice one. But what I was going to say –
C:   Don’t start, I know what epizeuxis and epanorthosis mean, I’m just choosing to ignore you.
AD:   Touché.
C:   Now seriously, if I do have a spondee what do I do with the rest of it?
AD:   Well, I hear that if you slap a pyrrhic on a spondee it will clear the whole thing up in a matter of days. But, careful, now, that could just be an old wives tale.
From the 2012 OCS Theatre Camp Production of A King and No King.
Photo Courtesy Pat Jarrett.

C:   Funny…O, you mean…hey, that might actually work.

AD:   Why don’t you try it several ways and see which you think is best and go with that.
C:   But I want to get it right.
AD:   I can’t write you a prescription – ‘Take two trochees and call me in the morning.’ It’s your performance, so, you look at the clues, you try them out, and you then decide. Make it yours – that’s what makes it right
C:   I’m not used to that.
AD:   Welcome to camp! Give yourself a chance. I think you’ll find you have all the tools you need and that if you do your homework, commit to your choices, and believe in yourself, you’ll be great.
C:   Okay. I mean, thanks. I mean…so, you’re not going to tell me?
AD:   You are going to tell you. You are smart, funny, talented…by the time the show opens you will know that you are smart and funny and talented and will also be bold and confident and brilliant. And that, my friend, is…
C:   My cue to go try it?
AD:   Well, I was going to say ‘polysyndeton’. But, yeah, go try it, try ’em all! You can totally do this.
C:   Okay, I’ll give it a try!
That exchange is not, in fact, regarding treatment of an infectious disease, but about how to pronounce a line of verse. And, it is a typical back and forth between student and staff here at the OCS Theatre Camp for teens. Yes, we do spend a lot of quality time learning rhetoric, scansion, and other terrifying things. Yes, we design our curriculum with the goal of helping students explore language in a way that will help them to do better in their English classes, their AP tests, their college applications, and their performance skills. And it, in fact, does do all of that. But that is not the primary objective of our work here at the OCS Theatre Camp. 
I like to kick off each session by introducing students and families to what I believe are the four hardest words for students to say in any of Shakespeare’s texts and reassure them that by the end of camp they will be able to say all four. They are, in OCSending order: o, alas, alack, and I. Why, are these the most difficult to say you ask? Well, try them. You, yes, you, try them – it’s way more fun than you might imagine and not at all embarrassing. Really.
You can do it, just start with ‘O.’ Try to say the full word, don’t swallow it, really pronounce the whole thing. Let’s do it together: ‘O.’ Now try: ‘O for a muse of fire’. Now try it out loud. Don’t shorten that ‘O.’ Really say it like you mean it. See, that was a bit embarrassing at first, but, once you stopped worrying about the embarrassing feeling it was a cake walk. Nicely done. 
If you survived that, and I’m sure you did, try ‘alas.’ It’s okay if that one feels a bit silly when you start, just try it again. Remember now, out loud, do them all out loud.  ‘Alas.’ Now try: ‘Alas, how fiery and sharp he looks.’  It’s much easier if you really say ‘alas’ before you go on to the rest of the sentence. It’s counter-intuitive, I know, but it works, so resist your inclination to pretend it isn’t there.  Also, that one happens to be from a comedy, so really make a big deal of it, for comedic effect. It’s okay to feel silly here since you are, in fact, trying to be silly.  ‘Alas, how fiery and sharp he looks.’ Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! That was great. And I’m totally laughing with you, not at you, because, after all, you made it funny. Well played. You may have noticed that if you just go for it you feel a lot less silly because you are trying to be silly and then you sound downright serious and everyone will respect you for it. Neat trick, huh? Good job!
From the 2012 OCS Theatre Camp
Production of Henry VI, Part 1.Photo Courtesy Pat Jarrett.

Now, moving on to the really ridiculous one. Try ‘alack.’ Don’t forget the ‘ck’ sound at the end there. It’s more important than you might think, as it gives you the chance to separate that word from what comes after it. So, try it again, ‘alack.’  It’s one of those words you say when something has really given you pause, so take the time to allow the realization to set in as you say: ‘Alack the day’. If any line is going to make you look around and see if anyone is listening, it’s that one. It tends to make everyone a bit self-conscious. But, let’s just work through it together, and soon you will be glad you committed to it fully. ‘Alack the day.’ Now try the whole line: ‘She’s dead, deceased, she’s dead, alack the day.’ You can’t quit the exercise now! Just trust me, we’ll go there together. The only way to deliver that line and not feel like a real jerk is to completely give yourself over to it. Just embrace that word ‘alack’ like it is your life line – because it is. It is what keeps you tethered to the audience. If you skipped quickly over that ‘alack,’ the audience would not see your character realize how the world has changed for her forever. You see, here, you are the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. You’ve discovered that Juliet is ‘dead’ and have told her mother and now, on this line, have told her father. After ‘alack the day,’ the Nurse does not successfully connect with another onstage character until Juliet’s parents, Paris, and the Friar have exited. Then she has one line to the musicians, and you never see her again. The Nurse goes down her own rabbit hole of despair, and if the actor wants the audience to journey down that hole with her, it happens through the way she communicates ‘alack the day.’ So, spew all of the vitriol you can at Juliet’s dad by telling him three times of her demise, remind him of the part he played in her death, then really take in what it means for you, the Nurse, that she is gone. ‘Alack the day’ is the gate that holds back the flood of lamentation that follows, so hold on to every word as you say them. ‘She’s dead, deceased, she’s dead, alack the day’. See, now you don’t feel silly at all. Now you feel like a character that has the power to fully connect with the audience and have them journey with you. Well done.

Now, those three little words originally appeared daunting, but turned out to be very powerful when you wrapped yourself fully around them. What made them daunting was that you don’t typically use them on a daily basis. So why would the word ‘I’ be clustered with those three? Most people use that one every day. Well, let’s just try it in a line: ‘Now I am alone. O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I.’ Here is a moment where you have to open yourself up to the audience in a vulnerable and honest way, and Shakespeare makes sure that you do because the line is constructed without a single contraction. You can’t cheat and say ‘I’m.’ You have to say ‘I am’ and ‘am I.’ Now, when was the last time you yourself said the word ‘I’ in a vulnerable and honest way without a contraction? Exactly. Imagine for a moment that you are in an educational system that has to teach to the test. There is a right answer – your teacher, your school, your school district all get paid based on your ability to get that answer right. Imagine that you are living in a world where the expectations are incredibly high. Media bombards you every minute of the day to remind you what you are supposed to do, to be, to become. Imagine that you are somewhere between 13 and 18 years of age. Now, to that whole quiet room of actual people who are staring at you, waiting for an answer, and yes, the lights are on so you can see them all waiting, please say, ‘Hello, I am’ and then say your name. When was the last time you did that? No cheating – when did you really do it, with no contractions, no shortening or speeding up of words, no apologetically dipping of your head. You can’t hide the word ‘I’ by speeding into the contracted ‘m.’ You have to say the whole word ‘I,’ then say ‘am’. Try it now, out loud, ‘Hello, I am’ and then your name. Yep. That’s that difficult one. Try: ‘Now, I am alone.’ Welcome to life as a typical teenager. 
Here at the OCS Theatre Camp our number one priority is helping our students embrace the remarkable person that each one of them already is. We do it through collaborative work. We ask them everyday to teach their peers, to learn from one another, and to become comfortable with the idea that world holds endless possibilities for each of them. By exploring the rhetorical devices that are in every line of text, the students gain confidence in their ability to structure their own arguments in order to engage with anyone they meet in any situation. They analyze literature better and, as a result, write better essays that are well-worded, concise, and critical. They learn to ask why. They learn to explore many choices and that the one they choose is right because they chose it. They learn that each song, each dance, each scene is always better when they fully participate in it. They learn that their fellows rely on them and that they are necessary. In performance they are vulnerable and honest and brave. They learn that the world is a better place with them in it. But, most importantly, here at OCS Theatre Camp, they learn to say the word ‘I,’ to play the very best role in the world, that of being themselves and reveling in the performance every single day. And they are brilliant at it. 

To learn more about attending Theatre Camp or having our Educational Residency team come to your school, please follow this link: http://www.americanshakespearecenter.com/v.php?pg=76 

Leadership Seminar: International Paper

Last week, OCS Education embarked on a bit of an experiment by holding our first-ever week-long Leadership Seminar. We’ve been holding shorter seminars, anywhere from a quarter-day to two full days, since 2003, but this was our first go at expanding that model. A group of professionals from International Paper joined us Monday evening through Friday afternoon for a week examining persuasive techniques in Shakespeare’s plays, practicing communication and presentation skills, and exploring problem-solving techniques in teams.
The group consisted of individuals from many facets of the company – sales, IT, marketing, transit, legal, food services – and was truly international, with members from China, Venezuela, India, and Poland. Most of this group had little to no experience with Shakespeare, and for those international participants, it was literally a foreign language to them. So we had quite a challenge ahead of us, to get this group not only to see what Shakespeare could teach them about leadership, but to get them to have a good time doing it.
It totally worked, and in large part precisely because of Shakespeare’s stagecraft. All we had to do was show them the tools; once they got those down, they could see all the directions that he writes into his plays – everything from prop needs to movement to emotions to status markers. With that empowerment behind them, they easily grew out of their fear and into not just appreciation of but enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s plays.
Leadership Seminar participants from International Paper, back three rows, with OCS coaches and staff, front row.
Photo by Ralph Alan Cohen
 We structured our week as follows: Each morning, we examined “Shakespeare’s Models of Leadership,” examples of effective or ineffective leaders in Shakespeare. This included everyone from the obvious examples and heavy hitters – Henry V, Richard III, Antony – to less-overt or less-well-known examples of leadership and communication: Claudius, Feste, Jack Cade, Beatrice. The IP group got to watch our talented actors present scenes and monologues, and then Ralph talked through them, drawing attention to particular points of persuasion, audience appeal, personal presentation, and other aspects of communication. These examples gave us a ground level to start from and a common experience to point back at as examples throughout our other activities.
Early in the week, the group also heard from a few real-life, modern-day experts in communication and leadership, including Ronald Heifetz, the co-founder of and senior lecturer at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University and author or co-author of several important books on leadership, including Leadership without Easy Answers, Leadership on the Line, and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing your Organization and the World. In his lecture, Heifetz talked about a leader needing to be able to “look down from the balcony” – referring to the ability to step back and look at the big picture. That language stuck with the group throughout the week. Again and again, they considered the benefits of standing apart from a situation, taking up residence on that imaginary balcony and exploring the advantages the new viewpoint provided them. Several of the participants mentioned Heifetz’s lecture as a critical component to the week, providing them with inspiration and with some concrete ideas to return to as they worked through their own leadership styles.
In the rest of the day, we explored language analysis and presentation in two ways. The first was by having the participants construct, practice, review, and alter “challenge statements” – brief descriptions of some challenge they are facing in their professional or personal lives. Confused? Here’s one that one of our actor-coaches, Gregory Jon Phelps, wrote during our planning sessions, which we gave to the IP group as an example:
When presented with the task of writing this Challenge Statement, it seemed at first to be an easy assignment; its purpose clear, structure simple, and design helpful toward fully understanding the participants’ experience. However, the actual creation and construction of this statement, given all the possible subjects from which to choose, has, indeed, proven to be a challenge. The solution is simple: set aside the time it will take to write the statement, be alert and focused, and a subject will come to mind. It still seems easier said than done, though, since it is the actual deed itself, not the theoretical planning, that must be completed. Once the time has been blocked off, all other distractions have been dealt with properly, and an environment conducive to writing has been established, I’m confident that I will be inspired with a subject, that it will be effortless to write the statement, and that it will prove to be no challenge at all, but, in fact, quite fun.
The goal is to be simple, succinct, and persuasive – to be concise, but to make a strong point. We gave our participants a lot of different things to consider. Who might their intended audience be? How can they appeal to that audience? Are numerical details important? Or a personal anecdote? Do they want to present a problem and then suggest a solution? Or just focus on the problem itself? There are a lot of options; the goal is for the participants to find the approach that will work best for them, to find the way to tell the story they most want to tell. Working through these, we asked the participants to consider both their physical and vocal presentation, using lessons learned from the coaches as well as from Doreen Bechtol’s morning warm-up sessions, as well as the structure of their thoughts, their word choice, patterns of speech, and specificity of language.
The second exploration challenged the participants to put together scenes out of cue scripts. In many ways, this involved leadership in practice more strongly than anything else they did during the week. Due to the nature of cue scripts, each member of the team only had part of the information necessary to build the scene, so they had to figure out how to communicate their needs to each other. The exercise also stresses the importance of listening, since one character might have embedded stage directions not in their own lines, but in what someone else says.
Both of these challenges made some of our participants pretty nervous on the first day. I could see the standard markers of hesitation and fear. We strove to combat those reactions by creating safe spaces for experimentation, and part of that meant starting in smaller, non-threatening groups. We started the week in small groups of three or four participants, attached to one coach (myself or one of the six actors working with us through the week: Miriam Donald Burrows, John Harrell, Daniel Kennedy, Gregory Jon Phelps, René Thornton Jr., and Jeremy West). Those small groups worked through both the challenge statements and the cue scripts on Tuesday. Then, on Wednesday, we teamed up into groups of five and six, with two coaches: slightly wider range of feedback for challenge statement, slightly larger and more complex scenes to work through. Thursday, we glommed further into groups of ten and twelve, with three or four coaches, and on Friday morning, the entire group presented their final challenge statements and final scenes. This structure allowed the experience to build from simple to complex, as well as fostering the participants’ increased confidence each step of the way.
IP participants rehearse a scene from Julius Caesar,
with acting coach Daniel Kennedy visible, lower right.
Photo by Cass Morris
It was amazing to watch. On Tuesday, my group members needed a lot of help from me. The coaches weren’t meant to direct, but I found that I did need to ask a lot of leading questions about both the challenge statements and the scenes. Is there another way you can try that? Was that a conscious choice, or an accident? Is there a place you can choose to move? What in the text tells you that? Who are you saying that to? So, too, my group had a lot of questions for me – about the language, about pronunciation, about character relationships. I gave them only the bare necessities, nudging them to look in the text for clues.
And they got there. By Friday morning, with four coaches in the room, they barely needed us at all. Many times, I would notice myself or one of the other three coaches in the room start to open our mouths to suggest something or to ask a question – only to shut them again because the group had already gotten there, had already found the clue in the text. The language was no longer a barrier. They were hunting out clues, listening for embedded stage directions, considering the stage picture and the requirements of the scene, making decisions about who could and should stand where, and when they should move. I could hardly keep from bouncing with glee, it was such a thrill to watch them, knowing how far they had come in just a couple of days. What’s more – they were laughing their way through it, enjoying even the errors, making big and bold choices and delighting in the process. I love things like this, because it verifies what we claim about Shakespeare – that he wrote those clues into the text, that he wrote for actors, with the ideas of staging in mind.
Over the course of the week, we coaches became pretty attached to our groups. Having the privilege of seeing a group through from Day 1 to Day 5 was incredible, and when one of “mine” nailed something in a presentation, I felt a burst of pride (and sometimes couldn’t stop from doing a joyous fist-pump in the air). As we merged with other groups, it was also great to see how their members had evolved, what challenges they had faced that were similar to or different from ours, and how they integrated those ideas when working together.
The final challenge statements were a world apart from where the participants had started at the beginning of the week. Instead of mumbling voices, shuffling feat, hunched shoulders, and aimless sentences, we had bold tones, clear enunciation, excellent posture, straight backs, and focused statements. From hesitancy and obfuscation, we got confidence and clarity. (And, as a bonus, I think we all learned something about both the mechanics and the business of producing paper). The best part, though, was that I could sense the confidence our participants had gained over the week. At the beginning of the week, it had been a bit like drawing teeth to get anyone to volunteer to speak. By Friday morning, they were queuing up, eagerly anticipating their turns to take the stage.
One of the most touching moments was when one of the Chinese participants gave her final speech. She hadn’t been in any of my working groups, so I hadn’t had the opportunity to see her through that process of evolution. Instead, I got to see a night-and-day difference. The first day, she had been shy, uncomfortable with presenting in a foreign language, apologizing for herself (even though, as we pointed out, absolutely no one was judging her, since she certainly knows more English than any of us know Mandarin). On the last day, she delivered her challenge statement in Chinese, rather than in English. Having no Chinese myself, I didn’t understand a word, but I could still see a world of difference in her presentation. She was confident, she stood tall and straight, and even though I didn’t know what her words meant, I could tell which ones were important. She was choosing places to pause, choosing where to get louder or softer, and using her body to tell the same story of emphasis as her words. It was remarkable, and I know I wasn’t the only one getting a little choked up, seeing how far she – and all the others in the group – had come.
Following those scenes, we had one last conversation with the whole group, and here, the participants confirmed a lot of what I’d been seeing in practice. Getting to hear, in their own words, what this week had meant for them and what they had learned was incredibly valuable, and also quite touching. Several of them found the cue script exercises to be valuable, particularly for what it taught about giving and receiving focus, about when it’s a leader’s job to speak, and when it’s a leader’s job to listen. Others had awakened to the value of trying out a speech different ways, with different inflections or different word choices, of playing around with the language, and of giving themselves permission to try something that might not work in order to find the thing that would. Still others appreciated the opportunity to be vulnerable and to go through the process of self-auditing and reflection. They talked about the value of asking questions, of showcasing different aspects of communication, of learning about different kinds of leaders, and of finding inspiration in unexpected places.
One of the greatest joys in my job is getting to see people awaken to both the great value and the great joy of Shakespeare, and last week demonstrated both of those as thoroughly as I could imagine. Expanding the Leadership program to a full week gave me and the other coaches the opportunity to see the transformative nature of this kind of work. Best of all, throughout the entire week, I never heard a single person say, “No, I can’t do this” or “No, I won’t do this.” Skeptical as they were at the outset, they were still willing to try – and once they took that first step, the infinite variety lay ahead, just waiting for them. I can’t wait to do it again.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 22 April 2011

Just a few tidbits from the past couple of weeks:

  • Ever wondered what your brain looks like on Shakespeare? Now you can know! Scientists have conducted neurolinguistic experiments to suss out just what Shakespeare’s rhetoric does to the processing centers of your brain. It turns out that the brain enjoys the challenge of unusual syntax and receives a satisfying reward when it unravels Shakespeare’s linguistic riddles. Cass says: Scientific proof that my obsession with rhetoric is well-founded!
  • This article on Shakespeare and leadership cites our very own Director of Mission, Ralph Alan Cohen. The OCS works with the Federal Executive Institute several times each year to train government officials in leadership techniques, and we welcome any other corporate institutes to sign up for our leadership workshops.
  • This thoughtful essay examines the poignancy of Shakespeare’s perspective on parenting in The Tempest.
  • A new approach to Shakespeare and queer theory: “Rather than referring exclusively to homosexuality, ‘queer’ should encompass everything and anything odd, eccentric, and unexpected, such as the fairy queen Titania falling in love with the donkey-headed Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or King Lear’s complicated take on the limits of the human.”
  • An appeal for aid from a substitute teacher, hampered by educators who are letting their students get away with reading “modern translations” of Shakespeare. Sarah says: This breaks my heart. What I want to do more than anything in the world, is reach the teachers who fear Shakespeare and get them past it and into the realm of comfort, so that their students–our future audience members and–more importantly?–leaders will be able to speak well and appreciate deep text and the humanity Shakespeare so well portrays.

And don’t forget: Shakespeare’s 447th birthday is tomorrow! Join us at Gypsy Hill Park in Staunton on Saturday, from 10:30am-1pm, or at the Playhouse on Sunday, from 4:30pm-6pm, to celebrate with the OCS.