You Can’t Bop a Bop: Idiosyncrasies of Process and Personality in the Theatrical World

I’ve spent the past few weeks preparing a new Study Guide for this summer’s Class to Cast Seminar. It’s been an unusual challenge, not only because this Study Guide doesn’t follow the structural format I’ve established for all of our show-specific guides, but also because I frequently find myself trying to explain in written words things that I learned kinetically. The Class to Cast Guide will provide teachers with a start-to-finish model for producing a play with their students, either inside their classroom or as an extracurricular opportunity. Our goal is to cover everything that a teacher totally new to this concept would need to know: cutting the script, doubling, holding auditions and casting, the rehearsal process on the macro and micro level, dealing with text-based tablework, warm-up activities, guiding actors to make strong choices physically and vocally, dealing with particular staging challenges, audience contact, using dramaturgy, and finally dealing with the production concerns of costuming, props, stage combat, music and sound, marketing, and putting the whole thing on its feet for showtime.

Little Academe 2013; Photo by Pat Jarrett

Little Academe 2013; Photo by Pat Jarrett

What makes this process even stranger is that I am not, broadly, a kinetic learner. I’m a verbal learner — written or auditory. Yet the theatrical world is a place where kinetics seem to take over in a stronger way. Most of what we do for the stage, we learn by observation, instruction, and emulation. For a lot of us, it starts back in middle or high school, watching what the older students do, following in their footsteps, then passing the traditions on in our turn. I can easily write instructions for our usual activities — scansion, rhetoric, staging challenges, historical perspectives, textual variants — but when it comes to describing the procedures that shape a rehearsal process, I found myself having to engage entirely different writing muscles.

The oddity of attempting to put these things into words first struck me when I was scribing the instructions for Zip-Zap-Bop-Boing, the variation on Zip-Zap-Zop that we played at William & Mary. Staring at an empty bulleted list, I decided to try talking it out to myself. “Zips go to the side, zaps go across, bops rebound, and, of course, you can’t bop a bop.” Makes perfect sense, right? Well, no, unaccompanied by action, that’s total gibberish. While I’ll be able to demonstrate the actions to those teachers attending our Summer Seminar, I still have to make sure that the written guide is comprehensible to anyone else who might purchase it. Stretching routines and vocal exercises were also difficult to wrap language around. I’m coming to have a lot of respect for people who actually write whole books on those processes — but I also see very clearly why so many of them promote their workshop series and why more and more professionals are taking to YouTube for their demos.

Warm-ups and physical action aren’t the only difficult things to flatten onto the page: detailing the ins and outs of scheduling and structuring rehearsals takes some linguistic wrangling as well. This is something else I learned by mimesis: when I directed my first solo full-length show in college, it was after many years of exposure to other directors. Many start in assistant positions before taking on solo projects, in order to see the behind-the-scenes work and get a feel for the ebb and flow before diving in. And, of course, no two directors will run their rehearsal process in the same way, nor do all productions have the same needs. Cast size, rehearsal space, and actor availability are just some of the factors that can influence the scheduling, particularly for school productions rather than professional companies. So how to express something so nebulous? I’m giving a basic breakdown of how to think about those variables, but I’m also giving our teachers a few different examples: an OCSTC three-week schedule, the six-week format I used in college, a recent Ren Season schedule covering only three days. Hopefully this will give our teachers the information they need while still showing them the necessary flexibility of such a project.

What this is all really bringing home to me is just how important people are to the theatrical process. I know that might sound like a no-brainer, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it in exactly this context before. When I hear people talk — directors, actors, vocal coaches, etc — about their training and experience, they don’t tend to talk about what books they read. They talk about who they learned from. They talk about the amazing workshop they went to. They talk about summer immersion programs and the best course they ever had at school. They talk about the high school drama teacher who gave them a phrase that still rattles in their brains twenty years later. They talk about the first director who opened a door that let them feel like they were really doing something great on-stage.  That’s the sort of guidance I hope OCS Education can offer: a tangible and personal connection to the work, above and beyond the words on the page.

–Cass

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 Education in 2013

As we wrap up another great year at the American Shakespeare Center, we’re gearing up to offer even bigger and better programming in 2013 (and beyond). Here’s a sneak peek at what we’ll be bringing you over the next twelve months:

  • The No Kidding Shakespeare Camp: London Edition: This adventure is something we’ve been wanting to do for several years now. Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen, drawing on his experience founding JMU’s Studies Abroad program and leading overseas trips for many years. This program will focus on Shakespeare’s London and the theatrical joys of the modern city. Highlights will include the Globe Theatre, the Museum of London, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Regent’s Park, walking tours of important neighborhoods, a day trip to Oxford, and visits to some of London’s finest pubs. Registration is now open, and we would love for you to join us next summer.
  • From Class to Cast: 2013 Summer Teacher Seminar: With NKSC heading overseas, we’re expanding our Summer Teacher Seminar to a three-day adventure in the mechanics of putting together a play in your classroom. From cutting, doubling, and casting to costume considerations to the language work that forms the basis of all of the OCS’s productions, we will walk teachers through some techniques to get Shakespeare’s plays up on their feet and into their students’ bodies.
  • The 7th Blackfriars Conference: Our biennial celebration of Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and the early modern theatrical world will take place 23-27 October 2013. The gathering will honor George Walton Williams IV and will include keynote addresses from Russ McDonald, Ann Thompson, and Peter Holland, among others. Registration and Abstract Submission are now open.
  • Conferences: Members of OCS Education will make appearances at the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference and at Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays at UC-Davis in January, at the Shakespeare Association of America conference in April.
  • Even more new and improved OCS Study Guides: In 2013, our Lulu offerings will expand to include Othello and The Merry Wives of Windsor, with mini-guides on All’s Well That Ends Well and Henry IV, Part 1. I’ll also be updating As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet with some fresh new activities.
  • More Education Artists — meaning more programming for you: Sarah and I spent a week in December training and auditioning new Education Artists, and once they are settled in, they’ll be helping us out with workshops, Little Academes, Educational Residencies, Leadership Programming, and much more. Together, we will welcome colleges from all over the country to the Blackfriars Playhouse, including old friends from James Madison University, the Federal Executive Institute, Grove City College, the University of South Dakota, Indiana Wesleyan, and International Paper. Remember, we also take this show on the road with Leadership Programming in Germany and more residencies on the books in 2013.
  • A plethora of pre-show entertainment: Our Dr. Ralph Presents Lectures and Inside Plays Workshops will begin again in just a few weeks with insights into the plays of the Actors’ Renaissance Season. Join us select Wednesdays and Thursdays throughout the year at 5:30pm to brush up your knowledge of old favorites or to get an introduction to unfamiliar works. Podcasts of these lectures and our Actor-Scholar Councils will also be available to further enhance your play-viewing pleasure.
  • Slightly Skewed Shakespeare: The 2013-2014 Staged Reading series will feature works that are familiar yet off-kilter, almost-but-not-quite the Shakespearean plays you love and recognize. Join us for the First Quarto of Romeo and Juliet, the forgery Vortigern and Rowena, Nahum Tate’s infamous adjustment of King Lear, and the anonymous history The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth.
  • OCS Theatre Camp: This year’s campers will explore Pericles, As You Like It, Richard II, The Taming of the Shrew, John Fletcher’s The Wild Goose Chase, and Ben Jonson’s Volpone. Registration is now open.
  • Student Matinees: In 2013, we’ll be offering nine titles: Julius Caesar and Henry VIII in the Actors’ Renaissance Season, Twelfth Night and Love’s Labour’s Lost in the Spring Season, Romeo and Juliet, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida in the Fall Season, and A Christmas Carol in the Holiday Season, with a special preview of Spring 2014’s Othello.
A very happy New Year to you all — we look forward to seeing you at the Blackfriars Playhouse in 2013!

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 

Study Guides for TWELFTH NIGHT and ROMEO AND JULIET now available

I’m pleased to announce that the OCS now has Study Guides available for Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet. Thanks to the excellent feedback that we get from teachers who use these materials, OCS Education is able to tailor our resources to the activities that are best-suited for active classroom exploration. Here’s a sneak peek at what is included in these brand-new Study Guides:

Twelfth Night

  • Staging Directions: Twinning: In putting twins into several of his plays, Shakespeare breaks all the rules of verisimilitude and classical drama — but how important is it that stage twins actually look alike? In this activity, your students will uncover how much Viola and Sebastian reflect the theatre of the imagination that Shakespeare so loves to play with.
  • Perspectives: Gender and Behavior: Twelfth Night is famously full of gender-bending and confused sexuality — issues which are not just politically “hot”, but which may be crucial to some of your students as they explore their own identities. The activities in this section will help you navigate these considerations in your classroom by looking at ideas of gender presentation on stage.
  • Rhetoric: Corrupter of Words: Feste the Clown is a famous fool — but what is it that puts him into that category? Your students will explore Feste’s wit and wordplay, discovering how he twists words to show off his quick and clever mind.
  • Textual Variants: Embedded Stage Directions: Modern editors frequently move or insert stage directions, based on what they think readers need to know about the scene. But how necessary are these editions? Shakespeare gives clues for action within the dialogue of his plays. Changing an entrance, exit, or action may make a world of difference to the story that a scene tells.
  • Staging Challenges: Gulling Malvolio: The “box-tree scene,” where Maria, Toby, Andrew, and Fabian team up to deceive Malvolio, is frequently one of the funniest scenes in a production of Twelfth Night — but, it has a lot of moving pieces. Your students will actively explore the potential for comedy in this scene, while wrestling with the requirements imposed by the text and Shakespeare’s staging conditions.
  • Perspectives: Music: Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most musical plays. In his own time, the tunes played during or before the performance would have resonated with his audiences — they would have been popular and familiar. In this activity, your students will explore ways to recover that touchstone in the modern day.

Romeo and Juliet

  • Metrical Exploration: The Conversational Sonnet: Throughout Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare plays with the familiar form of the sonnet, working it into his prologues as well as into the lovers’ conversation. This activity provides an introduction to the poetic form as well as an exploration of its function in Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting.
  • Staging Challenges: Stage Combat: From the first scene to the last, Romeo and Juliet is full of opportunities for violence. How do fight choreographers determine how to stage these fights based on information in the text? Your students will examine Mercutio and Tybalt’s combat to find out.
  • Rhetoric: Emotional Highs and Lows: Romeo’s wild mood swings and hyperbolic emotions may be familiar to your teenaged students — but how does Shakespeare construct that hormonal rollercoaster? Explore his rhetorical structure to find out.
  • Staging Challenges: Parts and Cues: Theatrical companies in early modern England used “cue scripts” when producing their plays, rolls on which an actor would receive his own lines and only a few cuing words, not the full script of the play. Your students will explore what performance clues may be hidden in those cues.
  • Textual Variants: Quarto and Folio: Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s plays that exists in multiple early modern forms, including an early and much-altered quarto. In this activity, your students will explore the differences between the First Quarto and the play as they probably know it, looking at key differences in speech length, speech prefixes, stage directions, and more.
  • Perspectives: Comedy and Tragedy: Though one of the world’s most famous tragedies, Romeo and Juliet is a play with a surprising amount of comedy in it. Where does that thin line between the genres live, and how does Shakespeare challenge and subvert audience expectations? Your students will find out in this thought-provoking activity.

Additionally, both guides include:

  • The Basics: Getting your students on their feet, working with iambic pentameter, paraphrasing, exploring rhetoric, and turning your classroom into an early modern stage.
  • Line Assignments: A way to give your students ownership over a small section of text, which they will use in further language-based activities and staging explorations.
  • Advice for how to use film in the classroom judiciously and effectively.
  • A guide to producing a 1-hour version of the play in your classroom.
  • Guidelines matching these activities to Virginia SOLs and U.S. Core Curriculum Standards.
  • Full bibliographies for further reading.

Both of these Study Guides are available for purchase at Lulu, along with guides for ten other plays. You can also view 15-page previews of the guides on that site. Coming soon: The Merchant of Venice and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

"I am not what I am": Shakespeare and Gender Fluidity

The thing about being active in social media, in fandoms, on the Internet in general is that it exposes you to a broader spectrum of humanity than most people encounter on a day-to-day basis — and it means that a lot of minority groups get greater exposure on the Internet than they do elsewhere. A lifelong citizen of the web, I’m always learning new things from new groups of people. Because I’m politically interested and active, a lot of the things I learn have to do with civil rights, and because of the nature of current politics, a lot of those rights have to do with sexual attraction and gender equality, in some way or another. I’ve noticed a trend, in the past few years, of increasing awareness of people who do not conform to the socially projected binary system: people who are neither male nor female, but somewhere in between; people who are not cisgendered, whose mental, emotional, psychological identities don’t match with their biological organs; people who are neither heterosexual nor homosexual, but bi-, or pan-, or asexual, or who are still figuring that out. It’s a big wide world out there, and there are all kinds of people in it — but just because we didn’t hear as much about these people before doesn’t mean they suddenly started existing in the past few years. These ideas have been around for centuries, even millennia — and Shakespeare had something to say about them, albeit in a different language than we use today.

Five years ago, I don’t know that it would ever have occurred to me to use the terms “gender fluidity” or “sliding scale of human sexuality” (and I hadn’t even heard the term “cisgendered,” which is still new enough that it has yet to make it into the OED) — particularly not in a Study Guide aimed for teachers of high school and college students. And yet, in an activity I’ve been preparing for the Twelfth Night Study Guide, I’ve done just that. Viola gives me a great in — and so does Antonio, and so does Olivia, so do Orsino and Sebastian. In “Perspectives: Gender and Behavior,” I ask teachers to lead their students through an exploration of the gender dynamics in the play. The activities involve looking at the stereotypical presentations of male and female, both in appearance and behavior, examining how Shakespeare invokes these markers in the plays with cross-dressing heroines, and then exploring how the gender confusion creates emotional conflict . As with all our Study Guides, the main focus of the activity is practical — how do we stage this? How do costumes affect the presentation? How can an actor play against his or her biological gender or usual presentation of gender? But, as this is the Perspectives section, I also take a moment to broaden the scope — to explore the social issues the play raises, particularly in modern performance, and how those issues may resonate in students’ lives. And so part of the activity looks like this:

  • Give your students Handout #5A: Suit Me Like a Man. This handout provides the text of the scenes from five Shakespeare plays where the heroine makes the decision to dress as a man:
  • Discuss:
    • What do Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroines point to as the markers of mOCSulinity versus femininity?
    • What information does Shakespeare convey about how his (male) actors playing female characters will present mOCSulinity?
    • All of these heroines have help in assuming their disguises. Julia and Portia ask their waiting-women; Rosalind has Celia for a comrade; Viola asks the sea captain; Imogen takes the suggestion from Pisanio. How do these relationships pertain to the social anxiety surrounding cross-dressing? Is it different for Viola, who asks a man for help? For Imogen, the only one among the five who does not have the idea herself, and cross-dresses at a man’s suggestion?
    • Further Exploration: Look at Shakespeare’s sonnets for more commentary on the comparison and confusion of gender (particularly Sonnet #20). What continuing relevance do these poems and the gender-bending heroines in the plays have in the modern world, as we begin to consider more frequently ideas of gender identity, gender fluidity, and the sliding scale of human sexuality? How is the social anxiety expressed in the plays and poems like or unlike modern social anxiety around the same topics?

It would be easy to write about Twelfth Night without directly addressing these issues — to keep it locked safely in a very narrow interpretation of historical context, to ignore the potential homoerotic implications, to pass over what attention the play can draw to the fluidity of gender assignation and the possible impermeability of identity. I could skip over that. I could avoid what is still, in this country and across the world, a highly controversial topic.

But I don’t want to do that. Because I don’t know who’s in the classrooms that will be using these materials. I don’t know if there will be a girl studying Twelfth Night who has just figured out that she likes girls, or a boy who’s discovering that he likes boys, or boys and girls, or neither. I don’t know if there might be a student of either gender who has never felt right in his or her body, has never identified with what biology provided. I don’t know if there’s someone who, like Viola for much of the play, feels stuck somewhere in the middle. I don’t know who they are. I don’t know if they get support at home or from their friends, or if they’re dealing with it all in silence and isolation. I don’t know how often they hear that they’re sinful, or sick, or monstrous. And so I don’t want to close doors for them. I want to give teachers the tools explore these ideas where they live in Shakespeare’s works, rather than skimming past them.

Being a teenager is hard enough. Being a teenager who feels profoundly different from his or her peers is even harder — particularly when that difference, in so much of our country, can make you a target for prejudice, ridicule, and abuse. I like the idea that Shakespeare might be able to help, in some small way — to let those teenagers know that, even four hundred years ago, someone was questioning the stability of gender identity. More than one someone, really — Kit Marlowe’s homoerotic themes are hardly subtextual, women writers were challenging society’s gendered expectations of them, and Italian artists frequently explored androgyny and blurred gender lines in paintings and sculptures. The topic was out there in the early modern world, and students should get to know that. Even that long ago, in a world we often perceive as so much more rigid than ours, some people were pushing the boundaries of what it meant to be a boy or a girl, and some were interrogating the nature of sexual attraction. Real people, not so unlike the modern readers, were exploring alternatives to the prescribed norm, questioning their own emotions and desires, and expressing that through art. So this is why I include the discussion topic in the Twelfth Night Study Guide. If Shakespeare can reach across the centuries and help just one student struggling with these issues of identity, then that makes it worth raising the issue.

A Belated Happy Birthday to Shakespeare

With apologies for the delay, here is my contribution to the Happy Birthday Shakespeare project. Last year, I gave you all the full story of my experience with Shakespeare; this year, it’s about growth. In the twelve months since the big guy’s last birthday, we’ve had another season of summer camps, we hosted the 6th Blackfriars Conference, and we held our first week-long Leadership Seminar. Personally, I completed another round of Study Guides, I presented at the Blackfriars Conference, and I participated in my first panel at the Shakespeare Association of American conference. It’s been a big year.

In some ways, it’s actually a little appropriate that I’m finally getting around to wishing Shakespeare a happy birthday today, as today is also the birthday of Sarah Enloe, the OCS Director of Education — the phenomenal woman who holds this department together. She’s a veteran of the UT-Austin theatre studies program and the Mary Baldwin College MLitt/MFA program, she taught theatre arts at the high school level in Texas for five years, and in 2003, she won recognition as teacher of the year and an NEH fellowship to study with Shakespeare & Co. At the OCS, Sarah directs programming in the areas of College Prep, Research and Scholarship (including facilitating the OCS’s partnership with Mary Baldwin College’s Masters in Shakespeare and Performance Program), Personal Renaissance, and Educator Resources — a near-superhuman effort, really, doing the work of several people in one body (and, to the best of my knowledge, without opening any holes in the space-time continuum in order to fit more hours into her day). She’s the one who picked me out for this fantastic job that I hold, and she’s been an incredible mentor over the past two years.

This spirals around to one of the things I find so great about Shakespeare: the amazing ability his works have to inspire people. Something about these plays lights a fire in so many people, and so many of those people then feel the compulsion — the imperative need — to share that joy with others. Once you strip away the fear, once you get past that initial pushback, it can really be quite easy, if you use the tools that Shakespeare gives you — as we observed during the Leadership Seminar. Shakespeare’s plays are just that — they’re for playing. Pull them apart to find the clues, dig through the obfuscation of the intervening centuries to recover layers of meaning, — approaching his texts as plays, as living and breathing things, is both so instructive and so enjoyable. In the past year, I’ve seen the lights go on in so many heads, from nine year old students to urban professionals to septuagenarian retirees. It never fails to reinvigorate me. Our company is filled with people who feel that same fire. It has to be; you can’t do this kind of work, with this kind of intensity and this kind of infectious energy, if you don’t absolutely love it.

So today, I’d like to thank Shakespeare and Sarah both for their incredible ability to inspire me and others. Happy birthday to you both!

Wandering through Wordles, Part the Second

When I began building last year’s set of Study Guides, I devoted a post to the Wordles which we include as part of the Basics unit. OCS Education uses Wordles as a device to introduce students to the idea that Shakespeare’s language is their language, that the vocabulary is familiar, not alien. Handing students who are new to Shakespeare a block of uninterrupted text can be intimidating, and the so-called “line of terror” at the bottom of many editions only augments the students’ assumptions that they won’t understand without explanation. Breaking the words down through a Wordle, however, demonstrates the accessibility of the language. In most instances, the only completely unfamiliar words will be proper nouns — place names and character names. When students find a challenging word that is not a proper noun, we tell teachers to move back to the text itself; usually, the word’s meaning is apparent in context. This method is an easy introduction to Shakespeare’s language and can help remove some of the fear that many students experience when first engaging with the text.

Last year, I discovered that Wordles of the first 100 lines can also illuminate something about the plays themselves, as well as what Shakespeare seems to be calling attention to in the first five minutes of a show. As I begin working on the 2012-2013 set — Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona — I’ve started constructing a new series of Wordles. So, as a bit of a teaser for these upcoming Study Guides, I thought I would share the discoveries I’ve made in these new examples.

To begin, here’s Twelfth Night:

The first 100 lines of Twelfth Night stretch over almost two full scenes: Orsino lamenting to his court about Olivia’s persistent rejection, and Viola the Illyrian shore, mourning her supposedly drowned brother. The biggest words here are “love” and “brother”, and those clues wrap up the relationship dynamics of the play pretty succinctly. Both have a focus in both of the opening scenes; Olivia has recently lost her brother, and uses that as the basis for rejecting Orsino’s suit, and Viola thinks her brother Sebastian has drowned. The other words that stand out to me are “may” and “perchance.” There’s an emphasis on the subjunctive mood, which, in a strange way, sort of highlights the impermeability and the uncertainty that dominates this play. The subjunctive mood is one of desire and doubt, wishes and maybes. Everything is “perchance;” everything exists on unstable ground when we start, and the lines of certainty only become more blurred as the play goes on.

Next up, Romeo and Juliet:

I think, from this Wordle, you get a sense of the challenging atmosphere in the first 100 lines of this play. We see a lot of address happening — “sir,” “thou,” “thee” — so we know, right off, that characters are speaking to each other and that they are, judging by the pronouns, being informal. We also see a lot of active verbs, such as “bite,” “draw,” “stand,” and “strike,” as well as other words indicative of a fight — “sword,” “quarrel,” “hate.” The first 100 lines of Romeo and Juliet set a mood of combat and aggression, and that much is evident in the vocabulary Shakespeare uses. We also get the names of the factions involved, the Capulets and Montagues.

Next, The Merchant of Venice, and I’ll confess, this one cracked me up:

Why did this crack me up? Well, as I’d been looking over these first 100 lines, I turned to Sarah and said, “It feels like all anyone does in the first scene of this play is walk up to Antonio and say, ‘Hey, man, you look terrible, what’s wrong?’ Seriously, it just keeps happening.” And then I did this Wordle, and lo and behold, our largest words? “Sad” and “Antonio.” The Wordle verifies my perception of what’s going on in this opening scene. Apart from that, we see a lot of other words related to emotions — “laugh,” “merry,” “love,” “like,” “wearies,” “melancholy,” — as well as some words introducing the mercantile aspect of the play: “worth,” “ventures,” “merchandise,” “fortune.” It’s interesting to me that Shakespeare foregrounds both of those spheres in these first five minutes, demonstrating the complicated links between love and fortune (and between personal merit and financial worth) right from the start.

Finally, the Wordle for the first 100 lines of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which is interesting in a rather different way from the others:

At first glance, this one is rather weird, and might have you thinking that Two Gents is some kind of pastoral comedy. Why on earth would “sheep” and “shepherd” appear so large? I love this example, because the Wordle actually points at the rhetoric. Those words appear in repetition in the following exchange:

SPEED
Sir Proteus, save you! Saw you my master?

PROTEUS
But now he parted hence, to embark for Milan.

SPEED
Twenty to one then he is shipp’d already,
And I have play’d the sheep in losing him.

PROTEUS
Indeed, a sheep doth very often stray,
An if the shepherd be a while away.

SPEED
You conclude that my master is a shepherd, then,
and I a sheep?

PROTEUS
I do.

SPEED
Why then, my horns are his horns, whether I wake or sleep.

PROTEUS
A silly answer and fitting well a sheep.

SPEED
This proves me still a sheep.

PROTEUS
True; and thy master a shepherd.

SPEED
Nay, that I can deny by a circumstance.

PROTEUS
It shall go hard but I’ll prove it by another.

SPEED
The shepherd seeks the sheep, and not the sheep the
shepherd; but I seek my master, and my master seeks
not me: therefore I am no sheep.

PROTEUS
The sheep for fodder follow the shepherd; the
shepherd for food follows not the sheep: thou for
wages followest thy master; thy master for wages
follows not thee: therefore thou art a sheep.

SPEED
Such another proof will make me cry ‘baa.’

Proteus and Speed engage in stichomythia, the rapid exchange of lines (as do Sampson and Gregory in the beginning of Romeo and Juliet), and they layer this with punning and repetitions, including antimetabole, the repetition of words in inverted (A-B-B-A) order. The prominence of those terms in the Wordle, then, doesn’t introduce us to a large overarching concept of the play, but it does hint at what the tenor of the play will be. This sort of bantering humor continues throughout the text, between many different characters.

The biggest word in this example, though, is “love” — right from the beginning, that’s what Valentine and Proteus are talking about, and that’s what they’ll keep talking about throughout the entire play. The tensions between romantic love, friendly love, and self-love are what drive this play, and Shakespeare opens by having his two male protagonists discuss when love is real and when it isn’t, during which they repeat the word “love” seventeen times.

Since OCS Education began using Wordles as a tool in our Study Guides, we’ve had great responses to them. These are a great way for a teacher to begin the class discussion of the play on an accessible level, easing students away from their fear and into a discussion of the text. For more information, check out our Study Guides, available as PDF downloads or print-on-demand hard copies through lulu.com.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 24 February 2012

A few notes and points of interest from the world of Shakespeare studies this week:

  • London’s Globe Theatre has awarded its first PhDs to Sarah Dustagheer and Penelope Woods. These women are both friends of the OCS: Woods presented on audience studies at our 2009 Blackfriars Conference, and Dustagheer observed an Actors’ Renaissance Season, giving presentations to the MBC MLitt/MFA program on the differences between playing the Globe and playing the Blackfriars Playhouse. Congratulations to them both, and to the Globe for enacting this joint degree-awarding venture with Queen Mary, University of London, and King’s College London.
  • The new “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700” exhibit at the Folger Library challenges the notion that early modern women didn’t write (or, as Virginia Woolf famously asserted, that, if they did, they must have been driven mad by the frustrations of it). The exhibit celebrates such notable female authors as Veronica Franco, Lady Anne Clifford, Lady Mary Wroth, the Mancini sisters, Aemilia Lanyer, Aphra Behn, Susanna Centlivre, and (my personal favorite early modern woman) Lady Mary Herbert. If you can’t make it to DC to see the exhibit in person, selections from it are also available online.
  • This week, the OCS welcomes alumni from Dartmouth College for a weekend of entertainment and scholarship. Peter Saccio, the Leon D. Black Professor of Shakespearean Studies at Dartmouth College, was the editor of A Mad World, My Masters for the Middleton Complete Works. Saccio gave a public lecture last night, detailing some of the textual oddities of the script and what that can mean for the stage, and will give several private lectures to the Dartmouth group throughout the weekend.
  • Education Week featured an article on the challenge educators face when attempting to tie their lesson plans to Core Curriculum Standards. “Their current materials fall short, and there is a dearth of good new ones to fill the void.” OCS Study Guides (now available on lulu.com!) feature not only guidelines for fulfilling Virginia’s Standards of Learning, but also the U.S. Core Curriculum Standards.

As a final note, remember that you still have a few days to get in your nominations for the 2012 Shakespearean March Madness. I’ve already heard support for Hotspur, Cassius, the Duke of Cornwall, and Richard II. Pitch your pick for this no-holds-barred brawl here.

Exploration and Revelation: The Winter 2012 Teacher Seminar

This past weekend, we held our Winter Teacher Seminar, a two-day event where participants attend workshops and lectures and see two of the plays of the Actors’ Renaissance Season. Thanks in part to a generous grant from the Richard and Caroline T. Gwathmey Memorial Trust, more educators than ever were able to join us – and we had a group from diverse teaching backgrounds: middle schools, high schools, and universities, public and private, military and religious, as well as some professional acting companies and arts organizations. We also had participants join us from as far away as Florida and Pennsylvania, as well as representing 16 cities and counties within Virginia. It was so exciting to have such a full, enthusiastic group with us for the weekend. I always feel so energized after these events, so full of joy for the work that we do together and for the new avenues of insight these educators feed back to me.

Saturday’s workshops focused on Much Ado about Nothing, Sunday’s on Richard III. Ralph drew connections between the two plays, and how each has its moments of invited and inappropriate laughter, and each its moments inviting or castigating silence. He drew a correlation between these moments on stage and in the classroom – after all, there are times teachers desperately hope that their students laugh at a joke, and there are times teachers abhor hearing laughter. He also encouraged the teachers to find their own personal hook within the play, something that calls to them and energizes them, and to teach those moments. Teaching requires no small part of vulnerability, to lay out the things you care for to what may often seem an unruly mob of the disaffected and cynical.

Saturday morning, we also modeled one of the activities out of the Much Ado about Nothing Study Guide. This one was my baby, and I’d been looking forward to working through it with our seminar attendees ever since I wrote it back in November – so I was actually fairly nervous heading in. Like any teacher, I have had, on occasion, something I’m really excited about flop rather pathetically when brought to the table. I always learn something from that experience – how I might need to tweak the activity, toss out elements that aren’t working, or graft a new idea on – but failure isn’t exactly pleasant to go through, however constructive it may ultimately be. So, heart in my hands, I stepped up to lead this workshop. And it went wonderfully(!).

The exploration is an active one, examining how language can inform character choices in the various sparring matches between Beatrice and Benedick. Participants – with the help of the rest of the class – look for moments when one character repeats the other, builds on a metaphor the other started, or arranges contrast of some kind. What the seminar attendees discovered – as I’d hoped they would – is that while Beatrice and Benedick use the same rhetorical devices with each other in three different scenes, the way they use them creates three very different moods, from the aggressive sparring of 1.1 to the tender hesitation of 4.1 to the playful equilibrium achieved in 5.2. We make these devices visual and kinetic – to appeal to different kinds of learners – by having our Beatrice and Benedick peg nerf balls at each other each time, highlighting the verbal tennis match they engage in. It was great to see at what moments one of them (usually Beatrice) was able to score more points.

I love this activity for how it demonstrates several different advantages of performance-based learning: first, how Shakespeare creates these characters as so right for each other. No one else in the play – even in a play as full of quick wits as Much Ado is – can quite match their verbal dexterity. Second, the activity highlights that “infinite variety” of performance choices Sarah and I are always talking about. The rhetoric gives actors – and students – not an answer, but the grounds on which to make a decision. Our avatar Beatrices and Benedicks were able to offer so many alternatives on even the smallest moment – it really drives home that idea of performance-based learning. Finally, this activity appeals to many different kinds of learners, as it involves verbal, textual, visual, and kinetic elements. Everyone from the class clown to the shiest member of the class has a place in this activity. I think all of those elements came across for our seminar attendees, and I’m so pleased I got to share this workshop with them.

You can view a sample of this workshop in-progress on YouTube:

The Gwathmey grant also allowed us to bring two guest speakers to Staunton, giving our participants the chance to interact with scholars whose research bears a direct emphasis on the plays they saw and their classroom activities. Chelsea Phillips, a veteran of MBC’s MLitt/MFA program and now a third-year Ph.D. student at Ohio State University, came down to share thoughts related to her dissertation: the presence of pregnant bodies on stage. This discussion is particularly relevant this year, as Miriam Donald, who plays Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing and the Duchess of York, among other roles, in Richard III, is visibly pregnant. We wanted to offer teachers – especially those bringing their students to see one of those two productions this year – the benefit of Chelsea’s research into the historical precedent of pregnant actresses playing non-pregnant roles, in order to give them a solid grounding on which to base classroom discussion. Chelsea also works on Ohio State’s partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company implementing the RSC’s Stand Up for Shakespeare program in local schools, making her a valuable resource on Shakespeare in the classroom. On Sunday, Carter Hailey joined us for a lecture-demo on textual variants. Carter has taught Medieval and Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, and textual studies at Washington and Lee University, the College of William and Mary (where yours truly was one of his students), Sweet Briar College, and Georgetown University, and he publishes on matters bibliographical, lexical, and editorial. In addition to discussing the textual histories of Much Ado about Nothing and Richard III, he shared Hailey’s COMET, a portable optical collator of his own design and construction, which provides critical editors with a new way of examining variants between texts. We synthesized Carter’s lecture with an exploration of how to use textual variants in the classroom as a way to give students greater ownership of the text, allowing them to realize that there is no One Shakespeare to Rule Them All – rather, that the text as they see it has already passed through the hands of many compositors and editors, and that they may make choices based on this awareness.

So, that was the weekend. As ever, I wished I had more time. There’s always so much more to say, more staging moments to discuss, more of Shakespeare’s word- and stagecraft to explore. I’m already looking forward to our spring seminar, in April, when we’ll be leaping into A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Winter’s Tale. I’m also going to be releasing a survey soon, both to our seminar participants and to anyone who’s purchased a Study Guide from us, asking for feedback on the information and activities we provide. It’s interesting to have to examine what it is I need to know from our teachers – a sort of backwards self-evaluation. I’ll be putting their feedback into practice when I start – very soon – building the Study Guides for next year. My first endeavor will be Twelfth Night, as we already have folks booking the touring company asking for it. I love seeing so much advance enthusiasm for the OCS’s synthesis of education and performance. I extend my heartfelt thanks to everyone who joined us this past weekend, and I sincerely hope we’ll see you all again soon.