Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 19 November 2010

A lot of education-oriented links this week, along with some items that are just good for a laugh.

  • Kevin J. Costa from the Folger talks about the thin line between teaching Shakespeare and directing it. Cass says: This shared skill set is something we’ve been trying to bring more to the forefront in our new study guides. It helps bring the plays to life so much more if the teacher can think like a director, moving the students through the action of the play rather than just talking about it. We know that trying to be a director can be a fear-inducing thing for some teachers, so we give the teachers the tools and the language to work like one.
  • The Kennedy Center has launched a new, interactive site for students. Sarah says: This one relates events/people to Shakespeare’s work in a new way. The site also provides some interesting videos.
  • A survey of job-related websites has ranked teaching as the fifth most stressful occupation, right behind combat soldiers, air traffic controllers, firemen, and coal miners.
  • Dan Rebellato at blog on The Guardian asks “What’s so wrong with proscenium arch theatre?”, and Stanley Wells, after asking “To thrust or not to thrust?“, also backs up Rebellato. Cass says: It isn’t that there’s anything inherently wrong with proscenium theatres in general. It’s just that they seem less effective for early modern theatre, since proscenium arches don’t provide the conditions that early modern plays were written for. The opposite holds true as well, I think. Most Broadway musicals would never work on a small thrust stage like ours, for instance, and many new plays rely heavily on technological advances to tell their stories (I’m thinking of Closer, which requires being able to see an instant messaging conversation on-screen). There’s probably a larger blog entry in here for me, really, since this topic is so near and dear to the hearts of those of us at the OCS. I think the arguments against proscenium arches that others seem to be giving Rebellato miss the mark, and it’s certainly not like you can’t watch an excellent production with excellent performances on a proscenium stage, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still drawbacks to that style, especially where early modern plays are concerned.
  • And now, for some shameless self-promotion: an article from Hood College, written by a student who came to see Othello, and one about the literary society from Randolph-Macon College coming to see The Taming of the Shrew. We’re so glad that these students had such positive experiences at the Blackfriars Playhouse, and we hope they’ll come back again soon.
  • MBC MLitt/MFA candidate and OCS employee Shannon Schultz has started a blog, More Things in Heaven and Earth, which will begin by chronicling her experiences directing an all-male production of Romeo and Juliet.
  • Finally, if your day needs a laugh, check out what would happen if Shakespearean characters posted on Craigslist.

Imprimis will be off next week for the holiday, so look for an extra-big listing on December 3rd.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 12 November 2010

Quite a few links this week, on a smattering of different subjects:

  • Are naughty words a vanishing species? An op-ed wonders about if profanity becoming so common and unshocking is de-valuating powerful words. The article includes a brief discussion on Shakespeare and Bowdlerization.
  • Meanwhile, an editor at the Desert Valley Times think we should be insulting each other with greater flair and panache and suggests that politicians should borrow some of Shakespeare’s zingers during debates.
  • In the wake of the US’s recent turbulent elections, here’s a ballot I think we can all get behind: Shakespeare/Marlowe 2012. Bumper sticker sales are going to a foundation that promotes Shakespeare and theatre education for young folks across the country. Cass says: I wonder who would run against them. Beaumont/Fletcher? Jonson/HisEgo?
  • Some suggestions on teaching Shakespeare from a “computer buff” who “likes to write.” Sarah says: He begins by stating his chagrin regarding students and adults, then suggests some ways to relax students. He includes teaching the plays as performance and suggests movie viewings… I say movies in bits but go “performance”!
  • Tips on working through a Shakespearean monologue. Sarah says: While I don’t agree with all of Alex Swenson’s terminology and conclusions (“Some of the language in Shakespeare is outdated and therefore hard to understand”), I think the steps of exploration (paraphrase, scansion, character clues within the play) may be helpful to students and teachers. I would offer that a word-for-word paraphrase, leaving the syntax intact, would also reveal clues about the character that students should explore.
  • A compendium of the articles of David Crystal. Sarah says: My obsession with word meaning, invention, and instruction comes into play in this recommendation. David Crystal figured heavily into my thesis, so imagine my joy finding all of his articles in one place! I would also encourage you to follow his blog… some Shakespeare, lots of word talk.
  • Intern Natalie blogs about the thesis festival. Sarah says: I know I am citing our own blog here, but gosh, if Natalie can’t get a point across eloquently. Read it to see what you missed on Monday.
  • Shakespeare and Neil Gaiman. Cass says: Bardfilm blogs about the intersection of two of my favorite things, in honor of Neil Gaiman’s 50th birthday. Anyone who hasn’t read, well, all of Sandman, really, but especially the issues featuring A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest has completely missed out. One of my favorite moments actually comes when Morpheus, the Shaper of Dreams, first meets Shakespeare in a pub and overhears him talking to Kit Marlowe, saying: “I would give anything to have your gifts, or more than anything to give men dreams that would live on long after I am dead. I’d bargain, like your Faustus, for that boon.” (Fun fact – almost everything Shakespeare says in his first appearance is in iambic pentameter. Because Neil Gaiman is Just That Good).
  • Finally, San Jose State University theatre is putting on a steampunk Twelfth Night. Cass says: I felt like I had to include this one, following the Gaiman link, just in case there was any doubt about my level of geek-dom. Seriously, though, this is the third steampunk Twelfth Night I’ve heard about in, I think, three years. Why is this play getting all the steampunk love and not the rest of the canon? Christina has suggested a steampunk Civil War Cymbeline, and I’m for it. What other plays do you think would work well all steampunk-ed out? (And for any of our readers asking “What on earth is this ‘steampunk’ thing Cass is going on about?”, here’s a collection of descriptions of the aesthetic/movement/genre).

Enjoy your weekends! Anyone who’s seeing some good early modern plays ought to let us know about it.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 29 October 2010

I think I could call this weeks’ round-up “What Are the Arts Worth?” The topic seems to have been on a lot of minds over the past few days.

  • Because Monday was the Feast of Crispin and Crispinian, have some facts about the saints. Cass says: Providing this for the history geeks (like myself). I hope you all stripped your sleeves and showed your scars to your neighbors on Monday.
  • SoundSeen: Dramatic Play + The Developing Brain. Sarah says: This short, narrated slideshow follows a class through a couple of creative drama activities and discusses the way the body and mind are linked in the development of executive function. One more argument for maintaining the arts in public schools. And a great example of how clear instructions, expectations, and coaching can make “out of the seat” activities a vital (and not difficult to implement) tool for mind development.
  • Intro to Shakespeare’s life and Elizabethan Context. Sarah says: This site (which is free but does require you to sign up) offers pre-made powerpoints including some on Shakespeare. The two that I looked at were pretty swell. Just be sure that you mix in some staging when you use them.
  • An article in Forbes suggests teaching business leadership as fine art. Sarah says: Yet more fodder for advocating for Arts education. If MBA programs are using Shakespeare and Art to teach creativity, doesn’t it just make sense that we begin it early? Our leadership program, which incorporates Shakespeare, could be the jumping off point in high schools rather than a special training for career leaders…if we start it then, don’t we end up with leaders who are prepared to lead with creativity from the get go?
  • Similarly, the UK Guardian suggests looking at Shakespeare with new eyes in light of recent economic downturns. Cass says: I like this article because it looks not only at advice within the plays — King Henry V being a favorite model for effective leadership — but also at Shakespeare’s own life, at his role as a sharer and the success that his (apparently shrewd) acumen brought him, as opposed to other writers of the period who weren’t quite as financially soluble.
  • The University of Kansas produces Shakespeare in original dialect. Sarah says: Little bit of OP (that’s Original Pronunciation) for those who are interested in such things. A nice resource to have for explaining the “missed” rhymes. A scene from Midsummer demonstrates the effect aptly.
  • A homeschooling mother talks about “tackling” A Midsummer Night’s Dream with her 9- and 7-year-old daughters. Cass says: She has some great ideas for creative approaches to the play that are suitable for younger children — and she includes a video of her daughters retelling the story using their Polly Pockets, which is just pretty darn adorable. Best of all, she seems to have infused her kids with a love for the play — one of her daughters is adapting a script for her friends to act out in the park. We’re big fans of getting to them early — hopefully it will foster a life-long love of Shakespeare. They’re doing Twelfth Night next — best of luck to them!
  • A student at Truman State University asserts that money should not motivate education. Sarah says: In this well written article, a student at Truman (a stopping point for OCS on Tour, thanks to Professor Murray Ross) writes eloquently about the joy of learning. He argues that we are too specific in our educational system and that as a result we train students for vocations “but neglect to prepare students for the wondrous adventure we call life.” I am particularly enamored of his notion of a “brave educator” as those who “have held to the principle that learning is not just a means to an end. It is the end itself.” Cass says: This article goes to what I’ve always said about education for education’s sake — we so often view learning as a means to an end. I have to get these grades to get that degree to get that job to get that better job. I wish we placed more value on learning just for the joy of it, for the satisfaction of just knowing something, of being a well-rounded individual who can have lots of exciting conversations. I’m with the author of the article; we should be aiming for a “rich, integrated, fulfilling education.”

Enjoy your weekends!

Not-So-Great Expectations

I recently got my hands on a teacher’s edition of the 11th-grade textbook for American literature that is used in most Virginia public schools. (Why American literature, you may ask? Well, I’m looking for ways to connect Shakespeare to American lit, which actually isn’t as difficult or as incongruous as it may at first sound). To get a better sense of what I’m aiming at, I’ve been reading through some of the sections. It’s been a while since I was in the 11th grade, after all, and as an AP student, my material was somewhat different. We actually didn’t use a textbook that year; we had class sets of individual books. So I wanted to see what it is that most 11th-graders get.

Frankly, I’m alarmed. Not by the selection of works — it all seems pretty standard, but still comprehensive, hitting the major authors, all of the overarching trends, while also introducing some offbeat selections and some cultural diversity. The book is well-organized, arranged chronologically but also cross-referenced by genre. The layout is accessible and easy-to-follow. What concerns and troubles me is how low the bar seems to be set for these students.

Should words like “habitually,” “morbid,” or “comply” really be words that sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds need defined in the margins for them? “Lucid”? “Virtuous”? “Obstinate”? (Personally, “obstinate” was a word I had in my lexicon by the time I was 8, mostly because my mother used it to describe me so often. As for “pillage” and “plunder,” also terms the book thinks need defining, I think the recent crazes for pirates and fantasy worlds have assured widespread knowledge of those concepts). These are just a few examples — I’m actually keeping a running list as I go through of terms that the book thinks are beyond the grasp of 11th-graders, that I know I remember being on vocab lists when I was in 6th or 7th grade — and it’s a long list. But the problems extend beyond underwhelming vocabulary. Do you really need to be an “advanced learner” to talk about how an author’s use of adjectives creates mood and atmosphere? Shouldn’t identifying cause and effect be something an 11th-grader already knows how to do? Or choosing the correct case for a pronoun?

This is not to say everything in the textbook is so appalling. The selection of works seems appropriate, an analogous to what I remember being the major topics and heavy-hitters of American lit. There are quite a few good ideas in here — I particularly enjoy some of the creative writing prompts, imitating different styles or genres, such as satire or Gothic romance, or playing with conventions like frame stories. Many of the activities, essay prompts, and discussion topics are thoughtful and appropriate. Working with metaphors, exploring ethos and pathos with advanced learners, applying an author’s perspective to the word choices he or she makes — these are worthy ideas. (There are also, though, some terribly misleading ideas — like suggesting that the narrative of Poe’s “The Raven” what’s important about the poem, moreso than the rhyme and rhythm). Some of the cross-curriculum connections open up wonderful opportunities for exploration. And I have no problem with defining obscure or archaic terms, like “binnacle” in Moby Dick or “termagant” in The Devil and Tom Webster, or with identifying allusions, such as references to scripture or to historical places and people, that could easily be lost on modern readers. Those are all good and useful margin notes. If this was a 7th or 8th grade textbook, I’d be perfectly content with it. It seems about on the level of what I remember from middle school. But for the 11th grade? For 16- and 17-year-olds, who are only a year or so away from college? It’s a little absurd.

Here at the OCS, in all of our seminars and workshops, we tell teachers and students alike that Shakespeare’s language just isn’t that hard. 98.5% of his words are still in use — and The fault, then, dear readers, is not in the vocabulary, but in ourselves. Because the thing is, if you tell students they won’t understand the words — as this textbook does, by over-defining words well within the grasp of your average 16-year-old — then they’re more likely to decide that whatever they’re reading is just “too hard” and to consign it away to something they can’t do, could never understand, and, subsequently, won’t do. Tell them it’s too difficult, tell them these words are beyond their understanding, tell them something written in the past is removed from their own experience, and you’re giving them permission to fail. Tell them it’s within their grasp, that it applies to them, and that you expect them to get it, and they just might believe you, put in the effort, and succeed.

We should expect better. Is teaching to the lowest common denominator really the best way of approaching material? How many of those kids who we think “couldn’t” keep up just haven’t ever been properly challenged? I know I always performed better in classes where more was expected of me, not less. When teachers expect little, little is what they’ll get.

Clearly, it needs to start well before the 11th grade. Language skills and reading comprehension need to be fostered much earlier. Kids also need to know from the start that the expectations are high. They’ll learn to meet them. But if the expectations are always low, they’ll pretty quickly figure out just how little they have to do to get by.

So, my challenge to teachers — and one that I put myself to as well — is this: Set the bar high. They’ll clear it. They might need your help to do so, but that’s what you’re there for. Judging by this textbook, right now the bar is so low they’re more in danger of tripping on it.

OCS Study Guides are Live

I am pleased and proud to announce that all five of this year’s study guides for curriculum shows are live and loaded onto our website. Just visit our Educator Resources section for further information. We’ve completely revamped the guides this year, adding new material and upgrading old, so that these guides can be the best resource possible for teachers to draw from when taking their students through Shakespeare. Eventually, we hope to have a full set, one for each play in the canon; this year we’ve started with Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, As You Like It, and The Comedy of Errors. Why those five? The first two are from our resident season, currently running, the second two come are on the road with our touring company, and the last is in our Actors’ Renaissance Season, running January through April.

For anyone who has used OCS Study Guides before, here’s what’s changed, and for anyone who hasn’t used them before, here’s why you should:

We’re gearing the new guides towards getting students off of their feet to engage with the texts. Shakespeare belongs on a stage, not confined to the page, and so we’re helping teachers turn their classrooms into mini-theatres. We walk through the basics of Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions and encourage teachers to make theirs an “Elizabethan Classroom,” arranging the room to resemble a thrust stage. This setup allows students to explore the opportunities presented by the space — lights-on, working diagonals, audience contact, all the things that make Shakespeare so vibrant and alive at the Blackfriars Playhouse. We’re keying in on playable choices, on the opportunities Shakespeare offers an actor. Lots of the activities offer suggestions for playing a scene in two distinctly different ways as a means of examining the dynamics between characters. For example, in the opening scene of The Taming of the Shrew, how does the story change if Bianca is the spoiled brat her sister calls her instead of the meek and mild maiden that Lucentio sees? In As You Like It, how does an actively irritated Celia change the dynamic of “Ganymede” and Orlando’s wooing as compared to a passively observing Celia? Playing a scene in multiple ways offers students a chance of ownership of their choiecs and gives them an opportunity to read the text closely in order to make decisions about their actions and delivery. They get to decide what they think works and what doesn’t, what ideas flow with the text and which fight against it. Students can discover the infinite variety of possibilities that the text and the theatrical space offer, empowering them to make the play “their own,” vivid and immediate, rather than thinking of it as a distant and obscure relic.

Now, we know that not everyone has had directing training, and as much as teachers might be enthusiastic about the idea of getting kids on their feet, it’s not always easy to know what to do with them once they’re up there. It’s something I find hard to do on the spur of the moment — it’s all too easy to let them run the scene and then talk afterwards, but then you lose opportunities for redirection, which is where discovery and choices live. So, to combat the urge to just let the scene run without comment, we’ve provided a number of guides to scenes. The teacher’s copy of the text has a number of callout boxes along the side — one at least every four to eight lines, and often even more frequently — indicating places where a teacher can choose to pause the students running the scene. It may be to point out an embedded stage direction or an opportunity for audience contact, or to encourage a student to look closer at the scansion or rhetoric of a certain line, or to offer a suggestion for playing the moment a different way. Look at this preview example from the As You Like It study guide.

All of this work stems, of course, from the text itself, and we spend a lot of time in the guides helping teachers attack the nitty-gritty of the words. We have an activity aimed at making students familiar with scansion and iambic pentameter, as well as an activity which focuses on textual differences between editions of the text, to illustrate that the words have not been immutable through time. We also include a section rhetoric, to help students discover how Shakespeare constructed his words and lines to create a certain emotional effect on the stage. Engaging with the text in such a deep and focused way can open up so many incredible avenues of thought, and we want to put those tools in the students’ hands.

Possibly my favorite change to the guides is what we’ve done to the Perspectives section, which used to be called Viewpoints. Formerly, this section was sort of a vague, nebulous catch-all for miscellaneous activities. Now, we’ve focused it down to a specific purpose: to help your students draw connections between the world of the play, Shakespeare’s world, and their own world. In The Comedy of Errors, for example, the issue on the table is marriage, as I talked about in my last post. Another section in the same guide looks at the idea of adaptation, something Shakespeare certainly practiced and that writers do all the time today. In Othello, Perspectives looks at race relations, inside the play and in 16th century England, and asks teachers to make the brave choice to let their students talk about what makes that issue uncomfortable or difficult to talk about. In Macbeth, Perspectives looks at the rights ad responsibilities of a ruler, not just a medieval king or the monarchs in Shakespeare’s life time, but also in our own political system. These are just a few examples — I’m so pleased with how those sections turned out. I come from a strong background in historical studies, moreso than theatrical, and Perspectives gave me a great opportunity to stretch my research limbs.

Not only in Perspectives, but in other sections as well, we’ve also tried to create more cross-curriculum opportunities. The Comedy of Errors, for example, offers opportunities for classic teachers to get in on the Shakespearean fun, comparing the Latin source material to Shakespeare’s work. In As You Like It, one activity focuses on music. We even managed to work in a math crossover, in an activity related to cutting a play for performance, where students fill in a table of lines per scene and then determine what percentage of the play needs to be cut in order to make a certain time limit. Shakespeare doesn’t exist in a literary/theatrical vacuum; his plays have applications in so many different spheres, and we wanted to encourage that exploration.

Finally, for Virginia teachers (since most of the teachers who bring students to our shows are from our Commonwealth), we’ve added a section at the end which matches up each activity in the guide to corresponding Standards of Learning. We hope this will help with lesson planning and show that having to conform to standardized tests doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to just one way of approaching the material.

The end result of all of these changes and additions is that our new study guides are better than ever. We go deeper into the meat of the plays, encouraging teachers to have students explore scansion, rhetoric, and staging choices. Hopefully, these opportunities will make the plays vital and vivid for students in a way that dry text left to itself on the page doesn’t. Our goal isn’t just to get kids to test well on Shakespeare — we want them to love it. I enjoyed putting these together so much that I can’t wait to start on next year’s — Julius Caesar, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry V.

With all of that said, I’d like to take the opportunity to plug our study guide video contest: If you’re a teacher using our study guides in your classroom, film your students engaging in an activity from one of the guides, and you could win tickets for you and your class to attend a student matinee of The Comedy of Errors this winter. Further information is available on our website.

"As if he master’d there a double spirit, of teaching and of learning instantly"

This past weekend, OCS Education hosted our first Teachers’ Seminar of the year. We took the opportunity to showcase the new direction we’re moving with our study guides, our workshops, and the rest of our educational activities, focusing strongly on playable aspects of Shakespeare’s works and demonstrating how those playable moments can work in a classroom.

The activities kicked off on Friday afternoon with a lecture from our Director of Mission, Ralph Cohen, exploring key moments from 2 Henry IV. Ralph explored the language of the play using Wordles, asking the teachers to pick out words they thought their students wouldn’t understand. In most of what we looked at, there weren’t many unfamiliar words, and Ralph then showed how, in the one speech he gave them where there were strange and unconventional word choices, the unfamiliar vocabulary still wasn’t anything to be frightened of. He also got them started on an on-your-feet exercise, playing with the interaction between Mistress Quickly, Snare, and Fang before Falstaff enters in 2.1. After the workshop, we held a Master Minds session, featuring two of the best presentations from last year’s MLitt students, by Sarah Keyes Chang and Glenn Schudel. This session gave our participants the opportunity to see examples of the research produced by students in the MBC program — and, as Sarah pointed out, we in the education department (three program alumnae and one current student) get some of our best ideas from concepts explored by graduate research.

Saturday morning, Ben Curns, who plays Iago in the current OCS production of Othello, came by to help Sarah lead a workshop on asides and audience contact. The goal of this workshop was to give teachers an easy tool into working with the text by getting students to consider the dynamics at play on stage. Who’s talking to whom? When is someone talking to the audience, and how does that change the scene? How can you tell if it’s just audience contact, when the other character on stage can still hear what’s being said, or a true “aside,” when the audience must believe in the stage fiction that the other character can’t hear? We worked a scene between Iago and Roderigo to start, with Ben playing Iago and one of the workshop participants acting Roderigo, and for the first run of the scene, we had them do the whole scene without talking to the audience at all. After that run, Ben’s immediate response was that it was “really difficult” not to talk to the audience– which just shows how naturally Shakespeare builds that kind of contact into the lines. When we ran the scene a second time, this time allowing for audience contact and asides, the whole energy of the stage changed. We talked a lot about using the audience as an ally and how to build that rapport during a scene. We then set Iago and Roderigo up for a third run, where Roderigo was really trying to leave the scene, and we saw how that changed the dynamics at play. Iago could no longer devote quite so much attention to the audience, as he had to focus on Roderigo. All of these runs stressed the choices an actor (or a student) can make in performance — what opportunities open up each time you make a different choice?

After the mid-morning break, we had the participants use an activity out of the guides, marking whether given lines were for normal delivery to the other character, audience contact, or an aside, and then we got two volunteers up to work through the scene according to those determinations. We asked them to determine the goal of the scene for each character, then decide if and how the audience could help the character reach that goal. It was so great to get people offering different opinions on how a line should be delivered; I love it when people argue about Shakespeare, and it’s always my goal to get students arguing — because if they argue, it means they care. It means they’ve officially put a dog in the fight, often without even realizing that they’ve been absorbed into the process.

Sunday morning we worked through some activities from the Taming study guide. We kept with our theme of making choices in performance, this time using 1.1 of Taming, when Lucentio first sees Bianca. The goal was to run the scene two ways, first with a Bianca who was sweetness and light, and the second with Bianca as a total brat. Sarah and I were both delighted when we found a spot — “sit and gaze your fill” — where scanning the iambic pentameter line provided direction for the action. What was really wonderful, though, was how much the participants wanted to make suggestions and redirect each other. I had such a rush of energy just watching them make decisions on their own, finding the ways to have fun with the scene. It’s exactly the sort of interaction we hope (and believe) will happen in classrooms.

After Sunday’s mid-morning break, Ralph came in and helped us work two more key moments. He began by talking about “fighting two centuries of editorial misogyny” in regard to a stage direction often added into the play, which indicates that Petruchio strikes a servant on the line “Take that.” Using two volunteers, Ralph explored different ways to realize that embedded direction, running the spectrum from threateningly violent to remarkably generous and gentle. He then moved on to the final exit of the play, which involved every participant in the workshop, to demonstrate the difference in mood created by leaving everyone on the stage at the end of the play (as the Folio does not include an exeunt), rather than having all your actors file off.

All of these activities demonstrated how you can teach so much about the play just by going deep and narrow into a very few lines. We never worked an entire scene from Taming — often we would only work 2-5 lines — but it didn’t matter that we weren’t getting all the way to the end of a section. What mattered were the conversations happening as we worked, the excitement and energy of discovering hidden clues in the scene. I was so excited to see the activities out of our guides working so well on their feet (and I’ll be talking some more, probably later this week, about what’s gone into the reconstruction of our guides this year) — it really makes me feel confident that teachers will find these useful tools for their classrooms.

I’m so grateful for all the teachers who came out for the weekend. I know we on the education team had a blast, and I feel confident that all of our participants enjoyed themselves as well. See the OCS website for more information on future seminars — in the winter we’ll be working with The Comedy of Errors, and Macbeth and As You Like It will be on the docket for April.

"On hill, in dale, forest or mead" : Shakespeare and an Eco-Conscious Life

An interesting article fell into my inbox this morning: Teaching My Child About Mother Earth. The article discusses a mother rediscovering her own love of the natural world through her daughter, whose natural biophilia has not yet been stifled, who loves grassy fields, ocean waves, and bumblebees. The article makes suggestions on how to foster a child’s interest in nature, creating life-long habits of conservation — and the author chooses to frame these modern concerns with a quote from Shakespeare: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” from Troilus and Cressida. Though Ulysses means it, in context, more cynically than does the author of this article, it still made me think about the implications of pairing Shakespeare’s words to ecological concepts.

The idea of getting back to nature runs through a lot of Shakespeare’s plays. From Midsummer to Cymbeline, wild forests provide a place for the snarls and tangles of life to work themselves out to healthy resolution. There may be dangers (or meddling fairies), but if you’re a good-hearted soul on an honest quest, you can get through the darkness, reunite with long-lost relatives, win back ancestral titles, successfully woo your lady-or-lord-love, and return to your previously scheduled life in peace and merriment. The OCS’s production of As You Like It, currently touring, highlights the peace and comforts of the country life, drawing the audience into an idyllic world far removed from the conniving politics and superficial concerns of the urbanized court. The shepherd Colin declares, “I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good, content with my harm, and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck.” Would that we could all be so contented.

The (perhaps nostalgic) affinity for country life presented in Shakespeare’s plays probably shouldn’t be surprising to us. He was, after all, more a country boy than a Londoner like Ben Jonson. Stratford-upon-Avon in the late 16th-century was a town of about 2000 people, close to expansive forests and to the picturesque Cotswold hill ranges. Beyond seeing the biographical connections, however, I think we can understand Shakespeare’s yearning for the green world more personally, based on the experiences of late-20th- and early-21st-century living. Shakespeare’s world was pre-Industrial, but only just. Like us, Shakespeare lived in a world that was rapidly urbanizing, where pollution was becoming a major concern, where the health of those in the inner-cities was in decline. Then, as now, changes in climate and weather patterns disrupted food production and threatened the livelihoods of those dependent on the soil or the sea. We may worry about offshore oil platforms and the ethics of farming corn for ethanol, while people in 1600 worried about sheep enclosures and fishing rights, but the basis of concern is the same — How do we use our land? How do we weigh profitability versus responsibility? How can we make the best decisions, not just for ourselves, but for future generations?

I wonder if there’s a way to enrich this connection. How can we integrate Shakespeare into the green movement? Perhaps this connection can provide another in-road for students, another way to demonstrate Shakespeare’s continuing relevance to them, as the millennial generation is more likely to be concerned with conservation, renewable energy, and responsible stewardship of the land than previous generations have been. If we can show them that Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate care about the green world, too, it might be another opportunity to catch their interest (and I always like finding those).

Just for fun, what’s your favorite quote from Shakespeare about the natural world?

Conversations: Spreading the Love of Shakespeare

Yesterday was a day of interesting conversations for me, though they all strangely centered in on the same general theme: spreading the love of Shakespeare.

I started my day by interviewing three of the touring troupe actors for the study guides I’m working on. One of the questions I’ve started asking everyone is: “When and why did you first fall in love with Shakespeare? Tell me about the experience.” All three of the actors I talked to yesterday fell in love, as I did, pretty young. Denice Burbach, currently rehearsing for Rosalind and Lady Macbeth, had the earliest start — she told me about learning to write her name in the audience while her mother was rehearsing as Kate, and she described the later revelation (while her mother was playing Gertrude) that Shakespeare wasn’t difficult or obscurely poetical — it’s just words, like people say on the street. Jonathan Holtzman, our Macbeth, described reading Julius Caesar “over and over and over again” when he was 12 or 13, after wanting to find out what that “‘Et tu, Brute?'” thing was all about. And Chad Bradford, this season’s Orlando, described the moment in high school when he realized you could laugh at Shakespeare, during a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after having studied Othello and Caesar in his classes without experiencing any real emotional response.

For me, it’s an easy question. I picked up Romeo and Juliet when I was 11 — I couldn’t tell you why, except that I’ve always been a voracious reader. No book was long safe in my presence. There’s a gift shop at the beach where my family vacations that always has a few shelves of “summer reading” books, and R&J was there. I spent the rest of that vacation memorizing Juliet’s balcony speech and declaiming it from the back deck of our beach house. When we got back home, I dragged out my dad’s 1972 Riverside Shakespeare and just started devouring. (Side thought: Ever noticed how we use the language of consumption when we talk about reading? Voracious reader, devouring a good book, eating it up if we love something. Hmm — there’s something in there about literature sustaining life).

Talking to those three actors was a blast. I love that that’s part of my job — I enjoyed it when I interviewed some of the resident company earlier in the summer, and I enjoyed it yesterday, because it’s so great just to watch them light up when they’re talking about how cool a particular line is, or how they pushed through a difficult scene. Denice and I both said how much we love working in a place where this is what people really care about, this engagement with the text, experiencing it as something alive and vibrant and to be talked about.

Then I spent the afternoon with the rest of the education team in a think tank for Julius Caesar. We’re attacking this play in the hopes of giving teachers a better way to approach it, since we hear from so many teachers who hate it but “have to” teach it (it’s not required in the curriculum in Virginia, but it’s the play in the 10th grade textbook that almost everyone uses). Now, the idea that teachers are teaching Shakespeare when they hate it just horrifies me. They’ve got the ShakesFear, and they pass the ShakesFear on to their students, who become convinced that Shakespeare is everything we who love it know it isn’t — boring, out-of-touch, inaccessible.

Almost invariably, the actors I interviewed yesterday related their characters to modern life, in some way or another, without any prompting. Jonathan talked about finding the kindness inside a tough, mOCSuline guy, and about the challenge everyone faces in life between doing what’s morally right and what’s expedient and gets you what you want. Chad related Orlando’s poetry writing to the existential angst of every teenager who’s ever been in love with someone who doesn’t know he or she exists. Denice summed it all up, so succinctly and so wonderfully, saying, “Shakespeare writes humans.”

How do I know, from my own experience, that Shakespeare isn’t inaccessible? I use one of my cousins as an example. When I was 14, I was playing Outlaw #5 in my high school’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, and my extended family came to see me. My youngest cousin, trooping along with her two older siblings and their mom, was only 5 at the time. She sat through the whole play and loved it. Did she understand every single word? No. But she followed the plot, could answer questions about it later, and laughed through the whole performance. So, really — if a five-year-old can pick this stuff up and enjoy it, there’s absolutely no reason (at least no good one) that a fifteen-year-old can’t do the same. The critical difference, I think, is that no-one had ever told my five-year-old cousin that Shakespeare is boring. No-one told her it was too hard, too unreachable. So she didn’t know. She had no mental walls against it. But I think a lot of high-schoolers have started building up those walls — aided and abetted, sometimes, by teachers with the same walls in their own heads.

This was all actually another part of the discussion I had with Chad and Denice. Chad talked about how he thinks schools tend to present things like literature as very black-and-white, giving the impression that what you see on the page is what you get and all that you get. But really, “It’s about using our imaginations. I think that’s a key thing,” he said. I agree — I think too many teachers don’t present students with options, like “You can read the speech this way, or this way”, “How is it different if he can overhear her?”, “How does that line change if you direct it to the audience?” These are the questions I ask teachers to think about in my study guides, because students should know that Shakespeare comes with options. He isn’t a monolith; there isn’t One Right Way to experience his works.

This idea led into talking about how we enjoy being allowed to find Shakespeare fallible, even though we still think he’s the best. I’ve been saying this since I read enough of his contemporaries’ works to form an educated opinion on the matter — some of Shakespeare’s work isn’t as good as Marlowe’s or Middleton’s or Jonson’s best. But there’s just plain no-one who can touch Shakespeare’s best. Still, though, it’s important not to deify him — Shakespeare was just a guy, and he wasn’t the only writer in town. You can argue with him, you can disagree with him, even across the space of 400 years. I think if we could get this message to more students, they might find him less intimidating and more approachable.

So here’s what I want to know, Internet friends — When did you fall in love with Shakespeare? What convinced you that it was worth the while? Was it in school, or in performance, or on your own? Tell me about your experience. And how do you think that sort of love and energy could be better brought into the classroom?