California English Journal
AN AUDIENCE OF
"O.K. Now let's write a one act play in a contemporary setting using the plot of one of those traditional myths." So continues our eighth graders' language arts unit that corresponds with their study in history of early Greek and Roman civilizations. In our interdisciplinary humanities program, we teachers strive to reduce the cells and bells quality from our curriculum. Rather than teach in isolation the different disciplines of history, language arts, science, and both the performing and visual arts, we teachers often develop lessons that maintain the integrity of our own course content yet build on, or provide the foundation for, what is studied in the other courses. (Lapp, Flood and Ranck-Buhr, 105) So, when the history department teaches ancient civilizations, in English we use their myths for our literature and writing unit. And, because the performing arts teachers seek to offer scripts that appeal to these eighth graders, we developed a project to have eighth graders write myth plays, then perform them for their peers.
First we study a variety of myths - stories of Titans, the gods, goddesses and heroes of both Roman and Greek mythology; then we assign monologues. Each student researchs one of these personages to learn the symbols, animals, and other interesting facts and incidents involving these characters. Then they write and present a two-three minute monologue in the persona of their god or goddess. They may wear an item of clothing or bring a prop that symbolizes their mythological character. This assignment gives them a hint of the difference between written and spoken language and allows teachers to conduct a stress-free assessment. Students show what they know; teachers have no papers to grade. Evaluation takes place in class using a rubric or checklist students have seen ahead of time. The criteria are similar to those recommended by The California High School Speech Association. (CHSSA website) Moreover, this monologue is a preliminary step toward writing a 10-15 minute one-act play.
Next, we discuss some basic qualities of a one-act play. The students learn that a play of this length usually is limited to two or three main characters and that characterization and plot advancement occurs primarily through dialogue. We discourage the use of narrators, encourage students to let the dialogue and actions do the work. We discuss and choose a universal conflict with a problem susceptible to solution in a short period of time - an hour, a day, or a week. We remind the students to think carefully about rehearsal time and the staging of their plays. Since their peers in the art classes design and build the sets, these should be simple and safe. To deveope continuing responses to their ideas, students work in groups of three or four. This collaborative team of writers decides on a myth, a setting, and dialogue, and uses the standard format for a play script. To test the effectiveness of some scenes, students sometimes improvise before they commit to keeping some of the ideas. (Korty, 44-45) We also share a sample play and provide a checklist to guide their drafting. (See below.)
While students draft their scripts, they read them aloud to their teammates, write revisions, then turn them in to us. We make brief written comments based on the checklist, and then return the scripts for final revisions. Each group now reads its final draft to the whole class, who notice that the stronger plays tend to be those with a balance of language and action. (Korty, 13) By secret ballot, students choose the play they think will be the most interesting to perform. English teachers meet to read these class selections and pass along our top choices to the drama teacher who decides on two or three plays to offer to the eighth grade drama students who prepare for a performance for their peers.
Four to six weeks later, the plays are performed for the students in the middle school. By this time the visual arts classes will have designed and built simple sets, the dance and vocal music classes may have choreographed and rehearsed appropriate numbers, and the drama classes will have learned the lines and movements for a performance of myth plays based on what the eighth-graders have learned in history, science, and English classes. Imagine how gratifying it is to hear students make the connection between their study of the culture in history, astronomy in science, myths in literature, and costumes and dance movements they've seen on ancient vases and friezes in art.
This cross-curricular drama project incorporates a variety of modes of learning and assessment and is requires the students to demonstrate what they have learned in a public way. These plays written, produced and performed by students simultaneously meet several content area standards for language arts, history, science, and the performing and visual arts. Equally important is the increased collegiality among the faculty and the ease with which our students have begun to make connections between what they learn in their different courses.
Myth Play Check -Up List (see Sample Play that follows)
(Sample myth play)
Nothing New under the Sun
1. Greek tale selected: Apollo
Cast of Characters
Son: Dad, can I use the car
tonight? You promised I could drive the next time me and the guys went
to the beach.
END OF SCENE ONE
Apollo: Well Phaeton. Come
on in. What's on your mind?
Apollo: Anything, son. You
name it and it's yours.
Phaet: No, Dad. This is
what I really want. Anyway, you swore by the River Styx. You have to
keep your word.
END OF SCENE TWO
Dad: You know the rest, son.
Phaeton nearly destroyed the earth with those fiery horses. When those
monsters frightened him, Phaeton lost control and let go of the reins.
The chariot went way off course. It went so high that some parts of
the earth froze and glaciers formed; it dipped so low in other places
that the earth scorched and deserts formed. Uncontrollable fires broke
out and caused so much devastation that Demeter, the earth goddess,
begged Zeus to intervene!
"Curriculum: Scoring Criteria
for Original Oral Presentations" California High School Speech Association.
5 July, 1999
About the Author
TEACH A PLAY ANYWAY?
A Shakespearean playtext
is not a series of statements that specify in all respects-or even
all important respects-what must happen during performance. Its statements
do specify what cannot happen and in doing so they permit whatever
possibilities are not prohibited. (139)
In her call for manuscripts, Carol Jago asks two questions which, taken together, provide an elegant prompt for the argument I want to offer in this essay. She asks "And how does one 'teach' a play, anyway?" and "What does drama do for readers and viewers that different genres cannot?" Briefly put, if you understand what drama does that is different from poetry and prose fiction, then you will also understand the most crucial starting point for answering the question "How does one teach a play in a language arts or English class?"
For purposes of analytic clarity and expository brevity, and recognizing that the distinction may not be so neat in the classroom, I would suggest that one teaches drama in two phases. In the first phase, you engage students in a sequence of activities in which they contrast prose fiction and plays, and thereby come to grasp the elements that constitute the dramatic medium. In the second phase, you immerse students in an array of medium-specific strategies that enable them to conduct performance-centered explorations of specific plays. In short, you teach students to read and speak in what the American director Harold Clurman called "another language." When you do this, you discover that as students come to grasp the logic of that dramatic medium they almost invariably become eager to master this language.
As many readers will recognize, I am proposing what is sometimes called, as a short-hand label, a performance approach to teaching drama in literature classes. But I would add that in this model the concept of performance is defined more widely than simply "as if one were preparing to perform the play in the theater." While the core of a performance approach is to have students analyze, cast, rehearse, memorize (sometimes), and perform part of a play, that core also includes asking them to observe, respond to, and critique these performances-and to move recursively between the page and the performance. Performance, furthermore, extends to a wide array of activities, many of them using traditional literary concepts and practices to explore the text, but with an eye for what can and cannot be projected when that text is acted. Thus when I say that students must learn to read differently, I mean that they must learn to read as experimenters, asking not only "What do these words mean?" but also "What do these words do?" and "What can these words be made to do?"
Let me offer one very simple example of how drama demands that we learn to read "in a different language," and what the consequences of reading in this fashion can be. The example I want to analyze here, one of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare, is Hamlet's first speech, "A little more than kin, and less than kind." But given the premises I am advocating, when I teach the play I have to ask students to experiment with the visual introduction that precedes our verbal introduction to Hamlet. So I start by asking questions such as How is Hamlet dressed? When does he enter? Where do he position himself? Or is his position controlled by others (perhaps by non-verbal orders from Claudius or Polonius, perhaps by other courtiers who either move toward or away from him)? Next, we need to analyze the speech itself, appreciating the way its pattern reveals its speaker as one who deploys precise, elegant, and witty phrasing.
But most of all we need to explore what the speech does, and to do that students need to pay attention to how the speech appears on the page of a specific edition. Here is how it appears on the page of The Riverside Shakespeare (2nd edition, 1997: p. 1192):
Concentrate for a moment not on the spoken words but on that bracketed "Aside." The stage direction is in brackets, I explain to students, because it does not appear in either the Second Quarto (1604) or the First Folio (1623) texts of the play: rather, it has been added by almost all editors, beginning with Lewis Theobold in 1737. But once you realize that it is not mandated by the original texts of the play, you are free to explore this as a performance choice. This means setting aside, for the moment, the question "Is it a right or wrong editorial decision?" in order to ask "What happens if Hamlet performs this line as an aside? What happens if he speaks the line to one or more other members of the court? And what happens if he speaks the line directly to the King?" Furthermore, introducing another crucial practice necessary for learning to read differently, for each of these questions we must ask not only "What happens within the world of the play?" but also "What happens in terms of the play-audience relationship?"
If Hamlet speaks these words as an aside, as editors direct and as most performers choose to do, then the speech marks him not only as someone who is verbally witty, but as someone whose wit must be used privately to express his contempt for an uncle-step-father-king; and the fact that the line is spoken as an aside is itself one enactment of his alienated situation. Furthermore, in the second dimension, by opening a gap between himself and all the other dramatis personae, Hamlet also initiates a direct relationship in which we, the spectators, become his confidants, preparing us for the role of tacit co-conspirators which we assume during some of his soliloquies-especially the soliloquy (only of course it is not a soliloquy) where Hamlet stands over the praying Claudius and decides to murder the King and then to murder him another day.
But what if, as the original texts of the play seem to permit, Hamlet speaks his first words directly to the King? Then, as students immediately realize, while the wit of the word-play remains the same, that wit is now being used to publicly challenge the new ruler, and to challenge him both as king and as step-father. In terms of the play's design, furthermore, this means that the King faces both an external challenge from Fortinbras and an internal challenge from the presumptive heir to the throne during his first public performance in his new office. This also means that the King's next speech represents his deliberate choice to ignore the challenge from Hamlet. One of the simplest but most fundamental premises we must master in learning to read drama, in short, is to recognize that the same speech can be used to perform different or even radically divergent speech acts.
Small as it is, this example neatly embodies four key premises in the performance model proposed here. First, students need to learn that when a character speaks, he or she is doing something through language: to repeat this vital point, while the words of Hamlet's first speech and the King's reply remain the same in any performance, the speech acts they perform can be significantly different. Second, students need to learn how to read not just the speeches but the whole range of elements in a playtext including, for example, both explicit and implicit stage directions. Third, students need to learn how to read Shakespeare's texts with an understanding of what editors contribute to these texts; and with a sense of how such editorial choices may at once clarify but also foreclose performance options. And fourth, students need to learn how to read as experimenters, asking "What happens if we perform a speech this way? Or that way? Or a third way?"
This example also makes clear that students will need to learn to ask a further question, namely "Will playing this speech in this particular way work with the rest of the scene's or the play's design? Or are there some other elements of that design that further constrain our choices?" At this point, too, we can return to asking whether the editorial tradition adding the "Aside" accurately responds to elements in the play's design.
From my own experience, I know that it can be wonderfully liberating for students to discover that different Hamlets can either be sharing their contempt as a secret with us, putting us in a one-up position; or be directly confronting the new ruler with a challenge to his authority that forces the King to make an instantaneous decision as to how he will meet this insulting action from his step-son-nephew-prince. (I also know that learning to read in this way can be unsettling for a certain number of students, as it is unsettling for some readers and critics, who are more comfortable with a determinate text.) But in learning to read these elements of the language of drama, and in learning to read as experimenters, students will also have the opportunity to experience the power and delight of becoming co-creators with Shakespeare of the play in performance.
There are at least four other benefits, furthermore, that you may gain from using a performance approach to drama. First of all, a performance approach compels students to externalize some elements of the act of reading itself. And the externalized acts of reading help you as a teacher to hear and see how students are reading, where they are having problems, and what some of those problems are. Second, it offers students opportunities to speak a very rich version of English which invites them to experience not only the poetry but the power of language as a form of action. Third, it also offers them an opportunity to employ their bodies to enact language, which will give many of them a greater sense of mastering that language-and discovering its implicit cues to action. And fourth, from my own experience and from the experience of a number of other teachers who have taught students to read drama in this manner, if students have an extended opportunity to read in a different language, they will eventually also reverse their tendency to read drama the way they read prose fiction. Instead, they will begin to recognize and respond to the dramatic elements in non-dramatic literature. And when they do, they will become more deeply engaged with, and offer interesting and innovative interpretations of, dialogue in prose works such as Book I of Utopia; as well as the wide array of dramatic monologues and dialogues from Donne to Browning to Frost and beyond. You might also find yourself assigning monologues and dialogues when you teach composition-returning, that is, to one of the oldest forms of writing. But that is the subject for another issue of California English.
About the Author
TEACHING THE WINSLOW BOY
The recent release of American playwright David Mamet's film of British playwright Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy was a surprise. Even though I have been teaching it for several years, I thought that only Shakespeare was enjoying a cinematic revival, not English plays 50 years young.
Even though this is not an easy play to find, it is well worth the effort, because high school students love it. Rattigan's play shows modern students that familial relationships can be high drama if dramatic technique is artfully directed inward, a concept that students rarely get to experience, since they are frequently nourished on the ubiquitous mall cinema fare where abusive put-downs, limited language and special effects account for all the show and damn the substance.
The Winslow Boy is an English pre-World War I domestic drama built around the sacrifices every member of a family must make, voluntarily or not, in order to secure the good name of the youngest boy. The youngest, Ronnie, has been expelled from Osborne Naval Academy for allegedly stealing a small postal order. Ronnie's father, Arthur Winslow, cannot get his day in court because the academy, being royal, belongs to the Crown and the Crown cannot be sued. Enter one of England's most famous barristers (the very one who prosecuted Oscar Wilde) who informs Arthur that Ronnie may have his day in court if the Crown agrees.
The Crown eventually relents, "Ronnie versus Rex" can proceed, and great dramatic machinations result. The oratorical debates about the case in Parliament and the government's preoccupation with possible war with Germany would seem to be the stuff of great drama. But as students read the play, they notice that Rattigan, by keeping all the public ruckus offstage, focuses the drama on the interaction and tension between family members. The result is an affecting story about family, friends, identity and yearning for love and acceptance amid a maelstrom of public commotion.
Ronnie's guilt or innocence is immaterial resolved early in the play, allowing Rattigan to focus on the issue of familial sacrifice and inevitable social change. Students identify with the children of the family, especially the older brother who puts partying above college and his sister who is a turn-of-the-century feminist. Since this is a British middle class family, there is a loyal maid, whose major purpose in the play is to announce the great decisions which happen off stage. The latter function is essential to Rattigan's domestic drama, since typically in life great changes are not announced in the grand manner but by more familiar means.
I ask students what would happen to this play if Hollywood filmed it, and they immediately respond that there would be great dramatic scenes in both Parliament and the Admiralty, thereby robbing the play of its domestic virtues and obscuring the real issues. It is clear that the patriarch, Arthur Winslow, is solely interested in his son's good name, not with making new law for the British Isles. Modern students read the play with great respect for a father who would suffer deprivation and public ridicule to clear his son's name. Herein lies the real drama of the piece, and it rests on Rattigan's artful use of language and careful staging.
Students also realize that the title character is not the main character in the play (it's a tossup between the father and his daughter Catherine - food for a lively classroom discussion), but his presence is a catalyst for the other members of the household. In fact, I originally settled on this play when I read an Advanced Placement English literature question that read, "In some works of literature, a character who appears briefly, or does not appear at all, is a significant presence. Choose a novel or play of literary merit and write an essay in which you show how such a character functions in the work. You may wish to discuss how the character affects action, theme, or the development of other characters." I immediately thought that The Winslow Boy should be given a chance in a U.S. high school classroom. Since then, my students have used issues in this play to answer the free response questions on the AP literature exam.
Normally I am cautious about recommending cinematic interpretations of literary works, but plays are the exception, since they are intended to be staged. The first movie, Anthony Asquith's 1948 British version, with Rattigan's help and in the interest of visual appeal, deviated from the play by offering some dramatic sequences in Parliament. However, when Mamet announced a year ago he was working on his version of The Winslow Boy, I asked my students to think how a playwright would treat another playwright's work. As it turns out, Mamet's adaptation is so faithful to Rattigan that my students cannot believe it; when it comes to adapting good writing, we are not used to fidelity in film. In fact, many reviewers remarked particularly on Mamet's fastidious attention to Rattigan's dramatic technique of concentrating on the domestic rather than public issues. The movie certainly reflects this along with attention to setting and manners, down to the women as they go through their daily routines trussed up in those period corsets.
The Winslow Boy is a popular play in Britain, since it is based on a true story that upheld the notion of justice inherent in Magna Carta. But other than the point of law which helps to drive the play, Rattigan has introduced issues that hint at even greater consequences about to engulf Britain with the coming of the Great War.
For example, the relationship between the progressive daughter and the aloof and arch-conservative lawyer, Sir Robert, is an important subplot, since it is a subtle love story in the context of social change. And we are given further evidence of social change by references to new forms of amusement (gramophones) and teenage dances (the bunny hug?), socialized medicine, women's suffrage, and female employment outside the home in typically male professions.
Students should pay close attention to particularly British terms such as pinching, barrister, solicitor and suffragette vs. the American term suffragist. Note also the property list, which contributes to both setting and theme: "old sweater in horn;" "Punch;" "bottle of Madeira;" "prayer-books;" "old fashioned gramophone;" and "text books." These props emphasize that this is a story set not only in the midst of change, but also a story that is rooted in some traditions that have never changed.
Finally, I require students to choose among several essays designed to exploit the various themes or issues in the play. I have largely paraphrased some AP type questions; here are some samples: 1. Show how The Winslow Boy focuses attention on the principle of fundamental rights and on the sacrifices which people of principle - Sir Robert, Arthur and Catherine - have to make to uphold such vital principles, rather than on the lesser issue of whether Ronnie is innocent or not; 2. Injustice, either social or personal, is a common theme in literature. Write an essay in which you define clearly the nature of the injustice in The Winslow Boy, and discuss the techniques the author employs to elicit sympathy for his victims; 3. Minor characters are necessary because of the various functions they perform, such as providing humor, helping to forward the plot, reporting events which happen off-stage, or revealing what the main characters are like. Name the characters in The Winslow Boy whom you consider minor and explain what each contributes to the play; 4. How does Rattigan's dramatic technique emphasize his theme(s)?
As for classic parallels, compare Shakespeare's Brutus and Rattigan's Arthur Winslow as they weigh the price of loyalty to family and friends in their search "to do the right thing," the old Roman notion of parental responsibility embodied in paterfamilias. I explain to my students that the Roman virtue of family honor is still a very modern virtue; we are latter day Romans who know that a family, above all else, still trades on its good name.
This is a great play to read aloud; it offers exquisite language, subtle humor and fine characterizations that appeal to students. How many modern plays, or movies for that matter, expose students to family life in which the characters are not stereotypes, ridiculous caricatures or incapable of rational thought and good language? How many dramatic stories do our students read in which the theme, "let right be done," if it exists at all, is treated as a virtuous pursuit?
This is a play modern adolescents care about; I hope your students will agree.
About the Author
W;T IN THE HIGH-SCHOOL CLASSROOM
Would Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize winning play W;t about a John Donne professor dying of ovarian cancer engage high school students?
Without experiencing this
play in a theater (if students could, so much the better), could students
care about its acerbic protagonist, Vivian Bearing? Even Edson "isn't
quite sure she likes Vivian" (Gamerman), but although high school students
may not warm to her immediately, her grim humor will make them curious.
Consider these sentences from her opening lines:
I am waiting for the moment when someone asks me this question and I am dead. Iâm a little sorry Iâll miss that.(5)
It may also interest students to learn that Edson is the first kindergarten teacher to win a Pulitzer, and that she calls the classroom "much more exciting than the theater"(Peyser). Perhaps her excitement about teaching, an excitement that resonates in her play, is one of several ways into the play for high school students.
As my son, the actor, pointed out to me, one real draw for high school students is the examination of student-teacher relationships at the heart of this play. My honest first reaction was to wince and wonder if I wanted to stick around for that discussion. But now I think I do.
Evaluating these relationships could shed light on students' own experiences and on Vivianâs transformation from teacher to student near the end of the play:
I can't. . . There aren't. . . I'm like a student and this is the final exam and I don't know what to put down because I donât understand the question and Iâm run- ning out of time . (70)
Although Vivian becomes a groping student, her last line is as triumphant and paradoxical as any of Donne's: "I'm a teacher."
An examination of student-teacher relationships could also focus on the flashbacks and fantasy scenes in which Vivian and her mentor discuss punctuation in John Donne's "Death be not proud"--and a 1942 children's book, The Runaway Bunny. Edson gives the children's book great importance, asking the audience to set its message beside Donne's. Analyzing these texts within the play could help students remember and consider important experiences with teachers and texts in their own education.
For English teachers especially, W;t strikes close to home as Vivian, marveling at the relentless scrutiny the doctors give her cancer, exclaims, "Now I know how poems feel" (16). Another good discussion topic concerns what teachers should do when students complain that the teacher is killing a poem for them with analysis.
And Vivian's young doctor Jason, her former student, reminisces with a nurse about Vivian's class, "It felt more like boot camp than English class."(75) The play underscores Edson's attitudes toward smart classroom bullies, teachers or students: ãIâm not saying smart is bad. . .Smart is not bad--but kind is good" (Gamerman). What do students think about balancing the acquisition of "smart" and "kind" in our classrooms?
If W;t hooks high school students into considering how they learn and what they learn, they will be ready for Edsonâs interest in punctuation, metaphysical wit, specialized vocabulary, and the patient-doctor relationship, which can bring them full circle as Edson compares students to patients, teachers to doctors.
In this play punctuation is critical; anyone who cares about the play cares about the punctuation of this line--and begins to care about the seventeenth century use of wit, its clever word play and paradox.
Instead of helping the student
to articulate an important insight, she lets the student flounder until
she observes, "Lost it" (61). Vivian claims students can't understand
paradox, but Edson makes the concept accessible when Vivian observes,
With Edson's clear exposition, paradox and metaphysical conceits become concepts that students can understand.
How do students feel about the "acquisition of vocabulary"? Do they ever share Vivianâs delight in Donne's long words? Do they ever acquire vocabulary desperately to try to understand what is happening to them (like the terms Susie explains to Vivian--full code and DNR)? Do they ever feel included or excluded because of vocabulary? Comparing Vivianâs experiences with their own could give them a thoughtful, personal understanding of the uses of specialized vocabularies.
Tom Mayo, a college professor
with degrees in law and medicine, includes W;t in a reading
list for a course for medical and law students, but his course goals
could easily inform discussions and projects in high school English,
science, and social studies:
Vivian's oncologist is Dr. Kelekian, a reverse Kevorkian who wants his patients to survive devastating rounds of treatment, because, Vivian speculates, he and her younger doctor Jason "foresee celebrity status for themselves upon the appearance of the journal article they will no doubt write about me" (53). Their cold research focus contrasts with the caring that Vivian receives from her primary nurse Susie. It is Susie who informs Vivian of her right to choose to between "full code" and "DNR." Should Kelekian or Jason have informed Vivian? Students who ponder this point in the play may become interested in exploring patients' rights.
Is Edson too tough on doctors? Are Edson's doctors, as Sherwin Nuland has claimed, "stick figures, straw men, caricatures of the worst, completely unrealistic" (qtd. in Zuger)? Just as Edson invites educators to balance "smart" and "kind," she suggests that doctors should balance their brilliant research with a humane outlook and a sharp eye for "the ethical dilemmas of daily practice."
I'm not sure which of my own suggestions I will follow with my students this year--whether Vivian's punctuation of "Death, be not proud" will make a mere cameo appearance in a semicolon lesson, or whether W;t will have a starring role in helping students reflect on their own education. Of course, if the drama teacher should read the script and want to perform it. . . I'd have no choice but to give W;t center stage.
About the Author
Last year a friend of mine who teaches high school approached me with great excitement. "I get to teach my students a full length novel!" she said. "I've chosen Hamlet." (Even as I write this I can hear your gasps and chuckles.) I have worked in the theatre for most of my life, indeed I have a Theatre Arts degree. I feel a deep and abiding love for the performing arts and had never, up to that day, considered Hamlet to be anything other than a play intended for live performance. And yet I could not fault her for her intention of teaching the play as a piece of literature.
The fact of the matter is, as one of my colleagues often points out, that Shakespeare's plays have been more read than seen. In that sense, of course, Hamlet can be, and is, studied as literature. I will go even further and say that students can benefit from studying Shakespeare as literature in ways that they can not benefit from studying Shakespeare as drama. However (and I'm sure you saw that coming ), studying Shakespeare as drama, in fact, studying Shakespeare as performing artists studying drama, broadens students' perspectives in at least three distinct ways: it provides a creative focus for their artistic gifts; it encourages them to take part in a discussion of artistic interpretation not only with their fellow students, but, in the case of public performances, with people outside of the classroom as well; and, finally, it prompts them to discover themselves as active and productive artists in a community of artists. But before students can do any of these things they must internalize the play in certain ways. By internalize, I mean that they must view the play from the inside, looking out through the eyes of a character's circumstance and environment. They must, in other words, come to an emotional and intellectual understanding of what drives a character, the characters, and the play.
In 1995 I found myself faced with a unique opportunity to apply my love of Shakespeare and performing to a teaching situation, in the creation of Sidewalk Shakespeare. This was a series of workshops for children, ages 8-11, that used the plays of Shakespeare as a vehicle to explore Shakespeare, the Elizabethan theatre, and aspects of theatre production. Although my experiences with Sidewalk Shakespeare took place in a workshop setting, rather than in an English classroom, I feel they may be of use to classroom teachers because, especially in the case of the scenework I will be describing, they demonstrate the usefulness of what many might call a "performance model" in enabling students to internalize a play.
Our first workshop was on A Midsummer Night's Dream-a play I chose because its settings, plots and sense of fun seemed especially appropriate for children. Although on the first day of our workshop I had an idea of where I wanted the students to go, I was unsure just what we would need to do to get there. As it turns out, we ended up basically working through the scene five times: once for basic comprehension of the actions in the scene; once to unpack some of the difficulties concerning the language in the scene; once as a sort of initial exploration of performance in general; once to come to a physical understanding of the characters; and once to come to an emotional understanding of the characters.
We began with the second scene, in which we are introduced to Bottom and Quince and the plot concerning Theseus' nuptial festivities is first presented. I randomly selected readers and we dove in and read the scene in its entirety. I gave no direction to them concerning the plot within this scene nor the characters and their motivations. The group's goal was just to get through the scene without stopping; my own goal was to generally assess the group's reading and comprehension abilities.
At the end of this reading,
we stopped. I posed some questions to get the ball rolling:
At this early point in the workshop we were still working on creating a sense of community within the group, so I neither offered to evaluate nor or asked them to evaluate these responses. Instead, I selected another random group of students and suggested we read through it again, reading different roles and that this time that we mark all the strange words we saw. At the end of this reading, instead of working with questions of plot or setting, we looked, and looked again, at words: "interlude," "lamentable," "Pyramus," "Thisby," "bellows-mender." We discussed the context of these words, looking both at the where the words appeared in the phrases and the characters that were using them, until we had come up with likely definitions together. Using our new knowledge of these words, we began again to construct the scene.
The students (as was very clear to me that day, and I hope I make clear now) were, as most young first readers of Shakespeare are, woefully unequipped to read through a scene once and develop an interpretation of any soundness. However, upon being given the opportunity to further their work within one scene, they honed their skills quickly.
Our first attempt at getting the scene up on its feet, while not a perfect failure, was certainly lacking in timing and weak on insight. The students shifted back and forth on their feet and either stood in one place and recited lines like one might read a grocery list, or else flailed around, making outrageously bizarre physical and vocal choices in an attempt to be "comic." At this moment, physical self-consciousness was pulling my students away from their work with Shakespeare, creating a room of embarrassed and defeated people. It occurred to me that there is a paradox of sorts surrounding this kind of work with drama: In order to acquire knowledge of the play at both an intellectual and muscular level repetition is not only necessary, but crucial; yet, contined immersion in uncomfortable situations may perpetuate the discomfort rather than relieve it. In our case, with so much hanging in the balance, the answer seemed to lie in returning to the circle for "tablework."
I employed "tablework" (the analytical work actors and directors use to come to a intellectual and emotional understanding of the characters) as a tool to help the children come to terms with language that was difficult or beyond their experiences. We began by asking questions similar to those earlier on, but this time directly related to characterization. For purposes of focus in this scene, we looked at the relationship between Bottom and Quince. I asked, for example, "Who is in charge?" and "Who wants to be in charge?" and we then discussed times when someone came in and took over something we were doing or when we really felt that we could have done a better job at something than someone else. From there we discussed vocal and physical patterns. I asked them to demonstrate to me how their voices might sound if they were very frustrated or extremely eager and then what their bodies might do. When faced with a situation when they were frustrated or angry or eager or bossy, would they go and sulk in a corner or yell and push or jump around?
For our next run through I asked two students, Jocelyn and Carol, who I had noticed were especially outspoken and energetic, to play Quince and Bottom and instructed the directorial team (made up of the students not acting in the scene) to direct them through the scene. Their task, in other words, was to point out to Jocelyn and Carol the elements of the scene that were relevant at the time and then stop them, as they worked through it, any time they drifted off course. Because the previous discussion about frustration and eagerness had quickly developed into an exchange of anecdotes about times when we had stood up for ourselves and the chaotic-and occasionally violent-situations that ensued, the directorial team was quick to suggest to Jocelyn and Carol that they try the scene as arch rivals for attention. Bottom would, for example, take long dramatic, contemplative pauses before displaying his dramatic skills and would deliver his lines from Pyramus and Thisby downstage center, standing on a chair. Quince would try to keep Bottom away from downstage center without becoming physical, both for the sake of keeping our focus on the words within the scene and for the sake of safety.
The scene that resulted was dynamic, energetic and, at times, hilariously funny. On the other hand, Jocelyn's Quince, in his desperate attempts to be heard by Carol's Bottom, and in his need to maintain control over the group as a whole, became loud and frantic to the point that the lines could not be understood and the scene, although funny, was completely incomprehensible. We had gained a sense of our bodies in motion within a scene-there was no nervous shifting from foot to foot, no hands twisted and wringing, no heads drooped to the floor-but we had lost the text.
We came back to our circle. This time we addressed the "whys" of the scene: How did these people come to know each other? How did they come to be involved in the play? What will happen when they finally perform the play for Theseus? What resulted from this discussion was what was missing from the scene the previous run through: a sense of the camaraderie between the characters, the friendship, the histories, and the humanity. The students had, in other words, begun to internalize the scene, as they acquired an understanding that the physical mandates of a scene are based within the characters' emotional realities. The scene that followed depicted a Bottom who was enthusiastic without being tyrannical, a Quince who was in command but not desperate or cowering. While our production had still eight weeks of rehearsal ahead of it, it was, nonetheless, becoming a play.
This process of examining the play from a theatrical standpoint worked in our favor in a number of ways: first, it allowed the students to look and look again at the scene, its mandates and its ambiguities; it demanded that the students begin to develop physical presence in order to meet the demands of a physically demanding scene; it introduced the language and the structure, and, therefore, Shakespeare himself, to the students; and it created a process and a tempo for the weeks to come that included repetition, discipline, reasoning and vision.
Although it is my hope that fellow teachers may find this application of theatrical techniques useful in their English classes, even as I write this I realize that there is a certain futility in attempting to describe in a written work what takes place in a performance classroom. The thing that is especially difficult to convey in writing, and is so essential to performance-centered work, is the nature of the performance itself. Perhaps it is so difficult to describe with written words because here, on this page, we cannot see or hear the inflection, the apparent intention, the physicalization. Just as Shakespeare's text is incomplete without action and interpretation, so this record is incomplete without the emotions, intellects, and bodies of the students, living within their performances. I hope, however, that readers who employ this approach will be able to complete this text with their experiences, triumphs and defeats.
In The Dramatic Imagination,
Robert Edmund Jones quotes Plotinus: "For the soul, a divine thing,
a fragment as it were of the primal Being, makes beautiful according
to their capacity all things whatsoever that it grasps and moulds" (157).
I think, perhaps, that this may be an additional benefit to performance-centered
study: it can encourage students and teachers to reach deep within
themselves, thereby increasing their capacity for creating and responding
Sarah Innerst Peterson teaches writing at Cal Poly, Pomona and is currently searching for her next Sidewalk Shakespearean adventure. She lives in Pomona with her extraordinary husband and their extended menagerie.