Category Archives: Shakespeare

Bard To Go: Takeaways from Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays 2015

I just got back from a great conference.  The best part was that I had a bunch of English teachers with me who are now excited about using theatre strategies to deepen their students understanding of literature, particularly scary, tough classical literature. I’m so lucky to get to work across the curriculum with these terrific colleagues, and so excited for what the future holds for our shared students!

The Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays conference has been hosted by the University of California at Davis’s School of Education at the gorgeous Mondavi Center annually for the past five years. It’s a brilliant conference that brings practitioners from the Shakespeare theatre community who have adapted their educational outreach strategies to help classroom teachers teach Shakespeare the way that we think Shakespeare would have wanted himself taught, on our feet, through play.

I am a conference fangirl. I have been to every single one in Davis, I think, and now that they’re trying to hold it next July at the Globe I’m scheming to find a way to get there, despite limited resources to do so. The powerful work they do at this conference seeks to undo our deepest fears about teaching Shakespeare  to our students what Ralph Alan Cohen calls:

Shakesfear. That he’s boring, that the language is old, that it is therefore too difficult, and thus why even try teaching it in today’s soundbyte world?

Mostly tailored to English teachers who must combat the biggest hurdles in this regard, as many of them are directed to teach entire Shakespeare plays, the conference gets its participants up on our feet, moving and speaking Shakespeare’s language in ways that allow students of all ages to access the text, plot, and characters. But it has a lot to remind drama teachers about as well.

Here are some takeaways from the excellent teaching at the conference. In the coming weeks, I will attempt to synthesize and scaffold some of the games and activities as I move forward with new ideas for the drama classroom, but I want t to revisit some pedagogical truths at work in this approach, particularly as I hear from new teacher after new teacher concerned about discipline and accountability in the classroom. Rules. Our own accountability.  Students being focused. Following the rules. Not disrupting.

The act of teaching is disruptive. The most powerful things any of us ever learned in life were disruptive to us. Teaching Shakespeare and other texts on our feet is extraordinarily disruptive, and I would argue, necessary.

Here are three key takeaways that I saw emphasized across the conference, practices which can assist you in the eventual transformation of your classroom into a heaven for the adolescent scholar/practitioner.

1. WARM UP. Every single one of these great Shakespeare teachers started with a warmup. To paraphrase the wonderful Kevin Costa, the Education Director of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company who is also a full time classroom teacher, student need time in between classes to transition and refocus.

“If you don’t give it to them,” he says with a smile, they will take it.” 

Kevin keeps three beanbags in his pocket. He is known to start class by gently tossing the beanbags around the room in a circle, urging students to slow down and synchronize their throwing with their breath, then adding our names, so we gently lob the beanbag across the circle in a smooth and beautiful underhanded motion. Eye Contact-Breathe-Swoop-Arcadia. 

The best part of Kevin’s signature warmup is his evident joy in presenting it. He is relaxed, gentle, and delighted by the efforts of his students to move this object through space. It’s his warmup. It makes the class  and the space his, while bringing each student into their own body and into the present moment. It’s ritual, which our students thrive on, and if practiced regularly, with tolerance in the beginning for our students who seem hellbent on target practice, I can see it being a transformative classroom practice.

In order to do Kevin’s warmup, you need to not have students sitting in desks in rows. If you teach English, or  teach other classes that are row bound, one idea would be to teach students to quickly alter the space as part of the warmup. Pretty much any classroom that is configured in rows can also be configured in an O or a U without much trouble.  If you already have open space, you are ready to go.

If you need to keep students in their seats, consider playing music, batting around a balloon,  call and response, rhythm, or snapping warmups. The don’t have to be long.  But the long term power of allowing for transition, focusing students on themselves, and connecting them to the community has major effects outside of simply a nicer working environment.

Takeaway: SAFE, FOCUSED KIDS WHO ARE IN THE MOMENT WITH EACH OTHER CAN TAKE  GREATER ACADEMIC RISKS. Think about it.

2. WHOLE GROUP WORK. Another takeaway from the conference. We are concerned about students “performing.” We want them to present and to perform, and we’re disappointed, secretly or overtly, by their awkwardness and reluctance to do so. The teachers at the Shakespeare Works Conference were masterful at providing opportunities for whole group work. Kirsten Giroux and Joan Langley of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival had us turn outward and step forward and back in order to make vowel sounds and attach them to subtext, such as “You see a yucky thing on the floor” or “You’re trying to get a friend’s attention.” By the end of this brief activity, they had effectively tricked us into a vocal warmup of vowel sounds, and gotten us to explore the sounds, without being concerned about looking stupid.  

Beru Tessema of Globe Education had us work simultaneously on the same scene from Othello, switching partners and using new focuses, in order to teach the methodology of exploring a scene, by repeating key words of each other’s dialogue, hitting the paper to emphasize certain words, moving towards and away from our partners, and choosing when to use eye contact. These are techniques one could use prior to assigning individual scenes to groups, or they  could be used  to work students simultaneously   on different scenes.  This family of strategies effectively tricks the students into a bout of close reading, requiring them to have read the scene out loud on its feet multiple times before settling down to think about “staging the scene.”

Takeaway: STUDENTS WILL SHUT THEMSELVES DOWN IN ORDER TO AVOID LOOKING STUPID. Free them, at first, from the spotlight, and they will gladly take it later.

3. SCAFFOLD DIFFICULT TEXTS. No teacher at the Shakespeare Works conference began anything by handing us a scene and telling us to go rehearse it for the rest of class, something I  have been guilty of and see over and over among my wonderful and well meaning colleagues who then wonder why they get a limp and unconnected product. Perhaps one percent of any given group of students are natural wordsmiths, bookworms who love reading long and complicated things out loud just for fun. Perhaps one percent are natural actors, who enjoy and instantly empathize with the character’s struggle, and want to find ways to portray it instantly. The rest of our students are people who have a typical relationship with the written word. People who didn’t grow up reading iambic pentameter, who did not grow up speaking English, who read at a slower pace, who have trouble comprehending what they read, who have been bred by the Internet.

You can start out with ONE WORD AT A TIME or work on A LINE as a group. Mary Hartman from Bard on the Beach handed out disambiguated Shakespeare lines and had us rearrange them while trying to keep the meaning.  Michael Bahr from Utah Shakespeare Festival had us turn a line from Macbeth, “O full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife” (3:2) into a moving picture.  I just Googled the line to check it and the first two entries are from No Fear Shakespeare, and the next six are from students posting on platforms like eNotes and Yahoo answers attempting to figure out what the line means. Now multiply that, and you’ve got a student’s desperate reading strategy for the scenes you are assigning.

I point this out because  the internet is where your students go when you hand them large chunks of “boring” text that they don’t understand and abandon them to wander in the wilds interpreting it. Start with a word, move to a line, move to half a page of text. Be as explicit as you can in class and insist on whole group think as an imperfect practice to decode text.  Particularly with a tough work, like a Shakespeare play, figure out ahead of time what in a text needs to be dealt with explicitly, physicalized,  or played with and presented, and what can be summarized, read aloud in groups, or shown during movie day.

Takeaway: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO TEACH EVERY WORD OF THE TEXT in order for your students to experience, understand, and write about Shakespeare.  You will again reap the rewards, and so will your students.

METHOD TO THE MADNESS

Many teachers are concerned about “personal accountability” among students when rearranging the teaching of the texts to incorporate so much ungraded group work. I respectfully submit that  this approach involves a shift in thinking as well as a shift in practice.

I recently pointed out on social media to a newer teacher who was concerned about discipline that  having a billion specific rules with consequences to follow in a classroom causes students to tally your infractions the way you’re tallying theirs.Similarly,  grading everything leads students to value the grade over the process, whereas multiple whole group strategies used to teach something will yield better individual comprehension on quizzes and papers by sheer value of repetition.

The educational world is currently exploding with wonderful techniques and strategies to facilitate close reading through active learning. I hope you can find something that works for you and your students. Honor your own ideas, play around and let yourself and your students have some fun.

For more information about Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays, visit http://education.ucdavis.edu/shakespeare-works-when-shakespeare-plays.

 

 

 

 

Athlete of the Emotions: Exploring Rasaboxes

The actor is the athlete of the emotions. What does that mean? It means the actor must practice the same way an athlete practices. Actors have to have emotional endurance, flexibility, and dexterity. They need to practice being in emotion. They need to practice skills of self-care that allow them to go fearlessly into extreme emotional states, and return to their personhood afterwards.

Great. But we’re talking about teenagers here, who haven’t had life experiences, who may be bewildered and overwhelmed by their emotions, who are usually encouraged by well-meaning adults to suppress most of the stronger ones, so threatening are their emotions to the status quo and the daily work of getting things done.

So how do we teach adolescent actors how to practice this skill, of feeling without giving in or becoming overwhelmed? What I call “driving the schoolbus?”

One technique is Rasaboxes. I do not notice a lot of talk about this powerful practice in educational theatre, probably because it’s not widely known like the Method or Viewpoints.  But  I have long been interested in psychophysical theatre with young actors as a means to help them safely access emotional states through the use of external symbols, gesture, and the energy of the ensemble. To that end, I became interested in Rasaboxes and started some experimentals and adaptations with them in my advanced  classroom.

BACKGROUND

You can find a full history of the practice and some information on training on  Rasaboxes.org., but the basic gist is that they have their origins in  the Professor Richard Schechner of NYU’s participatory study of Grotowski and Cieslak’s psychophysical practices, his own work with The Performance Group in the late 60’s,  his study of the Natyasastra, an ancient Sanskrit text on performance, and his incorporation of Paul Ekman’s work on facial emotions and Michael Gershon’s work on “the brain in the belly.” The work has been developed over the last 40 years, and has emerged as a fairly user-friendly practice based on the nine emotions or rasas in kathakali.

Yes, that’s right. I am advocating the adapted use of experimental theatre techniques from the 1960’s with young actors in today’s high stakes testing environment. Because I believe that drama teachers have a responsibility to  teach resilience and survival, and knowing what you’re feeling helps you survive, whether you end up as an actor or a biochemical engineer.

INTRODUCTION TO THE WORK

The standard Rasas grid is a  three by three grid which you can make with blue tape on your floor. Use student aides to measure this out if you’ve got them. Make the squares large enough to sit or stand in.  Put it on the floor before class begins. There should be nine squares. 

Have eight pieces of butcher paper, each labeled with an emotion, ready as well. The eight emotions are:

  • Fear
  • Humor
  • Surprise
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Love
  • Courage
  • Grief

They have Sanskrit names of course, but considering you want your students to remember them, I found it easier to use the English names.

Give the eight pieces of paper to individual students. Let them lay them down in the grid, anywhere but the middle.

The middle is the state of no feeling. Peace.  Leave it blank.

Give the kids crayons.

Let them have a big chunk of time (20 minutes, 30)  to do graffiti on the paper about each emotion. If you want to quantify how many emotions they visit, you can, but you could just let them explore.  Let them draw, write quotes, hashtags, associations, whatever.  Put music on, let them sit together with the papers, read each other’s work.

Back everybody up in a circle and sit around the boxes. Let them reflect, ask questions.

Give them the next assignment.

LETTERS

This year I used an exercise I borrowed from Chuck Manthe at Abraham Lincoln High School. He asked students to write letters designed to provoke emotion, placed them in a basket, put the basket next to a chair onstage, had individual actors go up there, read the letter silently, and asked them what they were feeling.  The audience just had to watch someone feel something and talk about it. They weren’t given a performance. They supported the actor learning to access the performance.

We took away the butcher paper and labeled the squares so students could remember which was which, and then the students put their letters in a basket. We sat around the circle, and I asked students to read the letter they had chosen, silently, then move to the box which most accurately described what they were feeling, reading the letter.

GESTURES

We stayed around the circle. One student entered the rasas and chose a box. Made a gesture of the emotion. Moved to another box. Made that emotion’s gesture. Stepped out, tagged another student.

THREE LINES

Students used the boxes to tell a three line story, moving between three emotions, with gestures and positions.

This is where you, the teacher, begin to activate your imperative to ask the student to tell the truth. 

Students will gravitate to humor, disgust and surprise at first. When they enter a hard emotion, like fear or anger or grief, they will indicate it rather than radiate it. You can begin to work with those tendencies by stop them. “Are you really angry? Or are you disgusted?” “Are you afraid? Or are you surprised?” Encourage their light stories to stay with light emotions. It paves the way for the courageous work that will follow.

TWO STUDENTS

Students selected partners and sat back to back with them around the circle. One student entered the rasa and chose a box. After observing, his or her partner entered another rasa. They started improvisational scenes in the boxes, moving boxes when emotions changed.

This is another great workspace for you to safely and persistently encourage the young actors to TELL THE TRUTH in their work.

In one of our improvisations, a “daughter” made an uncomfortable confession regarding her sexuality  to her “father”. The actor playing the father moved to the box he felt father would go to, to anger,  rather than where he as a person wanted to go to , love.  At the close of the scene, unresolved, feeling the tension that had been created by the two characters, the actor talked about what it was like to feel this strong emotion that was called for. He was then able to step out of role and show his support for his scene partner. The other actors were able to support him, because they had witnessed his struggle and were containing it in the circle. Unlike trying to invoke the emotional nudity of monologue or scene work, with the audience separated from the actors,  “practicing” the rasas in the circle has tremendous security for young actors.  If they need kleenex, if they need friends, the others are right there to catch them.

Don’t underestimate your students abilities to “find” themselves in these. Encourage your jokers to find fear and love,  your timid introverts to find anger and courage, your model students to find grief and disgust.

Hold the room respectful and continually model the qualities of honesty, flexibility, respect, and care,  allowing your students to breathe this work.

TEXT

After improvisation, it works to spend some time having students work with text in the Rasaboxes. You can start with open text (I used “Empty” by Suzan Lori-Parks) and then move onto scripts. You can use this to to work with what will be assigned two character scenes as well.

Here are some scenes that work well.

Hamlet- Polonius and Ophelia where she’s telling him how frightened she is of Hamlet. Cut it down and split it up.

Streetcar- The why did you sell Belle Reve scene between Stella and Blanche

Crucible- The forest scene between Proctor and Abby

Read these scenes first on your own and CUT them to a page or less, particularly if you’re worried about reading levels. The Polonius/Ophelia is all short monologues. Works well, but you have to preteach.

Note: When you hand out difficult text, as these are, do some readarounds with the class out loud before everybody starts working individually. Clarify references, beats, motivations, obstacles, settings, time periods, vocabulary. It will be worth your while.

When they get into the Rasas with these, be prepared to stop them. Question when they disconnect from the text. These aren’t performances, they’re drills. Don’t let them degenerate into performances, this is not the point. This is a training tool. Let them train on it, and then assess what they’ve learned by asking them and observing the quality of their work by how much facility they’ve been able to develop with this.

IDEAS FOR FINAL ASSESSMENT

  • Reflective paper
  • Personal emotional journey (these are amazing)
  • Text monologue inside rasas, allowing movement between them

Whatever you choose, or how much you do with this, remain open, and expect your students to do so as well.  Remind them that what happens in Drama stays in Drama. Trust the group and have kleenex ready, and be prepared to experience what young performers are capable of doing, and reap the benefits as a director of your empowered, courageous young  theatremakers.

 

 

 

 

Status Update: Masters and Servants 2

The Master/Servant Scene is a scene designed to allow students to improvise within a form that requires them to play status. By presenting a simple scene within the form, students strengthen their skills in devised theatre as well as timing, character development, sharing the stage picture, and saying yes. Here’s more work.

WARMUPS

SAY HELLO- Mill and seethe. Tell them to greet each other like their parents, like their teachers, like kindergarteners, like senior citizens, like insert your high school stereotype here. Mean girls, gangsters, gamers, people who are at the wrong party.

BOTH SIDES OF THE COIN- From Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s teacher training. Walk and monologue for one minute about the benefits of being in charge. Lay down on the floor and list the benefits of being a servant. Scoot up and get a partner.

PROSPERO AND ARIEL- From OSF and Globe Education. Yes, you can just throw Beginning students a Shakespeare scene, as long as it’s short. No, you don’t have to teach them about Shakespeare’s life, summarize the plot, or have them build a scale model of the Globe. They can just read an awesome master/servant scene in English.

So cut 2:1 from THE TEMPEST to this (courtesy of Globe Education), and hand it out to the partners.

ARIEL All hail, great master! grave sir, hail!

PROSPERO Hast thou, spirit, perform’d to point the tempest that I bade thee?

ARIEL To every article.

PROSPERO My brave spirit! Ariel, thy charge  exactly is perform’d: but there’s more work.

ARIEL Is there more toil? Since thou dost give me pains, let me remember thee what thou hast promised, which is not yet perform’d me.

PROSPERO How now? moody? What is’t thou canst demand?

ARIEL My liberty.

PROSPERO Before the time be out? no more!

ARIEL I prithee, remember I have done thee worthy service;

PROSPERO Dost thou forget from what a torment I did free thee?

ARIEL No.

PROSPERO Thou liest, malignant thing! Hast thou forgot?

ARIEL No, sir.

  • Have the students sit back to back and read it once. Ask:
  • Who are these people? Who’s Prospero? Who’s Ariel? What does Prospero want? What does Ariel want?
  • Have them turn around and face each other, and read it again, this time with a poke or a pat. Each line, they either poke or pat the other performer.  Ask: Who pokes more? Who pats more?
  • Have them get on their feet. Prospero should walk away from Ariel on each line, each time, turning when Ariel says something. Reverse it. Now Ariel has the power.
  • Tell them all to sit back down. Last people down perform their scene. They can poke, they can pat, they can walk away, but they have to make choices. Applaud wildly. Tell them to pick two more volunteers. Repeat one more time. Ask.

You’ll get responses like this:

  • “Sometimes the servant has more power than the master.”
  • “All three scenes were very different.”

Responses you may not get, but will be received at least partially:

  • “Shakespeare is English. If I can read English, I can perform Shakespeare.”
  • “Gestures arise out of what is being said.”

1,2,3,4- From ComedySportz. Put a 1, a 2, a 3 and a 4 onstage.  One chair. Tell 1 they are in charge, they make all decisions, they have to come up with everything that happens in the scene. Tell 2 they work for 1 and want 3 to do all their work. Tell 3 they work for 2 and want 4 to do all their work. Tell 4 they work for 2, and can either try to do everything they tell them, or try to do nothing.

Now tell them all that they work at McDonald’s, or what works a lot better where I work, that they have 10 minutes to plan and execute a high pressure project for their rocket science class.

Watch the scene.

Afterwards, ask them all how they felt. Ask the audience what they saw.

Pleasing the Ruler- 3 students on stage, one chair. One student is the ruler, leader, master, the other two work for him or her. Game is simple. Master issues orders. Servants follow. Master can “fire” one servant the first time he or she is displeased. This leaves the winner as the new master. Watch the dynamics in this ongoing scene, because you want to look for patterns.

Types of masters and servants will appear. These are some I have noticed in my classes over time, and I usually hand my students a chart to look at. My students are very mathy, so it helps to literally break character work down to pieces like a commedia actor would. A great into into discussing archetypes.

MASTERS

  • The Dictator. Voice may vary. May be rapid and incomprehensible or loud and overly pretentious. Grandiose, ridiculous, unnattractive, flamboyant. Seeks power, flattery and mastery over situations. Never gets any of it.  Will send a servant down to the quarter store to purchase uranium, likes uniforms, uses malapropisms. High energy, verbally dominant. Capitan esque, A bit Dottore with occasional touches of Pantalone.
  • The Evil Genius. Creepy, nerdy, petulant, scientifically or computer oriented. Has a complicated lab that he or she can’t explain. More Pantalone. Feels skinny or pasty. Voice in the nose, hands creeping out of elbows, posture.
  • The Diva. Easily accessible to today’s youth. Very hip-hop or Hollywood, glitz and bling and the cult of personality. Surrounded by expensive things that he or she does not use. Emotionally fragile, sensitive to cracks about his or her appearance, sentimental, throws tantrums.
  • The Pushover. Elderly and myopic, or granolaesque and clueless. Think that substitute teacher who doesn’t make you do work but regales you about her trip to Greece in 1962. Easy to pacify, but obsessed with certain details or criteria. If you meet these, you can get away with murder. May insist on manners, nutrition, or a quiet environment. Often kills with kindness. Usually female.
  • The Nice Guy. A middle manager, passive aggressive. His way or the very nice highway. Uses words like “team”, “Pal”, and “What I’m gonna want you to do is”. Tasks assigned are impossibly bureaucratic. Not very creative, a rule follower, expects the servants to be as well.
  • The Fusser. Straight lines, perfect pillows, fears of food-borne illness.  Orthorexic. Exact numbers, perfect crafts. An artist. May melt into diva or dictator if crossed.

SERVANTS

  • The Yes Man. Does everything told efficiently and amazingly. Lays complements down in order to get ahead. Thrives on being perfect. When alone, is actually evil, mocking, or slavishly devoted to the master to the point where if fault is found or employment is terminated actual insanity may take hold. Watch out.
  • The Smiler. Stands around like a mannequin on display. Uses attractiveness to distract the master. Not incredibly bright, but really good at surviving.
  • The Slacker. Did not hear you the first time you called. Is late. Expends the least amount of energy possible. Possesses a negative attitude. Sometimes even hostile. May possess more than one phone. They’re doing you a favor by working for you, and they’re not doing much.
  • The Fool. Often doesn’t speak or speaks in grammelot. Everything is a great adventure. You won’t get what you want, but you may get a wonderful surprise you didn’t want. Off balance.
  • The Nervous Wreck. Incapable, incompetent, clumsy, drops things, cannot understand simple directions, loses everything, creates chaos. Fire them and they will cry loudly until you rehire them.

Encourage your students when you see one of these. Give them the tips and tricks to strengthen the characters.

TIPS AND TRICKS FOR GOOD CLASS CULTURE

  • We NEVER want to actually feel sorry for a servant. Encourage masters towards the hyperbolic, not the sadomasochistic or  revolting. Certainly stop anything racial or stereotypical not created by a performer themselves in its tracks. Talk about it. Let people be heard. This is what drama class is for.
  • NEVER let  a kid start a scene by calling their servant by the servant’s real name. We can’t play if we feel it’s “us.” Have a list of accessible names at your fingertips, throw the kids onstage and say “Your name is the Heatmeiser and your servant’s name is Pancake. Go.”
  • ALWAYS applaud a big performance, a clever task, a wonderful retort from a servant.
  • STOP every few scenes during “Pleasing the Ruler” and analyze what people are creating.

Next week, the big summative assessment, plus a couple more exercises to make it work.