Finding Shakespeare in ‘Serial’

In November, I read a blog post by Mike Godsey, a California teacher who became so frustrated by teaching Shakespeare to his students that he decided to ditch the world’s most prolific playwright, structuring his English class instead around Serial, the recent hit podcast spinoff of NPR’s This American Life.

Serial is a 12-part podcast in which listeners hear part of a single story told week by week – in a serial format. The first season featured a journalistic investigation of a 1999 Baltimore murder case. Hae Min Lee, a popular student at Woodlawn High School, disappeared after school one day. Police found her body in a park several weeks later. The cause of her death was manual strangulation. A jury found her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, guilty of her murder. As the podcast reveals, however, the evidence against Adnan was scant. Along with the podcast, the Serial website provides digital copies of various pieces of evidence, timelines, maps, and call logs.

I came across Mr. Godsey’s post while I and the rest of our ASC Education team were attending the National Council of Teachers of English conference in Washington, DC. We were surrounded by thousands of English teachers, hundreds of whom were clambering for resources and professional training in how to revitalize their love of teaching Shakespeare, while also finding methods for reaching their students on a different level – a level that would engage them as much as Serial intrigued millions of attentive weekly listeners.

My reaction to the post was one of both delight and disappointment. My husband and I dedicated our Thursday evenings to Serial, turning our living room into a classic radio-listening den à la the days of FDR’s fireside chats. I was delighted that another teacher had found in Serial the same qualities that I admired in the podcast and had taken steps to introduce his students to the riveting journalism of Sarah Koenig and her producers. I didn’t go one day without wondering whether Adnan was innocent, if we would hear more about Jay’s testimony during the next episode, or if an entirely new twist would surface from the legal team’s research at the University of Virginia, just 40 minutes from our own Blackfriars Playhouse.

What disappointed me, however, was that this teacher did not seem to make the connection that we love Serial because we also love Shakespeare. Shakespeare may not have been a journalist trying to solve a twisted murder case, but he knew how to keep an audience’s attention through the swelling drama of his tragedies and the laugh-‘til-you-burst scenarios of his comedies, and the true-to-life circumstances when tragedy and comedy collide. Ira Glass might not be a fan, but we certainly owe all due credit to the playwright from Stratford for the drama craze that is so ingrained in our culture and modern media.

Mr. Godsey outlined 8 reasons behind his syllabus overhaul:

  1. The teacher (me) doesn’t know how the story ends
    Whenever I teach a novel for the first time, the students believe they might be answering my questions and solving problems in original ways. No matter how much I fake it, however, they can tell when I’m teaching Hamletfor the eighth straight year. TeachingSerial is even better than teaching a book for the first time – the story is literally not finished yet, so they know I don’t know the answers.
  2. The non-fiction “murder mystery” genre makes it more conducive to problem-solving
    We want our students to be critically thinking problem solvers, and Reading Standard 7 of the Common Core State Standards specifically asks students to combine multiple sources to solve a problem or question. “How much should we believe Jay’s story?” is an interesting, real-life question that could literally be solved; student engagement with this question is much higher than, say, “Should Hamlet listen to his father’s ghost?”

Any well-prepared teacher will know the ending of the story they are teaching, but knowing the end of the story is not the same as knowing the answers to questions about the story. Students may respond positively to questions about Serial that they can explore on their own by listening to the podcast: “How does Serial expose the flaws of our justice system?” or “What possible motives does Sarah propose to explain the inconsistencies of Jay’s testimonies?” Teaching students to mine the text for clues, like actively listening to the podcast, will empower them with the tools they need to decipher questions about the play without the teacher having all the answers.

When students encounter Shakespeare for the first time, they have just as many opportunities to make new discoveries and to propose original solutions to the play’s problems as their teacher does. Teaching Shakespeare using his original Staging Conditions allows students and teachers to examine the text in ways that demand innovative solutions and problem-solving strategies. Your students will surprise you every time they start to reevaluate characters based on subtle shifts in Shakespeare’s verse, or when they propose five different ways to stage the first scene of Hamlet after they learn to recognize embedded stage directions. Our co-founder and Director of Mission Ralph Alan Cohen has been teaching Shakespeare using these methods for over 40 years and still makes new discoveries about the plays he teaches.

  1. Serial is hip and fresh
    My students really, really don’t care about what a dead critic thinks about Hamlet’s sexual feelings for his own mother, but they definitely take notice when women are tweeting about how they’re looking for men who have an opinion on Adnan.
  2. My students’ opinions might actually matter on social networking sites. Or in my class. Or in real life
    Nobody on the internet really cares about their thoughts on Hamlet’s suicidal tendencies, and after eight years, I frankly don’t either (I’ve pretty much heard them all). But in this case, there’s a good chance they can blow my mind by uncovering a clue, and even a (very small) chance that their research could help bring justice to an imprisoned man.

If you think Shakespeare isn’t hip and fresh, think again. The teens that come to the ASC Theatre Camp would certainly convince you otherwise. “The Hollow Crown” BBC series is still drawing attention even three years later, with over 11.3k followers on Twitter. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch are two heartthrobs getting international acclaim for their Shakespeare performances, and even Johnny Depp is developing a new TV series based on Shakespeare’s plays.

Students’ opinions about Shakespeare absolutely matter, and encouraging students to share their opinions with others is key to developing their critical discussion skills and self-confidence. Pair up with a class at another school that is covering the same play and use Tumblr or Google Communities to inspire student discussion and interaction; have your students send Shakespearean actors and scholars questions about their work through Twitter; create a Pinterest board for your next production and let your students post and share their design inspirations and dramaturgical research. Your students will be delighted to see when others start reposting their Tweets or sharing their Pins.

  1. The multimedia aspect encourages (requires) the students to synthesise information from a variety of sources
    Yes, I know we can watch Shakespeare on YouTube and make models of the Globe Theatre, but this does not compare to Serial‘s collection of documents and photos. Not only does this multimedia aspect really help with the state standards and 21st-century skills, it’s just a good time. Maps, call logs, Google Maps, handwritten letters…it’s fantastically fun and totally engaging. Today we put the Google Maps street view on the big screen and “drove” the exact route that Adnan allegedly took from his school to Best Buy. Creepy, but engaging. Speaking of which…
  2. They actually listen to the story
    Sorry, but the kids these days are not doing the homework like we imagine we did when we were in high school. Their SparkNotes (on their phones) are in their pockets at all times. Even at university, my friend (an English professor) says that students are watching the movie on their iPads while he lectures on Much Ado About NothingIn this case, the students say “Wait, Mr Godsey. Can you play back that last 10 seconds?” about every 10 minutes.

Shakespeare’s plays are inherently multimedia-based. Shakespeare’s actors used cue scripts, containing only their character’s lines and the few words before them. This technology required that actors had to synthesize information about their own characters and the action of the play by listening to other actors. When your students have to listen to their fellow classmates for plot information, character development, and staging clues, suddenly, class is much better than a movie or podcast. Show your students that Shakespeare’s plays were meant for performance, and you have a cacophony of sources from which they can create the story themselves – cue scripts, doubling charts, props, costumes, and musical instruments; Each element is a piece of the puzzle that your students must decipher together, and they must listen to each other during the process.

  1. It’s easier to teach the state standards with Serial
    Not only can I justify the use of Serial as a primary text, but the podcast actually helps the students learn these fundamental skills more efficiently than most traditional texts, especially longer novels.
  1. The state doesn’t really care if the students read Shakespeare
    I don’t know if this is hyperbole or understatement, but it’s how I feel right now. Serial does not teach anything about iambic pentameter, English history or the Renaissance, but none of these things are tested on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) exam, the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), the SAT or any other test they might take outside my class. Generally speaking, we’re being asked to teach the skills rather than the content (said to be easily accessible in 2014). More specifically, there is no school-wide, district-wide or state-mandated test that has a single question about a particular piece of literature. “To be or not to be?” is not a multiple-choice question that has any place on a state-mandated test, and nobody seems to care; I’m not even sure I do. As long as I teach students to read well and think critically, they can read Shakespeare on their own time.

I agree that Serial can provide a fresh approach to teaching the critical analysis and close reading skills required by some standardized tests; however, Shakespeare stands the test of time, and his inclusion in the Common Core Standards is a testament to the influence of his works across all areas of modern literature and drama. Even Sarah Koenig recognizes the significance of her podcast’s parallels to Shakespeare:

I read a few newspaper clips about the case, looked up a few trial records. And on paper, the case was like a Shakespearean mashup — young lovers from different worlds thwarting their families, secret assignations, jealousy, suspicion, and honor besmirched, the villain not a Moor exactly, but a Muslim all the same, and a final act of murderous revenge. And the main stage? A regular old high school across the street from a 7-Eleven.

-Sarah Koenig, Serial, Episode 1 Transcript

If you are inspired by Serial and want a way to tie it to your class, I propose a hybrid unit that integrates Serial with Shakespeare. The story of Hae Min Lee’s tragic death invokes the story of Othello more than any other. Hae Min, like Desdemona, was a well-liked young woman who found herself in a controversial relationship with a man whom society deemed to be an outsider. Adnan and Othello are the exotic “other,” accomplished and admired by their communities, yet doomed to suffer through their own tragic endings.

Questions for your class to consider as they listen to Serial and read Othello might include:

  • How do characters in Othello refer to Othello’s otherness? What sets Othello apart from the Venetians? Do the same descriptions apply to Adnan? In what ways are Othello and Adnan similar to and different from one another?
  • If you were a juror on a case in which Othello was being tried for Desdemona’s death, what sentence would you give him? What would Iago’s charge be? Would you be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Iago was involved in Desdemona’s murder? Who would be your witnesses?
  • Review the Timeline and People Map on the Serial website. Make a timeline for the events in Othello and a People Map to show the characters’ relationships. Compose a brief explanation for your group’s choices based on information available in the play. Insert quotes from the text in your timeline and People Map.
  • Read Shakespeare’s source for Othello, Cinthio’s “Un Capitano Moro.” What evidence surrounding Desdemona’s death changes in Shakespeare’s play from this story? How would the difference between these endings change your verdicts for Othello or Iago? Discuss these changes in relation to the evidence presented in Adnan’s case.

–Kim Newton
Director of College Prep Programs

Study Guide Snippet: The Taming of the Shrew Textual Variants

The Taming of the Shrew is, admittedly, a controversial play. I don’t mind that. I like controversy. It gets people talking. Personally, I have a sort of winding history with the play. As a young teenager, I loved it because I loved Kate. Like my all-time favorite heroine, Beatrice, Kate is witty and sharp and sarcastic. She has an edge to her, too, though, something either dark or sad that I didn’t fully appreciate until later in life. A little later on, I went through a period of stridently disliking the play, partially for feminist reasons, and partially because I wasn’t seeing very good productions. But I was willing to be convinced, and by the time I hit grad school, I was coming around on it. And then, my first year with the ASC, we explored a scene in a Teacher Seminar that blew the doors open for me.

For me, this entire play now hinges on a single stage direction. It’s a tiny change that can seal the difference between Petruchio-as-bully and Petruchio-as-actor/teacher, and that’s the focus of the Textual Variants activity in our brand-new Study Guide. Here’s a sneak peek — and if you want to see it in action, register now to join us for the Winter Teacher Seminar, January 30-31.

Continue reading

“Forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it”: The Life of Aphra Behn

England’s first professional female playwright was a member of the royal court, a spy for England, a personal friend of some of the greatest actors and courtiers of the Restoration, and an inspiration to future generations of literary women. She was also a commoner, from humble origins, who wrote not as a hobby but for an income. Her historical record begins for certain in 1666, when she served King Charles II as a spy in Antwerp during the Second Anglo-Dutch Warm recruited as Agent 160, code-named Astrea. Behn incurred great debt while working abroad – a financial difficulty made more dire by the King’s neglect in paying her for her services. Charles was notoriously slow in such matters, and Behn may have served time in debtor’s prison while waiting for him to come through for her.Aphra_Behn

In 1670, with Charles’s still neglecting his accounts payable, Aphra turned to writing to keep herself fed and out of prison. Working with the Duke’s Company, managed by William Davenant, her plays were immediately popular and financial successes. Behn produced roughly one play a year until 1682, when the merging of the Duke’s Company with the King’s Company reduced the profit available to her from playwrighting. Thereafter, Behn took to writing poetry and narrative fiction, including one of the English language’s first epistolary novels.

Behn’s most famous and most enduring play was The Rover, or, The Banish’d Cavaliers. The “Mrs. Gwin” who played Angellica Bianca at the first performance is likely a special appearance by the famous Nell Gwyn, by then retired from the stage and living full-time as a royal mistress. Elizabeth Barry, who played Hellena, was the lover of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester — one of the king’s closest friends and the likely inspiration for the character of Willmore, the “rover” of the title. Set in Naples, the play features a group of gallants wooing and carousing their way through the subversive festivities of Carnival. Captain Willmore becomes entangled in a love triangle between the famous courtesan Angellica Bianca and Hellena, a young woman determined to find love before her brother ships her off to a convent. Willmore’s friend Belvile falls in love with Hellena’s sister, Florinda, who is promised in marriage to a friend of her brother’s, while the foolish Blunt becomes convinced that the thieving prostitute Lucetta is madly in love with him. As Carnival was a masking holiday in Italy (Behn seems to have conflated the more popularly known traditions of Venice into her setting of Naples), many confusions of identity and intentional deceptions drive the action of the play. Such misadventures of love and money were common in the Restoration, as they popular then as they had been in the earlier theatres of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

While in many ways, the play is a light-hearted, frothy romp, it also hints at the darker side of the Restoration’s libertine atmosphere. Though the women in the play are witty and active characters, Behn presents them as still dominated by their economic circumstances. Their primary value is in their bodies, whether for prostitution or for marriage, and The Rover blurs the distinction between the two types of exchange. While the high-born Florinda and Hellena are eager to experience sexual freedom, typically denied to ladies of their class, the courtesan Angellica Biance aspires to exclusivity. When Willmore chastises Angellica Bianca for the high price she charges for her favors, she retorts that men are just as bad in assigning monetary value to sex and love:

Pray, tell me, Sir, are not you guilty of the same mercenary Crime? When a Lady is proposed to you for a Wife, you never ask, how fair, discreet, or virtuous she is; but what’s her Fortune — which if but small, you cry — She will not do my business — and basely leave her, tho she languish for you. — Say, is not this as poor? (The Rover, 2.2)

The Rover’s juxtaposition of different female archetypes may be a commentary on some of the Restoration-era courtesans and courtiers who attempted to break out of the virgin/wife/whore mold in some way or another, with mixed success. Common-born women like Moll Davis and Nell Gwynne, famous mistresses of aristocrats and King Charles, may have appeared to enjoy sexual freedom, but in fact spent a lot of energy converting that sexual power into something more tangible and protective – money, houses, or titles, for themselves or for their children. Sexual expression for its own sake was more likely to lead to a downfall. The nobly-born Barbara Villiers, created Countess of Castlemaine and later Duchess of Cleveland, was a mistress of Charles II who enjoyed great favor from the king, but who also had to marry a lesser man for the sake of appearances. Frances Stuart, on the other hand, famously refused to become the king’s mistress, and subsequently had to elope in order to be able to marry at all. Anita Pacheco remarks on The Rover‘s reflection of the women’s social circumstances and sexual worth during the Restoration:

Critics have often remarked that in Aphra Behn’s The Rover, ladies act like whores and whores like ladies. On this level, the play presents a dramatic world dominated by the two principal patriarchal definitions of women, but in which the boundary separating one category from the other has become blurred. In the case of both Florinda, the play’s quintessential “maid of quality,” and the prostitute Angellica Bianca, the role reversals arise out of contrasting bids to move from subjection into subjectivity. … Before the obligatory happy ending, Florinda faces three attempted rapes that are not called rape, but seduction, retaliation, or ‘ruffling a harlot’: in presuming to make her own sexual choices, she enters a world where the word ‘rape’ has no meaning. Angellica Bianca’s subject position is shown to involve a complex complicity in the same cultural legitimation of male sexual aggression.

As Behn herself knew well, being a woman in Restoration England was often a no-win situation, for all the supposed liberty brought by the King’s return, and The Rover may well have been intended to call attention to that dichotomy.

Though there had certainly been other female writers in England, Aphra Behn was the first to earn a living by the public production and publishing of her works. As she stated in the preface to her 1678 play Sir Patient Fancy, she was “forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it.” Though mocked by contemporaries and later critics for the bawdiness of her works and her supposedly masculine style, Behn had the support of writers like John Dryden and Nahum Tate, and her influence encouraged other female dramatists, including Susanna Centlivre, an early favorite at Drury Lane (and author of upcoming Staged Reading A Bold Stroke for a Wife). When Behn died in 1689, she was buried in Westminster Abbey, with a marking stone in Poets’ Corner, near the graves of Chaucer, Spenser, and Davenant – an unusual honor for a woman at the time. Her memorial reads “Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality.” Perhaps not – but as her enduring legacy ensures, mortality itself is not enough to kill a wit as sparkling as Aphra Behn’s.

–Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager

This blog post was adapted out of an article for the upcoming Winter/Spring 2015 issue of the Playhouse Insider. Get your copy in the Box Office or online starting in February, and see The Rover starting today at the Blackfriars Playhouse!

Blackfriars Conference 2015: Call for Papers and Registration

Dear Friends,

1479469_10151906077508347_1988637814_nOn odd numbered years since the first October the Blackfriars Playhouse opened, scholars from around the world have gathered in Staunton, during the height of the Shenandoah Valley’s Fall colors, to hear lectures, see plays, and explore early modern theatre. In 2015, the American Shakespeare Center’s Education and Research Department will once again host Shakespeareans, scholars and practitioners, to share ideas about Shakespeare in the study and Shakespeare on the stage and to find ways that these two worlds – sometime in collision – can collaborate.

The majority of events – papers, plays, workshops – take place in the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theatre, the Blackfriars Playhouse. This conference distinguishes itself from saner conferences in a variety of other ways. First, to model the kind of collaboration we think possible we encourage presenters to feature actors as partners in the demonstration of their theses. For instance, in 2009, Gary Taylor’s keynote presentation “Lyrical Middleton” featured ASC actors singing and dancing to the songs in Middleton’s plays. Second, we limit each paper session to six short papers (10 minutes for solo presentations, 13 minutes for presentations with actors). Third, we enforce this rule by ursine fiat – a bear chases from the stage those speakers who go over their allotted time.

Delegates also attend all of the plays in the ASC 2015 Fall Season – Antony & Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Henry VI, Part I – and, for the past several conferences, bonus plays written by Shakespearean colleagues and performed by actors in the Mary Baldwin College MFA in Shakespeare in Performance program. The spirit of fun that imbues the conference manifests itself in the annual Truancy Award, for the sensible conferee who – visiting the Shenandoah Valley at the height of Fall – has the good sense to miss the most sessions.

1468685_10151906081453347_1341082796_nThe 2015 gathering will honor Barbara Mowat and will include keynote addresses from Lena Orlin, Ayanna Thompson, Tim Carroll, and Gina Bloom.

ASC Education and Research extends this call for papers on any matters to do with the performance of early modern drama (historical, architectural, political, dramatical, sartorial, medical, linguistical, comical, pastoral) to all interested parties for our biennial conference to be held at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, 28 October – 1 November 2015.

As in past years, participants may submit an abstract for consideration in one of 11 plenary sessions, each of which features only 6-7 papers. The deadline to submit an abstract for consideration in the plenary sessions is 10 April 2015 (notification and announcement by 4 May). Our colloquies will be different in 2015 than at past conferences, as we are soliciting proposals to lead these sessions (deadline 10 April). We will post the 11 selected topics by May 4th, and those who wish to register to participate in a session will be able to do so after notifications regarding plenary selections go out. Registration for participation in colloquies and workshops will end 1 June. Participation in a colloquy session will be mutually exclusive from presenting in a plenary session.

What is a colloquy? Colloquy, from the Latin Colloquium, is “A talking together; a conversation, dialogue. Also, a written dialogue, as Erasmus’s Colloquies.” Using the broad definition from the OED as our guide, this gathering can be as formal or informal as the leader and participants choose. In the past, some colloquies have encouraged participants to submit papers to one another on a topic. In these situations, participants have read one another’s papers in advance of the meeting, and discussed them during the convening. Other colloquies have functioned more like panels, or round-tables, with 5-6 interested parties presenting short papers on a topic, and the floor opening for discussion following the presentations. Other Colloquies have included sharing best practices (in pedagogy, or theatre practice for instance), both through discussion and demonstration.

Submit an Abstract or a Colloquy Proposal for consideration; Deadline: 10 April 2015. Conference registration is also now open.

For more information, please email Sarah Enloe, Director of Education, at sarahe@americanshakespearecenter.com.

“Fare ye well: Thou hast years upon thee”

It hardly seems possible, but 2014 is already drawing to a close. The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog, and the results were pretty interesting.

Some of our most popular posts were our MLitt/MFA thesis festival liveblogs, an exploration of Horatio’s bizarre appearance in Romeo and Julietthe defense of enjambment, and a celebration of St. David’s Day. I’m pretty tickled that scansion and textual variants caught our readers’ interests so strongly! We aim, as ever, to make the esoteric applicable.

Coming up in 2015, we’ll have more liveblogs from the thesis festival as well as full coverage of the 8th Blackfriars Conference. Just like in 2013, we’ll aim to have someone blogging from every plenary and colloquy session, as well as our wake-up workshops and other special events. Throughout the year, we’ll feature some more guest posts from teachers, more glimpses into the ASC Theatre Camp, and more previews from the Playhouse Insider, more scansion, more rhetoric, more history, more of everything that goes into playmaking here at the ASC.

What was your favorite ASC Education blog post of 2014? What would you like to see us blog more about in 2015?

–Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager

Guest Post: E. J. Saul, Galax, VA

Periodically, the ASC Education blog will offer guest posts by teachers of Shakespeare, to show how educators across the country are applying Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions in their classrooms. If you are interested in contributing a guest post to the blog, please contact Academic Resources Manager Cass Morris.

—-

One of the perks of raising a child is that you have a socially acceptable reason for re-reading your favorite children’s stories. One of the drawbacks of raising a child is that you sometimes wind up reading children’s stories that you don’t like over and over and over and over again. And for a good number of years, my nighttime family reading was haunted by a dark creature named Amelia Bedelia. Amelia Bedelia was a storybook maid with a strange sort of disorder; she was completely incapable of comprehending figurative language. Amelia’s employers would tell her to do something like punch the clock, and she would shrug and walk off and start hitting the grandfather clock in the living room. That kind of thing. And it might be that one reason I found these relatively inoffensive stories so annoying is that I am an English teacher in the age of the multiple choice test, and I seem to find myself with an increasing number of students who hate any answer that isn’t simple or any language that isn’t literal.

The most extreme case was a student I had a couple of years ago, and while I don’t think she would mind if I talked about this, I will call her Yvette instead of her real name anyhow. Yvette was not Amelia Bedelia – she was a very smart young woman and could recognize time honored expressions perfectly well – but she had some kind of difficulty and/or mental block about thinking metaphorically that was a pretty big deal because Yvette was a straight A student until she took my class (something she reminded me of quite frequently), and Yvette actually got a C when we spent six weeks on a poetry unit. Clearly some kind of apocalypse was in the making, and I was its prophet.

I’m being kind of flippant about it, but Yvette’s anger and panic and frustration were quite real. Yvette was a grade A memorizer. She took meticulous notes. She was always the first person to raise her hand and ask a question, and that question was almost always: “Is this for a grade?” The thing was, Yvette was an anxious person, and she hated English class because she didn’t like questions that didn’t have one right answer, or assignments that did not have completely controllable outcomes.

Now opinions may vary, but even though I’m an English teacher, I’m really not some psychic vampire who feeds off emotional anguish and suffering. It is also true that it offends me when I see a student working hard and not achieving what they want to achieve, if only because I also have students who don’t work hard for the barely passing grades they’re content with. And it seemed likely to me that Yvette’s really good grades were going to land her in a really good school with a really good freshman English class that she was going to do really badly in. So I made helping Yvette think critically a kind of personal quest, with an emphasis on exploring symbolism.  I thought that if Yvette had some small successes and built up her confidence a little, she might stop fixating on that shrill voice in the back of her head going: “I have to get an A I’m not going to get an A how do I get an A just tell me what I have to do to get an A so I can study something that actually matters!” And then she would be fine and stop using my classes as therapy sessions.

Since there are supposedly seven styles of learning (visual, aural, physical, logical, social, verbal, and Google), I tried a variety of approaches. Besides just explaining that symbolism could work on a visual or logical level, I tried to illustrate that point with songs, charades, Rorschach blots, epigrams, anthropocentric sketching exercises, talking while tossing a ball back and forth, and so on.

One time I played “The Yellow Rose of Texas” for Yvette and asked her what the titular yellow rose represented.

“It’s a woman,” Yvette said.

“Excellent!” I exclaimed. “Why?”

“Because he calls it a her,” Yvette said.

“Great!” I enthused. “But the singer doesn’t really call a yellow rose a her. He calls a her a yellow rose. Why does he call this woman a yellow rose?”

“I don’t know!” Yvette said. “She smells nice?”

“She probably does,” I agreed, “What else?”

“She’s pretty?”

“Good! What else? What kind of pretty? How is a rose pretty? Especially a yellow rose in Texas?”

Yvette never did really suggest anything else. Instead, I did that thing that teachers do and made the mistake of giving Yvette increasingly specific questions trying to get her to state the answers that I already had in mind. Eventually we questioned and answered our way around the possibility that the woman might be a blonde and might be named Rose, but seemed rare and precious to the singer in any case because a yellow rose in a Texas climate would be a rare thing. But when I asked Yvette to apply that kind of questioning and thinking for herself, it didn’t seem that I had helped her at all.

“Can you think of something else rare and pretty and precious that the singer might have compared this woman to instead of a yellow rose?”

“A purple rose?”

“…”

“Oh God, I suck.”

“No, that answer’s just probably a little too similar to a yellow rose. Can you—”

“A purple violet?”

Yvette finally got symbolism for herself, by herself, at a random moment. Yvette’s class was studying Hamlet, and we were doing an exercise where the students had to stage the play within a play that Hamlet writes in order to trap Claudius, the only proviso being that they couldn’t use any words, words, words (this was the very first exercise I ever did at one of the ASC’s educational seminars by the way, so there’s a plug). Yvette was watching another group do this scene, and a student was pretending to pour poison into another student’s ear, and I would like to lie and say that Yvette suddenly got really excited and stood up and interrupted the scene with a big dramatic moment, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, Yvette came up to me after class with this kind of shy smile on her face and asked me if the poison that the actor poured in another actor’s ear was gossip. And she was beaming and kind of excited. And I didn’t really know what she was talking about, so I asked her what she meant, and Yvette mentioned a scene where Claudius refers to gossip as poison in the ear. And Yvette went on to say that Claudius killed his brother with poison in the ear, and gossip went in the ear, and Claudius was afraid that gossip about Claudius killing his brother would be just as deadly to Claudius as the poison Claudius used on his brother.

“Actually, you’re wrong,” I said. “He referred to gossip as a kind of infection in the ear. Get out.”

No, just kidding. I was thrilled. It was a pretty sophisticated argument once I untangled it, and it came out of the blue.

That’s one of the things I like about teaching Shakespeare. It always provides moments that take me completely off guard (and often in a good way). That’s good for the students, and it’s good for me because it keeps the class from feeling like a factory floor. (I just had a mental image from that Pink Floyd “The Wall” movie where kids are being marched into a sausage grinder by the way.)

I’m not claiming that Shakespeare is some kind of miracle cure for everything that ails public education, or that Yvette went on to love English and later became Poet Laureate. I’m not even claiming that teaching Shakespeare is always fun — though it can be. I love Shakespeare, but the bard is actually kind of hard for me to teach sometimes because I don’t like sharing something I love only to have it ignored, put down, complained about, or dismissed. I had a year where I taught MacBeth to my 4th period class and it was MacDeath. I would then teach the same play the same way to my 5th period class, and it was like a fresh MacBreath. There are no guarantees.

What I am claiming is that teaching high school is a lot like dropping coins in a slot machine. Just doing the same thing over and over doesn’t guarantee the same result every time, big tangible pay-offs that draw a lot of attention to themselves are rare, I have to keep plugging away while groping around for change, and I’m no longer allowed to do it in the state of Nevada.  (Ummm…again, just kidding about that last part). And Shakespeare’s writing provides lots of coins to work with because when you add the performing aspect it makes Shakespeare personal and fun and pretty much uses all of the learning styles. Kids who are visual can see the lines performed. Kids who are kinetic learners can jump around and play with staging and body language. Kids who are aural can play with soundtracks or sound effects or just listen to the different intonations when they try lines different ways. Kids who are social learners can enjoy the play as the thing. Kids who are logical can puzzle out the language, and so on. If nothing else, playing with Shakespeare takes those lesson plans where teachers have to document what standardized state objectives they are accomplishing and lights them up like Christmas trees. But that’s a cynical and pragmatic note, and Shakespeare is not about nothing else, or even what else. It can be about everything and anything else once you unclench a little and let the words speak through you.

So that’s my piece, my Shakespeare teaching moment. If any here I have offended, content yourself, my blog is ended. Piece out. :)

EJ Saul teaches English at Galax High School in Southwest Virginia.  He is a Leo and likes walks on the beach, warm sunsets, puppies, and Jazz. Oh, and Shakespeare.

You, O the dearest of creatures, would even renew me/with your eyes.

Snapshot of the October 12-October 17, 2014

 

Sunday: Filmed pre-show lecture and staged reading of the Menaechmi

Monday:  Shakespeare Theatre Association Executive Board Conference Call to finalize January Conference plans (secretary), finalize grant application for First Folio

Tuesday: All day retreat with Education Team, MFA production of Twelfth Night

Wednesday: Scholar interview with 9 ASC actors, host lecture, welcome visiting University group

Thursday: Comment on MFA workshop presentations, meet with British Education scholar, Marketing meeting for artistic season, train box office staff to use LCD projector,  host lecture, welcome visiting University group

Friday:​L​ed workshop with 3 ASC actors for University group, met with Globe Education Head of Learning, training on new software for Education Programs to implement this month

Saturday:Meet with ASL interpreters for upcoming show, welcome 3rd visiting University

Sunday:​Begin again

It​’​s been 5 years since I stepped into the role of Director of Education at the American Shakespeare Center.

​Each year has presented a variety of challenges and successes.  I am so proud of the work that the Education team has taken on​,​ and I am amazed by the output of such a small group of people. At our retreat this week, the reason we are able to do so much was once again made clear to me. We all believe strongly in the mission of this little company that can.

“The American Shakespeare Center recovers the joy and accessibility of Shakespeare’s theatre, language, and humanity by exploring the English Renaissance stage and its practices through performance and education.”

My first task when I took this position was to write the language for the annual brochure for Education.  I went straight to our mission and used the words there to describe each of our programs. That attention to the mission continues to be a focus of our work, so much so that our recent visitors from Shakespeare on the Road commented that we all, every department, each individual, knows what is at the heart of the work here and speaks about it in uncannily similar ways. So we know why we do this work. I think the question that tickles Education right now is how.

In my first couple of years in the job, changes in the company kept the work in Education fresh and new. Whether itwas the staffing changes brought about by the economic downturn forcing us to think in new, efficient, and creative ways, or the addition of a Managing Director with an actual ​arts management degree, who could encourage and allow growth, or the new staff in Education that growth supported, we seemed to have something new to celebrate every few months–publishing our study guides, putting out our own magazine, moving our camp to the college, adding college credit, adding a new camp for Adults, adding a summer teacher seminar, re-vamping our staged readings. Each change, and the success we experienced brought us joy and a sense of renewal.  But, each also brought more work to an already taxed team. How can we maintain our quality of programming and our commitment to the mission?

We made some inroads this week in answering that question.  We are going to be looking hard at the work we do and how we do it for the next little while.  Just because we can keep so many balls up in the air doesn’t necessarily mean we should.  As we move forward, I ask you for your help.  Tell us what comes to mind when YOU think about ASC education. It can be just one word, or it can be a paragraph.  With your help, we will continue to build on our programming and create new opportunities for many others to experience the joy that Shakespeare’s plays can bring to anyone.

“These be the stops that hinder study quite”: In Defense of Enjambment

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my current project is building a scansion workbook — a practical guide to understanding, marking, and performing meter in Shakespeare’s plays. This workbook follows a far different structure than our usual Study Guides, based on the scaffolding of language skills rather than on elements of a play’s plot, history, and staging challenges. Once we get through the basics of syllables, feet, and pentameter, we get to play with the aspects of scansion that pertain more to character and performance.

I came to scansion through Latin long before I came to it through English. Years before anyone had bothered to explain to me what iambic pentameter is, beyond perhaps a token mention of “that’s the stuff they make sonnets out of,” I was beating out the long and short vowels of Ovid, Catullus, and Horace. In my AP class, we had to recite Latin poetry aloud, which meant careful attention to the cadence of the lines. I learned a lot about elision — particularly when it comes to slurring vowel sounds together — and I learned about enjambment. One of the things my teacher hammered into my adolescent head was the concept that you don’t stop at the end of a line unless that’s actually where the thought ends. Of course, where the thought ends can be a tricky matter to determine, since Latin originally had no punctuation, and no spaces, for that matter. You either have to choose to trust the editor of your text (which I did far more readily at 16 than I do now), or else you had to figure it out for yourself through the translation. Once you made the determination, you had to put it into your voice during the recitation. Taking an unnecessary breath docked points from our grade.

Enjambment means, quite simply, that the thought or sentence continues past the end of the line. Here’s an example from Macbeth (click to expand):

Enjamb1

Now, this speech is a goldmine of information when it comes to both scansion and rhetoric (elisions! stressed conjunctions and pronouns! antithesis!), and my markup is far from the only potential choice in many of those lines. For the purposes of this conversation, however, just look specifically at those little right-pointing arrows. Each of those indicates an enjambed line. Many of them, as you can see, then lead to caesuras — those mid-line breaks — and many involve feminine endings, a final unstressed eleventh syllable tagged on to the end of a pentameter line.

Compare that to something like this speech from Richard II (click to expand):

Enjamb2

It’s one of the most rhetorically dense passages in Shakespeare — but not a single enjambed line. I could make an argument for ignoring the comma at the end of line for, after “head”, perhaps, and enjambing that line, but all the others are very clearly end-stops. They vary between full-stops, like periods, and partial stops, like commas, but in this passage, there is a sense that each line completes a thought or clause of some sort, even if the sentence continues. On the whole, Shakespeare’s later plays are more enjambed than his early ones — but you can certainly find end-stops in Macbeth, Othello, Coriolanus, and The Tempest, just as you can find enjambed lines in the Henry VIes, The Comedy of Errors, and The Taming of the Shrew. Plays which are heavily rhymed, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are more likely to have more end-stops as well, as enjambment tends to obscure the rhyme.

Enjambments and end-stops are one of the topics I’ll be covering in this new workbook. As I’ve been researching and discussing the process, however, I’ve run across the doctrine — apparently far more dominant, at least in some spheres, than I’d ever imagined — that an actor should take a brief pause at the end of each line of iambic pentameter, whether or not the punctuation and sentence structure make that indication. I’ve heard it justified as “the way the verse works” — which ignores the fact that enjambment is, itself, part of how the verse works, a conscious choice by an author to go on rather than to create a break. I’ve also heard that it’s necessary, because ten syllables is about how much an actor can say with one breath — which seems not only to undervalue the lung capacity of actors, but to ignore the playable value of that breathlessness, should it occur.

This is a weird concept to me. How can you ignore enjambment like that? Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that punctuation alone is unreliable, what with the variant preferences of typesetters. From my explorations of the Folio and quartos, however, it’s generally pretty clear where a line is end-stopped versus enjambed, even if the precise nature of the stop as a period, semicolon, colon, or question mark might be up for debate. Even where you can’t trust the punctuation, you can also figure out where a thought terminates or turns. (Rhetoric can help here, too, by identifying shifts in focus or alterations to a pattern).

End-stopped lines and enjambed lines operate differently. If you pause indiscriminately, you lose the crucial information that the enjambment gives you — that breathless, rushing quality which is a character clue and a clue for performance. Pausing at the end of each line in that speech of Macbeth’s doesn’t just interrupt the flow of thoughts — potentially obscuring comprehension of an already-difficult bit of text — it also misses out on something critical about Macbeth himself. The entire speech is, after all, about his attempt to squish time together and “jump the life to come,” to get to the end without pausing at the middle. It makes sense that, metrically, he’d be rushing, eliding, and running ahead of himself. His cadence transmits emotional information.

One of the comments that the ASC most frequently gets from our audiences is that our plays are accessible, easy to understand. I believe part of the reason for that lies in enjambment. Our actors speak their lines with attention to scansion and stressed syllables, but also as though they are… sentences. Things that people would actually say, in the manner they would actually say them. Enjambment is a part of pentameter. I have to think that our actors’ acknowledgement of that piece of the pattern, following a thought through to its natural end rather than carving it into bits, contributes to our audience’s ease of understanding. So, when it comes to the ASC Scansion Workbook, we’re going to promote what’s worked here at the Playhouse and in our classrooms: pause when the thought indicates you should, not just because you’ve said ten syllables and need a break.

What were you taught? What do you use in practice or teach others? Can you hear a difference when listening to Shakespeare in performance?

–Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager

Beating the Audition Blues: How Collaborative Auditions Reinforce Ensemble-Building

The ASC Theatre Camp kicks off each summer session with a group audition held on the second day of camp. Over the years, our audition process has evolved so that even our shyest campers walk away from their audition feeling confident and proud of their performance. Key factors to the success of our audition process, and why it is such a hit with students who attend ASCTC, include a balance between solo performances, group activities, and structured redirection. While this process certainly does not completely alleviate all of the “audition blues”that students might have, the collaborative nature of the audition helps students to feel included and appreciated, not isolated or judged. If you are looking for a different way to engage your students during an audition, consider these activities to boost ensemble building from day one of your rehearsal process.

ASCTC Auditions 2014

Counselors teach campers a song during the 2014 ASC Theatre Camp auditions.

At the ASC Theatre Camp, directors want to see not only how our young actors will perform on their own but also how they will interact with others in the rehearsal room. For this purpose, our auditions include collaborative exercises, and all actors perform for each other. Everyone stays in the room and becomes an audience member, even if only one person is performing. This “lights on” approach to our auditions mirrors the staging conditions that the campers will experience during their final performance festival. Actors and audience members share the same pool of light at the Blackfriars Playhouse, which allows them to share the world of the play. Collaborative auditions also imbue the campers with a sense of mutual trust and respect even before they learn each others’ names.

Audition Prep

Students arrive having memorized 10 lines of a Shakespeare monologue. We provide a thorough online guide to assist the campers in preparing their monologue text, including scansion notation, rhetorical analysis, and paraphrasing. Once at camp, the students have an audition workshop during which they review their monologue text with a camp counselor and then perform in front of a small group of their fellow campers. The monologue performances are only a small section of our audition process, yet taking the time to ensure that the campers are prepared helps them to feel supported even before the audition day.

The Song

At the audition, campers participate in a group warm-up followed by a singing exercise. This past summer, our counselors led the campers in a round, which they sung in chorus and then in parts. The tune fits to the text of Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia:

Doubt Thou The Stars Are Fire - Round

Campers first listen to the counselors sing the round and then repeat the tune after them. After everyone learns the lyrics, the counselors lead the round sections with each successive group starting after the first phrase of the song, “Doubt thou the stars are fire.”

The song exercise helps to alleviate several audition anxieties that teens often face: No one has to be the first to perform. Everyone starts out with the same amount of information, and the focus of the casting directors is on the group as a whole. This structure also permits those who are nervous about singing solo the chance to feel comfortable singing in a group.

Campers’ Take on the Song

The song leads to the first collaborative exercise. In groups of three to four, campers must refashion the song into a different musical genre, such as country western, opera, jazz, or rock n’ roll. They create their own choreography, and incorporate any additional musical instruments that they bring with them to the audition. This activity allows the directors to see the campers’ ability to improvise and to practice choreography, as well as giving them the opportunity to note who can play a musical instrument. Their willingness to try something new and to commit to a performance that they have helped to shape is what matters most.

Dumb Shows

The second exercise introduces text from the plays, from which the campers create a dumb show. Shakespeare uses dumb shows, or silent pantomimic stories, in several of his plays including Hamlet and Pericles. Counselors choose six to ten lines from each of plays and read them aloud to their groups. The campers must then tell a physical story inspired by the images and emotions reflected in those lines. The dumb shows last no longer than 3 to 5 minutes each. During the time that they are devising their shows, the directors rotate to each of the groups and observe the campers’ work and interactions with each other. Counselors guide the devising process by reading the text aloud and by making blocking suggestions so that all campers remain visible to the audience.

Monologues

Following these two activities, campers have generally released some anxiety about performing their monologues. The feeling in the audition room is usually one of enthusiasm, elation, and excitement from the fun of creating theatre together. This is an excellent place to begin the monologue performances because the students are already primed to support one another with smiles and cheers. Each camper must also practice “slating”, or saying their name and the play title from which they chose their monologue.

Re-Directions

After each camper has the opportunity to perform once, directors and their assistant directors re-direct the campers to perform a second time. Campers come to the stage in pairs to receive their re-direction situation. Situational re-directions allow the two actors to interact with each other instead of focusing on any critique about their own individual performance. Re-directions can of course address individual performance critiques in constructive ways. Re-directions can be silly, imaginative, and playful. The campers perform the situation using the text of their monologues as dialogue. Students who are less comfortable with this type of improvisation tend to respond positively to having a scene partner and to being able to rely on performing text that they have already memorized.

The re-directions get the entire room laughing, sometimes to tears. The campers clearly feel in their freest, most creative mode. All those feelings of what auditions used to be – stressful, isolating, and competitive – have given way to confidence, team-spirit, and excitement about what the next three weeks will hold as they continue to collaborate on their plays. The audition is truly transformative, both for the campers and for those of us lucky enough to watch.

-Kim Newton, Director of College Prep Programs

Evolution of a Study Guide

Since starting work with the ASC in June of 2010, I’ve created Study Guides covering 19 of Shakespeare’s plays, along with our From Class to Cast guide to production. Each year’s new Study Guides typically cover the shows which are our Student Matinees at the Blackfriars Playhouse. These are usually major curriculum shows such as Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, though not always, as my guide for The Two Gentlemen of Verona can attest. This year, however, all of our matinee shows are plays I’ve already created Study Guides for (Macbeth and The Comedy of Errors in the Fall, The Taming of the Shrew in the Actors’ Renaissance Season, and Hamlet and Much Ado about Nothing in the Spring). This has given me a few different wonderful opportunities.

IMG_1491First, I’m getting a chance to do a Version 2.0 on each of those guides. This process has been a revelation to me, since it’s a tangible representation of how my pedagogical thoughts have shifted and expanded over the past four years. Some of that has come from observation, some from things I’ve learned at conferences (our own Blackfriars Conference or others), and some of it has been simple trial and error. Working with teachers in our seminars has helped me see which activities take off like shining stars and which need a little extra boost to hit maximum efficacy. In the guide for The Comedy of Errors, for example, I’ve updated the section on the rhetorical device of stichomythia based on an activity that really fired everyone’s imaginations in a later year, when we were working in Much Ado about Nothing (see the picture at right — and if you’re curious what that’s about, join us Oct 3rd-5th for the Fall Seminar!).

Since updating the guides doesn’t take as long as writing one from scratch, however, it also frees me up to expand our offerings in new ways. By the Spring, I’ll have a Marlowe guide to add to our Shakespearean shelf, focusing mostly on Doctor Faustus, to help teachers who look at these two early modern heavyweights in conjunction with each other. I’m eager to find out where the similarities and differences will lie in building a guide for Kit instead of Will.

I’m also starting work on something in an entirely new format: a scansion workbook. This is in early stages yet, but I’m excited to develop it. I’m hoping to create a hands-on, step-by-step guide to the mechanics of metrics and their application for actors. This guide was partly inspired by watching our actors in their tablework rehearsals this summer. Since we so strongly believe this is a tool that all students and actors of Shakespeare should have at their disposal, it makes sense to add a scansion-focused workbook to the resources we offer. If all goes well with that, next year I’ll build a similar workbook for rhetoric.

We’re also looking into ways to build more multimedia into our educational resources. Over the next year, the Education Department hopes to produce a series of short videos sharing exciting discoveries, tips and tricks, and demonstrations of activities.

One of the best things about Shakespeare, I think, is that you can never stop learning from the plays. Dr. Ralph has been teaching for forty years, and I still get to watch him make brand-new discoveries in the middle of workshops, when some nuance of rhetoric or staging strikes him in a way he’s never thought of before. It’s that energy that drives me when I’m building and rebuilding these Study Guides: the idea that however many discoveries I make, however many activities I create, I’ll never be done. There’s always something else to explore — and that’s the energy I most want to pass on to classrooms.

–Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager