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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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