A-ha: Finding the value in learning at two conferences

Conferences offer unique explorations in the teaching arena. They are often one-shot one-offs, with a completely new audience, as opposed to the classes teachers nurture through a semester or year-long class. They still offer opportunities to find “A-ha” moments, though. It is the a-ha, whether mine or a student’s or participant’s at a conference, that I look for every time I step in front of a group.

The methods to achieve that goal vary as much as the situation or the content. Sometimes, as in our workshop in January at the Texas Educational Theatre Association, we inundate students with chances for discovery by sharing snippets of every bit of mildly applicable information in one 75 minute period. A “taste” of the what and the why might include, for instance, in the case of Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions, the effect the following may have on preparation and performance:

    • rhetoric
    • cue scripts
    • iambic pentameter
    • diagonal staging
    • second person pronouns
    • embedded stage directions
    • audience contact

The hope for students inundated with information is that they will take it upon themselves to learn more, but because we knew that the survey method might prove too shallow for some participants, on Saturday, we dove deep into the “hard Shakespeare” of Claudius’s prevarications, the verse of Enobarbus (the barge speech), and the stage directions buried in Macbeth. Our approach in both workshops was very practical, and we heard many an “a-ha,” comments of newfound understanding and appreciation. In these sessions, for the teachers and students in the room, we modelled the methods and tools at their disposal. We, in essence, gave them the tools to unlock Shakespeare’s plays. These folks were pre-disposed to appreciate Shakespeare’s plays, but were unsure about the options and clues available within the text. We pulled back some mental curtains and showed them new/old ways to approach the material — to think about the stage as it was and the actors as they were in Shakespeare’s time. This method of teaching reveals something already present in the text, and readily available to the interested, something simply obscured by the passage of time and changes in practice.

At ACMRS, presenters challenged themselves and session participants to look for tools outside of the texts and the act of playing to “interpret” meanings in literature. Presenters approached their topics from the perspectives of literary theory and philosophy, and the names Latour (actor-network theory, which sounds more theatrical than it is), Marx (yes, the economist), Derrida (deconstructionism), and Burke (rhetoric and aesthetics) made regular appearances in papers throughout each session. I have to admit to some moments of “A-ha” as I thought of how the theory of Latour fit so nicely with the body parts in Titus and the deed box in A New Way to Pay Old Debts. In the ASC session, those theorists were not, not one of them, mentioned. Not even once. Our papers focused, like our work, on practical aspects: performance, space, sources, dramaturgy. But, I realized, as we heard papers and delivered ours, that we, the presenters, were all focused on the same objective. We were all looking for ways to get closer to the work. Ways to see what is there.

On my way to present in Texas, I was finishing a book Mom lent me at Christmas time. Cass and I would label this book “brain candy,” you know the kind… something quick and appealing that doesn’t make you think too much, but still enriches you in some way. This particular brain candy, Afternoons with Emily, fictionalizes the life of poet Emily Dickinson. It does so through the eyes of Emily’s neighbor, who is devoted to the education of children. I felt a connection to the heroine because of her passion to find the best way to help children want to learn. (I also appreciated the occasional Dickinson poem, and their place in the narrative. The author’s “backstory” helped the poems to infiltrate my conscience in new and meaningful ways.) In one passage, my personal educational philosophy poured out of the mouths of the heroine and her mentor as they discussed the school they would build:

“learning should be a process of bringing out what is already there….”

“ ‘educo,’ to lead out…”

education should give students “a sense of being valued as you learn, rather than punished if you don’t…”


Teachers and students seeking Shakespeare together, whether at TETA or ACMRS benefit from taking to heart these simple precepts. Recognizing the best methods to “bring out” what is already available to the student and to help them recognize the value in discovery drives the best teachers, classes, and conferences. Sometimes they may discover it by considering the context of player and playing, sometimes by considering it through theory and philosophy. Whatever the case, making the a-ha moments meaningful will encourage students to continue to seek and to make Shakespeare their own.