Shakespeare’s Influence, Far and Wide

It’s April 23rd again, and that must mean it’s time for the Shakespeare Birthday Project. I’m pleased to once again be taking part in this celebration of Shakespeare’s life and the great joy he’s brought to so many people for so many years.

The thing of it is — I wasn’t quite sure what to write about this year. I’ve already devoted a post to how Shakespeare shaped my life path, and last year I discussed his inspirational power to teachers. Fortunately, circumstances aligned to provide me an avenue for discussion, because this year, Shakespeare’s birthday falls swift on the heels of an incredible eight-day stretch of ASC Education seminars. We began on Friday the 12th with our Spring Teacher Seminar, and that barreled straight into this year’s second annual week-long International Paper Leadership Seminar. Having these two events back up against each other allowed me to see the full spectrum of engagement with Shakespeare, from our super-excited educators, eagerly throwing themselves into immersion, to a group of business professionals, lawyers, and mill foremen, most of whom had little lifetime exposure to Shakespeare, and some of whom primarily spoke languages other than English.

There are ways in which our Teacher Seminars are like shooting fish in a barrel, because those educators (particularly those attendees who come multiple times a year) are always hungry to indulge their love of Shakespeare. That can be a double-edged sword, however, because it means I feel a lot of pressure to give them new, exciting material. So, for this event, I was pleased to be able to give them over to our Tempt Me Further tour actors for two workshops. I think they always get different insights from such active practitioners, even if they’re covering the same material that Sarah and I would. They also got to listen to a Master Minds lecture from an MBC graduate student and had the opportunity to discuss common misconceptions about early modern female performance with her. Best of all, though, they threw themselves willingly into every activity, listening attentively, offering their own viewpoints, and feverishly scribbling notes to take back to their own classrooms. Thanks to their enthusiasm and cheerful participation, I finished the weekend feeling, as I typically do after Teacher Seminars, more energized, rather than drained.

Our Leadership Seminars are a different animal, since the people we see for those typically come from well outside the world of Shakespeare or even of education. On the first day of this program, the International Paper coordinator asked the participants to rate their impression of Shakespeare on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning “would rather eat glass” to 10 meaning “have a secret crush on him.” We heard a few encouraging responses of 8+, but we also heard (not unexpectedly), a few in the 1-3 range — so we had our work cut out for us. We know that going in, though, and we’re always up for the challenge. 

The Leadership Seminar involves three major focus points: exploring Shakespeare’s examples of leadership through demos led by our actors and discussed by Dr. Ralph; writing and performing personal statements about a work-related challenge; and building short scenes in small groups through the use of cue scripts. Many of the challenge statements, perhaps unsurprisingly, focused precisely on the obstacle of communication — some of those quite literal, from those facing language barriers, others more abstract, as new leaders learn to negotiate team motivation or the transmission of information between departments. Others don’t feel like their team’s needs are always heard and recognized by those higher up in the organization. Our goal in a Leadership Seminar is to give participants the tools, using Shakespeare as inspiration and the vocal and physical techniques of the actors as a form to build around, to address these issues effectively once they return home. We examine both the technical construction of their statements as well as their presentation skills, adjusting each day. The difference from the start of the week to the end is always dramatic — and the great joy of it is getting to watch people get better at something through the coaching and exploration. We see the participants start to use their voices and their bodies to greater effect; we see them train themselves to plant their feet, stand up straight, and make eye contact; we hear them reconfigure their thoughts to be more evocative and persuasive.

What impressed me the most about our group from International Paper, though, was how game everyone was to try things out, even if they were uncomfortable, even if we were asking them to dig into something that was not their native language. It wasn’t easy work much of the time, but the participants were willing to engage and to make the attempt — and that makes all the difference. What they discovered was that Shakespeare is funny, moving, expertly constructed, and, the greatest surprise of all, often relevant to their own lives. The cue script activities taught them lessons about communication, leading by listening, and working as a team. The work they did showed the group that Shakespeare’s company faced many of the same basic problems they do in their positions. The demos, and the scenes themselves, often illustrated how those issues of communication, credentialing, and empathy speak across boundaries of time and language. Several participants ended up working Shakespeare’s lines, in direct quotation or in more oblique reference, into their challenge statements. Are all of these people likely to refer to Shakespeare often in their everyday lives? It’s unlikely. But they may think a little more positively about him — I think we converted some of those 1-3s into at least 5-7s by the end of the week, and we got at least a few lines into their mouths and into their brains. 

So, happy birthday, Mr. Shakespeare! Thank you for continuing not only to provide me with a career, but with the opportunity to share positive experiences with so many, so different people. May we continue to celebrate your natality for centuries to come.