Colloquy Session VI: Methods II: Pedagogy and Staging: 2013 Blackfriars Conference (10/24/13)

Good afternoon everyone –

This is Molly Zeigler, back again, to live-blog Colloquy Session VI: Methods II: Pedagogy and Staging for the 2013 Blackfriars Conference.  This colloquy session is being held at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel in Salon A on Thursday 10/24/13 at 3:30 on a sunny, if chilly, afternoon.

This is my first time inside the Stonewall Jackson Hotel; it’s a lovely venue.  The Stonewall Jackson Hotel and the Blackfriars Theatre, of course, have something of a close relationship, coming up together as financial successes here in historic Staunton.

Colloquy Session VI:

Chair and Presenter: Rhonda Knight 

Presenters: Christopher Fettes; Bryan Herek; Alan Hickerson; Garry Walton; Jane Wells  (Please note that, unfortunately, Meg Powers Livingston was unable to attend today’s colloquy.)

The session began with introductions and statements regarding panel members’ work and interests:

Bryan Herek is aligned with Chowan University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  His experience and interest is in working with Shakespearean works and materials with minority students.  It has been his experience that working with minority students requires a wide range of approaches and pushes the search for innovation forward.

Alan Hickerson is a school teacher. For 20 years he taught in Charlottesville and now he is out of Athens, Georgia (where he has switched from public education to private).  He has worked with entities in England including the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (both in Stratford-upon-Avon).  In Mr. Hickerson’s class the students are responsible for shaping much of the performance based portion of the curriculum.  His students work with plays and sonnets in performance and presentation.

Rhonda Knight is out of Coker College in Harstville, South Carolina.  She is interested in exploring how to incorporate modern students familiarity and love of the Harry Potter texts with their study and comprehension of Early Modern works, namely Doctor Faustus.  Many students today are so enamored of the Harry Potter stories – quoting it incessantly, referring back to it constantly – that they view other literature through the lens of the love they have for these modern works.  The Harry Potter works may be seen as representative of any current popular trends in literature that may shape today’s students’ views of Early Modern texts.

Jane Wells is aligned with Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio.  She is exploring the tension between modern staging practices, Early Modern practices and conventions, and modern expectations of theatre and performance.  There is a tension between the desire to be original while adhering to perceived expectations of ‘Early Modern’ stagecraft.  Ms. Wells is interested in several questions: What does it mean to view these texts as having multiple meanings and what meaning do we – as readers and audience members and theatre practitioners – impose upon the text?  Does meaning get ‘closed off’ as choices are made – have to be made – in the course of performance?

Christopher Fettes is a graduate student at the University of Central Arkansas (he comes from a strong English literature background).  As a busy dramaturgical intern with the theatre on campus at the University of Central Arkansas, Mr. Fettes was surprised to find that he was expected to perform in a variety of fashions outside of his literary/English-based ‘comfort zone.’  He has been involved with the theatre at the University of Central Arkansas writing program notes, working on lobby displays, and other activities.  He is interested in how the dramaturg is viewed and how the dramaturg’s role is expressed.

Garry Walton is with Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.  Meredith College is a women’s liberal arts school.  He teaches Shakespeare every semester and it is ‘never boring.’  Part of his teaching is sharing information about productions he has seen with his students.  Sharing production information opens up the body of relate-able information for students (especially students who may not have ever seen a production of a Shakespearean work).

The floor was open to questions to welcome all into the colloquy (the following material is paraphrased – first person will be used when possible):

Please keep in mind that this colloquy (as dictated by the sometime discursive structure of colloquy panels) was fast and loose.  We had excellent conversations and the passion and fervor of today’s educator was evident. I have tried to capture some of that spirit (as best I can). 

Question for the panel from an audience member: What are your experiences teaching Shakespeare to and working with Shakespeare with minority students?

Herek: It is really true that minority students approach this material from a unique vantage.  Many students will immediately go to the well of ‘other.’  They will explore these texts through their own experiences and through the construct of the ‘other.’  I have explored other ways into the texts.  I strongly recommend getting the material on its feet and allowing students to physically engage.  The comedies are best suited for such physical exploration and engagement.

Audience member observation:  Working with a group of students that represents a broad cross-section of society makes for challenges just as it allows for a deeper exploration of possible double or alternative meanings an interpretations of the texts.

Question from the audience: How does space impact the teaching process and the ease of getting these works on their feet (and how does it impact interpretation)?

Knight:  I use both the classroom and theatre spaces with my students.  Using the theatre space allows for a ‘hands-on lab’ experience where different options can be explored.  I often assign a paper wherein students are expected to engage with a possible (and specific) staging issue or difficulty.

Question from the audience: What are some proactive methods for encouraging exploration and engagement?

Walton: Some success is seen with film.  Students often respond positively to working with and writing about film.  Film is a medium that students are comfortable with and it is an easy ‘launching pad’ for discussions of acting, acting choices, characterization, and performance.

Hickerson: I often have my students keep an acting and writing journal.  A journal allows students to keep a record of their process and discoveries while personalizing the experience for them.

Audience member observation: I work with ninth graders and I have found that play is a great way to get these students to a place where they feel comfortable to really explore the material.  Students who are comfortable often find meaning for themselves.

Wells: I love play. It is a great way into this material.  Consider when I learn a piece of Beethoven or Mozart – that work becomes a part of me.  I am then free to play with it (play has served to bring me closer to a piece initially, and it then continues to offer insight).  We are looking for that sort of familiarity and approach-ability.  Once we have that sense of connection, we can continue to easily play and engage with a piece.

Topic suggestion (suggested by audience and direction of conversation): Purpose of teaching these materials; and the language as obstacle.

Fettes:  As an English major I do not come to these materials from a performance perspective.  When I go to the theatre I do not have issues or difficulties with the language.  Dramaturgs engage with many different aspects of text and performance – not all of which are clearly demonstrated in a specific production.

Knight:  Teaching these materials engages students’ critical thinking skills.  Teaching this material can create strong critical thinkers and interested individuals.  Part of this process is to teach students how to be good audience members (as they are expected to be good students or ‘audience members’ in the classroom).  If we want good audiences, we need to explore what it means to in fact be a good audience member.

Question from the audience:  Thanks to the ASC, I teach my students rhetoric. I see it as a way for students to engage mentally and physically with the material.  Do you do much with rhetoric?

Knight: No, I do not do much with rhetoric.  However, I do much with physicality and movement.

Audience member (to Knight): Your work predates our obsession with rhetoric.  (Appreciative laughter.)

Herek:  I do use hip-hop as a way into examining constructed language.

Wells:  Slang can offer a method of approach allowing students to access a small way into the material.

In the interest of time, Rhonda Knight, here, used her ‘chair prerogative’ to re-direct the conversation to Alan Hickerson’s sonnet assignment:

Hickerson:  Students are expected to select one sonnet and memorize it.  It is worked on in depth and paraphrased and explored slowly so that students can see progress.  The sonnet is viewed as a small, complete play – a play that can be handled.  Students engage physically with the sonnet.  Students treat the sonnet as a performance piece and bring it alive.  There are true a-ha moments available within such work and engagement as students begin to understand and see the process from a broader vantage point.

Audience member observation: More a-ha moments are to be found by engaging with the text in small chunks and through a smaller, tighter focus.  Rhetoric can be approached easily and simply by first looking at single words.  Starting small and focused engages students’ critical thinking skills.

Rhonda Knight thanked everyone for their participation and we broke into small groups to touch base before dispersing. 

It was an intriguing discussion.  The educators present were all ‘alive’ with their passions and focus.  It was an interesting afternoon.