We love it when students ‘talk back’ to us.

Every Thursday at around 10 AM, sleepy little Staunton is happily bombarded by school buses as hundreds of students unload and make their way to the Blackfriars Playhouse. Our weekly “School Matinees” are a different breed of show; not only do the booking processes differ from our other shows, but the audiences (who are such an integral part of every performance here) have a notable effect on the tenor of the shows. Having a younger demographic in the playhouse can highlight different moments in the play and provide a unique experience for everyone, including the actors.

Some students arrive at the playhouse having read and analyzed every line of that day’s play; others come in cold, having read other Early Modern plays, but not the one they are seeing. Pre-show classroom methodologies abound, but there is something to be said for any pedagogical style that brings students face to face with Early Modern plays here at the American Shakespeare Center. The fact remains that, whether or not they have been prepped for each line, students genuinely like this stuff. It is rewarding to hear their laughter at clownish antics or see their shock as plots thicken. They have incredibly honest reactions to the language, none of which the actors simplify for the student audience.

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After each student matinee, some of the actors come back out onstage for about 15 minutes of audience questions, called a talkback. I sat in on a recent talkback for Othello, where actors Rick Blunt, Emily Joshi-Powell, Joey Ibanez, and Patrick Midgley fielded audience questions. During the talkbacks, it’s easy to tell that the students are approaching the plays from a variety of backgrounds, as the questions run the gamut between theatrically-inclined and scholarly-minded. My favorite question and answer of the day went something like this…

Student: “What are the qualifications to be an actor at the American Shakespeare Center?”
Rick Blunt: “Well, it’s a lot like the NFL. If you can play, they will hire you. None of us here have had the same track. We do this because we love it, and that’s the main qualification.”

Each of the actors went on to talk about their various paths; what kind of education they have had and how much professional acting experience they have acquired. Joey Ibanez then added that knowledge of music helps, which will come as no surprise to those who have been to a show and witnessed firsthand the breadth of musical talent these actors offer.

Little AcademeA few weeks ago, during a talkback after a matinee of As You Like It, a student asked about the character Phoebe and her starry-eyed shepherd, Silvius. The question was something to the effect of, “Was Phoebe actually happy when she married Silvius at the end of the show?” The actor who played Silvius, Andrew Goldwasser, spoke about the challenges of making those kinds of decisions as an actor and said that one of the reasons he loves Shakespeare is because his plays tend to spark these kinds of questions, even when they are over. He encouraged the students to pursue those questions further with their friends and teachers.

When I watch the smiling, chatting students walk out of the theater after each talkback, I can tell that the end of the session isn’t the end of the conversation. It’s just the beginning.

Ben Crystal Lecture Liveblog — Original Pronunciation

Sarah Enloe begins by introducing Ben Crystal as brought to us by good fortune and our connection with Tyler Moss and Sybille Bruun of The Shakespeare Forum in New York City. She opens by noting similarities between the work we do at the ASC and in the Mary Baldwin graduate program, and introduces Crystal as an actor, director, producer, and author. His biography and links to his books are available on the ASC website.

Crystal opens by stating that this year, he will be taking Original Pronunciation techniques into the new Sam Wanamaker theatre in London, and he begins with a history of his work with Original Pronunciation practices. There have been numerous Original Pronunciation productions of Shakespeare in the United States, but none in the UK for almost a decade. Crystal relates a conversation with his father, a linguist, and Mark Rylance about whether or not the pronunciation is recoverable, and, if so, how it would play to an audience. After two initial productions at the Globe, “it just sort of drifted away”. A few years ago, Crystal was asked to record a section of Richard III in Original Pronunciation for a museum display, so that museumgoers could hear the language while viewing quartos of the play, and to record an Original Pronunciation video for the Globe’s Open University. Last September, the video went viral, renewing broader interest in the practice.

To demonstrate the difference and how it changes him as an actor physically, Crystal delivers the opening Chorus of Henry V first in received pronunciation, then in Original Pronunciation — though he jokes that, with the opportunity to work on the Blackfriars Playhouse Stage, he might just “ignore all of you and just do some Shakespeare….and now, the entirety of Hamlet.” Crystal then asks what the Original Pronunciation reminds us of. Julia Nelson suggests “pirates,” and Crystal notes that that is the most popular response when he takes this lecture into schools. Another attendee suggests “a very broad country accent;” another “a bit of Irish;” others “Appalachian,” “upstate New York,” “American.” Crystal says he’s also heard Canadian and Australian. Matt Davies notes that with the pronunciation of “stage” in a long, open A, “you’re heading up into Lancashire.” Sarah Blackwell notes that “it seems to waver between accents.”

Crystal notes that, “the thing is, everyone is right,” thanks to the melting pot that London was at the time, mixing a broad variety of English accent of the times. From there, the accent moved out (voluntarily or note) from Bristol to the United States and to Australia. He then notes what the accent does physically — the vowel shifts tend to drop the voice into a lower register, as well as helping him to ground his feet. A visiting actor from the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory states that he “can hear the alliteration more.”

Crystal further discusses the tendency of Original Pronunciation to speed up a production. A Romeo and Juliet became ten minutes faster, awkwardly so when Romeo and Juliet, meant to finish their shared sonnet at the same time as their dancing, ran out of lines considerably before running out of dance.

Discoveries Crystal has made about the text, which he will cover in the lecture, include jokes, rhymes, meter, and “this lovely emotional quality” that he believes comes out more strongly in certain moments. Beginning with jokes, “the greatest example that we’ve found is As You Like It.” Jacques’s “fool in the forest” speech, Crystal points out, has a joke that is not at all funny in regular pronunciation — “from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, and from hour to hour, we rot and rot, and thereby hangs a tale” — but in Original Pronunciation, the similar pronunciation of  “hour” and “whore” (both more like “oar”), the joke works spectacularly (as evidenced by the appreciation of the Playhouse audience). Crystal notes that he doesn’t think this means we should always use Original Pronunciation in productions, but that there are great discoveries to be made. Gower in Pericles and Edgar’s Poor Tom in King Lear are two examples of characters he thinks work well in O.P. He also notes the rhymes in Midsummer that don’t work in received pronunciation, and that O.P. is not the only option — it works in a rural Southern drawl as well.

The new Wanamaker theatre is giving Crystal “the opportunity to explore what this sounds like in a really, really small space”.  Since the Wanamaker is an even cozier performance space than the Blackfriars Playhouse, “We’re going to find out what it’s like to choreograph a fight for Macbeth in what is essentially a wardrobe.” He’s curious to find out how the tendency of the O.P. to change physicality will work in a new, smaller space.

Crystal then discusses how he’s sussed out precisely what O.P. sounds like: the rhymes, particularly in the sonnets; the Folio, “spelt much more like they used to speak”; and the work of linguists and translators in-period who published books discussing pronunciation. He claims that they can figure out all but 10%. “And that last 10% drives my father crazy.” But Crystal loves it, because “that last 10% is what I can fill up with me.” The accent draws him more out of the head of the standard accent and into the heart. This, he believes, brings “an ownership over Shakespeare that is rare,” both for the actor and the audience. Americans, he notes, have sometimes told him that they feel like Shakespeare isn’t theirs because “we can’t do your accent,” but that many of the vowel sounds in O.P. may in fact be more accessible naturally to Americans than to modern Brits.

Crystal then delivers the opening speech of Richard III in both received and O.P., drawing attention to the line “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature”. Original Pronunciation alters the rhythm of the line considerably, giving it a more active “canter”, particularly in creating a greater similarity between “feature” and “nature”.

He ends with “probably the second most-famous sonnet… which you’ve probably heard at a wedding… because it has the word ‘marriage’ in it.” Speaking it in O.P. opened up the true meaning of the sonnet for him as less to do with marriage and more to do with “the truest love that stands the test of time,” long beyond the physical.

Crystal then opens up to questions. An audience member asks Crystal to explicate further how O.P. changes actors’ movement, particularly with regard to the speed. Crystal thinks it’s “something to do with the center dropping,” less declamatory and “more fight-ready” in a way. He also thinks that O.P. brings out a lot of “directness” and a lot of the speed with which Shakespeare’s characters think. Crystal also discusses the tendency of productions to “use a Southern or a Birmingham accent to denote stupidity”, and how that affects the presentation of various characters in O.P.

Rebecca Hodder asks “How do you teach this?” Crystal answers that he’s not a voice coach, but thinks there are several avenues. The International Phonetic Alphabet is one route, though he states that the most common source on using IPA for O.P. “tends towards the Irish” accent, particularly in the vowels. His father is “up to J in creating an O.P. dictionary”, due for publication in 2016.

Patrick Midgley asks “how O.P. made your Hamlet more active” and requests part of the first soliloquy. Crystal relates a story where a friend complained that he rushed through that speech, though the rushing is really appropriate because, “He wants to leave. Oh, man, I’m really mad at Claudius, but I’m going to give a speech first.” He also points out that O.P. resolves the solid/sullied problem, since they are the same in O.P. He then examines “to be or not to be” and how slow many actors deliver that speech. “My god, look at David Tennant’s video on YouTube! Get on with it!” O.P.’s rapidity of delivery presents a different, less ponderous Hamlet — rather, a Hamlet anxious to get the audience to catch up to his own mind. Crystal delivers the speech in O.P. (then dissolves into giggles of glee). He also notes how the meter ought to drive speed, particularly when it comes to choosing pauses.

Charlene Smith asks “Have you done any O.P. works with other early modern playwrights.” Crystal answers, “I know nothing about other early modern playwrights. I slander Marlowe all the time.”

Another audience member asks about how the other O.P., Original Practice, works with Original Pronunciation, and asks what value Crystal finds in that. Crystal discusses the restrictiveness of the costumes, but thinks that his greatest discovery was regarding the pillars at the Globe and how they inform entrances and stage pictures. “I adore the pillars; I climbed one once.”

Michael Hendry asks about the future of O.P. — if it will come to dominate performance. Crystal isn’t sure, but thinks that “if in fifty years, we’re speaking Shakespeare in accents that let the rhymes work, that would be great.” As his final statement, Crystal says he hopes that the discoveries possible in O.P. will become more commonly used, even if the accent itself isn’t, helping to move further away from received pronunciation.

“Advantageable for our dignity”: Teaching at Home and on the Road

I sometimes feel like a very spoiled educator. Most of the time, I get to teach students who really want to learn from me — the groups who come to the Blackfriars Playhouse for workshops and Little Academes are not only captive audiences, they’re generally self-selected enthusiasts with at least some interest in Shakespeare, theatre, and/or performance. Many of them are repeat customers, students I see multiple years in a row, not just passively interested but actively excited to stage a scene from Macbeth or to examine the rhetoric in Othello. Even when that isn’t the case, however, less-interested students still tend to be more respectful in our space. Maybe it’s because it feels a little like a church. Maybe it’s because they fear losing privileges if they misbehave on a field trip. Maybe it’s just that slight edge of discomfort that comes from being in a new location, but even the troublemakers tend to remain, if not actively engaged, then at least non-disruptive.

With AP Lit students in Salina, KS

With AP Lit students in Salina, KS

When we take residencies and one-off workshops into middle and high schools, the feeling is definitely different. We’re on their turf. They have the home court advantage, and they are generally not shy about pressing it. A visitor in class might be a disruption to the routine, but not so great that it shakes students from their normal modes of operation, whatever those may be. I often feel powerless to stop a student who is texting or sleeping during an in-class workshop — if their own teacher is letting them get away with it, what ground do I have to impose new rules? Sometimes we get brought in when a regular teacher is out, adding the hurdle of a substitute teacher’s impaired authority to the mix. If our workshop is not in an individual class but a large assembly, then crowd control becomes the challenge — even if the students are interested and enjoying themselves, the noise levels can rise somewhat incredibly, particularly as side conversations start splintering off, and it can feel like we spend as much energy re-focusing attention as we do teaching.

It’s also an unpredictable experience. When I first started attempting to do our Cue Script workshop using the assassination scene of Julius Caesar with high school sophomores, I was far from certain it would actually work — but it did, magnificently. On the other hand, what I thought would be an exciting, active exploration of Hamlet‘s play-within-a-play fell totally flat. An activity that works in one classroom might not in another. I’ve had senior AP students react with great enthusiasm to my rhetoric workshop, immediately able to find its cross-applications to other material for their AP exams and college essays, and I’ve had senior AP students fail to show even the slightest flag of interest. Engagement can vary wildly within a single class, and it’s easy to feel how teachers can struggle on a daily basis with keeping tabs on the disaffected while still rewarding the work of the attentive. The experience can be, admittedly, an exhausting one — but there are always little gems of moments that make it worth it, when the kid you thought wasn’t paying attention suddenly pops out with a great observation, when the students fall over themselves giggling during a scene, forgetting entirely that they thought this was hard, when someone looking at a cue script exclaims, “Oh! I get it!” The light bulbs make the effort worth it.

These on-site experiences are so valuable for me, and not only because they make me dearly wish to apologize to some of my own erstwhile high school teachers to whom I may have been less than respectful. (No one teaching me Shakespeare ever had a problem, but I confess that I was not always a model student when it came to learning physics at 7:30 in the morning). On-site workshops not only enhance my respect and appreciation for what teachers do every day, but they also give me insight into what really does work in the classroom. It helps me evaluate the ASC’s materials, in our Study Guides and in our workshops, so that I can build better activities for the future. How can we engage the most students? What tools can we give teachers to compete with the many distractions available to high school students? I know we won’t be able to convert every student to a Shakespeare scholar, but how can we at least help them find out that Shakespeare is fun, not a tonic? I can’t figure out solutions to those problems without knowing the given conditions of the classrooms they’re in.

Fortunately, Shakespeare gives us answers to these questions as well — or at least he presents us with characters facing the similar challenge of how to get through to someone. Henry V does his best to inspire and hearten his soldiers, but the skeptical Williams counters his every argument with a cold dose of pessimism. It shakes Henry enough that he lets himself be drawn into a quarrel, thus lowering his own status, and then he has to talk himself back up. Richard III has trouble moving his soldiers to high spirits and must in the end resort to focusing on consequences rather than rewards — a less satisfying pathway for everyone involved. Iago tailors his persuasion to his audience, using soft suggestion and leading questions with Othello, brute bullying with Roderigo, sly manipulation with Cassio — a tactic which works until all those moving pieces spiral out of his control.

We most often examine these scenarios in our Leadership Programs, but I think they’re applicable to teachers, too. It’s all about finding the right avenue of persuasion, the right technique, the hook that will draw the audience in. And sometimes, it’s about knowing how to take the hit and try again if your first attempt sputters out.