How We Teach Teachers

Google “Shakespeare on your feet” and the first page of search results will reveal that entities from libraries like the Folger, media outlets like PBS, and theatres like the Actors Centre advocate teaching Shakespeare through “play” or “up on your feet” or “actively”. At the ASC, we certainly use that language as well, but the driving idea behind our approach is more about context than the work we see elsewhere.  Context is a term we take very seriously; it involves more than asking students to build models of the Globe or talking about Elizabeth’s life during the era. It really comes down to teaching our teachers and students to think like Shakespeare’s actors did when they approached the text.  Look around you and see the wooden platform, the audience in the light, the clues in the text (for those who don’t have a lot of time to rehearse), so that performance of the words is at the top of students’ minds.  

ASC’s approach to teaching teachers and students is rooted in fundamentals of classroom practice and an understanding of the demands placed on teachers’ time, students’ interests, and Shakespeare’s plays.  We consider setting, context, methodology and materials and address assumptions teachers may have as well as the unique world of the Shakespeare classroom.

Setting: The ASC acknowledges that most of the teachers we work with operate in English classrooms which feature desks, and that there is some difficulty in getting open spaces in many schools.  So our lessons work within those parameters. We believe that learning is individualized, so students can learn most deeply in situations which invite inquiry. We advocate for desks arranged around a playing space to encourage the exploration of scene, arranged in thrust so that students are closer to Shakespeare’s theatre’s architecture.  We advocate for avatars and actors to demonstrate and help define the information but do not advocate that all students must be on their feet at the same time — something that is difficult to do in an English classroom and is not conducive to all students’ engaging with the text in context.

Context: We believe that context is everything. Context means we believe in treating the plays as plays, plays that were written for specific theatrical conditions that students benefit from knowing, and leaving the text in place in the lesson. This means that we do not employ “insult generators” or pull lines out of speeches to “throw them at each other”.  We do not advocate for separate lessons on Shakespeare’s biography, but fold the fact that he was a working actor into every exploration and note that his monarch and the political climate of early modern London may have had an impact on this character or that scene, as it arises. We consider the staging conditions he considered, as a means to get the students and teachers we work with closer to the performance Shakespeare imagined as he wrote the plays.

Inquiry (infinite variety): We create a world of many, many right answers, and we suggest a method of inquiry-based learning — where each student’s answer may differ.  Shakespeare wrote incomplete works; he needed the actors he worked with and the audiences he played for to finish them.  Students are the actors and audience, and they can answer the questions that lead to the infinite variety of choices that continue to make his plays fascinating 400 years later. We encourage students to consider a number of choices — if video comes into our lesson, we use several clips from many different productions to emphasize how many choices are available.

Materials: We provide teachers with materials that are complete and formatted for ease of use in the typical English classroom (black and white, because most schools copiers are not color; few pages dense with information to save paper; and we are working to envision more in the digital classroom — white boards, etc)

Teacher Experience: The ASC realizes that the vast majority of teachers working with students on Shakespeare’s plays have had few classes on the subject and are not versed in theatrical techniques (nor do many want to be; they teach English because it is their passion). We believe that teachers desire to deepen their own learning and knowledge in order to deepen their students’. We recognize that they have limited time in which to add to their knowledge, so we strive to make every minute that they spend in our professional development programs immediately applicable to classroom practice and to their own and their students’ enrichment.  We take the approach that if teachers know more about how these plays work and worked on the stage, they will have a richer understanding of why the plays are worth studying and be able to communicate to a diverse body of learners

Respect:  We believe that teachers’ time is precious and that they learn the most from fellow educators — educators who have the time to prepare detailed and specific lessons and handouts that they can immediately deploy in their classroom. We model those lessons so that teachers can see one approach and adapt each activity to their own style and purpose.  We arrange the lessons in an accessible way so that they can teach the unit in any order and blend the lessons together as they choose, but also provide a scaffolding section (The Basics) so that teachers have a baseline of knowledge from which to begin. We test the lessons and conduct focus groups, then we adjust them as needed, constantly improving the materials we provide and our approach to them. And, we enhance the lessons with feedback and input from our actors and the events that transpire in a rehearsal room, so that we are speaking truth and giving students and teachers the very important insights our actors share in classroom applicable ways.

In short, we aim to create an atmosphere of learning that makes gaining knowledge and engaging in exploration irresistible.  A space in which students dread the final bell because they will have to leave the topic, a room filled with voices and opportunities to state one’s thoughts — while realizing that difference of opinion is beautiful and can be shared respectfully.  A place where the learner can become the teacher and the teacher learns something every time the class convenes.  We believe the way to do that is by empowering teachers, giving students agency, and providing them with tools to examine words and meaning that stretch well beyond the classroom walls.  Even to a 400 year-old theatre, perhaps.

You can learn more about each of these and participate in an active and hands on model of practice at our teacher seminars offer 4 times annually at the Blackfriars in Staunton (the next one is August 3-4) or on site in your district.  Contact sarahe@americanshakespearecenter.com for more information.

Behind the play: Matthew Radford Davies talks LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

Love’s Labour’s Lost joined the repertory of the Summer/Fall Season last week.  Today we catch up with director Matthew Radford Davies to hear his thoughts on the newest addition to the Blackfriars Playhouse lineup.

You’ve directed the Mary Baldwin University MFA company in the Blackfriars Playhouse, but this is your first time directing the resident troupe.  What’s different?  What’s the same?

Working with the resident troupe, I find myself practicing what I preach during the semester, which is an enabling experience.  The professionals are skilled musicians, not just of instruments, but also of the sound box that is the Blackfriars stage.  They play the frets that we spend time locating in class.  One of the central tenets of our MFA approach is collaboration, which is a buzzword in theatre pedagogy but which is even harder to effect than to spell.  I’m delighted to affirm that the collaborative spirit as the ASC, to which our students aspire, is alive and well.

You mention in your director’s note a 1930 quote from Harley Granville-Barker. “Here is a fashionable play now three hundred years out of fashion.”  Why was he wrong?  What makes this play fashionable in 2017?

I don’t think Harley G-B was wrong.  (Is he ever?)  But plays have their times, their kairotic moments, and just as quickly find themselves out of joint again.  Coriolanus, a long-neglected play, is everywhere at the moment, perhaps unsurprising given the current political climate.  As the world stumbled from Edwardian excess into a Great Depression, and the threat of war began to rear its head once more, it’s easy to see why theatregoers might struggle to care about the emotional anxieties of la jeunesse doree.  Post-war, I suspect the play started to re-engage with sexual politics, feminism, and the battle of the sexes.  Meanwhile, the slipperiness of the language and the generic uncertainty of the ending clearly appealed to the postmodern sensibility that favored skepticism and heterodoxy over conformity and hierarchy.  Beneath its elegant exterior and its plotted edicts and male-directed mandates, lurks a roguish energy of doubt and questioning that, I think, contemporary directors find intriguing and appealing.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is often heralded for its linguistic brilliance.  We’ve been calling it “Shakespeare’s most exuberant word-fest.”  Shakespeare is, of course, known for his mastery of the English language.  What is it like working on a play that’s particularly spectacular even by the high standards set by Shakespeare’s other works?

I remember once reading that language in LLL is a character in its own right.  If so, then this character is as intriguing and untrustworthy and compelling as all the others in the play.  Throughout the canon, Shakespeare displays the fabulous paradox of an author both enamored by and deeply skeptical of, the written language.  In Love’s Labour’s, as in so many of his plays, letters are the guarantors of disaster, but in this play the spoken word gets equally challenging treatment, since what the characters say is as untrustworthy as it is seductive.  So, as theatre makers, we need to do more than just say the lines clearly, we need to luxuriate in them, their syntax and sound, their rhetorical dexterity.  Not surprisingly, amid such linguistic opulence, the simple lines — often short and expressed in Anglo-Saxon terms – land most powerfully.  One of my favorite lines in the play, in the entire canon, in fact, is Berowne’s simple, sudden exclamation, “ — O, my little heart.”  But that purity of expression gains its power, its energy, emerging from its rhetorically dense context.

We think Shakespeare may have written a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost called Love’s Labour’s Won, but there are no surviving copies.  Some scholars believe LLW might actually just be Much Ado about Nothing.  Do you think there is any merit to that idea?  Is it special to direct a production of LLL playing in repertory with Much Ado?

While the RSC recently staged this clever conceit, with the same actors “appropriately cast” across the two plays — Benedick/Berowne to Beatrice/Rosaline, for instance — with the narrative conjoined, or divided, by the Great War — I strongly doubt that Much Ado is LLW (which quite possibly existed and is now lost).  I am, however, delighted that the ASC is bringing LLL and Much Ado together in one season, especially as they’re both in period dress, since audiences can judge for themselves how well the plays work as companion pieces.  I am personally as struck by the differences as well as the connections, and the way the two productions ask us to view a similar theme and cast of characters from very different angles.

What scenes or characters should audiences specifically look for?

In this production, we have worked extremely hard to fashion individuals from a formulaic plot structure.  While the lovers are clearly patterned in groups, their concerns echoed and enriched by the “rusticals,” we also wanted to ensure they had their own arcs and expectations.  Not only do the lords and ladies each have journeys to travel and lessons to learn, they all pursue their developing loves in subtly different ways.  We’ve also worked to tie the comic subplot, featuring the love triangle between the hearty Jaquenetta, the lusty Costard and Armado, the Spanish knight down-on-his-luck, as tightly as possible to the main plot. Comedy, romance, and potential tragedy (in the form of a melancholic undertow), intermingle in this play of sophisticates, sophists, and simple rustics, and we want you, the audience, to never quite know what will float to the surface at any given moment.  We hope that the characters constantly surprise you, and challenge all of our easy expectations.

Is there anything else you’d like our audiences to know?

Romantic comedies work best when the audience is playing catch-up, just one step behind the love trysts and the comic shenanigans, and panting in excitement to keep up.  Put on your running shoes, and tune your ears: you’re in for a frantic feast of wit, wisdom, and waggery.

A Moment about “Still Star-Crossed” – and other Shakespeare adaptations

Countless adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays span hundreds of years, and the likely candidate for most adapted play is Romeo & Juliet. Most recently, “Grey’s Anatomy” creator and prolific TV producer Shonda Rhimes explores the world of Shakespeare’s classic post tragic deaths.  Aptly named Still Star-Crossed (the show draws its name and plot from author Melinda Taub’s 2013 young-adult novel), Rhimes’s latest work joins the consistently expanding realm of film and television adaptations of Shakespeare.

In her book Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation, Margaret Jane Kidnie terms adaptation “an evolving category…closely tied to how the work modifies over time and from one reception space to another”. Accessible to audiences beyond academia, Still Star-Crossed does an admirable job of staying true to the play’s dramatic pathos, while keeping intact the flesh of well-scoured soap-operatic fascinations with shifting alliances that have characterized Rhimes’s evolving television repertory.

The show focuses on named characters Rosaline and Benvolio, who take the place of Romeo and Juliet as Verona’s eponymous star-crossed lovers, and explores their connections to both warring, shambling families.  Still Star-Crossed lifts characters’ names and statuses from both the “original” work (“original” in quotes because even Shakespeare lifted from other sources), and Taub’s book.  

Though it lacks iambic pentameter, there’s a lot about Still Star-Crossed Shakespeare enthusiasts can find to love: integrated casting (an enduring, welcome fixture of Rhimes’ shows), central female characters, brewing political intrigue, and varied romantic relationships.

The show follows a female character who has little to do in the original and is therefore ripe for development. Rosaline (who in Shakespeare’s work was discussed but is not even included in any stage direction, much less possessed of any lines,) is the show’s main female protagonist.  She exhibits qualities evident from Shakespeare’s other heroines while maintaining her own story arc.  As played by actress Lashana Lynch, Rosaline is headstrong, independent, pragmatic, and loyal.  

As in As You Like It, the show features more than one strong female, and she shares qualities with characters such as Lady Macbeth and Volumnia (of Coriolanus). Princess Isabella, the sister of the feud-frustrated ruler of Verona, as played by Iranian actor Medalion Rahimi, is exacting, ambitious, and operates from Verona-walled shadows.

The concept of copyright was foreign to the people of early modern England (approximately the late 15th century to the 18th century).  Plays were licensed, but were ultimately the property of the playing troupe – not of a single author (a practice which fellow early modern playwright Ben Jonson heavily challenged during his time and beyond).  Plays vibing off of Shakespeare’s work proliferated from the early modern period onward. Two examples include John Fletcher’s 1647 The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed (a continuation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew) and Nahum Tate’s 1681 The History of King Lear, (in)famous for its happy ending.  Adaptations have also carried over to films in the early 1900s.  Although the mediums are different, observing the plot-related elements present in Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s trilogy Throne of Blood, Ran, and The Bad Sleep Well (adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King Lear, and Hamlet, respectively) next to Tate’s Lear shows the similarities in the practice of adapting.  Beyond, similarities, though, the choice to include distinct elements, such as some from Japanese Folklore, in the films, influences the action, if not necessarily the events from the plays they borrowed or re-purposed.  Though not influenced by folklore, by contrast, the direct changing of a plot point in Tate’s Lear–that of going from a tragic to a happy ending–subverts the conclusion in ways that can be both shocking and delightful”.

The adaptation train shows no sign of slowing down.  Indeed, our own Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries Project at the ASC seeks to build of modern canon of contemporary companion plays that vibe off and are inspired by Shakespeare’s work.  Recent concern has been expressed of Shakespeare’s plays and those of his contemporaries being cast out of theatres in favor of their modern day kin, perhaps most notably after the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! Initiative launched in 2015. But there’s no cause for concern, dear friend. Past and future adaptations of Shakespeare’s works are beautiful reflections of his masterpieces, and they can only help us recover the joy and accessibility of Shakespeare’s plays.

Still Star-Crossed airs Saturdays at 10|9c on ABC.  Full episodes are online at ABC.