Education Retreat 2016

Once a year, the education department at the American Shakespeare Center ventures out into the social and artistic world that is NOT centered in Staunton, Virginia. We call these outings our “Education Retreat,” with the double-entendre of being educational experiences for us as well as the attendees consisting of members of our education department. Previous adventures have included attending plays at other theatres, going to Busch Gardens, and spending  quality time at the home of our Director of Education. All of these outings obviously vary in their educational and artistic impact on us and on their other audiences, but they are all united by the major goal of our “retreats;” camaraderie and team-building. This was the first educational retreat that I got to go on (being a new hire as of April this year), but in previous years attendees have ranged from just salaried staff, to interns, to education artists. The goal is to include as many people as possible each year, and to impact as much of our team as we can with a fun and educational experience.

This year’s trip included Sarah Enloe, Director of Education, Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager, Lia Wallace, College Prep Programs Manager, and me, Adrienne Johnson, Company Manager and Camp Life Coordinator.  We made good time driving into Washington, DC on Wednesday afternoon, had dinner and saw Tony Kushner’s Millennium Approaches, the first part of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes at Round House Theatre produced in partnership with Olney Theatre Center. On Thursday we tried and failed to get into the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, and instead went to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and had lunch at Rasika before we had a few meetings at the Folger Shakespeare Library. We only hit a bit of traffic coming home, and were all back at work Friday morning.

YUZU Japanese Restaurant

We weren’t supposed to eat here. We actually had reservations for Jaleo, but we were late and they couldn’t delay our reservation by much. We still did our best to take the Metro across town in time, but were more worried about our curtain time since we probably lost our table. We literally walked into the nearest restaurant to the Metro station and (I think) found a little goldmine. Instead of a contemporary Spanish restaurant, we ended up in a Japanese restaurant with a personal sushi chef (with quite the resume). I was totally up for trying a new style of food… but sushi is my favorite food, so I was thrilled about the unplanned change. Collectively, we got edamame and tempura vegetables, spicy karaage chicken, udon, three different sushi, and two nigiri. Everything was delicious.

Round House Theatre

For this production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Round House Theatre teamed up with Olney Theatre Center. The two theatre companies have announced a “two-year commitment to co-produce outstanding plays in Montgomery County.” Angels in America is the first of this undertaking, and the next partnership (this time at Olney) happens in Fall of 2017. When it premiered in 1991, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play, and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. When we began looking at plays for our retreat, I suggested Angels in America to Sarah, mostly out of the selfish reason that I love the play and that I wanted to see some serious tech at work, knowing they’d at the very least need a fly-system. Luckily, there was a groupon. Sarah and I had read both parts before, and both Lia and I had seen the HBO version of the play, but Cass had neither read the play nor seen the made-for-tv special before our expedition on Wednesday.

I won’t speak for my cohort, but I loved the production. First, it was great to see some well-timed tech. As someone who stage managed for years before coming to work at the ASC (where we do it with the lights on!), I really miss seeing and executing what my stage-management professor from undergrad perfectly titled “a sexy light cue.” Timing cues is a detail-driven expertise that takes constant finessing, and something I miss most about calling shows. It is a skill that I am afraid I will lose if I don’t use it, and I was grateful to relish in a cleanly-executed production. There’s no better feeling than when a beautiful technical aspect in your play is timed perfectly with the talent of the actors. Well-done Round House/Olney. Secondly, the acting was superb. It’s hard to pinpoint just one favorite character or scene or moment. Kushner obviously wrote a wonderfully balanced play, with great character arch and development, but putting that aside, just the acting was outstanding. I had never seen Thomas Keegan perform, since I’m new to the ASC, but Sarah, Cass, and Lia all had, but only ever in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. I imagine that a Republican, Mormon, closeted-homosexual was out of the usual wheelhouse in which they’d seen him perform. Keegan toward above his detail-oriented partner, Kimberly Gilbert’s Harper. When reading the play, Harper is my favorite character, in Round House/Olney’s production, I really want to say she’s still my favorite. Her honest Harper was earnest in her delivery and meticulous in the use of her hands. Gilbert could teach a lesson to every Nina who asked what to do with them. But every scene she did, was topped by one of her cast-mates, and then again by her, and then again by her cast-mates (you get the picture).

It is hard to single out a single winning performance. And yet, I’m still going to try to. Sarah Marshall was noticeably Sarah Marshall in every character she doubled, with the exception of Hannah Pitt, the Mormon mother. Each actor in the production was good at making almost all of their words sound genuine, as if they were being delivered for the first time.  This is something we strive for at the ASC, because we believe that the quick delivery of Shakespeare’s text is crucial to understanding the language and executing the original staging practices of his plays. It’s a hard thing to do. I’ve tried, and maybe succeeded a few times in plays I’ve been in. Many actors find this “discovering” of language one of the more difficult practices of acting; how do you make words that someone else wrote, that you spent hours memorizing, sound like you’ve never spoken them before and definitely haven’t practiced saying them hundreds of times? I have never seen an actor execute this better than Sarah Marshall did in the scene where Hannah Pitt first arrives in New York and has a discussion with a homeless woman about getting directions to her son’s neighborhood.  Because of my obsession with tech in a show, it is very hard for me to “get wrapped up” in a production as I am constantly looking around the room to observe as much of the backstage elements as a I can. However, during this scene, I forgot to look around, because I couldn’t look away. It was the most real, wonderful connection of two fake people I’ve ever seen, and my heart went out to Hannah Pitt. Overall, the show was amazing, and my only regret is that I probably won’t get to see Part II before it closes at the end of the month.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

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Photo by Cass Morris

We didn’t get in so I can’t talk about the actual museum (although I plan to go with my family in March, so might have more to say later). But what I can talk about is the overwhelming excitement and feeling of camaraderie as we waited to get in. We got to the line around 8:05, and were so close to getting in. If we’d been about 10-15 minutes earlier, we would have been in the pretty large group of people that got into the museum with their generous same-day passes (distributed at 9:15). The pre-sold tickets to the museum are currently sold-out through March 2017, but each day the museum reserves several “Same Day Timed Passes” to try to welcome as many people as possible, both those with reservations and those without. The line had between 200 and 300 people waiting to get in (rough observed estimate, I didn’t count), and I’d say we were almost in the middle of that group. The line was made up of a mix of African Americans, white Americans, other ethnicities, and I heard one man proclaim to a guide that “even the Canadians” were making the trip down to the museum! It was a lovely display of exactly what the museum is trying to highlight, #apeoplesjourney and “A Nation’s History.” The museum is for everyone. And we all have the opportunity to explore this new and exciting display of an integral part of American history, culture, and community. I can’t wait to check it out sometime next year.

National Air and Space Museum

I had been to the Air and Space Museum many many times (my family lived near DC growing up, so we frequently explored the museums and monuments whenever relatives came to town), but Lia and Sarah had never been before, so we quickly chose to explore this one. Like I usually do, I quickly passed by the fighter plane and war plane exhibits for the (in my opinion) way cooler part of the museum. I spent most of my time in the moon exhibits while Sarah, Lia, and Cass explored other parts of the museum and, of course, went to get some freeze dried ice cream. Duh.

The aeronautical collection began in 1876 but didn’t occupy its current building on the National Mall until 1976, and it has grown to be the largest of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums. Although the exhibits have developed over time, when exploring the museum it is easy to see that a lot of the exhibits are outdated. We each noticed this about the museum and that actually sparked our biggest discussion once we left. It wasn’t actually about the content of the museum, but instead about curating and maintaining exhibits. Sarah asked us “If you had the funding to redesign a museum, what would you keep, what would you toss, and where could you begin from scratch?” Specifically at Air and Space, so much of the content is artifacts; actual pieces of planes and spacecraft, so we all agreed we could keep the actual pieces while updating what we said about them. This is a constant discussion for the ASC’s education department because we are always archiving our work (artistic, educational, and now administrative and marketing). We actually have three archival interns at the moment because there’s so much material to process. Although we don’t have our archived material on display, we are constantly cataloguing and rotating our data between our two locations, and visiting other theatres and museums offers important insight into how to catalogue and maintain our own historic records to make them as easily accessible to as many parties as need them in the future.

Rasika

Rasika is one of our boss’s favorite restaurant. For my birthday last year, he tried to take me there for dinner, but we couldn’t get in. The four of us did get in for a lunch reservation and were joined by an intern from the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, based in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. She wanted to meet with us to discuss our community outreach and our interaction with our audiences before, during, and after they attend a production at our theatre. We were able to answer a lot of her questions, but are also arranging for her to speak with our development team members.

The five of us sat down for a delicious Indian meal in which I can honestly say I don’t remember what everyone ordered. We did begin with an order of Palak Chaat, which is a crispy spinach appetizer with sweet yogurt. It was amazing and I could have eaten just that. Everyone else ordered some form of meat or veggie/sauce/rice dish, varying in color, spice, flavor but similar in deliciousness. I ordered tandoori salmon that was the most tender piece of fish I’ve ever eaten. Finally getting to try this famous Indian restaurant was well worth the wait.

Folger Shakespeare Library

For the rest of the afternoon Sarah had arranged for us to meet with two leading members of the Digital Media and Publications team at the Folger; first with Michael Poston, the Database Applications Associate, and second with Eric Johnson, the Director of Digital Access. Poston showed us his current projects, an online version of the works of Christopher Marlowe (similar to Open Source Shakespeare from what I can tell) and a transcribing database of Early Modern manuscripts (less theatre history specifically, more all-of-the-things history). I must admit, I didn’t follow everything he was talking about, but, man, were Cass and Lia excited. I was most excited by Poston’s palpable enthusiasm for his own project. His hospitality and openness to take the time to engage with us was the best part of the meeting.

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Photo by Cass Morris

We then had about a forty-five minute break before our meeting with Johnson, so Sarah and Cass explored the Jane Austen/Shakespeare exhibit currently in residence at the Folger while Lia and I wandered over to Capitol Hill to visit my sister on her lunch break who works as a clerk for the House of Representatives. Sarah loves Austen’s work and was excited about the mash-up of two great writers.

After the break, we met with Eric Johnson. While Johnson manages the various digital programs at the Folger and oversees Shakespeare Quarterly, he is most famous for creating Open Source Shakespeare, one of the most widely-used Shakespeare research resources. Lia was excited because the last time she met Johnson, she fangirled a little too hard, although he had no memory of the meeting. We had a nice chat, but I was mostly excited to see his collection of Washington Nationals memorabilia in his office. Again, I don’t always follow the academic depth of the conversation, but Johnson was friendly and welcoming in all the best ways.

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Photo by Sarah Enloe

What We Learned

Although I’d been to the Smithsonian before and I wasn’t as enthused by the online academic resources as Lia and Cass were (but who is, really?), I can say I learned a lot about the exhibits, playhouses, and museums different from ours, and those that were similar. At every place we went, we were greeted warmly and openly, encouraged to participate, and welcomed to return. No matter where we go for future retreats, at least the four of us will get to go together and learn more about each other and the world around us. If engaging in the local, diverse, and exciting cultural and theatrical environment is the goal, I’d say we aced this retreat. If learning about each other as a team and as individuals was the goal, top of the class there too. Overall, I was grateful to take two days to learn about my team and, more importantly, how we as a team can fit into the world around us.

(Photo credit: Sarah Enloe)

“And, be assured, you’ll find a difference…” (HV): ASC Education’s work with teachers

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Teachers working in groups at our Fall King Lear Seminar

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.  

I know that “comparisons are odious” (Dogberry would probably have said “odorous”), but sometimes they are the “eftest” way to point out the essence of practice.  I have made a habit of attending my colleagues’ workshops whenever I can, of evaluating the materials they offer online and in print, and of thinking about the art of teaching.  What follows here is a basic statement of the ASC’s philosophy and how it differs from some work I have seen and studied elsewhere:  

Approach American Shakespeare Center The Other Guys
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 allow inquiry. We advocate for desks arranged around a playing space to invite 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. Frequently, our colleagues’ lessons require a wide open space so that all students can be up and active simultaneously.
Teaching assumptions 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. Many professional development programs spend a lot of time teaching 21st-century theatre techniques; these do not give insights into the works Shakespeare wrote and are limited in scope — even within professional theatres.  The time spent on those could be used to connect Shakespeare to his theatrical practices so that we understand the ins and outs of what his actors saw on the page, rather than giving English teachers modern day theories of how to instruct their students in the fundamentals of acting.
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. Many in our cohorts take lines out of context to “show that Shakespeare isn’t hard”, in arenas like “Shakespearean insults” games or “text lay ups”. We believe that removing surrounding text achieves the opposite goal and says to students that “Shakespeare is too hard for you to understand unless I take it out of the play.” We think that students will enjoy the connections between Shakespeare’s plays and his biography if direct lines connect them.  We avoid assignments that advocate for set or light design for a play, since those projects fight the nature of the continuous action in early modern theatres.
Teaching teachers 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. While many practitioners do provide outlines and handouts, the formatting and explanation is often insufficient for the busy teacher who is moving from teaching American Lit to Shakespeare or from one period to another.  Often, the handouts skip important steps, attempt to cover too much, or anticipate too much knowledge as a baseline.  Moreover, actor talkbacks and director discussions take a large percentage of the time in some seminars at other theatres, while these sessions can be fun, the bulk of the discussion does not translate to classroom practice or a better understanding of 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. Stating that a scene is “about” something or that a character is “some characteristic” and asking students to inhabit that idea features in many programs’ methodology.  These opinions may be related to an instructors’ take or experience; however such approaches prohibit exploration. Using film in the classroom can be reductive, as it may limit the students’ idea of the play to one interpretation.
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) I have seen handouts totalling 25 pages, with color, or difficult to read facsimiles or, worse, fluff activities (word finds, crosswords, quizzes — time killers, not enrichment activities) that do not bring students any closer to understanding Shakespeare’s work, nor its relationship to his life and theirs.

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.

–Sarah Enloe
ASC Director of Education

“Thy life hath had some smatch of honour in it”: Virtue, Politics, and Julius Caesar

The time has come once more for my annual Ides of March posting about Julius Caesar. This play always resonates particularly strongly in election years. I’ve talked before about how ideas of rhetoric connect across the centuries, but today, I thought I’d go for something a little different. Much of this year’s political debate has centered not on policy but on personality — on what makes someone “presidential”, on what behavior is considered above-board and what’s below the belt.

As it happens, that’s something I focused on in the Julius Caesar Study Guide, too — how Shakespeare balanced pagan Roman virtues with early modern Christian virtues and how students can then relate those concepts to their own modern sensibilities of what is right and appropriate, in public and in private. So this year, I’m sharing a snippet of that Study Guide, in the hopes of generating fruitful discussion both about Julius Caesar and about our own political tangles.


Perspectives: Honor and Virtue

Many of the characters in Julius Caesar are preoccupied – obsessed, even – with ideas of honor and virtue. They want to act in a way that is “right” and just, that will not bring shame upon them, and that will benefit not only themselves, but the nation of Rome. Concepts of honor and virtue, however, are not concrete. They change throughout time and from culture to culture. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has to balance the Roman pagan ideals of his historical subject matter with the Christian morals of the world in which he lived (and in which he had to get his play past the government censors). This activity will explore concepts of virtue both in Roman antiquity and in Shakespeare’s England, as well as examining ways to relate those ideas to modern frameworks of honor and morality.

This activity will also touch on the issue of suicide as depicted within the play. As this is a sensitive issue and possibly triggering for some teenagers, you may want to use this discussion as an opportunity to bring in a guidance counselor to speak to your students about suicide.

Roman Virtues

Roman virtues tended to spring from how a man related to society, based on qualities that formed a model for excellence in both private and public life. Attainment of these virtues was important because it allowed society to run smoothly. Some of the most important virtues were:

  • Auctoritas, the totality of one’s social standing built up through experience and reputation, a measure of clout and influence
  • Dignitas, a man’s good name and prestige, a sense of self-worth and personal pride
  • Gravitas, a sense of sobriety, responsibility, and earnestness, a sense of substance and depth rather than frivolity
  • Pietas, encompassing not just religious devotion, but a respect for the natural order of society and ideals of patriotism, as well as the sense of duty to the state and to one’s family
  • Veritas, “truthfulness,” honesty and respectability in dealing with others

These virtues had near-tangible currency for the Romans. They were not just abstract concepts; the Romans conceptualized them in a way that has no precise analog in modern society. For the Romans, it was almost as if each man had a jar for each virtue, and his actions (or those of his friends and family, reflecting on him by association) could either add beans to his jar or take them out. Though there was no actual record-keeping of a man’s virtuous standing, Roman men (particularly those with political ambitions) had a constant awareness not only of their own measures, but of the measures of their allies and opponents within the political system. A man with insufficient auctoritas could not hope to win high political office. A scandal could damage a man’s dignitas, making his social life considerably less pleasant.

  • Discuss:
    • Which of the virtues do the major characters display?  Ask your students to back up their opinions with examples from the text.
      • Example: Caesar displays great (even excessive) dignitas when walking through Rome for the Lupercalia festival (1.2).
    • When do these characters invoke these ideas of virtue (even if they don’t use the actual words for them) to influence or manipulate other characters?  Again, have your students find examples in the text.
      • Example: Cassius calls upon Brutus’s pietas to get him to join the conspiracy (1.2); Antony rhetorically questions Brutus’s veritas to get the plebeians on his side (3.2).
    • What happens in the play to make any characters gain or lose one of these virtues?
      • Example: Cassius’s shady financial dealings (4.2) call his veritas and dignitas into question; the idea that Caesar is afflicted with the falling sickness, possibly seen as a curse from the gods, might damage his auctoritas or pietas (1.2).
    • At the end of the play, whose “virtue-jars” are fullest?
  • Writing Prompt: In a journal entry or short essay, ask your students to choose which of the Roman virtues they think is most important in Julius Caesar and to defend that choice with quotes from the text.

Elizabethan Virtues

The major difference between the Christian concept of virtue and the Roman ideal is, essentially, one of private life versus public life, or, to put it another way, the idea of internal responsibility versus external. Honor and virtue in sixteenth-century England sprung from a Christian sense of duty to God and were concerned with a man’s individual soul, not with his relation to society. Dishonorable or unvirtuous conduct was most threatening to the individual, who would be held accountable for his actions in the afterlife; the only concern for others was that he might inspire similar inappropriate conduct. Christians also had a codified set of rules to obey, passed down in the Bible, the works of notable Christian authors, and the mandates of the Church. Though the universality of this code was less distinct in the decades following the English Reformation and the rise of Protestantism than it had been during the centuries of Catholicism’s unbroken dominance of Europe, many ideas of sin and virtue still carried over even with the advent of the Church of England.

Medieval tradition recognized Seven Heavenly Virtues with corresponding Seven Deadly Sins: Lust vs Chastity, Gluttony vs Temperance, Greed vs Charity, Sloth vs Diligence, Wrath vs Patience, Envy vs Kindness, Pride vs Humility.

For Romans, an individual’s responsibility was more to the state. Dishonorable conduct was a disruption of order that did not just threaten the individual, but the fabric of society. The afterlife was far less of a concern, because in Roman conception, nearly everyone ended up in the same underworld. Roman gods did not play by one codified set of rules, but were as fickle and contrary creatures as any human, subject to whim, persuasion, and bribery. Ideals of moral behavior came, instead, from philosophers, focusing more on ethics and being good for virtue’s own sake, rather than having anything to do with religion.

In a pluralistic society like ours, ideas of honor and virtue are no longer as concrete or well-defined as they were for either the Romans or the Elizabethans. We don’t have one overarching system demanding our compliance; instead, our society is a mixture of different influences and modes of thinking.

  • Discuss:
    • What are our modern virtues?  What makes a person today honorable?
      • Make a list on your blackboard, whiteboard, or smartboard.
    • Where do these ideas of virtue come from? Religion? Social rules and etiquette? Books and movies?
      • List as many origins for concepts of honor and virtue as possible.
      • How many of these institutions may come into conflict with each other?
    • What (or who) enforces these virtues? Peer pressure? Laws? Parents and teachers?
      • Again, list as many as possible and see where they may contradict or come into conflict with each other.
      • Discuss the idea of enforcing morality. How effectively is this done in the United States? What about in other countries?
  • How can you mate these concepts of modern virtue to the ideas of virtue portrayed in Julius Caesar?
    • Are any of the Roman or early modern ideals of honor and virtue still relevant today?  Do we think of the same or similar concepts by different names or within different parameters?
    • Consider how a production of Julius Caesar might draw on these ideas for costuming, makeup, or props.

You can download the full “Honor and Virtue” activity here, or you can buy the full Julius Caesar Study Guide — discounted 15% in honor of the Ides! — from Lulu.com.

“Practise rhetoric in your common talk” with ASC Education’s Rhetoric Flashcards

Now available in the ASC Gift Shop, ASC Education is pleased and proud to introduce Rhetoric Flashcards!

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This resource features fifty of Shakespeare’s most-often-used figures of speech, subdivided by our R.O.A.D.S. to Rhetoric classification system. If you’re interested in deepening your study of Shakespeare’s language, we’ve got you covered from accumulatio to zeugma.

These flashcards are ideal for any teacher, student, or actor who wants an easy jumping-off point to take their study of Shakespeare’s language to the next level, moving beyond the broad patterns and into more specific devices. Each card includes the term itself on one side, with its definition and an example of it in use in Shakespeare on the other. You can use them as a quick reference or as a way of testing your memory, if you’ve committed to being able to explain paralipsis to friends, colleagues, or strangers trapped next to you on airplanes.

I am personally tremendously excited that we have these to offer these now, as it’s a project that’s been three years in the making — and even longer if you trace them back to their origins in colored pencils and index cards, created for Dr. Ralph’s language class in the MBC graduate program. I have long hoped to provide this resource to teachers, students, and actors, and now my dream has now become tangible reality!

-Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager

‘Poison hath residence and medicine power’: The Placebo Effect vs the True Cure in Teaching Shakespeare

The friendly throwback app Timehop has let me know that on this week several years ago, I was in Sarah Enloe’s Pedagogy class, desperately trying to make my thoughts on teaching coalesce into an educational philosophy. I settled on a statement about the value of education for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end — a somewhat radical philosophy in a capitalist society, and even moreso in a troubled economy like ours has been during my formative years. But I stand by it. Education isn’t only worth the salary it brings you. An educated citizenry benefits society in so many ways. We need people who are curious for curiosity’s sake, who listen critically and analyze the information they receive rather than merely accepting what they see at face value, who have a command of language, who want to explore the world around them. A teacher, of whatever subject, ought to foster these desires and talents.

Little Academe students poring through text for clues for performance

Little Academe students poring through text for clues for performance

I still hold that idea dear to my heart, but over the past few years, I’ve learned that high-minded philosophy about education means little without a solid plan for practical application. As such, I’ve come to focus a lot more on the how of education than on the why. My philosophy there has a lot to do with making sure teachers have self-supporting tools to crack open Shakespeare’s plays.

When the ASC advocates getting students up on their feet while studying Shakespeare, we mean that students should get to explore scenes, make choices, make mistakes, discover new opportunities. What a lot of other approaches mean by “getting students up on their feet” is that you should play games in the classroom. Games which divorce Shakespeare’s words from their context. Sometimes games that would be appropriate for drama class warm-ups, but which don’t actually teach anything about Shakespeare. That approach yields to a prevalent attitude in some education spheres that learning should be fun, therefore if you’re having fun, you’re learning. But that doesn’t necessarily follow. A teacher’s job isn’t just to make the classroom fun. You could play games all day, let your students watch YouTube videos in every session, or tell them to surf Tumblr, and they would all find that fun, but it wouldn’t be educational. A teacher’s job is to make learning fun for the right reasons — the joy of discovery, the empowerment of agency. That’s a deeper and more lasting “fun” than the quick fix of a quirky game.

Those text-diminishing methods also sell students short. The “bits and chunks” approach, removing Shakespeare from its context and ignoring the fact that the words are instructions for actors, tells students that Shakespeare is, as many of them fear, too hard for them. That they’re not smart enough. That they won’t get it unless it’s dumbed down. And I really have no patience for that implication. I’ve watched 10th-graders, some of whom were English-language-learners, delightfully murder Caesar, understanding perfectly what was going on, once we started looking at embedded directions and thinking about the stage. I’ve seen 7th-graders make exciting, active choices about how to embody the Witches in Macbeth. I’ve seen AP students change their entire conception of Richard III based on a revealed twist of rhetoric. Students don’t need their Shakespearean meat cut into small bites for them — they’re more than capable of tearing in, tooth and claw, with the guidance and support that a confident teacher can give them.

That leads me to another big problem with the quirky-games pedagogical approach: While easily modeled by the right sort of person to the right sort of audience (say, a charismatic and engaging workshop leader at a conference with a willingly captive audience of educators), it isn’t always easy to apply in a classroom. Teachers will have fun taking part in a demonstration, but if they’re not getting the underpinnings and meta-teaching moments along with that demo, they’re not getting the structural support that will help them once they go back home. As such, if they try the activities they witnessed at a conference or seminar but they don’t go over well in the classrooms, the teachers are inclined to blame themselves. It’s easy to see how that could get really discouraging really fast. After all, it worked when the specialists did it, so if my students aren’t responding, then it must be my fault. And that makes me deeply sad. I hate to think of teachers getting discouraged and, perhaps, giving up.

Teacher Seminar participants exploring a scene

Teacher Seminar participants exploring a scene

All of that is why I call it that method the teaching placebo effect. The patient — or teacher — convinces him- or herself that it’s working because it feels good in the short term. Unfortunately, it’s not a real cure. It’s not improving anything, for the teachers or the students, in the long run. At ASC Education, we aim to give teachers a toolbox — not a prize-pack of gimmicks. Approaching Shakespeare’s texts through a combination of wordcraft and stagecraft allows us to give teachers both solid ground to stand on and the flexibility to engage in a world of exploration. When we do create game-like activities (some of which have been hugely popular in classrooms), they’re text-based, character-based, and stage-based. We make sure that teachers know what to do, how to do it, and why it’s beneficial — all of our seminars and materials are geared not just towards flash-in-the-pan excitement, but towards a deeper understanding and a sense of personal ownership, the things that will foster a lasting love of the material. Students absolutely have fun playing with Shakespeare this way — and they are absolutely learning, too.

But, in the words of LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it. Here are some testimonials from our teachers:

  • “It helps level the playing field as each student can refer specifically to the text to back up opinion.”
  • “The workshop was an extraordinary experience, not only because of the primacy of play as performance (rather than as a script that students sit and read), but because the process brings to vivid life the best teaching practices available.”
  • “I learned so much from one exercise about discovery, blocking, embedded cues, playing with the script to find answers, etc.”
  • “I am impressed with how comprehensive the Study Guides are.  Such a valuable treasure trove of ideas and the materials needed are ALREADY created, the greatest boon to busy teachers.”
  • “I find the performance techniques really valuable as another vehicle for textual analysis — deciding how a character might move or speak a specific line can really help students conceptualize the traits of that character.”
  • “My students LOVE reading Shakespeare and cheer when it’s time to ‘push back the tables’ and act.”
  • “I have been attending ASC teacher workshops for the past eight years, and every time I attend, I am sure to learn something that is fascinating and of great educational value when it is incorporated into my lessons.  Whether it is learning strategies for getting students up on their feet to perform the text, exploring historical connections to the text and Shakespeare’s time, or the myriad of other strategies that ASC personnel use to breathe life into the texts, the workshops have proved be exhilarating and rewarding for both teacher and students.”
  • “They are excited about starting Shakespeare next semester instead of dreading it.”
  • “Almost everything I do in the classroom with my Shakespeare teaching now comes from you guys. My students LOVE Shakespeare and get excited from the moment they see the classroom re-arranged.”

And even better, some testimonials from students:

  • “I learned so much about different styles of writing and the way characters talk in Shakespeare, and why that is.” — 7th grader
  • “I really liked the rhetoric workshop and finding the secrets in the characters’ lines.”  — 8th grader
  • “I genuinely enjoyed every lecture we had. Everything taught was incredibly interesting and something I want to carry with me.” — high school student
  • “I learned things about Shakespeare that I wasn’t even aware existed” — ASCTC Camper
  • “I found every master class and rehearsal useful to my overall theatre education in some way. Not only were lectures fun, they were packed with new and important information.” — ASCTC Camper
  • “This is without a doubt, my favorite spring break trip to date. I spent time with a fantastic theater family, learned more about Shakespeare than I could have anticipated, and got to watch professional actors do their stuff.” — Little Academe college student
  • “I really liked learning how to dissect the text and figuring out how to best use the natural rhythm of the text.” — Little Academe college student

The best thing about this approach is that it’s self-perpetuating. If you know how to work with the building blocks of Shakespeare, you can pick up any piece of text and make it exciting. It’s why I’m now incapable of holding a bit of text in my hand without starting to beat out the meter or searching it for prominent rhetorical figures. It’s why I can use embedded stage directions and audience contact to make a workshop out of any scene that a group requests to work with. It’s why teachers tell us that their students are now excited to apply meter and rhetoric not just in their Shakespeare units but throughout their classes, on everything from Beowulf to Dickinson to Ginsberg.

Does this approach take a little more time and effort on the front end than simply playing a game, removing Shakespeare’s words from their context? Yes. But the benefits are exponentially more rewarding. Teach a student a theatre game, and you’ll entertain her for a day. Teach her the tools of playmaking, and you’ll enrich her for a lifetime.

ASC Education wants to share these methods with as many teachers as possible. They’re the underpinnings of all of our Study Guides, they’ll be the focus of our Summer Teacher Seminar: Shakespeare’s Toolbox, and they’re what we showcase on the road, both through the workshops of the ASC on Tour and ASC Education’s appearances at conferences worldwide. We invite all teachers of Shakespeare to join us in this approach, empowering and explorative, uniting our philosophy with the practical reality of the classroom.

“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.

Staging Session 1 Wednesday 10/23/2013

Good afternoon everyone.

This is Molly Zeigler, MBC MLitt/MFA student, here to live-blog Staging Session 1 (10/23/2013) at the 2013 Blackfriars Conference.  This Staging Session is being presented at the Blackfriars playhouse.

Session Moderator: Doreen Bechtol, Mary Baldwin College

Presenters: 

Douglas King, Gannon University

Brett Gamboa, Dartmouth College: Dramas of Disclosing: Some Intrusions of Actor and Stage

James Loehlin, The University of Texas at Austin: Comic and Tragic Eavesdropping Scenes in Shakespeare 

Performers:

Ben Curns, Lee Fitzpatrick, Josh Innerst, Gregory Phelps, and Rene Thornton, Jr.

These Staging Sessions are an opportunity to explore how staging, architecture, and physicality impact interpretation and performance. Today’s scenes are being presented ‘on the fly,’ with little preparation (a fact infusing the session with a certain energy and a sense of immediacy). There are future Staging Sessions scheduled.

Presenting first is James Loehlin from the University of Texas at Austin. Loehlin’s work is focused on eavesdropping scenes in the plays. Loehlin suggests viewing the representation of eavesdropping in Early Modern drama as “concentric rings” of communication – consider eavesdropping in Troilus and Cressida and in Love’s Labour’s Lost (namely the four young men and their sonnets).  Of special interest are the examples of eavesdropping where one character believes himself to be hiding and listening effectively, but in reality his location and activity are well known to other characters in the scene and this fact is exploited for maximum impact.

First, the comic eavesdropping: Act 2, scene 3 of Much Ado About Nothing, the garden of eavesdropping (Benedict hides, he thinks, unbeknownst to others).  The scene is played beautifully by Ben Curns, Josh Innerst, Gregory Phelps, and Rene Thornton, Jr.  By exploring different versions of the same scenario (with Benedict being the focus, with the others being the focus, with Benedict hiding in plain sight, etc) we can begin to see how the act of eavesdropping impacts the performativity of the piece.

Eavesdropping and its representation pose intriguing questions: Who benefits from hearing certain things here?; Who needs to hear what at this moment?; Why does this character hide at this moment?; What does this ‘hidden’ activity mean to the overall story?

Second, the tragic eavesdropping: Act 4, scene 1 of Othello, Iago and Cassio talking about Bianca while Othello eavesdrops (and mistakes the conversation for being about Desdemona). The scene is explored by Ben Curns, Josh Innerst, and Rene Thornton, Jr. In this examination close attention is paid to proxemics (spatial relationships between actors, between actors and audience) and to auditory concerns – how much does Othello hear, how much does he need to hear?

It is interesting to see how the staging of eavesdropping, and the considerations and choices that may be made, can alter and direct perception of character, plot, story, tragedy, and comedy. (And how much freedom there may be in a given text to represent eavesdropping.)

Presenting second is Brett Gamboa from Dartmouth College. Gamboa is presenting his work: Dramas of Disclosing: Some Intrusions of Actor and Stage.  Gamboa is exploring the line between actor and character and how they are both represented on stage.

Assisted by Ben Curns, Lee Fitzpatrick, Josh Innerst, Gregory Phelps, and Rene Thornton, Jr. several scenes from several works (including Othello and Hamlet) are explored.

We are looking, here, for the interesting and obvious mix of the actor and the character being performed.  At times, and supported by production histories and texts, a character may present aspects of the performer while the inverse remains true for the majority of the time.  Consider when characters ‘forget’ lines (Hotspur, Polonius), it is an act that many actors encounter and in its performance the line between expression of action and action itself is blurred.  Consider, as well, when characters suffer falls or other injury within the play and the concern expressed by other characters may represent concern between actors. It is also interesting to consider the impact of the playing space. In King Lear when a blind Gloucester is being led up a ‘hill,’ he his not being led up a hill, rather the ‘ground’ is as flat as a stage.

Conventions can limit and shape a performance – these conventions are used by Shakespeare and by actors in production after production. Consider the feather in front of a dead Cordelia’s face – it will stir.  Stage and character conventions help continue and shape a character’s body of representation.

The mingling of reality and the reality of the play and the ‘reality’ sought by the characters as played by the actors makes for an interesting blending of representation and meaning.

Presenting third is Douglas King from Gannon University.  Starting off with a performance of the wonderful back and forth between Katherine and Petruchio in Act 2, scene 1 of The Taming of the Shrew (delivered with great enthusiasm by Lee Fitzpatrick and Gregory Phelps), King’s work explores the relationship between speech, language, and physical representation.  The scene was performed several times paying attention to the relationship created between Katherine and Petruchio as expressed by words and by physicality.

Is there value in refraining from physicality, even when the text seeks to create it? Is there value in creating an enhanced sense and use of physicality?

The scene from The Taming of the Shrew was performed with a pronounced distance between Petruchio and Kate and with an undeniable closeness (resulting in a playful dance between Fitzpatrick and Phelps that ended with them swooning together over a fallen stool – quite to the delight of the audience).  Merit and meaning were found in both versions.  A distance between the leads creates a tension while the closeness exploits any tension allowing it to overcome the characters (and the actors) in an expression of intensity.  It’s interesting to consider how choices regarding physicality and the demands of the text can come together to shape meaning.

We had fun this afternoon.  The audience perched about the Blackfriars hung easily, almost wantonly, off the snippets of performance and text which were mingled just so on the golden stage. The Staging Sessions’ use of the Blackfriars Stage and actors makes for some fascinating and fleshed out scholarship. See you at the next one.

Wake-up Workshop: “A Certain Text”

Good morning and welcome to the first session of the 2013 Blackfriars Conference. My name is Ashley Pierce, and I will be live blogging the first session, a Wake-up Workshop “A certain text” with Natalia Razak that took place Tuesday October 23rd 8:00 to 8:45 AM. This is the first ever Wake-up Workshop with the American Shakespeare Center and Blackfriars Conference, as part of the education program within the ASC, dealing this morning with scansion. This is a means to showcase what the education program brings to schools.

Razak invited 11 of this morning’s gathering to join her on stage, asking them to sit upon the gallant stools located on the stage. She had the volunteers each take a syllable from Shakespeare’s line “To be or not to be; that is the question…” from Hamlet. Coupling up the volunteers into pairs, she had the person to the right of each pair sit down while the second person stood, to emphasis the iambic pentameter. She then had the group go through the line, saying their syllable to show the stressed and unstressed syllables. Then moving the topic onto the feminine endings, she asked the group what this could infer on the line. Some answers were, disoriented, questioning, hesitation, weak, etc, with Razak adding that she did not think she “has cracked the feminine ending.” The next step was to do this same exercise, with the quarto version of this same text, “To be or not to be; ay there’s the point…” Going through the same process, this time highlighting the trochaic stresses, Razak noted that this makes it a discovery. She then asked the group to try this again without stressing the “ay” to see if it is more an internal shift, making Hamlet more of a thinker, showing how this experiment/exercise can teach as well as play with Shakespeare’s text. The workshop then moved into a speech of Biron’s from Love’s Labour’s Lost. Razak gave the attendees a copy of this speech and had them each read a line, in a “read around.”

Razak then talked about how the ASC actors will scan and paraphrase their lines before the first rehearsal to help put everyone on the same page, so the director knows what the actors think and can see if it is what they are thinking as well. This is to ensure that the actors know exactly what they are saying and to make sure the audience knows as well. Razak then asked the attendees to locate a pen, asking them to take a couple of moments and paraphrase the line they had previously read. Due to time constraints, she then asked if anyone had a paraphrase they were proud of or had a difficult time with that the group could explore; unfortunately not everyone could read what they discovered. One attendee mentioned that “time” was a hard word to paraphrase, saying that she came up with chronology, Cronus, hours. Showing that some words were difficult to find a new word for since it was so tied into our common language. Razak then moved forward to look at mid-line breaks, caesuras, with the group, to trouble why a character would pause in the middle of a line. She asked how this feels when reading and hearing this harsh break in the line, as well as talked about how this effects the breath control of the actor speaking the line.

As an attendee said when you have to take a breath it takes the person out of a thinking place and moving them into a feeling place. Attendees left this workshop with this thought to ponder as they moved on to the next session of the day.

Teaching Shakespeare on the Road: ASC Education Residency at Roanoke College

The American Shakespeare Center has a unique Educational Residency program that brings our education artists and workshops to high school and college campuses. In the last two years, we have completed weeklong residencies at high schools in Kansas and Ohio. Last week, we were at Roanoke College in Salem, VA for our first-ever college residency.

After a whirlwind summer of directing the 2013 sessions of the ASC Theatre Camp, I was curious about what it would be like to spend a week working with older, college-aged students, guiding them through nearly half a semester’s worth of workshop materials. Daniel Kennedy and Andrew Goldwasser, two ASC actors, made up the rest of our residency team. Daniel is a long-time ASC actor and is a former director for the ASC Theatre Camp. Andrew is a veteran of our touring troupe, and he will return to the Blackfriars Playhouse for our upcoming holiday season.

In the weeks leading up to the residency, I worked with our contact at the college to arrange our trip; we distributed fliers to promote the residency during the touring troupe’s production of Othello at Roanoke College, and our campus coordinator scheduled us to visit 3 classes throughout the week. In total, I planned 13 workshops, and Sarah and Cass taught 6 additional workshops for a weekend teacher seminar. In addition to the workshops, we scheduled multiple rehearsals for the students to have individual coaching on selected scenes and monologues from Shakespeare’s plays.

We arrived in Salem just past noon on Monday, in time to take a brief tour of the performing arts building and other campus facilities. The campus reminded me of Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, but without the hills. Roanoke College is small, with only 2,000 undergraduate students. 10 students are enrolled as theatre majors, but several students from other departments take acting classes to fulfill their elective requirements. We visited the acting class first, and I led an introductory workshop on the basic building blocks of Shakespeare’s text: iambic pentameter, scansion, verse, and prose. None of the students in the acting class that we visited had ever performed in a Shakespeare play, and the material was completely new to them.

As the week passed, I noticed our students engaging with their texts in the cafeteria before workshops, diligently and carefully marking the stressed and unstressed beats in their scripts. One student that I worked with found paraphrasing in the ASC style to be especially helpful as she prepared to play Imogen, a character in Cymbeline.

Daniel and Andrew led workshops in rhetoric, clowning, stage combat, music, and acting choices. During one of the acting classes, the students had the opportunity to direct us as we played the first scene of Richard III . Using their newly-learned skills for identifying embedded stage directions, character and relationship clues, and the various forms of asides, the students directed us through the opening scene. Twice during the week, we met with an English class and explored embedded stage directions in the party scene (1.5) of Romeo and Juliet, and I led them in a discussion about the textual variants in the play and their effect on character development, staging, and other production choices.

On the final Friday in-class performance, there was excitement in the air. The students were nervous, even in our informal setting; we spent the week in a small black-box studio with warm honey-toned wood floors, soft lighting, and mix-matched chairs and small sofas collected through the years and re-purposed from old set pieces. We created a makeshift Elizabethan stage with the chairs surrounding the playing space on three sides.

Their performances began. We saw the brash and rude struggle between Katherina and Bianca in the Taming of the Shrew, followed by the frightful and foreshadowing scene between Casca and Cassius on the stormy evening before Caesar’s murder; Imogen scorned Iachimo after his vile attempt to plant seeds of jealousy in her heart; Ophelia’s haunting songs gave way to the street brawl between Mercutio and Tybalt; Antony mourned over Caesar’s body; Viola evaded pursuit by Olivia in the garden while attempting to maintain her composure, even as Olivia exposed her heart to a servant who could never requite her love. The students’ scene showcase was a testament to the work that can be accomplished with only a few hours’ rehearsal and a careful analysis of the performance clues that Shakespeare provides in the text of his plays.

In our final wrap-up session following their scene showcase, I asked the students for their feedback and to help us brainstorm ways of making the residency program better. If we came back to Roanoke College, what would they like to do differently or the same? The program technical director suggested that we come back for several weeks or even a whole semester to direct a play rehearsal process from start to finish. The students enthusiastically agreed. I noted that this model was certainly something we could consider doing for them in the future. Our residency program is flexible, and currently our longest program offering is three weeks. Other students said that they would love to plan a trip to the Blackfriars Playhouse, and they all arrived at the consensus that they would commit to participating in another residency if given the opportunity. I was touched and warmed by their responses. Just as much as we would love to go back to Roanoke, we also wanted to provide advice to help them beyond the classroom. We encouraged the students to keep in touch with us throughout the year, and I encouraged several of them to inquire about our year-round internship opportunities.

Neither we nor our campus host and coordinator anticipated just how enthusiastically the students would respond to our presence and to the work we accomplished together in just a few days. The students were eager to absorb all they could from our workshops, and many of them stayed for several hours late into the evenings to work with us individually. Students re-arranged other commitments to attend our classes, and others came even when they probably needed that free time to study for other exams and tests; but Shakespeare is fun, and Shakespeare brings people together.

I’ve been fortunate to see other young students bond and create lasting friendships through collaboration and their collective pursuit to learn more about Shakespeare and the theatre of his time. This experience showed me that even in a small theatre program struggling with low enrollment, Shakespeare empowers students by giving them all the tools they need to create theatre that is engaging, inspiring, and community-building. I look forward to sharing similar experiences at other schools and campuses.

Kim Newton
Director of College Prep Programs

You Can’t Bop a Bop: Idiosyncrasies of Process and Personality in the Theatrical World

I’ve spent the past few weeks preparing a new Study Guide for this summer’s Class to Cast Seminar. It’s been an unusual challenge, not only because this Study Guide doesn’t follow the structural format I’ve established for all of our show-specific guides, but also because I frequently find myself trying to explain in written words things that I learned kinetically. The Class to Cast Guide will provide teachers with a start-to-finish model for producing a play with their students, either inside their classroom or as an extracurricular opportunity. Our goal is to cover everything that a teacher totally new to this concept would need to know: cutting the script, doubling, holding auditions and casting, the rehearsal process on the macro and micro level, dealing with text-based tablework, warm-up activities, guiding actors to make strong choices physically and vocally, dealing with particular staging challenges, audience contact, using dramaturgy, and finally dealing with the production concerns of costuming, props, stage combat, music and sound, marketing, and putting the whole thing on its feet for showtime.

Little Academe 2013; Photo by Pat Jarrett

Little Academe 2013; Photo by Pat Jarrett

What makes this process even stranger is that I am not, broadly, a kinetic learner. I’m a verbal learner — written or auditory. Yet the theatrical world is a place where kinetics seem to take over in a stronger way. Most of what we do for the stage, we learn by observation, instruction, and emulation. For a lot of us, it starts back in middle or high school, watching what the older students do, following in their footsteps, then passing the traditions on in our turn. I can easily write instructions for our usual activities — scansion, rhetoric, staging challenges, historical perspectives, textual variants — but when it comes to describing the procedures that shape a rehearsal process, I found myself having to engage entirely different writing muscles.

The oddity of attempting to put these things into words first struck me when I was scribing the instructions for Zip-Zap-Bop-Boing, the variation on Zip-Zap-Zop that we played at William & Mary. Staring at an empty bulleted list, I decided to try talking it out to myself. “Zips go to the side, zaps go across, bops rebound, and, of course, you can’t bop a bop.” Makes perfect sense, right? Well, no, unaccompanied by action, that’s total gibberish. While I’ll be able to demonstrate the actions to those teachers attending our Summer Seminar, I still have to make sure that the written guide is comprehensible to anyone else who might purchase it. Stretching routines and vocal exercises were also difficult to wrap language around. I’m coming to have a lot of respect for people who actually write whole books on those processes — but I also see very clearly why so many of them promote their workshop series and why more and more professionals are taking to YouTube for their demos.

Warm-ups and physical action aren’t the only difficult things to flatten onto the page: detailing the ins and outs of scheduling and structuring rehearsals takes some linguistic wrangling as well. This is something else I learned by mimesis: when I directed my first solo full-length show in college, it was after many years of exposure to other directors. Many start in assistant positions before taking on solo projects, in order to see the behind-the-scenes work and get a feel for the ebb and flow before diving in. And, of course, no two directors will run their rehearsal process in the same way, nor do all productions have the same needs. Cast size, rehearsal space, and actor availability are just some of the factors that can influence the scheduling, particularly for school productions rather than professional companies. So how to express something so nebulous? I’m giving a basic breakdown of how to think about those variables, but I’m also giving our teachers a few different examples: an ASCTC three-week schedule, the six-week format I used in college, a recent Ren Season schedule covering only three days. Hopefully this will give our teachers the information they need while still showing them the necessary flexibility of such a project.

What this is all really bringing home to me is just how important people are to the theatrical process. I know that might sound like a no-brainer, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it in exactly this context before. When I hear people talk — directors, actors, vocal coaches, etc — about their training and experience, they don’t tend to talk about what books they read. They talk about who they learned from. They talk about the amazing workshop they went to. They talk about summer immersion programs and the best course they ever had at school. They talk about the high school drama teacher who gave them a phrase that still rattles in their brains twenty years later. They talk about the first director who opened a door that let them feel like they were really doing something great on-stage.  That’s the sort of guidance I hope ASC Education can offer: a tangible and personal connection to the work, above and beyond the words on the page.

–Cass