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Archive for November, 2013

Giving life to one of Shakespeare’s plays is as easy as speaking his words aloud. Actors, however, become their parts – making a human character breathe out of words on a page. You don’t have to be Derek Jacobi or Helen Mirren, though. To be a thoughtful actor, you just need to have an idea of what the character wants. Who are they?

Students in Macbeth have varying character reactions to Duncan's arrival.

Students in Macbeth have varying character reactions to Duncan’s arrival.

Today’s teaching modules all give students the opportunity to explore the life behind their character’s lines (even if they don’t have any lines!). By putting their minds to who the character is while they’re playing them, they’ll discover new depths of relationships in the plays, and speak or react on their feet as though they are that character.

In Imagining Back Story, students select a character from Measure for Measure (though this could be done for any play) then closely read the play to glean clues about their character’s life before the story. They then write a journal entry for their character which gives more detail to their life leading up to the events of the play.

Similarly, A Boxful of Character has students closely reading the text to discover their characters’ hints at who they are in order to curate a handful of everyday items that their character would have. What goes into Hermia’s purse? What five things would Iago want on a desert island? Have fun with it and discover what your students interpreted about their characters!

Finally, in The Secret Life of Minor Characters, the play’s leads are put aside in favor of the individuals in the crowd. Using the assassination in Julius Caesar as an example, this module outlines how students can apply their creativity to the people in crowd scenes who may not explicitly state their motive, but should have one nonetheless.

These sorts of approaches are done every day by actors taking on Shakespeare’s plays. There’s no definition for who these characters are – they’re different for everyone playing them! Discover new ways to illuminate these plays in performance with your students, and let us know how it goes!

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reposted with permission from the Folger Theatre Blog

“Grumble, Grumble.”
“Snort”
“Whine”
“Complaint”
“But it’s soooo eeeearly!”
“This is ungodly.”
“Oh, no…I’m going to need a nap!”
“Is there coffee?”

And so it goes…

It’s a student matinee of our Romeo and Juliet at the Folger Theatre and our call is practically the butt crack of dawn. We have to be at the theatre no later than ELEVEN o’clock. I mean, in the MORNING! What?!

What is this, Prison?

See, a bunch of actors naturally gravitate to later and later bedtimes. We don’t crash at the median of the group, we all push our bedtimes later so that we go to bed towards the time the person who goes to bed last goes to bed. For me, that’s a little before 4am. Which isn’t as crazy as it sounds. We come down at 10:30 at night, amped on that show adrenaline, we calm down, have a drink or two, nosh a bit, catch up on sports news, maybe play some cards and then I go upstairs to my room to get a bit of work done. (I’m currently writing an opera and a play.)

Which all works out swimmingly. My earliest call for most matinees is 1:30.

But not STUDENT matinees.

Don’t you totally feel sorry for us actors?

Now, the upside:

Because, I guess, the theatre understands the eye-blearingly earliness of the hour, they provide bagels, croissants and muffins at these matinees. And coffee. There’s always coffee.

And the kids are fantastic.

No, really. Fantastic!

I have been in shows where we had to dodge skittles, M&M’s, spitballs, and (at worst) pennies flying in from the student audience. I have heard slurping sounds coming from the audience during a kiss. I’ve heard two comments from the same kid before and during a sword fight. The first, “They’re just a bunch of sweet boys in tights…” Which, admittedly, entertained not only the audience around him, but the actors as well. The second, after an early head swipe with a rapier, “Nope, they serious…” I have been surrounded by 1,100 students while doing a production of “The Scottish Play” in the round (at 10:30) and when they decided to converse, we had a tough time hearing each other.

But these groups? These groups are heavenly.

I don’t know if it’s the relatively small size of the theatre, the quality of the production, or the intrinsic good manners of these particular students, but they are a joy to play for. And not just because they aren’t making it hard, but because they make it so easy.

These are groups who laugh out loud when something is funny (sometimes adult audiences have to be convinced it’s all right to laugh – after all, this is a tragedy.) The kids are involved in the drama when it arises. (After all, every play is a comedy, until the play can’t hold it anymore. Maybe more on that in a later blog.) These have been my favorite audiences we’ve played to…just joyful and appreciative and open and, let’s be honest, some of them don’t even know how the play turns out.

I have a friend who was going to see a production of All’s Well That Ends Well and he’d never seen it, so he decided to read it first. He’s an actor who’s done a good number of Shakespeare’s plays so I reacted to this news, “Are you crazy?” After all, here he had one of his final chances to see a play written by Shakespeare as if it were a “new” (at least to him) play. Plays, after all, are written to be performed, not read (or at least not read silently). These audiences get to watch Romeo & Juliet, probably for the first time. Now, of course the vast majority of them know the story…but the language spoken by professionals has got to be a first for that same vast majority.

And they have been wonderful.

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At the end of last week’s Teacher Tuesday, I shared a link to a video, Interpreting Shakespeare, with our Master Teacher Sue Biondo-Hench. In one section of the video, around 3:10, Sue breaks her students into groups to interpret and perform a single passage from Henry IV, part 1. They each interpret how performing one character’s speech as a group lends them insight into the text. They don’t have to make natural performance choices as if it is their single moment onstage delivering a soliloquy – rather, they’re approaching the text chorally to show different ways of interpreting complex text with their voices, movements, and group dynamics. This doesn’t necessarily mean they read it all together in unison – they can assign individuals lines or words to make them stand out, whisper or shout, create tableaux (stage pictures) to set the scene or its tone, or anything else they deem necessary to their point.

Choral Reading

Students perform at the 2013 Secondary Festival

A choral approach like this can be especially useful for group discussions. It gets small groups discussing their interpretation, which they then share with the whole class. No group will make all of the same choices, after all, because there are so many different ways to say and do any passage or scene – why not try a bunch and see what works? Discussing everyone’s choices (and knowing that none are “wrong”) gives the students more control and less fear of interpreting the text.

We have a few examples of teaching modules which use a chroal approach:

Complexity of Character in The Merchant of Venice: In this play, especially, no one is wholly “good” or “bad.” In this lesson, high school student groups take on a character apiece and perform one or two passages of text for that character to determine what their character is like, and in what ways they are complicated.

Shakespeare Sound Out: Building Atmosphere: For elementary and ESL/ELL students, getting over the language together is especially easy when approached chorally. With text from Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, students use the rhythm and word choices in the text to determine the tone of the scene, and incorporate their choices into a performance.

Sonnet Performance: Shakespeare’s Sonnets as Scripts: The choral approach can even apply to poetry! As Louisa Newlin and Gigi Bradford say, “Breaking a sonnet down into parts for different speakers and presenting it dramatically can help students to listen carefully to the language and hear different “voices” in the poem.” Students shed some light on these sometimes ambiguous poems to create their own meanings.

How else would you use the choral approach with your class? Other plays, poems, or even books may be ripe fodder for a group to tackle. Have you used a chorus before? How did it go?

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Team Folger will once again have a major presence at next week’s NCTE Conference in Boston. If you’re planning on attending be sure to take part in all of our activities and add a comment below to let us know to look out for you. Here’s what’s on:

The Booth

  1. Stop by to see a demo of the brand new Folger App for Othello
  2. Learn more about the 2014 Teaching Shakespeare Institute
  3. Find out about the Romeo and Juliet Master Class
  4. Record your thoughts on teaching Romeo and Juliet
  5. Meet some of the Folger staff and our team of teachers
  6. Find out about the Folger’s Saturday evening FLASH MOB.

Shakespeare Set Free Sessions On Saturday, beginning at 8:00 am, we will present 5 separate sessions. Here they are:

Act 1: Peggy O’Brien, Mike LoMonico, and Heather Lester  on How Pre-reading Strategies and Activities that Focus on Language Will Ease Your Students into Shakespeare; (Re)Inventing Shakespeare through Performance-based Reading and Writing

Act 2: Holly Rodgers, Kevin Costa, and Julia Perlowski on How Getting Students on Their Feet and Working with Shakespeare’s Language Is Easier than It Sounds

Act 3: Peggy O’Brien, Bill Parsons, and Debbie Gascon on How Tablets, Smartboards, and Web 2.0 Tools Can Get Your Students Closer to Shakespeare’s Texts

Act 4: Rick Vanderwall, Chris Lavold, and Josh Cabat on How to Use Film and Video in an Active Way to Connect Your Students and Shakespeare’s Plays

Act 5: Carol Kelly, Geoff Stanbury, Greta Brasgalla, and Sue Biondo-Hench on Using the Common Core State Standards to Create Meaningful and Authentic Assessments for Your Shakespeare Unit

The Flash Mob: folger-blog-logos_01 Flashmob You have to be there to take part in this amazing experience. Details at the booth and at our sessions. 

So if you plan to come to Boston for the NCTE Conference, add a comment below and we’ll look out for you.

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Inspired, today, by David Tennant‘s affirmation in the power of performing Shakespeare, today we’re rounding up some of our favorite Teacher to Teacher videos about performance in the classroom. Getting students on their feet is one of the most important things we stress about working with Shakespeare’s language – they are, after all, plays!

Teacher to Teacher Title Screen - Performing

What can be nerve-wracking for everyone, though, is the thought of being”onstage.” In your classroom, though, it’s certainly not about putting up a full performance – perhaps not even a whole scene – it’s about saying the words out loud and discovering the action that supports the language and makes it more dynamic.

Some students like getting up to read in front of the class – but a lot may hang back. Get your audience involved as reactors and directors, as explained in these videos by Tory Virchow and Erica Smith:

Finally – see performance-based teaching in action with Sue Biondo-Hench and her students from Carlisle, PA. From group activities to personal reflection, her students find ways to bring Shakespeare’s language to life!

How do you incorporate action in your classroom?

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We know that Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays – though not all of them are taught in our classrooms. We love teaching the recognizable and easily-found HamletMidsummer, Othello, and Macbeth, but there are so many to choose from if you have the time and the inclination to dig deeper. In this week’s Teacher to Teacher videos, teachers like you make the case for the plays they enjoy teaching:

Image

You may remember Gina Voskov’s impassioned post on this very blog, “Fighting With Truth,” in which she described her students’ affinity for learning Shakespeare and her comparison of Titus Andronicus to modern events and other authors. Hear more from Gina in her video, below. 

 

Then, of course, there’s something to be said for a play that can generate fantastic discussions. One of Shakespeare’s more modernly controversial plays, The Merchant of Venice, provides us with ambiguous characters and tough questions. Four of our teachers chose this play, but Dr. Robert Thompson sums it up nicely:

 

Finally, you may already be teaching King Lear, but we love what Gabriel Fernandez has to say about how personally relatable this play is for everyone. It appeals to our love of fairy tales, but does not give us the resolution we want. What can we learn from that?

 

What is your favorite play to teach? Why so? Let us know in the comments!

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