In a recent article in The Guardian (1/1/13), Brian Cox talks about his first performance for the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing the lead character in Titus Andronicus which, if you’ve read some of my other blog entries, you’ll remember is my favorite Shakespeare play. Cox notes that the role of Titus was “… the most interesting thing I’ve ever done in the theatre.” That’s no small observation given the wealth of experience Brian Cox has had on the stage. Deborah Warner, one of the first women to direct for the RSC, did an incredible job directing the play. She gave it a life I had never seen before , and I had seen several productions of the play. I traveled with a group teachers, part of an NEH summer institute, that summer, and I remember some of the participants laughing when I said the play was one of my favorites and that I was looking forward to seeing it. They did not share my enthusiasm. The other Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night, was really good, but Titus is what I recall most vividly from that summer. I remember sitting in the audience at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1987 and being mesmerized by the play. It is still one of the most engaging theater experiences I have ever had. I stayed in Stratford an extra weekend just to see it a second time. Reading the piece in The Guardian brought back great memories of a terrific summer studying Shakespeare’s plays in Stratford. Is there a performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays that stands out for you?
Archive for the ‘Acting’ Category
“A play is acting.” (Elementary school student, grade 2)
“For all my reign hath been but as a scene/Acting that argument.” (2 Henry IV, IV.5)
Last week, I had the fortunate opportunity to meet with high school students participating in Folger’s High School Fellowship Program. I was especially fortunately because our guest instructor was Caleen Sinette Jennings, Professor of Theatre at American University. Through an afternoon working with Caleen, I learned several important things about Shakespeare and his language.
1. Each word can be a physical experience. Think about the way little children tell stories. They use their entire bodies to tell the tale. It’s like they can’t help but move and shake and wiggle and engage all of themselves because they are so excited. They act out the story. Shakespeare’s language invites us to do the same. The words are so packed with meaning they burst out of us. If we get up on our feet, it’s almost impossible not to find yourself moving as you say the words out loud. The words are parts of a play—a living thing. They are a series of physical experiences.
2. The behavior of the words provides us with clues into the state of mind of the speaker. Look at a phrase from Shakespeare. In this class, the students acted out Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech. These words are so well known, it’s tempting to just run your eyes over them thinking “yeah, I know this.” Instead, act each word out. Pay attention to words and phrases: nobler in the mind, slings and arrows, outrageous fortune, perchance to dream. Give over to the motions the body associates with the words. You’ll begin to understand Hamlet as you give motion to his words.
3. Sometimes the words fight with each other. Characters try to hold different “truths” in their minds at the same time. Characters deceive each other. Characters struggle to find meaning in experience. All this is expressed in words that are at odds with each other. Let the words fight. Give the words expression with your body that lets them fight. Character’s inner turmoil becomes evident as their words do battle.
4. Shakespeare is not hard to understand when you physicalize it. I’ve seen the light in young people’s eyes as they recognize they do understand the language. They get the meaning. The words make sense. Once they are up on their feet, putting the words into action, it’s not difficult to understand. In fact, it’s very much what they are experiencing in their lives.
Thanks to Caleen and these great students, I literally saw Shakespeare come to life, right before my eyes.
Today’s post is an extra dose of “Just for Fun.” (For those of you who aren’t sure what that is, sign up now for BardNotes: our monthly e-newsletter for educators!)
Yesterday I learned that one of the most iconic voices in entertainment for this generation got his inspiration from having played Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew:
He told me I was an Italian plumber from Brooklyn, so my instinct was to try a gruff and coarse voice – ‘hey you, get outta my face!’
What popped into my brain was a character I’d played in Taming Of The Shrew. I was Petruchio going back to get his wife in Italy, and I was a sort of ‘Mamma mia, nice ol’ Italian guy’. So I thought I’d do something like that. I went on and on about spaghetti and meatballs. After half an hour the producer said, ’cut, stop, we’ve run out of tape!’ And he called Nintendo and said ‘I’ve found our Mario’. Mine was the only tape he sent back.
That’s right: the cheerful, bouncy voice of the Nintendo icon introduced in Super Mario 64 had been inspired by a character from Shakespeare voice actor Charles Martinet had once played.
So when you’re reading the play aloud in your classroom together, encourage the students to play, to experiment with different tones, inflections, accents – making the character something unique to them.
Playing and having fun – like when they’re playing Mario Kart at home. They have to try different tactics or turns and in doing so they create their own style. Acting is about experimenting with your voice and body to find how the character speaks through you.
BONUS: In a search for a good image, I came across this extensive list from a couple of years ago of the many ways Shakespeare has appeared in video games. Enjoy!
Now that summer is here, why not think about taking in a Shakespeare performance? Perhaps you’re thinking about teaching one of the Bard’s plays you’ve never taught before and would like to see it on stage before you do. Or, maybe it’s been a while since you’ve seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed on a starry summer night. How can you find out about a Shakespeare performance near you? Well, there is a website devoted to summer Shakespeare festivals. The website lists theaters across the country and around the world where Shakespeare is being performed. So, whether you’re traveling a short distance from home, or planning to travel far, check out the listings before you go to see if there will be a Shakespeare performance where you’ll be landing. And, if you go, write about it as a response to this blog. It would be great to read about the productions of the plays being seen and how they might help to inform your teaching plans for the fall.
~by Lucretia Anderson
In the olden days, families might sit around the parlor reading Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays together for the day’s entertainment. In 2012 we’re shaking it up! This past Saturday, Danielle Drakes and I had the privilege of working with an enthusiastic mix of 6-12 year olds and their parents in a workshop we called Shakespeare in Action! We had a fabulous time introducing Shakespeare’s language, some swordplay and creating scenes from Macbeth. The children and adults took to it likes flies to honey: immersing themselves in the playfulness of our activities and rollicking in the language of the Bard. Kids loved pelting their parents with Shakespearean insults as well as imaginary snowballs in our warm up activities. The parents didn’t hold back either! Interestingly most of them, including the adults didn’t know much about Macbeth. Once we explained there were swordfights and witches, it was on and it was thrilling to see these families engage with Shakespeare so fully.
The morning went by so quickly that we should have called it Shakespeare on the Fly! But sometimes doing drive by Shakespeare leaves them eager for more which was our intention!
What was really great for us was to find out the reasons families chose to attend a Shakespeare workshop in a dark theatre on a bright sunny Saturday morning with the Cherry Blossom Festival blooming all around us. Besides the young boys who came mainly for the sword fighting, most of the parents just really wanted to expose their children to Shakespeare in a different way than they’d been taught. Also, having the chance to do something together that was out of the ordinary also seemed to have a certain appeal. For the kids, I think the experience is priceless. It’s one thing to learn about Shakespeare and the plays at school, it is quite another to really experience the work with your first teachers, mom and dad.
What was your family’s exposure to Shakespeare? How are your kids experiencing Shakespeare now?
We take a break from this Festival week to discuss clothing and costumes in Shakespeare’s plays. Though costumes are not required or even recognized in our Festival, there’s definitely a lot to discuss about them!
~by Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger
Clothing and identity are intricately woven (pun sort of intended) in Shakespeare’s own world and in that of his plays. In London, where Shakespeare lived and worked and where his plays were performed to large audiences, “Sumptuary Laws” were strictly enforced. These laws were used to control the behavior of the queen’s subjects and stipulated what people could spend on various household items, including food, furniture, jewelry, and clothing. Beyond what people of various social status could spend on clothes, the laws dictated who could wear what: only members of the Royal Family were permitted to wear clothes trimmed with ermine; lesser nobles were permitted to wear cloaks trimmed with fox. The vast marjority of Londoners were not permitted to wear any fur trim at all. Colors and fabric was also strictly dictated, especially in the “Statues of Apparel.”
In other words, you knew a great deal about a person—income, social status, and importance—just by paying attention to what he or she wore.
Shakespeare used this association between clothing and identity, and uses that association to great advantage. In Hamlet, Polonius proclaims “Apparel oft proclaims the man” (I.iii, 70)—an effectively way of reminding the audience that clothing has a great deal to do with identify and personality. Productions sometimes make dramatic use of this idea, as in a production of Henry IV where Prince Hal must evolve from the young ruffian who hangs out in taverns to the young man who will become king (and eventually lead his nation in war in Henry V). When the character is transformed, he leaves behind his common clothing and is dressed in a golden suit of armor. Even his gait is transformed as he walks stiffly toward Falstaff. Still dressed in the common attire of their ale house days, Falstaff cannot help but be aware of the character’s complete transformation.
Once this connection is established, Shakespeare turns it upside down by having characters disguise themselves and sometimes switch clothing. One of Shakespeare’s common clothing/identity techniques is to have a male actor portray a female character who is dressed as a man. The audience was aware of these layers of true and false identity when they saw Rosalind become Ganymede or Viola become Cesario. Identity traveled from one actor to another in a play like The Taming of the Shrew when Tranio impersonates Lucentio by wearing his clothes. Shakespeare regularly posed the question: “Know’st me not by my clothes?”
The association of identity with clothing is no longer controlled by the queen, but it is no less evident in today’s society than it was in Shakespeare’s. What do students think of Shakespeare’s use of clothing to create and confuse notions of identity? What does clothing mean to their identity? What elements of costume can you use in your classroom to explore these connections?
Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger is the Docent Liason for Folger Education, and a published writer for Calliope magazine. Carol Ann is also, now, one of our most frequent contributors!
Posted in Acting, Activity Idea, Folger Education, Folger Library, History, introducing Shakespeare, Macbeth, Performance, Romeo and Juliet, Teaching, Technology in the Classroom, YouTube on 02/07/2012 | Leave a Comment »
“Speak the speech, I pray you, … trippingly on the tongue,” Hamlet’s advice to the players.
When teachers assign their students to perform a scene from a play by William Shakespeare, what should their students do to get ready? How can teachers best support their students in preparing their scenes? Steer them away from “translated” texts of the play, for starters. Students can handle Shakespeare’s language. Help them to understand the language. How can using a performance-based teaching approach help? Performance-based teaching promotes getting students up and on their feet, speaking Shakespeare’s language out loud; it is a close reading of the text using intellectual, vocal, and physical exercises to make sense of it.
On March 6th, from 1-2 pm EST, teachers and their students from around the country will be able to visit the Folger Shakespeare Library without leaving their classrooms. Experiencing Shakespeare is a free one-hour trip that will take students into the vault of the Library to see rare books and to talk with Dr. Michael Witmore, Director, about the treasures contained within it. They’ll hear from scholar, Dr. Gail Kern Paster, about the ways scholars examine texts to look at language, watch students and actors engage Shakespeare’s text as they prepare to perform scenes, and they’ll have the opportunity submit their own performances of Shakespeare’s work to be included in the program. In short, students and teachers will be involved in the intellectual, physical, and vocal exercises and activities they need to do in order to engage Shakespeare’s text and make meaning of it for themselves.
Join teachers and students from around the country on their journey to find out what they need to know to put Shakespeare’s language up on its feet in this hour-long electronic field trip. Register by clicking here.
~by Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger
No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
But by reflection, by some other things.
(Julius Caesar, I.2)
A few days ago, I had the opportunity to meet with several 10th graders who were studying Othello. The classroom teacher let me loose, so after a very brief discussion (which consisted of my asking “what do you know already about Shakespeare and Othello?” and gathering up their responses to show them how much they do know), I had them up on their feet speaking the language.
As students sometimes are, these kids were a little put off by Shakespeare’s language. On the page, it felt stilted and even boring to them. But once they put themselves into the action, using their bodies and voices to bring life to the words, they discovered (in one student’s words) “Shakespeare is not that bad.” In fact, some were quite stunned to realize (to quote another student) “Othello is super duper cool.”
Most of the class was spent acting out—pushing the desks and chairs out of the way and creating short scenes. Students demonstrated how daws would peck at Iago’s heart if he wore it on his sleeve, showed how Iago would snatch the handerkerchief away from Emilia, and reveled in the final scene with all the death.
It’s tempting to end a class with all this action and send students on their way in this great mood. However, instead I had them answer five questions, in writing, to reflect on their experience and what they had learned. Giving them this opportunity is a final, satisfying piece in experience-based learning: putting the learning into their own words in their own context for their own lives. I asked students what they had learned and how that learning might help them in other classes or other areas of their lives. There were no “right” or “wrong” answers, just an opportunity for students to think about what they had done and how it mattered.
Some of my favorite comments from this group were:
The most helpful activity was the portraying of lines in different ways. It showed how acting the lines differently changed the meaning of the words.
When we talked about how the plays were not meant to be read then. That helps me to imagine when I read more Shakespeare in the future, to picture it being in a theater so I can understand it better.
It was helpful seeing people in class act out the scenes according to the play, not professional actors in a movie.
I understand more how Shakespeare plays were acted out in the Globe theater. Like how loud the actors had to be and how they used animal blood and how they acted with people being very noisy and thieves in the crowd stealing money.
It was helpful discussing different ways the characters could be portrayed and seeing them portrayed. It helped me understand the depth of the characters.
I think the most helpful part for me was when we talked about how to make your expression in your voice help the audience understand what the words mean.
It was helpful hearing and seeing the lines acted out instead of just reading them on paper.
Acting out the scenes was helpful because I got to understand how the language contributes to the performance.
We are now Shakespearean actors!
How do you encourage to students think about what they are learning and make Shakespeare more than words on a page?
Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger is the Docent Liason for Folger Education, and a published writer for Calliope magazine. Carol Ann is also, now, one of our most frequent contributors!
Happy holiday break! I hope you’re enjoying your week off from school (if you have one)! This week I’ll be sharing two activity ideas from Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger on helping students experience Shakespeare to overcome their expectations of the language and text. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, and let us know how your first semester went, or what your plans are for the coming one!
We are sometimes asked for help from teachers whose students are having trouble with not only the language, but the plot of a play. For example, I was recently asked by a young friend’s teacher if I could come and talk to her class about Othello, which they are currently studying.
The questions I ask myself when preparing for something like this is: How can I help students understand language they don’t expect to understand and follow a plot they expect is too hard to follow? How do I help them overcome their expectations?
The Folger’s approach is to give the students activities that help them experience Shakespeare, to help his world come to life off of the page.
Sometimes, especially if the students are fairly new to Shakespeare, I’ll begin with having the kids act out theatre in Shakespeare’s time with a simple role-playing exercise shared with us by another Docent earlier this year. A few students will be “groundlings” with permission to behave badly: shout out during the performance, eat, drink, and generally make a scene. A couple of students will sit on the “stage area” as the wealthiest playgoers did. Their goal is not to see the play, but to be seen, so they are encouraged to call attention to themselves. A few more students are merchants, who must sell all their wares if they want to make a living and feed their families. A couple will take the role of “cut purse” and move stealthily about the crowd, stealing whatever they can without getting caught. Now I ask some players to be ready to take the stage in a 3,000 seat outdoor theatre, recognizing they have no microphones and if the groundlings are not impressed they are likely to pelt the players with rotten fruit. At this point I bring in a student to play Shakespeare. What does he need to do to get and keep the attention of this crazy crowd?
Having the students experience this for a few minutes, with chaos and laughter and movement, teaches them infinitely more than my standing in front of them and telling them about Shakespeare’s theatre and time. They recognize that Shakespeare must have done something pretty remarkable to have had so much success getting that crowd to hear the play. The play must, somehow, be more interesting than it seems sitting there on the page.
This is, of course, the whole point. The play isn’t sitting on a page, it’s alive and active. On Thursday, I’ll be sharing an example of a scene from Othello which students can use to play with the language Shakespeare provided.
Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger is the Docent Liason for Folger Education, and a published writer for Calliope magazine.
The internet is full of stories of hope, which are shared over and over again as a way of boosting each other’s spirits. This one especially resonated when it was shared with us not only because Shakespeare’s words reached across the centuries to buoy this writer, but because they reached him out loud. This is the essence of what students take away from performance-based learning experiences. “I found myself discovering that the whole point of the project — to simply read the plays aloud — got me halfway to understanding the text. ”
I’ll give the rest of this post to author DG Strong’s own words (with some emphasis from me), and encourage you to read the full article, How Shakespeare got me through Unemployment. Does your community have a program like this? Have any students enjoyed a similar experience? Let us know in the comments!
“As far back as high school, Shakespeare seemed like something I could admire but never truly love or understand. Like everyone ever born, I had to memorize and recite (disastrously, in the end) Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech in English class, but that was about the extent of my Shakesperience. But here I was, in a roomful of everyday people, reading in their everyday voices, and as the lines flew by and the pages turned, I saw — or, rather, heard — a whole world opening up to me. Shakespeare no longer seemed impenetrable. And I had a sneaky feeling there was nothing going on in my life that he didn’t have an angle on. If I showed up every month, I’d discover them all.
The first few times I hid in the corner and read along silently. It took a few months before a freakishly low turnout forced me to sit at the grown-up table and read aloud from “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” At first, it wasn’t exactly a natural feeling, and no matter how many times I peeked ahead to see which line I’d get, the words never quite tripped off my tongue. I mangled a lot of lines. But there was no denying the thrill I felt when I managed to get to the end of a longish speech and realized there was a grin a mile wide on my face. Suddenly I wanted all the long speeches, all the big moments. From that moment on, the library would have to be on fire for me to give up my reading chair.”