Smart Summers: The Play's The Thing

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The Oregon Shakespeare Festival aims to liberate Shakespeare from the textbook and get kids to do what the Bard intended: perform.

Matt Leggett is Othello. Tall, blond, and mustachioed, the high school drama teacher in the faded William Shakespeare T- shirt is no Moor. Nevertheless, Matt Leggett is Othello. He stands at the center of a classroom in Ashland, Oregon, his face contorted with rage, his right fist clenched, a yellow sheet of paper clutched in his trembling left hand. "Like to the Pontic sea," he cries:

Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont;
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up.

Leggett sinks to his knees as several teachers standing in the background step forward to swallow him up.

Welcome to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "Shakespeare in the Classroom," a workshop that aims to revolutionize the way Shakespeare is taught in schools. No longer, the festival's organizers hope, will students sit slumped in their desks as a classmate falters through Hamlet's lines. Nor will they be forced to sit quietly as teachers play scratchy recordings of ponderous British productions. Instead, like Leggett, they'll act out speeches, they'll fire Elizabethan insults at each other, and they'll be on their feet, with Shakespeare's words in their mouths.

More than 90 percent of American high schools require that students read Shakespeare's plays. Yet, while his works arguably contain the most eloquent language, the most explicit vocabulary, of any classroom literature, students find him incomprehensible. His plays overflow with sexual passion, murder, magic, and war, yet high schoolers find them dry and boring. Modern culture-from movies to self- help books-steals his words, his plots, and his characters, yet students think his relevance died long ago.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival blames neither students nor teachers for this classroom malaise. After all, high schoolers flocked to see Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in Romeo and Juliet, and many teachers worship the Bard. Instead, the festival blames the long-standing academic tradition of treating Shakespeare's plays as literary texts rather than scripts, as words to be read rather than performed. In this, it joins a growing number of Shakespeare-centered institutions that insist that the Bard cannot be taught without dramatics, without acting, and without performance. In short, Shakespeare's plays should be taught as plays.

Ashland lies nestled among the forested Siskiyou Mountains in southern Oregon. A small town populated with aging hippies, college students, and theater-types, Ashland's main business is bardolatry. The Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan and Bowmer theaters loom over the downtown park, while the more intimate Black Swan occupies a key spot on the main drag. More than 48,000 tourists swarm the town each year, staying at places like the "Bard's Inn," "All's Well and As You Like It Guest Cottages," and "A Midsummer's Dream Bed and Breakfast." In between plays, they amble past shop windows stocked with high-end crafts, New Age books, and mugs embossed with Shakespearean quotes.

A local college professor organized the first festival in 1935, offering performances of Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice-prefaced by boxing matches. It has since grown to be one of the biggest and best of the many Shakespeare festivals around the country. It puts on 11 plays-both Elizabethan and modern-during an eight-month season.

Over the past two decades, the festival has done a great deal of educational outreach, drafting off-season actors to hold Shakespeare workshops at schools throughout the West. It also hosts weekend classes on individual plays for teachers who plan to bring their students to Ashland. This is not charity work: Student groups are money makers, accounting for 18 percent of tickets sold in 1998. And the future beckons: The festival wants to ensure that it attracts the next generation of theater-goers. "Obviously, we're interested in having an audience in 20 years," says Joan Langley, the festival's director of education.

To that end, OSF is out to cultivate teachers as Shakespearean ambassadors. "If one of our jobs as festival people is to be sure that there is theater for the next generation," explains Hilary Tate, OSF's director of publications and sometime dramaturg, "then teachers are our partners." The week-long "Shakespeare in the Classroom," which is usually taught by Langley and Tate twice a summer, is the festival's way of ensuring that Shakespeare comes alive in schools. Although Langley and Tate don't have much experience in the classroom-Tate describes her stint teaching in Kingman, Arizona, as the worst year of her life-they've honed the course's curriculum through workshops they've held for students in Ashland and elsewhere.

Langley and Tate begin each day of the course with a warm-up game. On the first morning, Tate-a serene woman wearing flowing clothes and owl-like glasses-grabs a koosh ball and rouses the teachers out of their seats. Filling only a fraction of the vast classroom that Langley has commandeered from the local university, they stand self-consciously in a circle, ready to offer an introduction as soon as Tate tosses the koosh their way. They're a varied lot: They teach 3rd grade through college, English and drama, in public and private schools. Some are just starting out, while others are winding down their careers. A healthy mix of men and women, they're all white, all seemingly middle class, and all enormously fond of Shakespeare. They're here because they're not quite sure how to share their enthusiasm with students.

Take Jackie Davis-Martin. The veteran English teacher at a big public high school in Alameda, California, speaks for many when she admits that she's done little more with her Shakespeare lessons than play an audio recording for her students. Although she's never had a kid dislike Shakespeare, she wants students to perform, or at least speak, the playwright's words.

Then there's Lu Ann Pederson, a middle school drama teacher from Corvallis, Oregon. Even though her students have performed Shakespeare on stage, she worries that they often don't quite get it. "A lot of the time," she says, "they were saying words without knowing what they were getting across."

Once the introductory games are out of the way, Langley and Tate demonstrate how to break down Shakespeare's language for students. Langley calls 10 volunteers to the front of the classroom for an exercise in iambic pentameter. Giving each a copy of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, she tells them to read the first line, one person and one syllable at a time. It sounds like this: "But SOFT, what LIGHT through YON-der WIN-dow BREAKS?" They read the next line: "It IS the EAST, and JU-liet IS the SUN."

Peggy Painter, a normally ebullient woman who teaches with Matt Leggett in Richland, Washington, whines that her syllables are boring. Langley pounces on her words: "Why do you think that is?" she asks in the clear diction that betrays her dramatic training. Because the unstressed words aren't important, replies Painter. The lesson is delivered: Shakespeare cleverly used not only words, but also the sounds that words make, to emphasize what is important-the words "light" and "sun" to describe Juliet, for example. Iambic pentameter is the bane of many a unit on Shakespeare, but Langley explains that meter often provides clues to meaning. "Othello breaks down in prose," she says, "while Iago triumphs in verse." Othello is so overwrought, chimes in Painter (who has recovered her equanimity), that "he can't find his way into verse."

This iambic pentameter exercise is one of the many games that Tate and Langley teach. Others introduce language and plot in a similar way, gently leading students to an understanding of Shakespeare through group activities. To navigate the complicated plot of Richard III, for example, Tate assigns everyone a role in the royal family tree and then asks questions. She says to the person representing Richard, "If you want to be king, who do you have to kill?" He surveys the family tree and realizes, "I have to kill the king and his son, my brother and his sons," and so on. The students can see Richard's motivation spread out before them.

In between the games, Langley and Tate lead discussions on incorporating the games into the classroom. They also introduce lectures by festival actors and oversee a crash course in Elizabethan dancing.

But what does any of this have to do with English lessons? A lot, if one accepts the performance advocates' claim that English class should introduce students to the pure aesthetic pleasure of language, should show them the power of the well-written word. That, says Langley, is why kids need to say the playwright's words aloud, to experience the pleasure of powerful words rolling off the tongue. "We moderns have lost the sensual connection to the experience of language: the muscular, musical act of articulation-the feeling that certain sounds create and release in our bodies," writes Edward Gero, a member of the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., in the April 1999 issue of the journal Basic Education. But teenagers haven't yet lost that connection, says Langley. "They love juicy language, especially profanities."

Today's kids may not have the verbal sophistication of Shakespeare's original audience-the Elizabethans had nearly twice the working vocabulary, by some estimates, that the college-educated among us are reputed to have-but they retain a certain aural savvy.

"If you listen to the best of rap," says Sir Richard Eyre, former artistic director of the Royal National Theatre, during a discussion on the future of Shakespeare on BBC Radio in London, "it's composed of very dense and utterly rhythmic language." Kids haven't translated their rapping abilities to Shakespeare because they haven't been taught how to take in the words. Or given a compelling reason to try.

As part of her opening lecture, Langley demonstrates her foolproof method of persuading kids that Shakespeare is worth the effort. She picks out the coolest guy among a group of students-we'll call him "Joe"-and tells him to imagine that it is the Monday morning after an incredibly hectic weekend-he had a soccer tournament, a family reunion, and a huge school project. Joe's opening his locker when he sees his girlfriend, and she looks mad.

"Doh!" he remembers-Langley says this with perfect teenage inflection-"I was supposed to call her this weekend." Langley then asks "Joe" what he would say in that situation.

The boy usually shrugs and mumbles, "Um, I don't know. I guess, 'sorry.'"

"Maybe you should try this," says Langley, and she launches into Sonnet 109:

O never say that I was false of heart
Though absence seemed my flame to qualify,
As easy might I from my self depart,
As from my soul which in thy breast doth lie.

"Now, wouldn't that be better?" asks Langley.

For many of the teachers, the nightly plays are the highlight of the festival's course. The morning after the class attends a production of The Three Musketeers-an original adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' 19th-century novel-Langley breaks the teachers into three groups and asks each to distill the play's plot into a single tableau. One group hits a creative wall quickly: They need nine people for the tableau but have only eight. "Psst!" one of them whispers to a bystander. "Psst! We need you to be the queen." The bystander studiously ignores him. "Psst! Psst!" Soon the bystander has no choice but to get up and pretend to be the queen by haughtily splaying her fingers into a fan. After the applause dies, the bystander returns to her notebook to find that Painter has scribbled a critique of her performance: "Relatively reluctant," Painter wrote, "but demonstrated great subtlety of body characterization."

"Relatively reluctant" is a sentiment shared by many of the shy among us when it comes to acting-a fact that makes the idea of schoolkids across America learning the Bard through performance seem rather fanciful. Proponents like Langley and Tate are asking English teachers to do no less than transform their classrooms into theaters and themselves into actors. Teachers may perform before students every day, but it's one thing to give a lecture and another thing to pretend to be Othello consumed with rage. And then there are the teenagers paralyzed with self-consciousness: "It's really important to lead up to this kind of stuff slowly, especially if you are dealing with adolescents," Langley explains. "They get really intimidated, really embarrassed." But unlike drama classes, English doesn't usually involve exercises to make students comfortable. More typically, the lead-up to a unit on Shakespeare is a month of quiet discussions about, say, the Odyssey-hardly an adequate introduction to dramatics.

The movement to teach Shakespeare through performance also faces some logistical hurdles. Many of the activities recommended by the Shakespeare festival require a lot of space and make a lot of noise. English classrooms crowded with rows of desks may not be the best place to chant and stamp iambic pentameter, especially if the class next door is taking a test.

Finally, educators who advocate bringing Shakespeare to life through acting games and word play are challenging a lingering convention that Shakespeare should be read, not seen or heard, in the classroom. Long ago, school Shakespeare was kidnapped by academics who insisted that the playwright's true brilliance could not be appreciated unless one pored over his lines, reading and re-reading and reading them again. The fact that his plays are scripts written to be performed was irrelevant. It is "an indisputable certainty," wrote the 19th-century English poet Algernon Swinburne, "that Shakespeare never wrote merely for the stage, but always with an eye on the future and studious reader, who would be competent and careful to appreciate what his audience and his fellow actors could not."

Though neither state curriculum standards nor the National Council of Teachers of English adheres to the Swinburnian view-state standards ignore the Bard, while the NCTE is holding a conference this March called "Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance"-Swinburne has a powerful ally in modern English textbooks. Rex Gibson, author of Teaching Shakespeare, a key resource for performance-based instruction, describes an edition of Macbeth that begins with a 53-page introduction written in dense, academic prose. The play itself then opens with only four lines of Shakespeare-"When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?"-before it is interrupted by 52 half-lines of explanation. Though such an edition might be perfect for scholars, it will hardly seduce wary high schoolers.

Other textbooks are less pedantic but similarly directed at the "studious reader," according to Janet Field-Pickering, head of education at the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C., and a leading proponent of active Shakespeare instruction. Take Romeo and Juliet, she says. A staple in 9th grade textbooks, the play is usually shoehorned into an easy-to-teach format. Every scene is followed by discussion questions about the plot-a structure that assumes students are just reading for the facts. The scenes most likely to capture the attention of hormone-crazed teens-some of Juliet's sexier speeches, for instance-are often cut drastically.

It's no wonder then that, according to a recent study of Shakespeare instruction, most students leave high school with a hazy memory of the plays and no intention of ever revisiting them. In contrast, the study found, students who participated in an acting company's educational outreach program said "with virtual unanimity" that they had understood and grown to love the Bard's plays.

Adina Lawson's junior high students certainly have become Shakespeare fans since she returned from the Oregon festival. The Eureka, California, teacher reports that three of them came to school sick one day this past fall rather than miss Romeo and Juliet. Lawson, who teaches at a program that preps troubled kids for high school, credits the activities she learned at the festival with exciting her students-and herself. She describes how her kids kicked pillows to emphasize the changing thoughts in a speech, danced in a re-enactment of the Capulet ball, and stood on their desks brandishing swords. "I'm getting chills just talking about it," she says.

For Lawson's kids, at least, Shakespeare is alive and well.

Vol. 11, Issue 4, Pages 38-42

Published in Print: January 1, 2000, as Smart Summers: The Play's The Thing
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Web Resources
  • Learn more about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
  • The Folger Shakespeare Library, an independent research library located in Washington, D.C., offers a wide range of education programs about the Bard.
  • England's Reading University maintains Shakespeare's Globe, which includes information about the historic theater where Shakespeare's plays were performed as well as about the construction of a facsimile of the building near the original site.
  • The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, located in Stratford-upon-Avon in the United Kingdom, preserves the author's birthplace as a national monument.
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