~by Josh Cabat
It is a trope with which we have become extremely familiar, from endless reality shows higher quality fare like Modern Family and The Office. A scene is played out, only to be interrupted by what in the business is known as a cutaway. Here, the character breaks the fourth wall, addresses the audience directly and describes what was going through his or her head while the action of the scene was happening. Perhaps they might offer some analysis of their own actions or comment upon the actions of others; perhaps they will reveal their deepest fears and wishes. Perhaps they will offer predictions and hopes for what is to come, and maybe even reveal plans for how they intend to accomplish those ends. Does this sound familiar?
Yes, it could be The Situation in Jersey Shore, or a conniving member of this season’s cast of Survivor. But this also describes the opening of Richard III or Macbeth’s dagger fantasia. It is a small stretch to say that today’s ubiquitous cutaways have their roots in the kind of intimate revelation to an audience that was essentially perfected, if not invented, by Shakespeare in his use of the soliloquy. So while I may not be entirely comfortable having Rosalind and Snooki this close together in a sentence, it is certain that our students’ familiarity with the cutaway is an easy path towards approaching the subtext of the plays and the rich interior life of Shakespeare’s characters.
To put this to the test, try this simple exercise, as I did with my 9th graders in our reading of Romeo and Juliet. You can begin in one of two ways; either have the students perform the scene themselves and film it, or rip a pre-existing scene (no longer than 3 minutes’ worth, if you please). We chose the latter approach in addressing the meeting of the play’s doomed lovers in Act I, scene v. Students in each group chose the roles they wanted to play, and as a group came up with the questions that they wanted each character to respond to. For example, the students wanted to know how Tybalt felt when he saw a Montague at his family party but was restrained by Capulet from doing anything about it, or what Romeo was planning to do once he realized the identity of his newfound love. The students playing the respective roles had to come up with answers, in modern English but supported by Shakespeare’s text.
Finally, the students filmed their answers to the questions. After editing them down, they loaded them onto iMovie and intercut them at the appropriate moments of the original clip they had downloaded. They added simple titles, such as the character’s name as their cutaways play out, and that was it. The beauty of this activity was that the students were forced, as any actor or close reader would be, to comb through the text to find support for their character’s responses. I invite you to check out the result, “Modern Families (Both Alike in Dignity)” on YouTube here. As a way inside their characters’ heads, using this trope with which they are so familiar was both intuitive and fun.
Josh Cabat is the Chair of English of the Roslyn, NY Public Schools. He was the co-founder of the NYC Student Shakespeare Festival, and is currently a Teaching Artist at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He is an alumnus of the Folger TSI from 1993, and earned his MA in English Literature from the University of Chicago and his BA in English Literature from Columbia University.
Josh has previously written for Folger Education in his post Vindication: Coriolanus and the Modern Audience.