Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Singing in the Rain

~by Jessica Lander
(re-printed with permission)
Where better to teach Macbeth than in a monsoon?
When shall we three meet again?  In thunder, lightening, or in rain?
That’s exactly what we did one muggy July afternoon when the ominous skies finally split, releasing a torrential downpour.
For an hour already we had been rehearsing indoors with the three teenagers cast as the prophetic witches of Macbeth. But, the result still wasn’t right. Despite their hard work, the students’ cackling voices were stilted, their gestures artificial.
But with the rains stabbing the windows I had the harebrained idea of taking our rehearsal outdoors.  Luckily, my students were just as excited and we all thundered down the stairs and out the front door – raising more than a few eyebrows from the other young thespians practicing in the halls.
The weird sisters hand in hand, posters of the sea and land!  
The three girls danced in the storm.  They yelled their lines to the waterlogged clouds.  They spun in circles, throwing their linked arms out, embracing the heavens.
As the sky cleared we traipsed, dripping, back inside.  Back upstairs, back to rehearsal.
But something had clicked: they no longer acted out the witches, they embodied them.
For the last two years I’ve taught at the bookends of teenagedom – college students in Chiang Mai last year and middle-schoolers in Charlestown this year.  But this summer I had an opportunity to see what happens in between the two.
Throughout the school year I had interned with the locally-based Actors’ Shakespeare Project, which, besides producing a great season of Shakespeare, sustains a vibrant education arm – teaching the Bard in schools, in after-schools and in lock-up facilities.
When my school year ended, I joined their amazing teaching team, under director and professional actor, Jason Bowen.
When most teens might prefer to be sunbathing on the beach or cooling off at a neighborhood pool, nineteen students – ages 13 through 19 – chose to spend three weeks of their vacation studying Shakespeare.
Our ensemble came from all across the Boston area.  They came from the suburbs and they came from the heart of the city.  They came from public schools and exams schools and private schools.  Some had previously come from youth detention centers or were once in city gangs.  They came with years of acting camps and school plays and they came with no formal theatrical training.  And every morning they converged on the small converted fire-station that became our joint home for a large part of July.
Very quickly I realized I was not in middle school any more.
Within two short days, our collection of strangers had transformed into a supportive and engaged ensemble.  In contrast to my sixth-graders, with whom I had to devote large portions of time to juggling behaviors and attitudes, here in the stage-lit black box, everyone came ready to learn and more importantly, to experiment.
We took the group outside and had them yell Shakespearean insults at each other with so much force that dog walkers and passing cars slowed down and stared.
We worked one on one with students: Lady Macbeth rolled and screamed as she explored the sleep walking scene; Ross ran up and down stairs, up and down, up and down before delivering, out of breath, the victorious news to King Duncan; the Porter walked around with a balloon under his shirt attempting to mimic a drunken stagger.
And students worked on their own – in corners of the upstairs rooms, on the stairs, in the front hall.  They scribbled notes in the margins of their scripts, they checked and rechecked different translations, and they repeated their lines under their breath – over and over and over.
Differences in age and experience and background dropped away.
Two girls playing Lady Macbeth got genuinely excited to look up etymologies in the two-volume Shakespeare lexicon.   The boys playing Macbeth took their work home and stayed up several nights past midnight (once til 2 am) studying their lines.
Friendships were formed over blockings of stage fights, experimentation with silly accents, and concocting of fake blood (equal parts chocolate and strawberry sauce).  It was a space where being a Shakespeare scholar was “Cool”.
At the end of three weeks we swept the stage, rechecked the light cues and opened the doors of our theater to admit our audience.
If only all classrooms were black-box theaters: there is no better place to learn.   No desks, no pencil shavings, no wall clocks.
Paradoxically, acting allows students the freedom to act like themselves.
In school, students are consumed with adopting personas that establish them within the hierarchy of their peers.
But, in the black box, demure students learn to scream and cocky ones to cry.  Everyone gets to yell Shakespearean insults at each other and then, ten minutes later, to clasp hands.
By lunchtime each day, our ensemble would have attempted so many characters that slouching back into school personas seemed silly.
And that’s when the real learning took place.
Our black box Shakespeare theater granted our students the permission and the freedom to yell and laugh and dance and sing in the rain.
Jessica Lander has taught  English to Thai university students, art to Burmese refugee children and Shakespeare to inner-city Boston middle-schoolers. In her blog, Chalk Dust,  she chronicles her experiences as an educator in excellent prose. We look forward to collaborating with Jessica for future blog posts!

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