By David Fulco
As the cold weather sets in, the auditorium in a small school gets used more frequently than before. Where in the fall my Shakespeare Troupe had the run of the auditorium after school, now we split the space with cheerleaders, holiday concerts and even the basketball team, which uses the space as a way station before games.
My students need the space for all the things that a troupe normally uses a stage for – blocking, memorization, voice projection – but as seventh graders, they especially need it for confidence. The stage is powerful and it is not something that I can easily replicate in my classroom on our “off” days from the space.
It is impossible though to be completely focused on work during the days that we have the auditorium, especially as we continue our work with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the midst of rehearsing scenes from the first three acts, I was inspired by a group working on Act 3, Scene 2.
During a rather pointed conversation, Oberon sends Robin off to find Helena to try and right the love potion wrong that has been done:
OBERON: By some illusion see thou bring her here.
I’ll charm his eyes against she do appear.
ROBIN: I go, I go, look how I go,
Swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow.
Robin has been a fan favorite among the Troupe so I halted rehearsal and had all of the students line up one behind the other. They each stepped forward and delivered Robin’s line and then darted off the stage “swifter than arrow from Tartar’s bow”.
It was supposed to be a quick exercise, but after the first girl delivered her line and bounded off the stage like a rabbit, the others quickly followed suit. I had a ballerina, Olympic long jumper, acrobat and diva strut, dance and dart off the stage. I asked the students to change their style, intonation and projection as they delivered the lines, and their reward was another crazy trip across the stage.
It may not have been the most productive day we have had, and with space-time at a premium perhaps it would have been a better exercise for my classroom, but hearing my Shakespeare Troupe laughing and enjoying themselves on an otherwise ordinary Wednesday was worth it. It didn’t have to be Shakespeare for them to have a good time, but it was Shakespeare. No one felt overwhelmed by the subject matter; no one cringed. Shakespeare here was and is a positive thing, one filled with laughter and silliness.
I deemed it a success.
The Shakespeare Troupe will be expanding come the new year as our high schoolers (9th and 10th grade only as we continue to grow) will be reading Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night. I have already had some of the older students helping out on scenes. As we progress into our school-wide Shakespeare Monologue Contest in conjunction with the English-Speaking Union, I will have students running monologues during the time that my 7th graders are finishing up their scenes. I look forward to the Troupe stepping up to help the older students with their “dosts” and “thous”.
This first semester has been a greater challenge than I could have ever imagined. I am proud of my students who have not given up on Shakespeare, on me, and most importantly on themselves. I believe that Shakespeare remains one of the last true universally recognized academic challenges and these 12 and 13 year old girls persevered when it certainly would have been easier to join another after school activity.
During a motivational directive a week ago, when I was trying to get the Troupe refocused on the task at hand, I asked them to name the top things that they would have to do in order to be ready to perform their scenes. “Memorize”, “Practice” and “Practice” were mentioned again and again, but not one of them said Shakespeare as being a hindrance to their performance. Shakespeare in December was no longer the intimidating force that he was in August. Now, it is on them.
They go, they go, look how they go.
David Fulco teaches 10th grade English at MS/HS223 in the South Bronx. He is currently looking for a name for his all-girls, 7th grade Shakespeare Troupe. He was a member of TSI 2014.