Teaching Shakespeare!

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The Action to the Word: Gesture as Close Reading

Zach Appelman (Henry V), Henry V, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2013. Scott Suchman.
Zach Appelman (Henry V) in Henry V, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2013. Photo by Scott Suchman.

By Kevin J. Costa

This past June, I attended the Michael Chekhov Association’s annual International Conference and Workshop in New London, CT. MICHA is an international organization that offers, among other things, intensive actor training each summer for people interested in Chekhov’s psycho-physical approach to the art of acting.

While Chekhov’s approach owes considerable debt to the theories of Constantin Stanislavski — as just about all approaches do from the 20th and 21st centuries — Chekhov’s crucial innovation was to explore the necessary link between outer, physical training of the body and its ability to develop a rich inner-life for the actor.

At the center of all this work is the notion of “the gesture” (most importantly, what Chekhov called the “Psychological Gesture”) and what work on gesture can allow us to discover as artistic possibilities in ourselves.

This got me thinking, of course, to the often physical approach Folger Education encourages teachers and students to practice when studying Shakespeare. Whether creating frozen pictures, embodying images with movement, or putting on whole scenes, students around the world who study Shakespeare through performance and through kinesthetic means have an awful lot in common with Michael Chekhov’s students.

And they also discover, quite readily, that it leads to compelling intellectual discoveries about complex texts. Why, then, is physical engagement with text important — important beyond merely giving lip-service to the fact that these are plays?

On one level, getting kids up on their feet engages them in very active ways that lectures and straight rows don’t. But, as I’ve been discovering in my work as an actor with Michael Chekhov’s work, there may be more to this, for Chekhov believed that practice with movement, gesture, and other physical exercises provided a powerful, immediate, and — importantly — critical understanding for the actor of a character, of a play.

Joanna Merlin, Chekhov’s student, says in the DVD series, Master Classes in the Michael Chekhov Technique, “He didn’t mean don’t ever use your mind  . . . he was a great intellectual . . . He realized that that was the last thing you go to rather than the first, which I think is very important in terms of rehearsal process.”

Isn’t this also very important in the literature classroom as well? If we think of the ELA classroom as a laboratory for thinking, why not begin somewhere else rather than with silent reading and the intellectual hunt for meaning? Many of us have experienced how dreary this can be for students.

A classroom should be a lab, so experiment! We too often don’t experiment, however, because physical engagement with the text doesn’t look like an intellectual pursuit on the surface. But let’s imagine that you gave students the following lines from the opening Chorus in Henry V:

O, for a muse of fire that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword, and
Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraisèd spirits that hath dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object. Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

And let’s say that you asked the group to “tell” these lines physically — in fact, let that be the only direction you give them. What would happen?

They could do it because their bodies would know what to do. Some students would “ascend” while other students would “swell.” You’d see “brightest heaven” and “warlike Harry” appear before you. “Hounds” would “crouch,” and I rather suspect you’d see a “Wooden O” somewhere in the mix. Would this be fun? Would it be a lab? Yes and yes. It would also be a close reading of a complex passage. Yes! Imagery, operative words, verbs — you would be addressing all of this in a student-centered and creative way.

This approach, I believe, would be much more enjoyable than an “explication de texte,” which can easily put them to sleep in confining desks (say, after lunch!). But is it rigorous? Yes, again! Okay, so you’ve done this exercise once, and you think they need to read more closely. Great. Have them do it again. But now they can proceed with the new knowledge they constructed in a discussion, which you facilitated, after their original telling. The work is bound to get richer for you and for them.

Michael Chekhov wasn’t an English teacher, but he understood how people understand the world and themselves. So go ahead and suit an action to a word — I think you’ll like what you see.


Kevin J. Costa, PhD, is a Teaching Shakespeare Institute 2010 alumnus and Director of the Fine and Performing Arts at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, MD.

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