“When are we getting our costumes?”
It was the third day of my after-school program—Drama (what the kids called it)/Theater (what the school called it)/Shakespeare Troupe (what I called it)—and the kids were getting antsy.
Relying heavily on my class with Caleen Jennings during the 2014 Teaching Shakespeare Institute, I had directed my group of fourteen 7th grade girls through a host of “physicalizing” exercises over the first two days, having them work in groups to show what “Wednesday” looked like, what “Math” looked like, and what “Dismissal at 2:10” looked like.
And we were getting there—at least, when the students weren’t playing in the curtains, or hiding offstage.
But here they were on the Friday that marked the end of the first full week of school. They were in three lines of various lengths and dimensions. Much like I was this past summer at TSI 2014, they were standing in front of an easel with the words to “Oh grim-looked night” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream written in purple Sharpie. They had physicalized every word. We had practiced as a whole troupe and in small groups. And now was the big reveal.
I turned the easel around. It was time for them to perform it from memory.
“Yeah, and when are we getting fairy wings?”
“Do we get fairy wings?”
I had a mutiny on my hands.
Perhaps the eyebrow raisers were right. The ones that told me 7th graders were not ready for Shakespeare. That perhaps I needed to teach drama through a more “relevant” medium that my students could “understand”. That I was going to spend too much time going over plot and vocabulary for the students to ever actually enjoy the play. That teaching Shakespeare was more a vanity project for me than anything that could really help my students.
What was I doing teaching Shakespeare in the South Bronx?
This was, after all, a self-selected group. On the first day of school I gave no less than six different presentations to all of the 7th grade classes trying to convince them to join my after-school group. I unabashedly used (ahem, stole) Michael Tolaydo’s Hamlet “dumb show” lesson that I had enjoyed so much at TSI 2014 and watched with amazement as the students became kings, queens, and hautboys.
Despite the success of those presentations, I was convinced that I would have only about eight students join.
In fact, eighteen signed up. Gen-Ed students, students with IEPs, ELLs, former ELLs, quiet students, troublemakers—kids of all kinds put Shakespeare down as their preferred after-school activity. Something in the “dumb show”—a pantomime—spoke to them and told them that Shakespeare was for them. Told them that Shakespeare was fun.
Either that or they just enjoyed playing the Poisoner – killing a king and usurping a throne.
“We can be girl fairies right?”
“Mister, I’m not playing a boy fairy unless it is the king.”
“Oooo can I be the king?”
I looked down at the easel then. “I fear my Thisbe’s promise is forgot”. It was the last line that the students would say and was the hardest for them to remember. The physicalization of the words had had to change multiple times over our session to help in the memoization and now involved an intricate, two-person “secret handshake” for the word “promise”.
I had made my own promise this summer at TSI 2014 – Shakespeare is for everyone. Shakespeare is as much for my students as he is for students in the suburbs or at private boarding schools.
As Caleen Jennings asked, “Whose Shakespeare is this?”
I looked up at my Troupe.
“OK. If we can get through this whole speech, maybe we can start to talk about fairy wings.”
Stephanie walked from the back line to the front. She stood next to me with a serious look on her face.
“Are we ready? Everybody!”
O grim-looked night! O night with hue so black!
O night, which ever art when day is not!
O night! O night! Alack, alack, alack!
I fear my Thisbe’s promise is forgot.
I need to find a place that carries fairy wings.
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.