Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

“O, for a moose of fire": Taking cues from the Adirondack Shakespeare Company

Adirondack Shakespeare Company Flag
Adirondack Shakespeare Company

By Josh Cabat

I imagine it’s a dream that many English teachers secretly harbor. You leave it all behind and join a band of players who travel from small town to small town in a beautiful and remote area, performing works by Shakespeare and others in repertory.

In some ways, it’s about as pure as it gets, and that purity came through in every wonderful, ragtag moment of the recent production of 1 Henry IV as staged by the Adirondack Shakespeare Company.

The performance was held this past August in Schroon Lake, New York, at the Art Deco-era Strand Theater (whose survival is about as miraculous as young Hal’s victory at Agincourt two plays later), and was part of a summer repertory program that included all four plays in this Henriad, as well as The Tempest (in addition to an event down the lake a bit at the old grounds of Scaroon Manor where the audience got to choose the Shakespeare play they wanted to see on the spot).

What the audience got to see at these performances was what company co-founder Tara Bradway refers to as “Shakespeare in the Raw.” In this experimental technique, all production elements are stripped down to the bare minimum, including scenery, props, costumes, and music. Bradway also noted that the company’s rehearsal process is structured in such a way that the performance we saw was the first time the cast had run through the play in its entirety.

The result is spontaneous, fresh and, for fans of the Folger, exactly what Shakespearean performance needs to be: focused almost exclusively on the interplay among the actors, the audience and those words.

As an educator, I found that there were many connections between Adirondack’s process and how we might go about teaching Shakespeare through performance.

One thing that comes to mind is that the company reflects the tradition of travelling players that was so prominent in Shakespeare’s time. In the Bard’s own work, this is best reflected, of course, in Hamlet. In his discussions with the Players, Hamlet shows a clear passion for and knowledge of the stage. It seems like any class attempting to do a Shakespeare scene might begin by looking at Hamlet’s advice on acting (“Speak the speech, I pray you,” III, ii 1-38) and thinking as a group about how to use Hamlet’s coaching to build their own performances.

In addition, using Adirondack’s “In the Raw” approach would have many advantages in the classroom. It’s a good reminder to us to focus on the words and to not worry so much about the plastic cauldrons, the doublets, and, as Folger Director of Education Peggy O’Brien is wont to say, anything served in trencher bread.

A final intriguing possibility would be, at the conclusion of a class study of a particular play, to have students work on individual scenes in their own groups, and then string those scenes together in sequential order for a grand final performance. This might help enhance the spontaneity and freshness that is Adirondack’s hallmark.

Tara Bradway calls this past summer’s season their most ambitious to date, and the Company is looking forward to a full season of performances this coming fall. So if you happen to be heading up through the Adirondacks and are interested in seeing Shakespeare done by a group of players straight out of Hamlet or Shakespeare’s own time, look for their schedule and other information at their website, www.adkshakes.org. While the Adirondack Park is not quite the Forest of Arden, the work of Adirondack Shakespeare Company brings that much more magic to one of the nation’s most storied and beautiful places.

Josh Cabat is currently serving as Chair of English for the Roslyn (NY) Public Schools. For the preceding decade, he taught English and Film Studies at Roslyn High School in Roslyn New York. Previously, he taught in the New York City public high schools for more than a decade. He was the co-founder of the New York City Student Shakespeare Festival. He has published many articles on Shakespeare and Film in publications such as the English Journal. He earned an MA from the University of Chicago and a BA from Columbia University.