When Students Perform

shakespeare

You can tell this particular blogger is a college professor since there hasn’t been much activity since late April and here it is Mother’s Day already (Happy Mother’s Day, Mom). As anyone in the college world knows, late April/early May is filled to the brim with lots of meetings that need to be scheduled by the end of the semester, student papers, student performances, final exam creation, and student conferences.

This means that there’s almost no time for extracurricular activities like attending theater.

This definitely means that there’s no time for any extra writing since all of it must be devoted to responding to papers, oral presentations, ever-increasing emails, and the like.

But now that the end of the semester is just a week away and despite, or perhaps because, I still have more reading and grading to do, I have to break the blog silence.

The trouble is that I haven’t been to any solo performances of late given that all of my time has been devoted to grading, grading, and still more grading.

But wait a minute. That’s not quite accurate. In fact, I have seen several solo performances and all in the past week. It’s just that they occurred in the classroom and consisted of Shakespearean monologues from either Twelfth Night or Measure for Measure and they were performed by students.

Yup, I’m a glutton for punishment and even though my college doesn’t have a drama department, and only has a minor, I go ahead and devote one of the three performance classes to Shakespeare. This is an important point because it means that for the most part, class members have no intention whatsoever of becoming actors and most likely have never even been to a play before, much less a Shakespeare play.

At the end of the semester students have to do a 4-minute, memorized, final performance from one of the Shakespeare plays we studied. Representing Twelfth Night, there were two Malvolios, one hysterically comical as he gamboled about in yellow and black-striped socks going all the way up his leg to his thighs, and the other moving away from broad comedy and moving towards pathos and mania. There were also two Olivias, one proud and disdainful and the other vulnerable and impassioned. There was one Viola disguised as Cesario, tending towards the feminine part of her identity. And finally, there was one Duke Orsino most definitely in love with music, if it “be the food of love.” Representing Measure for Measure there was one Angelo, performed by a female, working the audience to feel pity for him/her though he was about to embark on the seduction of the nun-to-be Isabella. And there was one Duke Vincentio, disguised as friar also performed by a female, absolutely committed to communicating to her audience that she was priestly (thus she dressed in a black blazer and slacks with a white shirt), that she was male (thus she pulled back her hair into a tight bun and drew a mustache onto her face), and that she was committed to convincing Claudio to “Be absolute for death” though his punishment was much more extreme than the actual crime required (mutually-consented-to-sex with his beloved Juliet).

It wasn’t enough that they memorize the words on the page. I wanted them to BECOME their characters. I wanted them to not only speak their words, but also to understand them. I wanted them to WANT TO go onto that stage. As I mentioned above, I have my work cut out for me because almost always, students are reticent about even thinking about acting. So, before they perform their monologues/scenes, they must meet with me for a minimum of two half-hour rehearsals. It’s my job to make them realize they have to WORK at making the words on the page come alive for their audience. If all they’re doing is memorizing and reciting words then we are all lost.

Performance day occurred last week. There were the usual issues you might imagine arising from a class filled with students that don’t fancy becoming actors. I encouraged one student to reconfigure her speech, omitting those lines that didn’t make sense to her or that she had a hard time remembering. I encouraged another to incorporate more actions so that she wouldn’t have to memorize so many lines. There was a range of skill on the final performance day, but each one of the students in their own way made Shakespeare’s language come off the page and go directly into the hearts of the audience.

How, you ask?

Here’s a sampler of what I saw and heard: A disco-worthy Duke Orsino waltzing onto the stage listening to a Beyonce tune, attired in sequin jacket and black boots, whirling around the stage with arms stretched wide before proclaiming “If music be the food of love play on.” A jubilant Malvolio jumping up out of his chair on the stage to proclaim with misconceived glee that Olivia must be in love with him and that “I have limed her” followed by dancing around in a circle. A transformed Olivia throwing off the black scarf that had covered her head and acted as a mourning stole in order to proclaim madly and passionately to the entire audience who was her Cesario stand-in “I love thee so.”

We weren’t in the Globe theater and we were literal and figurative miles away from Broadway, but no director could have felt prouder than I did at the end of the performances. Though a solid half of them will never pick up a Shakespeare speech again, much less a play, even the most timid among them gave it their all. And whether that all lasted a mere two minutes or carried on for a full twelve minutes, they were breathing life into Shakespeare’s words with all their might.
Here’s why their performances were so successful. Because they decided by the end of the semester (as per their own words included in the written accounts of their preparation) that:

“I wanted to really act” and not just memorize the words

I learned to “own” Shakespeare’s language in order to “live the 4 minutes” of the performance

I was determined to portray my character’s “roller coaster of emotions”

I wanted to give my audience “something to remember”

“On May 3, 2018 I stepped in front of the class as Duke Vincentio.”

This teacher ends by asking “Who could ask for anything more?”

2 thoughts on “When Students Perform

  1. Reading this makes me wish I could take one of your drama classes. I love how much you work with them and how you allow for flexibility. That lack of flexibility is often what students creativity, and anyone who thinks Shakespeare needs to be by the book should think again with all of the versions and riffs done in NYC alone. I know from my own creative writing classes that working with them one-on-one makes a huge difference in their confidence and the end product of their work.

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  2. The summer has flown since you wrote this post, Mary, but the energy and vividness of your descriptions have not. I agree with Kara that you really bring out the joy, understanding and self-expression that can be found in a drama class, proving yet again that theatre, literature and the humanities in general need to be central to every student’s education. We can never allow them to become a luxury for the few.

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