Before we do anything, I explain to the kids what I hope they will learn from the experience. They are not Shakespearean actors and probably should not plan to be. I know nothing about directing a play (if you don’t believe me, come and watch a rehearsal—talk about the blind leading the blind!). We are here to learn about the power of language and to have fun working together as a team. The children will spend their year overcoming challenges, solving problems, and taking risks. They will learn a lot of difficult music and work hard to perform it well. They will learn to dance and to tell a story. They will explore themes in the play and apply these lessons to their own lives. They will analyze, dissect, tear down, and then build a play that will change their view of themselves and the world.
They are not here to impress anyone. The actual performances at the end of the year are fun—it’s always nice to be on the receiving end of a standing ovation—but the real reward is in the work itself. No amount of applause can compare to the journey of discovery the kids undertake, the thousands of hours of work that go into making each production extraordinary.
Cynics who have never attended one of our shows sometimes doubt that the children really understand the words they are saying or the meaning behind them. They are dead wrong. The kids are engrossed by Prospero’s resolution to forgive his enemies, Hal’s search for honor in a dishonorable world, Isabella’s heartbreaking decision to save her brother and forgo her own salvation, and Henry V’s suffering for the sins of his father, to mention just a few examples. As Sir Ian McKellen has remarked, “The best thing about the Hobart Shakespeareans is that they know what they’re saying, and that can’t be said for all Shakespearean actors.” I think it’s a safe bet that Sir Ian knows what he’s talking about.
I choose the plays a year or two before we put them on. This gives me plenty of time to study a play carefully and plan the rehearsals. There is no time to “find my way” with such an enormous undertaking. I need to be ready if I am to lead my students to the highest of highs.
The Hobart Shakespeareans meet and rehearse after school. We do this for two reasons. First, by asking students to volunteer for the activity, we weed out children who might not want to work as diligently as the rest of us. This is not a project for the disinterested. The production will consume a year of their lives. It means giving up things like television, video games, and pop-culture minutiae. It’s serious business. Second, meeting after school allows students from other classes to join the fun. We are not an exclusive club. Anyone who is willing to be nice and work hard can participate.
There are a number of good books that summarize Shakespeare’s plays. As a child, my mother read to me from the classic Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb. I remember learning about The Tempest before I was in preschool. More recently, I have found my favorite summaries in Marchette Chute’s Stories from Shakespeare. Unlike the Lamb volume, it summarizes all of the plays. The language is simple and direct.
I make copies of the summary, and we sit in class and read it together. By the end of our first meeting, the students understand the story we will be performing that year and the characters that drive it. They understand the play’s themes and the objectives we will be trying to meet during our year together. The students leave the meeting eager to begin reading the actual play. There’s only one problem: We never read Shakespeare.
Gently to Hear, Kindly to Judge, Our Play!
Shakespeare is a terrible read! His plays were never meant to be read. Michael York, the actor who played Tybalt in the 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet, once reminded my students that in Shakespeare’s day, people never said they were going to see a play but to hear one. The Bard can be flat-out confusing and boring when you read him—but nothing sounds better than hearing those miraculous words. When Patrick Stewart visited our class, he told the kids about his own childhood. He would listen to Shakespeare performances on the radio. He admitted that he didn’t understand much of what he heard, but the words sounded so good he didn’t care! He also told the children that despite all his success in television and film, the most exciting day of his life was when he was accepted as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Like Patrick Stewart and Michael York, the Hobart Shakespeareans learn the plays by listening. All of Shakespeare’s plays are available on CD. As with all audio lessons, I stop the CD at certain points to explain particular phrases. I let some expressions pass at first. After hearing a scene several more times, the students catch on. It is amazing how quickly the kids can learn lines when they understand the words. It’s no different from the pop songs they learn from the radio.
There are enough Shakespeare publishers to make one’s head spin. I suppose every teacher has his favorite. We’ve had good success with Folger editions, which are inexpensive and offer brief summaries before every scene. This reminds the students what is about to take place. The Folger editions also feature notes that run throughout the text, a setup that allows the reader to make sense of puzzling passages without flipping to the back of the book.
Will on Film
All of Shakespeare’s plays are available as movies—in the 1980s, the BBC filmed every play he wrote—and most are available in a number of different versions. Naturally, some adaptations are better than others. No matter how good or bad the film is, I always find it effective to watch a scene immediately after reading it. There’s no accounting for taste, but here are a few of my favorite Shakespeare films to supplement the study of the plays:
Macbeth: There are several good versions of this play. I would try the Royal Shakespeare Company production with Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench. It really shows the kids how a small space can be used in a play. Roman Polanski’s film is incredibly bloody, but very well done.
Henry V: I love to let the kids compare Sir Laurence Olivier’s unabashedly patriotic adaptation to Kenneth Branagh’s post-Vietnam tragedy.
Richard III: Olivier’s version is diabolically funny and also stars Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson. Ian McKellen’s version is just as brilliant and offers a very creative take on the story.
Twelfth Night: Trevor Nunn made a fine film a few years ago that stars Sir Ben Kingsley as Feste the Fool.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: If you want your kids to hear Shakespeare’s words as they were meant to be spoken, Sir Peter Hall’s 1968 film is a must. Diana Rigg, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Ian Holm have a muddy ball in this all-star romp.
Even a bad film can help students prepare to perform Shakespeare. My students recently watched the BBC version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, which they did not like at all. Yet examining why they took issue with several performances brought the young actors closer to where they wanted to go with the characters.
Many visitors to our class wonder how the kids memorize so many lines. What most observers don’t understand is that the real difficulty lies in comprehending the words, not in memorizing them. I take the time to go over every syllable of every word with the students. As we listen to the CD of a play, we pause and break down the language. It’s a heck of a lot easier for the kids to memorize words they understand. Next, I burn CDs of the scenes for all the actors, who listen to them at home. Shakespeare is just like music. Instead of memorizing thousands of lines of pop music, the Hobart Shakespeareans use the same energy to memorize beautiful language. It is astonishing how quickly children learn by listening. There is only one drawback to this strategy. The plays are performed by British actors, and every year a few of my students start speaking with British accents. We all laugh and encourage each other to speak in our own voices. We’re not here to be Olivier or McKellen. It’s just a bunch of little kids having fun.
Casting the Plays
In our year-round school, classes begin in July. We spend at least a month learning the play we will be performing the following April. After meeting four times a week for an hour, the students know the play well. They have listened to the entire play and have watched various film adaptations. If I open the play and read even the most obscure of lines, the students will be able to identify the speaker.
Casting the play is easy; casting it well is not. Around the middle of August, I give the kids a sheet of paper and ask them to list a few roles they would like to play in order of preference. Note that students are not required to try out for speaking roles. Some want to be in the band. Others want to be a part of the technical crew. Most of the children do more than one job, and that’s fine. Part of the beauty of producing a play is that there is something challenging for each child to do.
Next we have tryouts, which show me who is best suited for each role. But good acting, like most endeavors, is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. At this point in the year, I have known the students for only about a month, and it’s almost impossible to predict which of them will put in the vigorous effort it takes to play a leading role well. I work with about sixty students after school, and many of them are not even in my class during the day.
As a result, the tentative cast list I prepare in August usually changes a number of times before the play is actually performed eight months later. There will probably be students who do not meet the standard you have set. However, there are always young people who rise to levels you couldn’t have imagined when you first met them. Many years ago, I cast a student named Larry to play Caliban in The Tempest. For months I worked with Larry and encouraged him to do his best. His initial reading of the part won him the role, but his work ethic was somewhere between comatose and DOA. I didn’t want to give up on Larry, but the play was drawing nearer and the other students were fantastic. One day Larry had to miss part of a rehearsal. A student named Danny, who had spent the previous six months singing a little and watching a lot, was asked to fill in. His acting was sensational! He knew the entire part and walked onstage as though he had played Caliban for years.
This is a common occurrence, so I am flexible with casting. After a few months of rehearsal, all of the students know the play by heart anyway. The kids must learn to set aside their egos. They are taught that there is only one star in the production: Shakespeare himself.
There’s No Place Like Home
Our Shakespeare productions are performed right in our classroom. We clear the room of desks and install a bleacher section that seats thirty-three. The actual performance space is perhaps two hundred square feet. Despite the tiny area, we are able to perform unabridged plays complete with sensational choreography, a full-blown rock ‘n’ roll band, and perfectly articulated Shakespeare.
There are no sets or costumes. Those things take too much time, and while they look pretty, they have nothing to do with our mission. The students wear only jeans and our Hobart Shakespearean T-shirts. The shirts are different colors, and those colors are the only hint of costumes in the show. Royalty normally wears purple. The band wears turquoise. Rebels wear red, and jealous husbands wear green. It works beautifully. By forgoing sets and costumes, we make sure Shakespeare’s language is the star of the play. The audience, sitting not four feet from the actors, experiences a play like never before. People who have watched Shakespeare for years have remarked that our productions had them listening to the words more carefully than they ever had in their lives.
Using Music and Dance
Many years ago, the Hobart Shakespeareans were performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These were the early days of our productions, which were terrific but nothing like the shows we put on today. Still, the basic minimalist structure of the show was in place, and the students were learning a lot. When we arrived at the scene in which Titania goes to sleep and asks her fairies for a song, we inserted a pop song rather than the tune Shakespeare had used. I felt the scene needed a little extra push. It must have, because during one of the shows the little girl playing Titania actually fell asleep on the stage.
The song was the highlight of the show. It was only a simple tune, with the kids singing and me playing a little guitar in the background. The fairies did a modest dance, based on choreography I badly copied from several different numbers I had seen in various films. Despite the lack of vision on my part, the scene worked very well. By the following year, the Hobart Shakespeareans had become a very different force.
These days, people describe our shows as rock concerts disguised as Shakespeare. The text of the play is never altered, but we throw in a dozen or more songs to spice things up. During the first two months of rehearsals, the students learn to play and sing dozens of potential tunes that might enhance a particular scene in the play. By the third month of rehearsals, our song list is in place. For the next six months, the band rehearses constantly and the singers diligently work out the vocals. Soon the show’s sound track is ready.
The coolest part of all this is that the songs are interwoven with the text. When a character has a soliloquy, or a regular scene allows it, the song begins, then stops while the scene continues, then starts again, and so on. It’s almost like opera. We’ve used John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” when Leontes begs forgiveness in The Winter’s Tale; the Animals’ “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” as Henry V prays before battle; the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” when Master Ford asks his wife to take him back in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and REM’s “Everybody Hurts” layered over Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be.” All of the songs are played and sung with precise attention to detail. To add to the experience, my friend Barbara Hayden teaches many of the students sign language. By having some of the performers sign the songs, another layer of communication is added to the show. It’s very powerful.
The students also perform two or three spectacular dance numbers during each play. The dances are choreographed by a number of terrific local instructors, all accomplished modern dancers in their own right. I know these kids are not Shakespearean actors, and the dance instructors know they are not professional dancers (though they are after a year of lessons!). But we all know the value of bringing together different artistic mediums to produce a fabulous show and teach the kids as much as possible. In The Taming of the Shrew, for example, the students treated the Katherine character to a hilarious satirical dance that was set to Dusty Springfield’s “Wishin’ and Hopin’.”
Speaking Shakespeare’s words, playing great songs, and dancing through it all is a killer combination. The kids have so much fun rehearsing, they hardly realize how much they’re learning.
Our productions usually run for three weeks. Each show is about three hours long. An hour before the show, the students go into the room adjacent to ours. They set up tables, scrub them, and cover them with elegant tablecloths. Parents arrive with gorgeous flower displays. These same parents arrive with a vast selection of fresh fruit, vegetables, and appetizers, along with a variety of cold and hot drinks. I provide the funds, and the parents donate the most valuable thing of all—their time.
During intermission, the Shakespeareans serve the audience members. The people in the audience are our guests, and we want them to feel welcome and appreciated. The actors listen to the audience, engage in conversation, and behave like the kind of young people who make adults believe the future might be okay after all.
When the show ends and the applause fades, the actors go back next door and clean the room. Hamlet and Ophelia may have just received a standing ovation, but five minutes later they’re right there scrubbing the floor and moving tables with everyone else. The students understand that this part of the evening says just as much about who they are as the three hours that preceded it.
Epilogue: Rest in Peace
It’s a thankless job, and it doesn’t get easier. When you glance at your mental ledger, the red ink completely dominates the black. For every reason to believe, for every child you may help, there are dozens who make you want to give up. Most of the kids who walk into our classrooms do not even begin to comprehend how education can help them improve their lives. They often come from families so poor or scared or mean that you cannot even go to them for help.
Many of your administrators have sold their souls years before. Do you have a dangerous child in your class? Will you get any backup to deal with the problem? Most often you won’t. The lawyers have seen to that, frightening school districts so that no one takes a stand anymore. In fact, when the child threatens someone’s life, you may be blamed for running the sort of classroom where that sort of thing could happen.
The “Ministry of Truth” continues to spread its lies. The publishing companies and testing services conspire with the administrators to wrest away any creativity, passion, or freedom you once may have had as a classroom teacher. From now on we will all teach the same things in the same ways at the same times for the same reasons. Orwell was right.
So you continue to look for a reason to believe, and your search brings you to your students. At least they might be able to give you comfort. But so many do not. For every child who is ready and willing to make the effort, far more have given up because of the same forces that make us want to surrender.
When I toss and turn thinking of all my failures, I open Janet’s essay. It is an essay she wrote at Notre Dame. I took her there when she was thirteen years old. I told her it was possible. She is a top student there today. My search for a reason to believe ends here.
My heart begins to beat as the lights start to dim and the chattering of students slowly dies down from scattered mumblings to silence. The tiny room is flooded with lights, and I look out into the audience. An eleven-year-old boy walks out onto the stage, or classroom, I should say, to speak the opening lines of his character, Benedict.
My heart starts to beat again quite rapidly as my turn approaches. The crowd laughs and I take it as my cue to step onto the stage. “I wonder that you will still be talking, Signor Benedict: nobody marks you.” It is 6:00 P.M. on June 15, 1998, and I have just started my twelfth and final performance of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
I was first introduced to Shakespeare when I was nine years old by a teacher, Rafe Esquith, who was famously known at my elementary school for directing a Shakespeare play every year. Not wanting to turn down an opportunity to be in one of his “famous” plays, I immediately said yes when he asked me.
Now I put “famous” in quotes because, at my elementary school, being asked to participate in a Shakespeare play was like being asked to join the cool and exclusive group in school.
The following year I was given the opportunity to be in The Winter’s Tale. All the plays were performed in our tiny classroom, Room 56, and on that night of the final performance I could only think to wish that I could stop time.
I wish I could put all the feelings from that evening into a jar and carry it around with me wherever I go, because the emotions in Room 56 that night were full of delight, passion, and energy. Putting together those plays every year not only taught me about Shakespeare, but about teamwork, and humility, and that when one of my fellow classmates was on stage, it was his turn to be in the spotlight, not mine.
I learned how to play many instruments because we incorporated pop songs into many of the scenes. I learned the value of responsibility and hard work, that if I did not have my lines memorized by a specific date, it not only hurt myself, but slowed down the rest of the production.
Who would have thought that one could learn so much just by being in a play? I learned my most valuable lessons during those two years in Room 56, and I treasure all of my experiences that I had in that tiny little classroom.
Hobart Elementary School is located in the heart of downtown L.A., and as I look back at my elementary school years, I think about the horrible environment I grew up in.
There were kids who didn’t know how to speak English, even teachers who did not know how to speak English. A rape or abuse case occurred at least once a week at school, and policemen were frequently seen on campus.
Yet during the fifth grade, when I walked into Room 56, everything changed. The world outside disappeared. Instead of gang fights and beggars, my life turned into guitar lessons, road trips, and Shakespearean characters.
My fears and horrors were replaced by happiness and laughter. It became my second home, and my classmates became my second family. I did most of my growing up in Room 56, and it molded me into the person I have become.
No matter what else was happening anywhere in the world, all my troubles could be fixed in this safe haven, and I constantly retreated to it when I had family troubles. And even today, when I am looking for a place where there is only love and joy, where anger and hatred do not exist, I still retreat to Room 56.
As usual, it is a student who proves to be my best teacher. There is a reason to believe. Let us all work hard to build these safe havens. Janet’s essay eases my sleep. Tomorrow, as always, I, too, will retreat to Room 56. There’s no place like home.
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