Nothing beats a top-notch live performance for selling Shakespeare to students. While there are plenty of quality performances on DVD, streaming from Netflix or the PBS website, or available piecemeal on Youtube, there is nothing quite like the collective heartbeat one experiences sitting in an audience. In live theatre, there is the moment of an audience-wide hypnosis; the palpable moment when the audience loses self-consciousness and synchronizes its breathing to watch and hear the play. The dramatist Shakespeare provided many opportunities for those moments.
Every year I try to organize a field trip so that my students have an opportunity to attend a live performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays. Since our school is fortunate to be located an hour away from New Haven, CT, our students can attend matinees at Yale Repertory Theatre. For several years, I have arranged for field trips to see Shakespeare performed at the Yale Rep with Ruth Feldman, the Director of Education and Accessibility Services at the Yale School of Drama. These plays are funded as part of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) initiative Shakespeare in American Communities:
“Yale Rep offers young people in the community two significant youth theater programs: WILL POWER! and the Dwight/Edgewood Project. WILL POWER! Arts-and-education initiative is designed to build on existing English and Theatre curricula for middle- and high- school educators and their students. The company continues as a leader for it community outreach and accessibility programs that promote audience diversity and participation. “
This year, 40 students attended Yale Rep’s production of The Winter’s Tale, one of the more difficult plays to teach, a “problem” play. On this particular trip, there were honors 9th graders who had been prepared for the production having used a prepared study guide sent in advance of the trip. The 12th graders, in the throes of “senioritis”, came cold to the production.
No matter. The combination of elegant set and stage movement conveyed the plot-a jealous husband, a wronged wife, a betrayed friend in the opening scenes kept all students rapt. The famous stage direction, “exit pursued by a bear” was brilliantly executed with puppetry, and suddenly the audience was transported into the land of Bohemia with its rainfalls of tiny blossoms, colorful costumes, and infectious country dancing. One student leaned into me, “I would rather live in Bohemia,” she whispered. The final stage trick of bringing the statue of Hermione to life was met with audible gasps-“She’s real?” The packed house of students cheered predictably louder for the “clowns”from the performance, and with nothing less than genuine admiration for the lead roles as the cast took their final bows. The Winter’s Tale was a hit!
Immediately after the performance, as they have for the entire WILL-POWER series, the cast and production team at Yale Rep offered a talk-back where students can ask questions for about 20 minutes after the show. Seeing the performers in street clothes, without costumes and make-up, sitting on the edge of the stage, tousled but charged up after the 3 hours of performing, is a bit unsettling…the illusion of theatre is laid bare. Awkwardly, for the first five minutes, students stammered out questions: How long did they rehearse? (8 weeks) How old are you (to a 10 year old actress)? Have you been on TV (yes)? Actors responded amiably enough.
Then, a teacher asked, “What was your first Shakespeare experience?” There was a momentary pause and then one actress offered her first memory of Shakespeare…a memory from high school. “Shakespeare was supposed to be only for the smart kids, which really wasn’t fair,” she recounted, “He’s really for everyone, not just the smart kids.” Another actor agreed, explaining that members of his class had acted out Shakespeare-very badly, stumbling over the words, but loving the experience. Then another actor spoke. “My mother took me to see Shakespeare when I was seven, so I was always around them[plays]. I grew up loving to watch the plays.” Another actor recounted his initial dislike of Shakespeare’s plays in high school,”I just didn’t get it,” but that an experience in college changed his mind, “Was this the same boring play? Yes! Why was it better now? I don’t know, maybe I was ready then.” Still another spoke of his love of the plays, his love of the language, and his ability “to speak the words really well because I understand them…which means that I have been able to stay employed!” One by one, each actor spoke of an initial Shakespeare experience, good or bad, and how each of them had been changed by that experience. There was such power in their personal stories, an English teacher could not have scripted better confessions. Their passion for Shakespeare and desire to pass that passion on to my students was inspiring; they were the better teachers!
A final question, posed again by an adult audience member, served the play’s recap: “What was your favorite moment in the play?”she called out. The actors brightened and each took a turn, speaking about a favorite moment. One recounted a scene she could see from the wings, another a moment he shared on stage with another actor. The cast recapped the events of the play -out of sequence-the statue coming to life, the clown stealing the wallet, the dance, a set of choral lines shared between two actors, the moment when the newborn babe is brought before her dismissive father, and the magical transformation of the shepherd into Father Time. But it was the actor who spoke about the stage direction “pursued by a bear” that brought new understanding to one of my students as to how to look at one of Shakespeare’s seemingly improbable plot devices. “Why would Antigonus leave a baby alone on a beach unless he was trying to protect her?” asked the actor, ” Who would do that? Who would do that unless he was convinced he could save the baby? The bear chases him to his death, but the baby lives,” he continued, “I think amid so many acts of selfishness, this is one of the most selfless acts in the play.” Later, sitting at a local pizzeria, a student repeated his explanation word for word, “Seriously, who would leave a baby on a beach? Who would do that unless he was convinced…. That’s so true!”
Live theatre can engage students. Live Shakespeare -performed well-can enrich students. Talkbacks with actors and their experiences with Shakespeare can enlighten students. Perhaps one day my students may have the opportunity to share their first experience with Shakespeare. They may choose Yale Rep’s The Winter’s Tale.