“for we are the only love-gods...”( Much Ado about Nothing: 2.1.386)
Every generation has them, the “love gods”, the cultural icons who capture our minds and our hearts. They are musicians, actors, playwrights, authors, or poets. They are artists with a stamp so firm on a culture that the mere mention of their names can call forth an image; artists, for example, like Shakespeare or maybe The Beatles. They are artists whose images need no text to explain who they are, like Shakespeare or maybe The Beatles.
And because these artists have messages that transcend time there are educators who are committed to teaching their students how best to discover an artist’s message through a study of an artist’s craft. There are even educators so committed that they would spend an entire Saturday, (January 24, 2014) learning new strategies to help their students understand and respond to the messages of cultural icons. These are educators who spent the day at the Yale Repertory Willpower!Workshop centered on the upcoming production of These! Paper! Bullets!.
These! Paper! Bullets! is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy play Much Ado about Nothing, with the setting transported to London in the turbulent 1960s. The play’s adaptation is by Pulitzer Prize and Emmy Award nominated writer Rolin Jones, and the promotional synopsis states:
Meet the Quartos. Ben, Claude, Balth, and Pedro. Their fans worship them. Scotland Yard fears them. And their former drummer will stop at nothing to destroy them. Can these fab four from Liverpool find true love in London and cut an album in seven nights? These Paper Bullets! is a rocking and rolling version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing with a serious backbeat.
Many of the teachers attending this Saturday’s workshop will be bringing their classes in early April to the daytime productions of These! Paper! Bullets!, a series of performances offered through the WILLPOWER! program. This program is the brainchild of James Bundy, dean of the School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Rep. According to a 2013 Yale News article “‘WILL POWER!’ gives city students a ‘visceral’ introduction to theater,” Bundy’s concerns about having students see live theatre was the motivation for beginning the program 10 years ago since, “studies show that people who attend the theater before the age of 18 are much more likely to attend later in life.”
The WILLPOWER! Workshop for educators is coordinated by Ruth M. Feldman, the Yale School of Drama’s director of education and accessibility services, and is usually offered several weeks before a production in order to improve classroom instruction and prepare student audiences for the play they will see.
Feldman’s jam-packed line up this particular Saturday included a preview of sets and costumes with the production’s director Jackson Gay. The costumes brought “aahs” from the audience who obviously appreciated the retro-look of white go-go boots on Twiggy-eque models. There were also musical snippets from the production’s musical collaborator, Green Day lead singer and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong. Listening to clips of these original songs that echoed the sounds of the 60s, composed in tribute to the Fab Four, had all the heads in the room bopping up and down.
“Is there going to be a CD soundtrack?” one enthused teacher asked.
After the question/answer session with the director, Feldman packed off the teachers for a visit to the Yale University Art Gallery, a short brisk walk across the street, to participate in a thematically linked presentation on “adaptations” organized by Museum Educator Elizabeth Manekin and Elizabeth Williams, the John Walsh Fellow at the Yale University Art Gallery. Teachers were briefed on the Pop Art movement as they studied a series of nine panels of Andy Warhol’s Mao (a screenprint of one similar is available on Amazon). The discussion asked teachers to consider how a cultural icon is adapted for new audiences. Next, teachers gathered around Manet’s Reclining Young Woman in Spanish Costume and continued the discussion on adaptations before heading to the workroom to make collages that were adaptations on Manet’s other reclining female, Olympia.
Returning to Yale Rep, teachers also had the opportunity to try reading and writing strategies aligned with the Common Core using informational texts, short commentaries about social media and cultural icons. Rachel Sexton, an educational specialist at ACES, engaged teachers by having them participate in a reading strategy that asks students to organize an article that had been cut-up. “Don’t look for matching cuts like a puzzle,” she warned, knowing how some students might look for a short-cut. The next strategy involved reading that text and other short commentaries in order to write a personal response incorporating three ideas they found significant. Dutifully, teachers took pencils in hand. The sounds of scribbling were slow at first but became steadier, and Sexton had to interrupt teachers as her session time was drawing to a close, I overheard teachers:
- “This is a great way to introduce a topic”
- “I cannot believe how much I am getting out of this exercise…”
- “I know how my students have trouble getting started with writing; this [strategy] solves that problem!”
The last session was dedicated to the lyricism in Shakespeare’s play offered by Dr. Matthew Suttor, Director of the Laurie Beechman Center for Theatrical Sound Design and Music at the Yale School of Drama. His session was titled, “Let Music Sound…”, a presentation designed to have teachers “examine and experience the creative process for drawing both lyrics and music from a play’s text. (full disclosure: Sadly, I could not attend this last session because of impending snow.)
As she has in the past, Feldman organized seven hours of first-rate (FREE) professional development through the WILLPOWER! program that was both practical for classroom application and powerful enough to encourage educators to explore new possibilities for bringing the messages of adaptation in culture. Exploring the elements of These! Paper! Bullets! before the opening of the show helps educators prepare students for the experience of Shakespeare performed live.
In addition, knowing adaptations can be made from works created by a cultural icon some 400 years ago is an concept that students today, with their ability to create mash-ups and Internet memes coupled with their fascination with today’s cultural icons, should appreciate or even (hopefully) try themselves.