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"A Hit, a Very Palpable Hit": Stage Combat for Student Performers

"You're doing what?" a colleague asked. "Do you really want those kids to be armed?"

The idea of teaching stage swordplay to troubled teens did not fly with everyone I met. But I was accustomed to that reaction. Teaching at an alternative high school where the average reading level was grade five, I was used to hearing that teenagers would be less than willing or able to understand Shakespeare's complex language. Because the class was active - students saw their peers on their feet, moving around, saying the words - every semester there was a waiting list to join the Shakespeare elective.

A key element of many Shakespeare plays is sword fighting. Often, a fight sequence occurs at a pivotal time or turning point - Mercutio vs. Tybalt in "Romeo and Juliet", for example. Armed with Michael Tolaydo's outstanding essay, "A Touch, A Touch, I Do Confess": Sword Fighting in the Classroom," in Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching "Twelfth Night" and "Othello," I brought two dozen 1/8-inch wooden dowels to class and hoped the activity would not bring my career to a screeching halt.

I had begun talking about swordplay weeks earlier. I explained there were three rules before the class could consider working on it: 1. safety, 2. safety, 3. safety. Students would be divided into groups of three. In each, there would be an attacker, a defender, and a monitor. The monitor had the authority to yell "stop" at any time, and that order needed to be followed. On the appointed day, I took students out to the soccer field and demonstrated proper footwork.

Kids were not even allowed to touch dowels until they learned footwork and practiced until they were visibly tired. Races, contests, games... these things helped keep the pace moving quickly. Once they mastered the footwork (this was the most difficult part when I was learning how to fight), I demonstrated attack positions with a dowel. Students broke into groups of three and practiced that until they were comfortable. Then the process was repeated with defensive parries, and we added forward and backward movement so it looked real. (See handout for additional suggestions.)

The lesson took two 45-minute periods. Kids in other classes had their noses pressed to the windows, watching us on the field with fascination. Three kids from biology tried to skip their class and join mine. After the lesson, my students would leave study halls and ask if they could use the gymnasium to practice swordplay. Because they followed the rules, no one was ever injured and students monitored themselves even when a teacher could not be present.

As part of their final assessment, several groups integrated stage combat into their scene performance. Three boys practiced for weeks before performing the scene from "Othello" where Iago instigates the fight between Cassio and Roderigo, and they drew the loudest cheers from the crowd - all the while looking believable and real.

About the Author

Jeff Schober teaches English at Frontier High School in Hamburg, New
York.

Handout

Stage Combat for Student Performers
Performance

Professional Development

Quick Tips

"Hamlet" for English Language Learners: The Photo-Performance Project
A case study by Mary Ellen Dakin

"A Hit, a Very Palpable Hit": Stage Combat for Student Performers
A case study by Jeff Schober

It's All in the Concept: The World of the Play in Middle School
A case study by Stacie Beard

Discovery Through Performance
An in-depth article by Caleen Sinnette Jennings

Lesson Plans

Shakespearean "Conversations"
A lesson plan by Michael LoMonico
Performance First
A lesson plan by Judith Elstein

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