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It's All in the Concept: The World of the Play in Middle School

It was my first year teaching at a new school, and I was excited to be teaching middle school dramatics for the first time. I was certain that they would have fewer personal "censors" and be much more open to dramatic activities than the seniors whom I had been teaching. I walked into my first class of eighth graders, and excitedly proclaimed that we would be studying "Twelfth Night" in our first trimester together. I smiled. I waited.

"You have got to be kidding me," the retort hurled toward me from the back. It hit me about as hard as a Nolan Ryan fast ball. I later learned that its originator was Polly. And Polly was very popular. That night, I went home and thought frantically about what to do. The class now seemed dead set against the very idea of Shakespeare. I sat down with a copy of the play. A pint of Ben and Jerry's and some Oreos later, I had a plan.

I walked into the next class, and told them that we were not going to do "Twelfth Night." At least, not the "Twelfth Night" they had been picturing. I asked them why they hated the idea of studying Shakespeare so much. We listed their responses on the board. On the top of their list was "it's boring." I circled it and told them that, as future performers, it was their job to make it interesting. I told them that their task was to find a world for this play, and the one rule that they had to follow: the world could not be Elizabethan England.

At first, they were a bit reluctant; but, with a bit of prodding, they were soon brimming with ideas. As we read the play together, each act brought out a new idea for setting the world of the play. The shipwrecked Viola scenes at the beginning of the play suggested "Gilligan's Island" as a possibility. Then, after reading the scenes where Olivia mourns her brother, they decided to move the setting to World War I, with Olivia crying over the loss of her brother in battle. Each act brought new ideas, but by the end of the play, the students settled on high school as the setting of their "Twelfth Night".

Pieces of a cruise ship washed up on shore, and the shipwrecked stranger Viola wanted desperately to join captain Orsino's football team at Ilyria High. Orsino was in love with the captain of the cheerleaders, Olivia. Olivia would have nothing to do with Orsino, however, because she was mourning the death of her brother, lounging around her house with fellow cheerleaders with black stripes on their uniforms. (Even on the matter of death, the students decided, Olivia was chic.) Feste, the class clown, was constantly hanging around Olivia "trying out" for the team. This part was almost straight out of "Saturday Night Live," and worked better than I had anticipated. Malvolio was the class misfit, madly in love with Olivia, and who was relegated to doing her homework. Toby was the sole male cheerleader on the team. Toby's good friend Andrew was an exchange student, who wrote sports articles for the school newspaper.

All these ideas were amazing - yet they were also workable once we set down to the task of creating the world of the play. (See attached handout for our step by step process.) The students had fun drawing parallels and creating designs. They had discussions about symbolism that could not have gone better if I had planned them. The sets and costumes that they produced were amazing. What was most important, though, was that they performed the play without fear, and staged a classroom production of which they had true ownership.


About the Author

Stacie Beard teaches middle school drama at Stone Ridge Middle School in Bethesda, Maryland.

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