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Discovery Through Performance


Twenty college students look at me with wild-eyed dread in my Fundamentals of Acting II class. It's the first day of our unit on acting Shakespeare. As I get them to talk about their fears, they all agree on two of things: they don't understand Shakespeare, and they don't believe they are "advanced enough" to tackle it.

Thirty middle school students enter a too-small classroom for a Shakespeare workshop during the last period of the day. There are at least ten speakers of English as a second language, and several special needs students accompanied by their aides. Three students are brand new to the school. The teachers and aides are game but skeptical. "Surely she's not going to do Shakespeare with my students," they say to themselves.

Fifteen women in a shelter for battered women look at me with incredulity. "We're going to do WHAT?" It's almost as if they dare me to repeat it. "We're going to perform Shakespeare today. And I think you're going to enjoy it," I say. There are snorts, nervous giggles, and hard stares, but at least nobody bolts from the room.

I've had to vary my approach to adapt to the needs and learning styles of many different types of students, but over the past fifteen years, I have found that a "discovery through performance" approach to teaching Shakespeare is consistently effective.

Each time I face that first session with whatever students are in front of me I say to myself, "You've got tremendous potential for chaos, failure, and humiliation here. Whatcha gonna do?" My answer is based on the following principles:

  • Performing Shakespeare empowers and transforms the performer.

  • If I take the risk to perform for my students, they will take the risk and perform for me.

  • An exercise that tackles small pieces of text is all you need to get students on their feet with Shakespeare's words in their mouths and in their minds.

  • I am prepared, supported and inspired by my experiences, my readings, and all that I have learned from other teachers and colleagues.

By the end of the first session, my students and I are sweating because we have given one of Shakespeare's sonnets or short monologues a serious workout - everyone has performed and everyone has had fun. A student who struggles with reading has shouted Shakespeare out loud; an aspiring actor has memorized two lines of Shakespeare and actually understands them; a woman with a reputation for shyness has spoken Shakespeare with a confidence and vocal power nobody knew she had. These successes had less to do with me than with the four principles I referred to above and a few basic beliefs about using discovery through performance as a way to teach Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is for Everyone

Shakespeare's work belongs to everyone. His plays and poems are not the exclusive domain of the privileged and well-educated. People of all ages, colors, nationalities, classes, and religions can perform them.

Shakespeare's plays have been held up as the be-all and end-all of world literature, and have been used to create and maintain divisions between classes, nationalities, and ethnicities. They have been performed badly. They have been taught badly. Despite all this, the genius of Shakespeare's work is that the language, ideas, and emotions can be as immediate and accessible to the newly arrived 14-year-old from El Salvador as they are to the seasoned Shakespearean actor. It is up to teachers, however, to make Shakespeare immediate and accessible to every student.

If the teacher and the classroom atmosphere signal that a subject matter or exercise is too difficult and/or too boring, it will be. If the teacher and the classroom atmosphere signal that a subject matter or exercise is challenging but fun, students will rise to the challenge. When fun happens in the classroom, the learning is often the most profound. If the teacher believes in the work, and believes in the students' ability to do it, discovery, success, and learning will take place.

Shakespeare is Meant to Be Performed

Even scholars who disagree about who actually wrote them agree that the plays were written for actors to perform in front of an audience. They were meant to entertain and to communicate important ideas about the human condition and the nature of existence. To read these plays is good. To watch others perform the plays is terrific. To perform the words one's self is positively life-altering!

Shakespeare carries clout and has cache. Even the most seasoned actors view the ability to perform and understand Shakespeare as a sign of excellence. It follows then that students who have successful experiences with Shakespeare begin to feel good about their ability to learn and gain confidence in their communication skills. At the end of the first session, I often tell my students, "If you can perform Shakespeare, you can do almost anything." By "performance in the classroom" I am not referring to creating a total theatrical experience with costuming, make-up, lighting, etc. Most teachers have the basic materials on hand: a blackboard and chalk, or poster board and markers; index cards; a dictionary and a thesaurus; photocopies of a Shakespeare sonnet, and/or a short passage from one of the plays in large print, with footnotes and annotations removed.

The Play's the Thing

The word performance often creates anxiety in actors and non-actors alike. Performance is merely a fancy word for "playing," and playing is as basic to human beings as breathing, eating and sleeping. Before we could read, play was the first way that most of us experienced the world, learned social constructions, made decisions, experimented with new behaviors, developed our imaginations, and collaborated with others.

Performance is self expression that uses the whole body - breath, physical gesture, thought, imagination, voice, and speech - to communicate a message from one person to another. Speaking Shakespeare means we have to take big breaths, use big voices, and unlock our articulation mechanisms for clarity and precision. Discovering Shakespeare through performance reminds us that performance is a process of investigation. We need to look up the definitions of words and to figure out how communicating and receiving big thoughts through language affect us and those around us. We need to encourage students to play with all the possibilities for interpretation and performance.

Shakespeare Requires a Whole-body Approach

We communicate with the whole body. Reading, thinking, speaking, smiling, responding to others requires the coordinated effort of brain, organs, muscles, nerves, blood, tissue and bone. Children experience this with varying levels of pride and frustration as they expend huge amounts of energy mastering their environments. They are constantly told to "sit still," "be quiet," "stop being so dramatic," as they use whole body energy to experience and communicate with the world.

As human beings mature and adjust to society's rules, we tend to temper that energy and close down the pathways that connect mind and body. In western society, students value cool, objective, unemotional detachment as a sign of maturity. The fear of being made to look foolish or of being publicly embarrassed - a fear that is often overwhelming during adolescence - can be aroused in anyone at the thought of performing Shakespeare.

Standing up, taking a deep breath, using vibration to create sound, using articulators to form words, using the head, torso and limbs to gesture, communicating thought and emotion - we were born to do these things. A whole body approach to Shakespeare is actually easier and more natural than we might think. It will feel natural and accessible if the teacher creates a natural and safe environment where doing this is the norm. Reinforcing every student's unique contribution to performance and valuing the variety of interpretations, physical gestures, vocal pitches, and communicative styles they use to explore Shakespeare has positive effects on a student's confidence and willingness to take risks.

There is no doubt, however, that whole body work in the classroom is more and more challenging now that our sedentary Western lifestyle has spawned serious problems with eating disorders and body image. As we become more and more dependent on cell phones and computers, we become more and more detached from live, whole body, interpersonal communication. Teachers may encounter groans of fatigue and resistance as they ask students to "get up on their feet." It will take coaxing, but the more persistent and energized the teacher is, the more familiar the students become with the process, and the easier it will become. In fact, I have found that discovering Shakespeare through performance levels the playing field among students who have a variety of sedentary, shy, hyper-cerebral, hyper-active, and attention-deficit tendencies.

Teachers Also Take Risks

Standing up and speaking Shakespeare is a risk for anyone; however, if the teacher is willing to take the risk, the students will as well. I begin every Shakespeare workshop by performing something for the students. This can be as simple as reading a passage to communicate its full meaning and emotion, or performing a fully memorized sonnet or monologue. Every time I perform in a classroom, I am nervous, but this is a very important part of the process. I always urge teachers to go out on a limb and memorize something short. It reminds us, as educators, what risk feels like in the whole body (the sweaty palms, the nervous tummy, etc.) It keeps us humble about the way we ask our students to take that risk. It shows our students that the text comes alive through our bodies, voices, eyes, and imaginations - we model the behavior we want them to use. It also enables students to hear and see the language live, which is very different from the experience of reading it on the page or seeing a video.

Teachers should not be surprised or hurt if students giggle or guffaw at the beginning of their performance. Seeing their teacher suddenly behave in such a different way is a shock to most students. But inevitably Shakespeare's words and characters seduce them. Before the teacher's performance is over, they have entered the world of the language. From this, it is a short but significant leap to performance.

There is no "Right" Way to Perform Shakespeare

Belief that there is no one, single, "right" way to interpret and perform Shakespeare is the key to gaining confidence in performance. The more the teacher can communicate that the language is open for discovery, particularly in the early stages of the process, the more intrepid students will be. Concerns about definitions, pronunciation, iambic pentameter, and courtly manners should come much later in the process and should be introduced in a relaxed and un-pressured atmosphere. The more a teacher is able to say, "Gee, I don't know what that means either," or, "What an interesting interpretation of that line," the braver students will become. I often alleviate worry about correctness and reinforce the idea of multiple interpretations by performing my initial sonnet or passage and then asking students to direct me and make changes in it. After I perform the first time, I ask them to talk about the character, (e.g., how the character feels, what she's talking about), AND to talk about what they saw me do as a performer, (e.g., how I used my voice, my body, and my face). I will ask students questions such as:

"Is there any line that you think should be performed differently?"

"Did you believe what I said on this line?"

"How can I communicate the meaning of that word more effectively?"

By doing this, students learn that there are choices to be made and they are empowered to make them. More importantly, they will personalize and own the choices and thereby, on a deeper level, embrace the language. They will get exercise in articulating thought and being precise about what language conveys. Adolescents will discover that "whatever," their automatic response and attitude to almost everything, will be woefully inadequate when exercises demand that they analyze and discuss powerful words, important choices, and the impact they have on the performer and the listener.

Not only do I listen to the students' feedback, but I also perform the sonnet or passage for them a second time, incorporating their suggestions. This clearly demonstrates that many choices and possibilities are available, and reinforces the idea that THEY are empowered to understand the text and make choices. I am no longer the sole expert - all the students become experts.

A Graduated Approach

Once the context, goals and ground rules for our work are made clear, students are then ready to get on their feet. It is important to use a graduated approach. I always begin with whole-class performance work. Choral readings, creating gestures in unison for specific words - any exercise that enables students to connect to the whole group experience of the text is important during the early stages. From group work, I gradually move to small group work, then to pairs, then to individual performances. I always begin with a very short piece of text - from performing single words, to half a line, to a whole line, then to 3 or 4. I always begin with Shakespeare's words printed out individually on index cards, the blackboard, or poster board prior to giving students a photocopy of a sonnet or passage. It is important that these photocopies of text be eye-friendly - in large print and devoid of footnotes or annotations. Everything about the look of the text should say: "This is easy and fun."

By using this process, students have moved from observing the teacher's performance to doing their own. They perform first as a class, then in small groups, and later in pairs and as individuals, thereby gradually gaining confidence and developing camaraderie. They have moved from performing single words to performing phrases, and finally to performing passages. They have discovered Shakespeare by performing Shakespeare.

If I follow the beliefs and principles I have set out for myself and impart these essential guidelines to my students, then my own initial worries about teaching Shakespeare always fade. By discovering Shakespeare through performance, in a safe and engaging environment, students (and teachers) will experience their power to decipher meaning, understand context, articulate thoughts, individualize communication, work collaboratively, and perform Shakespeare's words with confidence, pride, vigor, and enjoyment.

About the Author

Caleen Sinnette Jennings is Professor and Director of Theatre/Music Theatre at American University where she teaches acting, acting Shakespeare, playwriting, directing, and academic courses in theatre and film. She also directs for American University's main stage and is founder, director, and playwright for two student companies. Ms. Jennings is an award-winning playwright. Playing Juliet/Casting Othello won her Source Theatre Company's 1996 Award for Outstanding New Play, and she is a two-time Helen Hayes Award nominee. Ms. Jennings received a 1998 grant from Kennedy Center's Fund for New American Plays, and won the Heidemann Award from the Actor's Theatre of Louisville in 2002.


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