Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Teaching Shakespeare: The Interview Series- Part 2

The next interview in this series is one I did with Aaron Flynn, one of the directors I worked with in high school. Aaron was one of the reasons I pursued a career in acting- he's from the same town I grew up in, and he had moved to NYC to study at AMDA (something not many people from Ft. Plain, NY, do...), and returned to upstate NY with all of his knowledge and passion for theatre, which he shared with myself and the other students involved in his theatre program. Many of the questions in this interview are similar to the ones I asked Dr. Corey Abate, but Aaron's background in Shakespeare is quite different than Corey's, so the same question yields different responses. Enjoy!


Please describe your background with Shakespeare, and with education.
Every student studies Shakespeare in high school. My 10th grade English Teacher created an elective class that was entirely based on Shakespeare’s works. My senior year of high school my drama teacher obtained a lucrative arts grant from NYS. The condition of the grant was that we conduct a performance for the student body. That year we produced Romeo and Juliet. After graduating I moved to NYC, attended and graduated from A.M.D.A.
After graduating from A.M.D.A., one of the many jobs I took to supplement my income ‘in between’ acting jobs was with the National Shakespeare Company as a workshop presenter. As a presenter I went to public schools where I presented demonstrations of Shakespeare’s works. I would bring scenes and materials from Shakespeare’s plays and rehearse them and even in some occasions, perform them. 
Over the past 12 years I have taught workshops on preparing for and acting with Shakespeare. I have stayed involved with youth theater by directing various children’s productions for high school drama clubs and community theater groups. 

At what age do you think it's appropriate to introduce Shakespeare to students?
Shakespeare can be introduced to children of any age. Depending on how it is edited and presented even younger children can enjoy it. There are elements that are entertaining. Love and romance, sword fights, large historical battles and moments of comedy that usually can bridge the gap created by the language of the text. Middle school aged children seem to be able to engage with the content and the text. Prior to fifth or sixth grade I have found a need to alter the next to make it less ‘wordy’.

What about Shakespearean study do you think causes resistance in high school aged students?
Lack of knowledge involving the content can cause resistance in high school aged students. The dramatic nature of the text makes even reading it in a class room setting a vulnerable experience. In a time in their life when ridicule from a peer is feared more than failing a test, this can be stressful to students. I have found that speaking to the context of the story is a good way to incite interest. Talking about the love story, or the sword fight, the great battle or a treasonous mystery and suspense can get kids interested. 

Are there practical/ administrative challenges that exist when teaching Shakespeare to high schoolers or producing Shakespeare's plays? 
The time period in which Shakespeare wrote his works required that he often took opportunities to ‘recap’ the story. His plays are often long and can be shorted. Some actors and directors view this as sacrilege but it is often necessary. The text can be another concern. It can be too intimidating or strange for an actor to deal with. Iambic Pentameter can feel awkward and distracting to someone who has never worked with it before. If I were to produce a Shakespearean play for a high school I would be inclined to give myself a longer rehearsal period.

What are your thoughts on plot-driven Shakespeare (with shortened and translated text) vs. a full-text-and-language-driven approach for high school students?
In my opinion the goal is to expand a students’ knowledge. The repetition that is often found in Shakespeare’s plays can be trimmed. However, the words themselves are written for a reason and they breathe life into the text. To rearrange them is to create something that in fact, is not Shakespeare and thereby loses its meaning. You can trim the length, but the words are off limits.

Do you think certain Shakespearean plays are better suited for high school students? Less suited? Which ones, and why?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is great for middles school but a little too youthful and ‘fun’ for high school students. Because of the tension, conflict and combat the histories usually have a strong appeal. Henry V and Richard III are usually very popular but heavy with male rolls, which can be a casting challenge in high school. The ‘Tragedies’ are well known and seem to have the widest appeal to a general audience. Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Othello contain romance, treason, big dramatic monologues and a body count. This can usually draw in students who believe that Shakespeare is ‘corny’ or ‘hokey’. As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, and Taming of the Shrew have rolls for boys and girls and often are the best choices for high schools. 

Could you share some "best practices" you've encountered when presenting Shakespeare to young people?
If you are teaching or conducting Shakespeare I find that it is always a good idea to ‘show them how.’ Young actors tend to put the text on a pedestal and admire it a little too much. If you can show them how to just ‘speak it’ without over dramatizing it that is always valuable. It gives you credibility and gives them a gage to begin with. 
Shakespeare’s work is also loaded with very funny moments. Using the comedy to break the ice and have fun is a great way to get everyone involved. 

Do you think experiences with Shakespeare provide benefits unique to this playwright? If so, what?
Working with Shakespeare provides actors and directors with great examples of how important an author’s words can be. I once had an acting teacher who said that if you didn’t write the play then you have no business changing the lines. You need to be ‘dead letter perfect’ in your memorization. This is crucial with Shakespeare. The language and the words are the most important aspect of the work. Vocal production and speech are needed to achieve any type of truth in the performance. The words, the physical sounds and speech are the vehicle. How you chose to subtext your performance is what will drive it. To become comfortable with Shakespeare will benefit any playwright or director or actor because it is one of the hardest things any of us can do. To work against our instincts and allow the words to paint the picture is a task that becomes difficult as we attempt to ‘create’. Understanding and being comfortable with Shakespeare can provide a great foundation for any artist in theater.