What does RYS do in the classroom?

Shakespeare comes with a lot of baggage. Elitism. Middle-aged people going to matinees in otherwise unremarkable rural towns. Academia. An actor's dream role.

In chatting with performers, Scott and I hear about women of colour being told they shouldn't bother auditioning for Shakespearean plays, because they will never get cast as the lead. At the same time, people love to talk about how Shakespeare's work is universal. Shakespeare's friend Ben Jonson, eulogising him in the First Folio (1623) said that "He was not of an age, but for all time." It's certain that stories of betrayal, corruption, and love are universal, but it seems like that universality applies more strongly to one group than others. When Shakespeare wrote, there may not have been words for homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, racism, ableism and the rest of the ways society creates and maintains oppression, but those things were very much built into the stories he told. We can't keep teaching Shakespeare in schools using the justification that his work is universal if we can open any of his plays and see blatantly oppressive language or actions in the lines. We can't keep telling whole classes that Shakespeare is universal if only the straight white kids in the class can see themselves represented on stage. But we can look for ways that students previously not included in the "universal" stories can break down those barriers for everyone.

We say we want all kids to see themselves represented in the material they study in school, the material we educators legitimise as being Important. There's the baggage. But what Riotous Youth Shakespeare really wants, is to empower the students themselves to do the representing.

So, in the classroom context, what does that mean? If the teacher tells us what play we're doing ahead of time, great. We grab it off the shelf. If not, we show up with a complete works and the Shakespeare app on the iPad and hope for the best. For just about any play (especially for the classroom classics, like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth) we can parachute into the lessons at any point in the script.

Here's what the average Riotous Youth Shakespeare classroom visit looks like:

  • The setup: Arrive on the day of, and get students up and reading right away with some good ol' Shakespearean insults. There are some tasty burns that sound a lot like jokes you'd make today. It's a cheap shot, but getting to roast the teacher usually lightens the mood. Students get comfort with the material and, while we explain some of the jokes, we can transition into a little discussion of what Shakespeare's plays meant to Shakespeare's actors.
  • The Original Practice: Actors got only their part, they didn't get the whole play. This means that a lot of hints about the action of the play is hidden in people's lines, so actors know what their other players will be doing based on what they're saying. Armed with this knowledge of what to look for, we have any volunteers do a quick scene this way, called "Original Practice" and ask spectators to reflect on what they noticed. Everyone is involved, not just the performers. I can't stress enough that you will never hear us say, "okay we need a boy and a girl for this scene." Hopefully by now you know that's not RYS's style. We love not telling students what gender they're reading and we love having any and all volunteers take the plunge. 
  • The scene: Then, depending on the play and where the teacher is in that play, we will pick a scene for everyone to do as a class. We get volunteers to perform certain roles and stress that anybody can play anybody. The next part is crucial: as a class we decide when, where, and what the action is. Are the Macbeths the leaders of a motorcycle gang bent on claiming the best turf? Are Romeo and Juliet two aliens from different planets trying to communicate before their war-torn galaxy rends itself into space dust? This means using the improv golden rule of "yes, and" and twisting it with a little "okay, so." We take all students' suggestions seriously, but we require them to explain the consequences and antecedents. This takes place a little bit before the scene and a little bit after. By asking everyone to be a part of building the whens and hows of the scene, we get them complicit in collaborating on a literary and dramaturgical analysis of the play they're in the process of performing.
    • During the reading of the scene, we rarely correct students' pronunciation unless they look to us for guidance. We can focus on that later if we have time, but we care more about students feeling comfortable putting their hands up than hearing perfect Elizabethan diction (which probably doesn't sound like what you think
  • The talkback: Crucial to what we do is bringing the group back together, reviewing both the plot but also the analysis. What did we see, hear, feel, think, and wonder? What was different about this production than last time we saw it or read it, and how did that change the meaning we got from the play? When we read and imagine Shakespeare, we only get one dimension of the possible literary landscape, ripe for analysis. Students are speaking their English exam questions to us before they realise they have a thesis.
  • The next steps: Depending on the play, the teacher, the time, and the resources, we'll spend the next opportunity dividing up scenes and small groups for each student to play a role and collaborate as a director of a scene. We'll then put it all together and have students watch, and analyse their classmates' efforts. We've seen students demonstrate incredible knowledge and understanding of plot and text analysis on the fly from an afternoon's work. The best part is, they're usually excited to see us next time.
So how do we make it "universal"? It's in how we set students up and how we answer questions. It's in showing every single student that their contributions will be taken seriously, and that no matter how quickly or slowly you read, you can still understand if you're willing to watch. It's the classroom space we hope to build and the culture of radically inclusive collaborative analysis we want to foster.

And why is this a part of a community engaged experiential learning project? We're hoping to combine academic texts on diversity and inclusion in radical arts and pedagogical spaces with the experiences of working with RYS this spring as we dig into the ongoing development of our program. By the end of this experience, we're hoping to have a more fulsome understanding of our own positions as Shakespeare fans and radically anti-oppressive educators. In the long term RYS will be an organisation that works with schools and the community to provide students the opportunity to experience theatre-making using Shakespeare's texts.


  1. Coco -
    I can see that you have been busy mapping out your program - and have shared it with us in a manner to make accessible what hitherto was a bit of an abstract set of aims (at least to me) - your program development seems to be going well.

    And while I can see & hear Coco the program developer here, I am curious to also hear ("yes, and") from Coco the student - a bit of a more personal, reflective commentary on the process of building this program. I am also curious to know if/when you have the opportunity to workshop the model - has this series of steps been something you've had a chance to implement in TO? Belgium? A future land?

    I suppose another element I'm curious about is the sources you are drawing on for guides to thinking this through - (could be any range of sources) - for example, are there readings you draw up as models of ways to think through Shakey pedagogy? (see below). I suppose I am curious to see explicit statements that demonstrate your thinking through your experience - what I read is more like the script (finished lines) whereas we also hoping to learn about the in-between -

    Mellor, B. and Patterson, A. (2000). Critical practice: teaching Shakespeare. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 43(6), 508-517. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40016829

    Nell, M. (2005). Othello and Race. In P. Erickson and M. Hunt (Eds.), Approaches to teaching Shakespeare's Othello (37-52). New York: The Modern Language Association of America.

    Another thread of the post that sparks curiosity is the language of "radical". For RYS, what are the criteria that makes something radical vs participatory, critical, and/or post-modern?

    Lastly, I'm imaging myself being a teacher in a high school with a fair amount of latitude about what I teach - what is it about the RYS that makes me reach for Shakespeare over Daniel David Moses, Marie Clements, Andrew Moodie, etc?

    I know that you likely have ready answers for all of this - and I look forward to learning more in the weeks ahead.

    1. Hi David, I'm so glad you asked those questions (and passed on those readings.) I don't know how I missed Mellor and Patterson, but it kind of blew my mind! It really jabbed a pressure point I've been feeling lately, wondering if my understanding of "critical thinking" is just "statements I agree with, because of what I perceive to be opposition to normative thinking from 50 years ago."

      Also, the steps I outlined above are almost exactly what we've done in Brussels, that Scott's been doing for about five years and me since last May. It's been met with great response from the teachers and students, but I agree that it needs to be revisited through some different lenses. It's tough because as our departure looms (five days away!) I oscillate between wanting to spend my time making our teaching materials more aligned with Universal Design (for example) and wanting to read up on theoretical frameworks with which we might conceptualise our "radical" pedagogy. There's a lot to tackle here for sure.

  2. Hi Coco,

    Your placement sounds like a really engaging and intellectually stimulating experience for your students and everyone involved. I was aware of how polarizing Shakespeare can be for so many reasons but I think you synthesized several of the key issues really well.

    I like the note you made about not correcting students’ pronunciations while they are performing. I think that too often in education, we get caught up with getting the details right and forget about the creative process. Even with my kindergarteners in practicum right now, it can be difficult to know when to interfere and help a student accurately master a skill or when to let them simply feel confident and grow to love the process of creating.

    It sounds like it will be a great formative experience for these students to be exposed to such a rich text in a context where they are encouraged to deconstruct and approach it from creative angles. It will be empowering for these students to understand that they can personally shape how a celebrated play is heard. You mentioned that students will be watching each others’ performances soon. I’m curious how the peer-evaluation piece will go. It is such an important skill to be able to offer and receive feedback.

    I like what you said about working to make Shakespeare universal by valuing students’ contributions and creating a “culture of radically inclusive collaboration”. It sounds like you are already well on your way with all you are doing so far.

    Good luck with your next steps,


    1. Hi Caileigh, thanks for your response!

      I can tell you from our experience last year that the peer evaluation piece was super interesting! The last one we did was the entirety of Act V from Macbeth. Each group of students got a scene to do, which they all did in their own chosen style and presented. though each scene was different, it presented a cohesive whole. Opening it up to the group for comments and questions allowed the students on stage to justify and present the rationale for their choices, and revel in their successes and challenges. Students who asked questions of their peers demonstrated that they were watching and I think that seeing several different interpretations of each character (and then discussing those) allowed students to access a much deeper understanding of the text.

      That being said, we haven't really given them a guideline for that feedback - that might be a really key thing for us to consider moving forward, is how are we encouraging students to critique their own work and their peers'? What kinds of questions should we be encouraging students to ask in order to bring this work closer to the curriculum expectations in a given program?

      I'm really glad you pointed out the feedback piece, I had completely forgotten to consider that element of it and I think it could be a really key part of the learning process in our program. Thank you!!!

  3. Coco, what a cool concept and program you are running. Being an English teacher that has taught Shakespeare myself, I certainly understand the struggle of finding a “representative” of non-white individuals (other than for characters like Othello) in Shakespeare’s text. As you mentioned, his works were obviously written at a different era. I am sure even the genius that is William Shakespeare could not imagine the world as it is today. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t manipulate the context around the work to appeal to the progress that we, as a society, have made.

    When teaching the material, I found changing the context a as fun way to enhance students’ comprehension. As you alluded to, an extraterrestrial Romeo and Juliet or a biker gang Macbeth can certainly highten interest. Renditions like Leonardo DiCaprio’s starred Romeo and Juliet created an alternate setting and time that students really enjoyed and could relate to. By keeping the play stagnant, in that it is only a story of the distant past, I find that students find it harder and harder to relate to the material seeing as we no longer use swords and spears to solve quarrels. Having students find a clever way to alter the original narrative can assist with comprehension while also encouraging a student’s creativity. Great work!

    I also enjoyed your initial activity (much like a Minds On) of Shakespearean Insults. I, myself have used this tactic and really enjoy it. It is a amusing way for students to become competent with a few complicated terms while building also building confidence. Not to mention, students will also quickly realize that the way in which they articulate the language is just as important (and telling) as the language itself.

    I did, however, have a question as for the participation of your program. From what I understood, it seems that you need a big number of participants for this program. If every student is to have a part, many of these plays can have quite the big cast. How many participants do you have or are you expecting for your program? Is each student allotted only one role? If a student is missing, how will you proceed with the play?

    In closing, I really do like your idea and would love to hear how the program ends up. I am not sure if you are aware, but there is a movie that I encountered that reminded me of your program. The film is called Shakespeare High. It is a documentary styled film about a group of American high schools that compete in a Shakespearean drama competition. The competition is nearly 100 years old and you get some behind-the-scene interviews from students, faculty and even some celebrity alumni (such as Kevin Spacey, Val Kilmer, Mare Winningham) that explain the inclusion of Shakespeare into their lives. From a teaching standpoint, it is cool to see the effect of Shakespeare on student’s lives. Maybe it’s worth the watch (if you haven’t already seen it).

    Keep up the great work!

    - Matteo

    1. Hi Matteo - thanks for your response! I'm really glad to hear that some of our core practices (the insults minds-on and the flexibility of changing the scene) resonate with you as useful. I'm not actually certified to be an English teacher, and took no English lit OR Drama classes in University - and while sometimes I might be missing vocabulary, I really like what that dynamic brings to our practice. Scott's learning in acting and performance is entirely experience-based outside of an academic context, while mine is based on extra-curricular, but still academic-adjacent experiences.

      When you ask about numbers of participants and how we'll proceed with the play, it depends on which of the two sections I described where students perform plays. The first scene that we all do as a class is just the number of students we need (we'll do the banquet scene in Macbeth, for example) and the rest are spectators. For the second scene activity (this is usually on the second day we're with a group) we split the students into groups purely based on numbers, and each student will read a role in their group's scene. It's usually five groups of four or five students, which works out well, and since the scene happens, from inception to performance, on one class period, attendance over multiple days isn't an issue. This means that in their production of act V of Macbeth, we will see several different Macbeths played several different ways.

      We are looking at how this may change if we get schools that want us to create a more cohesive "play" and if that's a model we want to engage with. It's a tricky question because our activity helps students see that even their first try is probably pretty good and accomplishes our curriculum goals (around critical readings) but it doesn't hit any of the Drama-class goals of creating and executing a cohesive Production.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Welcome to Riotous Youth Shakespeare

Riotous Youth Visits the Linden School