What does RYS do in the classroom?
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.
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.