"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Directing Shakespeare: Final Post (for now)

Finally, we performed Much Ado About Nothing on November 19-22, 2009, and I believe all involved were satisfied that they had done well. I know I was. You never finish a play, you just stop working on it, but the place we stopped was a pretty good one.

I was particularly impressed with the work of 6 or so principal actors who made the language natural, fluent and expressive. I can claim little credit for their accomplishments--they did it themselves. I contributed perhaps some nagging.

Happily, the rock-solid anchors of the play were the four actors playing the two romantic couples, Hero and Claudio and Beatrice and Benedick. Melissa Milne, Mark Diaz, Kelly Novak and Leonard Perez all delivered the language in an entirely natural, clear, yet natural fashion. Additional fine work was done by Disha Dass and junior Andrew Bridge. Andrew really showed he could step up to the complex and varied role of Don Pedro, who is one of those Shakespearean-duke types who mixes nobility with a little wicked humor and a taste for manipulation, something like the duke in TWELFTH NIGHT.

You learn so much about a play by working with it in depth. MUCH ADO is riddled with red herrings. First, there is some fuss over whether the prince has wooed Hero for himself or as Claudio's advocate. Then there is much hoo-hah about whether or not Benedick will actually kill Claudio. Neither of those plots ever actually culminates. Shakespeare simply tosses them aside on the way to something else. Given the neither-this-nor-that status of these plot lines, the contemporary director must decide to minimize or even cut these strands; we tried to make the first one clearer than it is in Shakespeare's original and let Beatrice's aunt mis-overhear things rather than some unspecified servant. For the second red herring, we devised a little stage business for Benedick before a sudden culmination arrives which dismisses several previous scenes.

I was very happy with some aspects of the way in which I prepared the text. First, I got the show down to two hours including intermission, which is right for this kind of light show. I would happily defend all of my cuts, except that I cut a bit more heavily into Leonato's role than I would have liked, but the actor was not comfortable with a lot of the long runs that Leonato has, and it was better that he deliver his material clearly than I preserve all the long speeches. I used the Branagh film to guide many of the cuts, but Branagh virtually discarded the second gulling scene, which is the only chance that Hero gets to really show off her chops and have fun on stage, so we had to keep it. And Melissa did a great job with it, making it at least the equal of the more famous "gulling" of Benedick that precedes it. I followed Branagh's lead in changing some of the partners in the dance sequence, having Margaret dance with Borachio (rather than Balthasar as in Shakespeare) which makes their hooking up later more logical. I could not have Antonio dance with Margaret, as I had made Antonio into Antonia (a change which yielded many benefits), so Claudio is embarrassedly dancing with the household staff, which was charming.

About the newly altered character of Antonia--there is a confrontation scene between Leonato and Antonio on one side and Don Pedro and Claudio on the other which is easily overlooked. My actors really found the juice in the scene and gave it good measure. And by making Antonia a woman, the speech ticking off the antics of foolish young men had much more bite, given a bit of the "battle of the sexes" aspect--nicely mirroring the Beatrice-Benedick plot.

Another think I was proud of with my preparation of the text was dividing the prose (which makes up 2/3 to 3/4 of the text) into separate lines so that the actors could see the phrases and ideas separated the way they needed to be when spoken--as contrasted with looking at a large block of unbroken type, which so often invites young actors to race along.

My Beatrice, Kelly Novak, was always as good as I expected her to be, although she was capable of short-shrifting the music of the words a bit. My Benedick, Leonard Perez made my hair grey for a long time as he took a long time to absorb all the words in his role, and spent most of the rehearsals until the final week with the book jammed into his face, completely obscuring his face, so that I had little idea of what was going on up there. Then, suddenly, he put the book down and completely blossomed, making every work he spoke utterly crystal clear, or as clear as could be hoped for an audience not experienced with Shakespeare.

As I told the cast, work on Shakespeare is frontloaded. Take the time at the beginning to learn your lines--learn them absolutely by rote without worrying about understanding their internal logic. Then keep saying them over and over in rehearsal and their truth, beauty and logic will reveal themselves to you. No research into the character's history or background is necessary. All the actor needs to know about how to play the part is embedded in the text, if the actor will take the trouble to learn the text and learn how to pronounce it properly.

In retrospect, I was a little too pure in one way--I should have put a plot synopsis in the program. Shakespeare races through a number of important points. In the script, the assignation between Margaret and Borachio, in which she is mistaken for Hero and all the trouble starts takes place offstage. Again, I followed Branagh's lead and put the scene on stage, which took a bit more jiggering and arranging, given the limitations of the living stage, compared with film. And the Friar's plot in which the household will give out that Hero is dead in order to elicit a response from the prince and the count is rather quickly and simply laid out as if Shakespeare knew his audience already knew this plot from some other source material. It is easily missed, and sometimes was in our production. I would take more care to get that explanation clarified.

But though I will cut text, I will not change it. I have a video of NY Shakespeare Festival of MUCH ADO adapted from a popular production which went to Broadway. In the course of updating the action to early 20th-century America, actual words in the text were changed. That smacks of cheating. Change one word, why not change any others you find difficult. It's a slippery slope, and I believe I most eschew that path. If a word or phrase is truly hard for the audience to digest aurally, better to cut it utterly than to rewrite it for convenience. Nor will I stage a line so that it means the opposite of Shakespeare's plain meaning. He doesn't need that kind of smart-a** directorial "help" in my opinion.

A word about our marvelous ensemble. Most professional productions cannot afford a large household for Leonato or a sidekicks for the prince, but we had that luxury, and those actors made a tremendous contribution to the play, providing a community and a context for the sometimes outrageous actions of some of the principals. I know most people in non-speaking roles feel unappreciated, but they were absolutely indispensable to our concept of the story.

Then there was what my producer, John Coviello, referred to as our "nuclear weapon," Mary Costa as Dogberry. Mary can play a loopy character in such a fabulously loopy way as to make an audience completely helpless. Every actor playing a Shakespearean clown must make the part absolutely their own--Shakespeare only provides a bare skeletal outline for theatrical hijinks. He expected his actors to fill in the outline with their own business and persona. This Mary did as if to the manner born. Brava! The audience was completely helpless in her hands.

A great experience for me, one I hope to repeat, although I am afraid I cannot do it more than once every three or four years, given all the other experiences I wish to provide for my students, including acting in original plays I hope to write. But I cannot imagine accomplishing any greater professional development this year than what I did by directing Shakespeare.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mankind's greatest fears

Number three on the hit list: How to survive high school.

Right after zombie attacks and robot uprisings. (Funny, nothing about end of civilization as we know it brought on by Facebook and MP3s.)

This was sent to me by a well-informed friend. Now you know what to be afraid of.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Authentic learning plans can go too far

Last week, students from Fox Hill Primary School in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England returned from a school holiday to find police tape all around, blood on the floor, furniture in disarray and a teacher with a bandaged head. Happily, no crime took place; the apparent crime scene was part of what was intended as a practical, "authentic-style" problem-solving exercise to figure out "who broke into the school." Incidentally, the exercise continued for four more days.

The problem was that this was an elementary school and a good proportion of the kids were traumatized. Moreover, the community was not warned in advance and this article indicates that at least one autistic child cannot understand the explanations and is afraid to return to school completely.

An important part of growing up is learning to identify the line between pretend and reality. Perhaps school administrators at Fox Hill need to review that.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The jury is still out

Web 2.0 is definitely exciting for a teacher, if for no other reason that it is exciting to our students; one can't help suspect that somewhere in this welter of interactivity, there are powerful tools for learning lurking.

But first, back to my former life. Back in 1999, I was working at CNBC. I was at the center of the investor universe, hearing about all the latest business trends before anyone knew they were trends. In those days we were at the height of the Internet Bubble. Every day new companies were making buckets of money by launching new IPOs based on business plans glittering with buzzwords about this new business frontier. Everyone was convinced that because this was new and exciting, it had to be the opportunity to make money.

And, of course, a year later we saw the beginning of the end. IPOs began to sputter out. Start-ups ran through their initial capitalization without ever producing a product. Investor money dried up and by early 2001 it was virtually all over.

But the internet is still here, everyone recognizes its value and some people have made money in it. But it took time. And it took relentless experimentation and a tolerance for error, and the opportunity to go down blind alleys, double back and try again. No one's giving up, but we all realize that exciting doesn't mean obvious or easy.

To me, at the moment, Twitter feels like Internet 1999. Wikis, blogs, Skype, Ning, all of these have clear applications in the classroom, and it will just take some time to develop curriculum-specific adaptations. But honestly, whereas I see that Twitter may be useful for administrators and educational leaders to communicate with each other across distances, I do not see it as a powerful communicative or collaborative medium in the language arts. I may just be a geezer lacking insight. But the economic-technological barriers (for example, we cannot guarantee all of our students have ready access) and the 140-character limit diminishes the immediate possibilities, IMHO (to employ a tired Web 1.0 idiom).

For all the postings I have seen about Twitter in education, I have yet to be directed to a complete, classroom ready lesson plan in high school language arts employing Twitter. I'm not saying it can't be done; it's just that I haven't seen it yet myself. Sorry :(

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Directing Shakespeare, Post #3

First of all, we have made staggering progress with the physical setting, thanks to Jim Africano and his fabulous squad of adult volunteers. The floor plan is completely laid out, and as I write this, nearly all of the base coats of paint are down, so we are approaching the finishing stages on the set--the highlighting and shadowing that will make the whole thing pop. Matt Kaprelian, scene artist extraordinaire will be paying a visit soon and we will be wrapping up that aspect of the production before long.

I can't say I've learned or taught much about Shakespeare, theater or comedy. The cast is struggling hard to learn the lines, and I think they seriously underestimated the technical difficulty of what they are undertaking. In memorizing Shakespeare, one cannot fall back on remembered patterns from everyday speech. You have to learn the music note for note. Not surprisingly, several of the trained musicians are doing the best in memorizing, although that is not true across the board--a trend more than a true correlation. My directorial fingers are itching to reach in and help them shape scenes and sharpen the story, but I really have to keep hands off until they get their own internal mechanical work done. We did have some good moments at our workshop rehearsal last Friday--I stood in for some people who were missing and could give the other actors a little fire in their scenes, and then they started to come to life. Interesting and surprising sometimes to see who has a real knack and talent for this type of acting...and one or two students who underestimate themselves and therefore do not apply the kind of effort they would if they really believed in themselves.

If I haven't said it before, Christine Batac has real talent, not just as a choreographer, but potentially as a director. She has a sense of movement (obviously), space and timing and easily makes adjustments as needed and as requested. I wish we had got her involved sooner, but I believe she is a junior and could potentially develop as a major theater talent in an area other than pure performing--although she does want to audition for the spring musical--and everybody should have that experience who wants it!

Here we are, hard at work. Wish I had a picture of the finished set and the beautiful colors Lisette Morel has selected for it. Can't wait to see what the art classes come up with for masks for our masquerade ball!

Oh, and I forget the inestimable Mr. Peter Torpie, who not only provides invaluable logistical support in managing our mobs of students and helping herd them where they need to be, but is also a pretty impressive Shakespeare scholar himself! These science teachers are full of dark secrets!