"[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

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Shakespeare in the house

LAUSD students working on fresh approaches to Shakespeare
To be honest, this blog has been quiet for the past couple of years because, although I've been working harder on teaching than I ever had, I didn't have a lot that I felt I could or should share with my fellow teachers.  The journey was largely personal, finding my own way integrating myself into a high-expectations inner city high school.

But this week I am embarking on the kind of project that I went into teaching in order to do.  Let me backtrack.  One of the reasons I was brought into American History High School in Newark was to kickstart efforts at developing a drama organization, which is as essential to a full-service high school as having at least one significant sports team per quarter and a functioning music program.  To begin with, these programs are often the only thing that pull some students into school, students who may be struggling academically, socially or emotionally.  It gives them a place of belonging and very specific and authentic tasks to perform.  And the tasks themselves teach a lot about working in groups, meeting deadlines, solving problems and accepting responsibility.  They are not "extras" in high school--they are core learning experiences.

But we are a magnet school in an urban environment wrestling with issues of poverty and crime and it is no small matter for students to be able to stay after school four afternoons a week to participate in a conventional school play rehearsal schedule.  This issue has stymied our efforts to build an effective program, despite having many talented and engaged students.  (I even had a student win an acting scholarship in a Rutgers-based competition even without our group having completed a single production for the year.)

But-- we have an excellent video program led by a fine teacher, Jason Lee.  In his first full year on campus, several writers and directors of note emerged, and one of them completed this short film which has won praise from literally all over the world.

And the young woman who wrote and directed this film is not our only talented filmmaker.  So I have this data floating around in my brain when the other weekend my wife and I are watching Joss Whedon's adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (a play I have directed myself), which he and his wife shot in their house with their own money with their friends.

I had one of those moments of synthesis (appropriate, since it is one of our goals this year to teach our students when and how they are performing synthesis) and realized that if we could not stage a play continuously on the stage, we could FILM one.  It could be done piece-by-piece, a few actors at a time, but in contrast with a video class project, in which the actors would be using an original student-written script, we could adhere to our agenda as a Drama club and engage with a classic text, applying our own experience and knowledge to it.

Of course, the play would have to be out of copyright in order for us to film it, not to mention adapt and cut it, but that just played to my own prejudices, which run toward exposing students to the Classical texts.  (Note to self -- write post about why our time with students is better spent addressing the great classic stories and texts and that applying the tools of storytelling to purely contemporary matters is better left to higher education, after students have fully absorbed our culture's own myths and archtypical narratives.)

I put a short list of Classics before the club members, including some Shakespeares and some Ancient Greeks.  There was a certain amount of interest in the contest of the poets in The Frogs by Aristophanes, which we were thinking of staging as a full-on rap battle.  (We may yet get to that one.)  But in the end, we turned to the play I expected to be the favorite, Romeo and Juliet, but not for the reasons we thought.  We stumbled over a new and exciting reading of the play which revolves around social matters very much on the front burner for us here in New Jersey, a reading which I am not quite ready to share publicly, partly because it may stir some controversy and partly because it is SO FREAKING BRILLIANT that somebody will probably try to steal it.

I am working on my own first pass with the script this weekend.  Happily, I've taught the play a few times and recently edited it for an uncompleted student production, so the text is a very familiar friend.  The plan is to shoot the whole film within our building, much the way Orson Welles's adaptation of The Trial was shot almost entirely in a single abandoned railway station in Paris.

I even have a frame story that sets up the all-school location concept, but I don't think I want to share that yet either.  I've sent our young director my first pass on Acts I & II for her to add her own creativity and if I can be finished with this rough pass in another week or so we can start casting.  Another adventure begins!