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Shakespeare Out Loud

Freeing Macbeth from the Page

By Emmett Berg | HUMANITIES, July/August 2003 | Volume 24, Number 4

“The way to really grasp Shakespeare is to get up and do it,” says Mary Hartman. “Technology affords us the opportunity to make it easier, but at heart it’s just getting up and doing it.” Hartman is director of education for Shakespeare & Company, which is producing a multimedia companion guide for Macbeth to help high school teachers teach the play.

In February Shakespeare & Company videotaped a group of thirty-one students practicing exercises and rehearsing scenes. The footage will be integrated into a multimedia guide, scheduled for release next year in DVD, videotape, and print formats. Selections will also be available on the Internet free of charge.

The study guide, being produced with NEH support, is designed to appeal to the teacher navigating Shakespeare with a class for the first time, or for the teacher seeking a new approach. Along with footage of students acting out key scenes, the guide contains printable assignments and technique instructions, annotated text, a synopsis, character summaries, and historical background.

“We interviewed the students extensively during the videotaping,” says technical consultant Pam Johnson. “They talked about their own lives in relation to the events that happened in Shakespeare’s plays. Many, if not all of them, have their own tragedies, dilemmas about relationships, or axes to grind over what’s the right thing to do. When they’re struggling with these things, they don’t have the word to put to these experiences, but Shakespeare does.”

Modeled on the actor-managed troupe of Elizabethan times, Shakespeare & Company trains professional actors and performs plays as well as educating students. Based in Lenox, Massachusetts, Shakespeare & Company has led performance workshops in local schools for decades. Several dozen area schools of all levels have played host to these events, some as brief as a day, others lasting nine weeks. During the past fifteen years, NEH has supported summer performance institutes for teachers at Shakespeare & Company. The company is now looking to digital media and the Internet as a way to reach an even greater number of secondary school teachers.

The company is working in collaboration with five high school teachers from Massachusetts and New Haven, Connecticut, to develop and fine-tune Macbeth in Action. They are adapting techniques the company uses professionally to rehearse and learn lines, and drawing up lesson plans with the teachers’ recommendations.

Together they have formulated three distinct approaches, or lesson plan blueprints. One approach focuses on the play’s characters, encouraging teachers not to begin discussion with Act I, scene 1, but rather to concentrate on each character, one by one, contrasting passages that reveal the character’s makeup.

In another curriculum, the emphasis is on preparing students to move from the page to the stage. Performance exercises are provided, along with a ninety-minute cut of the text. According to Pam Johnson, such a cut is in keeping with the Shakespearean tradition. She says that in the time of Elizabeth I, a full four-hour play was rarely, if ever, performed.

The third approach is more flexible. It provides recommendations and techniques for each scene, moving through the play in chronological order and combining techniques so that a teacher who is comfortable with the material will have a choice of exercises.

The students who participated in the filming in February came from western Massachusetts and Chatham, New York, just over the state line from Lenox. They ran through exercises, choreographed fight scenes, and gave their thoughts on-camera in a short segment about the play’s violence.

In one filming session a student rehearsing as Macbeth was told to leave the stage and go through the motions of killing Duncan, the king of Scotland, then return to the room and do the scene. He re-entered the stage, shaking. With the camera rolling, he was asked how he felt. “I didn’t know how to kill him,” the seventeen-year-old said. “He was my king, my friend, a guest in my house, how could I kill him? Could I kill him in a gentle way? I felt like so much less of a person coming in to do the rest of the scene.”

It is a tragic history play, but some of Shakespeare & Company’s teaching techniques look more like gym class: students line up and run forward, one by one, each shouting a single line of Shakespeare before running away.

In another drill students pass a ball around as they call out lines from key speeches.

“The heart of what we’re doing is play,” Hartman says. “It helps to get your feet wet in a nonthreatening and playful way. We pull out forty or fifty words from a play, toss the students a ball, and get them to speak out some of Shakespeare’s words to each other with each pass of the ball. It’s suddenly almost spontaneous poetry.”

By freeing the lines from the page, educators emphasize the performance aspect of the script, and also give students to the opportunity to develop their own interpretations of the scenes in question. Glosses, or short explanatory notes in the margins of a text, were first written into Shakespeare’s works as a way to aid understanding or to suggest an interpretation to a particular scene or speech. Rather than teach a text riddled with additions by anonymous authors, which some educators find unreliable, misleading, and less pure than the original text, the teachers collaborating with Shakespeare & Company have put the onus on the performers.

“We question students on the motivations and expectations of a character. And we make it clear that our questions are not definitive,” says Hartman. “We try to take opportunities to illustrate the plasticity of interpretation.”

The company comes equipped to teach key scenes from a play, but instructors strive to be resources for the students. Some may need a synopsis to lay the foundation, or an introduction to commonly held interpretations of Shakespeare before they perform their own variation. Others need to spend time on the logistics of a scene--where to stand, when to enter--and then graduate to harder questions of character motivation and affectation.

“Rather than a resource with all the answers, we are developing a resource that gives students the opportunity to discover their own answers,” Hartman says. “Some students will get confused at first. They’re used to the traditional education model, which both presupposes and provides a right answer. Our way can be frightening at first. But then, once they begin to play in this realm and discover their own answers, the payoff is enormous and genuine learning takes place.”

Hartman notes that whereas actors traditionally operate within the framework of the director’s vision, Shakespeare & Company believes that the raw material of the plays has enough richness to maintain its roots while fostering a multitude of interpretations. Teachers are challenging students to study and explain their own performances, and to analyze why they have delivered a line in a certain way.

Today’s teachers are often faced with the notions students have already formed about plays before they have even read them. The 1996 movie Romeo and Juliet has colored their ideas, according to Mimi Paquette, a high school teacher in Holden, Massachusetts. “The kids who were at a low level could not take themselves out of the world of that film,” she says. “When we got to reading the text, some kids were hung up, wondering when Romeo’s going to jump in that cool swimming pool to make a speech to Juliet, like he did in the movie.”

Springfield Central High School teacher Michael Cremonini, who has trained with Shakespeare & Company and is helping to develop the multimedia guide, assigned Macbeth to one of his classes. Even before they finished, they were anxious to act out the play, he says. The class decided on the key scenes to act out, and began to cast the parts. One student did not want to participate. When Cremonini asked him which part he would most like to perform, the student confessed he was a poor reader and said he wanted to play one of the grooms, tricked into a drunken stupor by Lady Macbeth, sleeping outside of King Duncan’s bedchamber. Cremonini agreed. The appointed day arrived, and the student was in costume. As the scene was proceeding, with Macbeth creeping past to kill Duncan, the student snored away--loudly enough to obscure the dialog, Cremonini said, and he had to be hushed. Still the student thanked his teacher for letting him participate in his own way.

Students can be inventive at avoiding opportunities to speak an awkward tongue in front of peers. Somebody, they say, has to run the camera or take notes. The stubborn ones can be drawn in, Hartman asserts, if the teacher shows a willingness to encourage them. When planning the performance of Macduff and Lenox’s arrival at Macbeth’s gate in Act II Scene 3, one student volunteered service as the creaky gate. “It’s a little silly, but by saying yes to that, suddenly that student understands clearly that their ideas are valued,” Hartman says. “The next idea might actually be about the character. Say no and the student may never volunteer another idea again.”

A female student was similarly inclined to minimize her role in the class’s dramatization of scenes from Hamlet. “She said, ‘I don’t want to do anything” and we said, ‘can you do nothing right here?” says Hartman. Cast as Ophelia, Hamlet’s unrequited love, she brooded in silence while her classmates surrounded her and performed her thoughts. “She was doing exactly what she requested, but suddenly she was right in the center and enjoying herself, taking her role very seriously.”

Cremonini taught Shakespeare to his own class, over their protests. “They said they shouldn’t have to read it because they weren’t going to college anyway,” Cremonini said. But the class persevered and continued to read and act out the play. The class went on to develop an interest in reading Shakespeare’s sonnets. “One student said to me that if he could read and understand Shakespeare, he could read anything.”

Paquette allows that there is a language barrier, but says it can be surpassed. “The language has changed, but the emotion and passion haven’t changed. When I teach Shakespeare, we start by playing with language and conquering fear of language,” she says. “Eventually kids can see it’s about basic human emotions, only the pronouns and verb endings are different.

“When they start playing with words, they begin to realize how much richer their language can be to describe human emotion. They start using the language, and listen intently to their classmates as they read. These are not just honors but struggling students. One kid who could barely read a page did an honors-level project on Hamlet. The kids in my remedial class keep asking me, ‘Who gets to read this book? Why are the honors kids reading this?’”

One of Paquette’s other pupils, sixteen-year-old Patrice LaHair, was one of those honors students. With a background in theater and previous experience reading Shakespeare, she says she responded well to Paquette’s activities. Others in the class needed more time, she says. “The way you’re taught something affects how you like it,” Patrice says. “Some people really don’t like Shakespeare because they don’t want to think enough to read between the lines. Miss Paquette would have something else you could get involved in if you didn’t like reading.” The entire class learned an Elizabethan dance.

This year, LaHair finds herself studying Shakespeare with a different teacher, but this time the presentation is more traditional. The class has read the text of Othello and listened to an audiotape version, but there is no standing on chairs shouting lines, like last year. “Now,” she says, “I detest the classroom part of it but still love the story.”

About the Author

Emmett Berg is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

Funding Information

Shakespeare & Company has received $1,232,915 since 1988 for its NEH summer institutes and $150,000 to produce Macbeth in Action: A Multimedia Guide.