How a high school director convinced his students that Shakespeare is cool

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    Katie Tussing and Malena Langlie construct Prospero's Tower for Meadowdale Players' 2011 production of "The Tempest" in November.

    By Jeff Stilwell

    Shakespeare’s The Tempest became the perfect storm.

    I had just announced that we would do The Bard’s classic for our fall play at Meadowdale High School. In truth, I expected excitement. I expected shouts of joy from my students.

    What I got were shouts of dismay.

    “Impossible” rang out, several times, in fact. Needless to say, I was quite taken aback.

    After all, Shakespeare is the gold standard in theatre. I’m not talking about his plays being only for effete snobs, either. (As if, we, the Great Unwashed could never understand such exalted poetry. Sheesh!)

    Not at all. Shakespeare is the most performed playwright in America. That’s why Theatre Communications Group excludes him from their annual list of most produced playwrights

    His works might be four hundred years old. Nevertheless, clearly, Americans are not get tired of seeing Shakespeare.

    For anyone who plans on seriously making theatre their art form, that means they need to get Shakespeare under the belt. The sooner the better.

    For me, the high school theatre director, that means I need to find a way to make Shakespeare cool.

    Yet with all that shaking of heads, dark mutters and groans, I could see we weren’t getting to a very good start. One of my strongest leaders, senior Drew Petriello, even took me aside and said two things:

    We can’t do Shakespeare. And if we did, we can’t fill the house.

    Later, I received an email from another of my strongest leaders, sophomore Sydney Langlie. She wrote: “The problem is not only that many of us do not want to do it, but the issue of us being able to actually pull it off.”

    My kids may be high school students. They are also become quite an accomplished group of well-trained dramatists. In fact, they earned their first performance award at State after we had been working together for only four months.

    So, when they complain, I am happy to listen.

    But, still, how to make Shakespeare cool?

    When it comes to high school and art, I believe that demonstrating trumps telling. Almost every time, in fact.

    So, first the telling: I gathered everyone together and we had a short talk together, debunking some of the old Shakespeare myths:

    •       No, the guy did not drop out of the sky into some Ivory Tower fully formed one day.

    •       Yes, he probably had zits.

    •       He almost certainly got dissed by a girl at some point.

    •       He most definitely was potty-trained.

    Which also means that, just as my kids do, he got better with more stagetime.

    For the first time, the mutters ceased. Yet, they were still skeptical, I could see. Then, I asked the question, “How many here like Anime?”

    All hands shot up. I explained that they will understand Shakespeare’s characters almost immediately. The mutters were back: “What?!” “No way!”

    I pointed out, then, with examples from the plays how his characters are two-dimensional in the choices they make: No lingering doubts, no self-esteem issues, no troubles with OCD or ADD or chronic depression. In fact, his characters are much like comic book characters.

    Now, I had them interested. So, I played my third hand — a game I had made up called Top The Shakespearean Taunt. I split them into teams with a list of Shakespearean insults each, and a judge.

    Each team produced a champion who threw out a taunt. The judge picked the better taunt, with the loser captured by the opposing team.

    You know what happened. The theatre rang out with cries such as…

    Go to, thou flea-bitten, scurvy wretch!

    Or…

    Go to, thou pox-besotted, sour bag of piss!

    And Shakespeare suddenly became cool.

    More information about Meadowdale Players’ Nov. 17-19 production of The Tempest is available at Facebook.com/MeadowdalePlayers.

     

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