"Teaching Shakespeare Through Exercises on Acting and on the Basic Emotions"
I wanted students to gain an appreciation of what actors add to a play, so I taught them some elementary acting exercises and had them put on rough performances.
We began the semester by exploring how one person is different from another. I had students write character sketches of people they knew--extend this to pay special attention to the different ways people talk, noting their topics, rhythms, quirks, obsessions, directions, and underlying energies. The exercise led up to these questions:
I then asked each student to focus on one character in the play, and
write out a characterization, quoting significant lines. They were to explore
how this character would act outside the play, then devise other situations
for him. What would her favorite color be? What kind of music would he like?
How would she respond to waiting in line, or to a dull class, or to other
Finally, of course, how does the character respond in the play?
I had students transcribe (from an audio tape) an actual, ordinary conversation, then compare this with a dialogue in a play. Doing this, they were able to focus on how dramatic dialogue differs from conversation: Dialogue not only
Leading into the play, I asked students to write a dialogue using characters
and conflicts that anticipated those in the play we were about to read.
I had students memorize a 10-line speech from each play. The first one was memorized on class time, using the following techniques.
To start with, we all went outside on a large field one sunny day. I stayed in the middle and assigned students exercises to do while walking. They walked all over the field and re-converged every few minutes for new instructions. (The sense of movement, sunshine, spaciousness, and Shakespeare made this one of my most memorable days of teaching.)
1. Work in pairs. I explained the concept of "supportive audience": try to provide an atmosphere in which your partner can do his or her best. This is what an ideal audience does. First exercise: walk up and down slowly (to begin to get the speech into your body, not just in your head), while partners read their speeches to each other.
2. Read them again, subvocalizing each phrase (i.e., carefully and fully enunciate each word, with air, but no sound, not even a whisper). Then repeat, adding sound.
3. Read again, aloud, to each other. This time, read each unit (phrase, line, sentence, or other whole) of the speech three times. (By the third repetition, the student is no longer looking at the book and has begun to memorize.)
4. Give your book to your partner, who becomes your prompter. Say what you can remember of the speech. When you forget, say "Line!" in a tone of voice appropriate to the forgotten word. Partner then prompts.
5. Breathe out a complete, full breath in each line (make your voice very very breathy).
6. Yawn out the lines, stretching.
7. Relax, slumping into the lines.
8. Give out the lines, as if throwing a ball.
9. Receive the lines as you say them, as if they were entering your body one by one.
10. Say the lines, making a definite, exaggerated hand-gesture for each word. (This is especially good.)
11. Say the lines stressing the silences: long pauses.
12. Say them sitting perfectly still.
13. Say them with a body gesture on each word--perhaps a gesture of only your head or shoulders (if the student is stiff there), or trunk, or whole body.
14. Deliver your lines back-to-back with your partner, pushing against each other with each phrase. (I matched students them in size and didn't let anybody get knocked flat.) This is good for getting the words integrated into movement. For students of unequal size, I had them arm-wrestle the lines as they said them.
15. Five-Sensing a passage. Go through the speech five times, stressing a different sense each time. What does the passage smell like? (Or: what might the character smell at this point?) What smells do you get from individual words and sounds? And so on. -- I took them from "weak" to "strong" senses -- from smell, taste, and touch, to sound and finally sight.
16. Ultimately, the student was asked to prepare an interpretation of the speech and deliver it. During these presentations, the rest of the class was placed in position as an audience and instructed in their role (audiences play roles, too). Each student was asked to come on stage, make eye contact with the audience, close eyes, breathe twice, experience being there, open eyes, then deliver the speech. Afterward, each student was coached to receive the applause, close eyes again, breathe twice, experience being there, and go off stage without collapsing into silliness or other self-negating responses.
In memorizing and presenting speeches, students got a portion of the text into their feelings, into their bodies. They experienced it (and themselves) differently, they had to think about actors and the stage, and they became closer to others in the class. I made certain that each person's effort was treated with attention and respect. The elaborate memorization exercises seemed to help shy students gain the courage to deliver their speeches.
Memorization draws upon one of the most fundamental human faculties--perhaps the one least exercised in contemporary education. For most of human existence, people have depended upon memory for the transmission of cultural knowledge. Who knows what we have lost by turning away from memory to emphasize analysis, mediated learning, retrieval from reference sources, and computer storage?
The Angry Speech
In my experience, nearly all students emerge from high school with some anger in them. This could come just from having to sit still so many hours of so many days and years. It could also come from being constantly told what to do, being judged, having little to say in their own activities, and feeling dependent upon the very authority they resent. At any rate, whenever I have tried to get to deeper emotional levels in a class, one of the first things I run into is a large reservoir of old, stewing anger in almost every student.
Actors, as a matter of technique, attempt to utilize any submerged, chronic emotion they might have by channeling it into a performance (whenever appropriate). In order to make a deeper connection between the text and the student's feelings (and in order to find a non-threatening way to encourage greater emotional awareness), I asked each student to memorize an angry speech from King Lear. After students had memorized (on their own, this time) and performed their speeches (I did it, too), we discussed them, and we discussed anger -- starting with how much trouble almost everyone had expressing it in the speech. As I read the situation, the exercise did not leave students feeling anger, but feeling released from anger, exhilerated, energized.
One of the greatest rewards of teaching literature is the privilege of dealing with profound human emotions in a context that brings them up, renders them meaningful, and unites us as we share them.
I began nearly every class with physical warmups. These consisted of simple movements and stretches designed to mobilize energy, stretch out stiffness, and bring students in touch with their own bodies. As part of this, we did some short meditations, including a basic "centering" exercise. Centering is essential, because literature and acting can easily sweep you up into high-level energies that are not your own. You can become a character, or become wrought up by the experience of acting a part. Centering is a way of bringing students back into themselves before sending them out of classroom.
We also used a vocal warmup whenever memorizing or delivering speeches. This consists of a series of simple vocal and breathing exercises designed to loosen and expand the voice. I do not teach these as technique. Rather, such exercises are a way of increasing students' awareness of themselves. For example, having a student close the eyes, stop up the ears, and deliver a speech brings the student into closer contact with how the speech feels from the inside. (Others hear how different it sounds outside.) Good acting, like good living, is generated from deep within--and is not just the manipulation of techniques and audiences.
Verbal Collage. For this warmup exercise, students met in groups of four to six. Each had been asked to bring a list of favorite lines from the play we were studying. One student was asked to read the first line on his or her list; the student to the right read his or her first line, and on around the circle. Then the second line, and on through all the lines.
Then, students were directed to overlap, so the next student must begin before the first has finished. Then, they were directed to select from their list at random. Next, while overlapping lines, they were directed to break the order of the circle, and interject a line any time it seemed right. In this way, each group re-created a version of the play by combining selected lines in a spontaneous arrangement, rhythm, and emphasis. We then compared what the different groups did.
The results were splendid. Each group produced, in its own way, a verbal collage which expressed a miniature interpretation of the play.
Welfare Christmas. In this warmup, one student was asked to mime an imaginary object (like a bouncing ball) and pass it around. Each person took it, transformed it into something different, and passed it on. The ball became a moth, then a smile, then an umbrella, then something different.
Activities like this are helpful in warming up the imagination, enlivening the body, and awakening attention. We usually expect students to arrive at school in a machine, cross an engineered intersection, pass down a hallway that consists of externalized equations, enter a Euclidian classroom, remove the headphones connected to the Walkman, turn in their IBM cards, sit in a quadratic chair, open a book manufactured with computer technology, adjust the chemical fabrics of their synthetic clothing, peer through the laws of optics automated into designer frames, and suddenly be able to respond to Shakespeare. Compared to this jump, space travel seems a trivial journey. Some transition helps.