Hobart Shakespeareans

November 27, 2011 at 2:28 pm (Asides, Film Adaptations, Hamlet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , , , )

My kids go to school in Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the best districts in the U.S. and yet my 10 year old is struggling to put words onto paper. Here I am, a writer, an editor… a person who loves words. And I have really struggled with helping my son, because the way he is taught makes no sense to me. He brings home the most inane worksheets, character maps… busy work! I don’t write like that and I don’t even like thinking about them.

I’ve struggled with this and then last week, Jay Mathews, an education columnist in the Washington Post, wrote a column that put my ambivalence into words: Writing Lessons? Please stop. He speaks of the mechanical way children are taught to write. This was what I needed to see. This is the paragraph where I had my epiphany:

The result of such clerical work is usually unreadable. Few people who learn to write this way ever make it their life’s work. The professional writers I know got excited not in class but while compiling personal journals, or composing poems and songs, or sending long letters or e-mails to friends, or working for the school newspaper.

A friend of mine who teaches said she uses the “hamburger model” — layering sentences in each paragraph — for teaching writing to little kids. No offense, Debbie, or if any of my kids’ teachers read this, but… I can’t imagine getting excited about writing that way. It is clerical. It’s boring! No, it’s mind-numbing. And it has very little to do with translating thoughts onto paper. I have a vague and excruciating memory of being forced to write a paper on Huckleberry Finn in high school using outlines and this kind of structured paragraph. Eeek!

I essentially studied reading and writing in college (English lit, history and Spanish) and wrote a whole lot of papers. I skipped Freshman English, but had a writing seminar first quarter Freshman year where I learned a lasting lesson. My professor, Michael Squires, covered my papers with T’s for “Tighten”! Say what you mean in as few words as possible. Cut to the chase. I’ve been writing professionally for decades — research reports, proposals, articles, books. I have never once thought about structuring my paragraphs like hamburgers. I think about what I’m trying to say… and then I make sure I say it clearly. And I Tighten (thank you, Dr. Squires!). And I edit, edit, and re-edit my own work.

So, I struggled with helping my son, and then a light went off and I thought… no, I cannot help him with any of the busy work, but I can help him learn to write, because I love to write and I am good at it. Reading and writing and learning about words and loving them… that I get. I know that teachers have a tough job, but using structured methods is not the way to teach a creative skill. Jay Mathews is apparently getting quite a lot of feedback. The latest column asked people to share their anecdotes: What made you a better writer? I’m looking forward to the follow-up columns.

So, with this all recently on my mind, it was with great interest that I watched The Hobart Shakespeareans (made by Mel Stuart for the PBS series POV). In the mode of Jaime Escalante, made famous 25 years ago in Stand and Deliver for hooking inner city kids on calculus, this documentary follows Rafe Esquith, who uses Shakespeare and great literature to hook his 5th graders. A veteran elementary school teacher who has respect and high expectations for his students, Esquith loves what he does and he sees huge rewards for his efforts.

In contrast to the suburban school my kids attend, Esquith teaches in a huge inner city Los Angeles school surrounded by inner city crime. In one scene, there is a murder a block away and they lock down the school rather than letting the kids walk home with a killer loose. The kids take it in stride — this is the reality where they live. Yet Esquith has created an oasis for these kids with two rules: Be Nice. Work Hard.

And they do. They learn to play music, they read great literature they can relate to like Of Mice and Men, The Lord of the Flies, and Huck Finn (hopefully without writing outlines and hamburger paragraphs!). And they read and play Shakespeare. In the film, Shakespearean actors Michael York and Ian McKellen (who the students treat like a rock star) visit the class to share their love of the Bard. The children put on a performance of Hamlet. A teary McKellen notes that what always impresses him in Esquith’s class is that the children understand Hamlet… they really understand the words. He notes that this cannot be said for all actors who play Shakespeare.

Esquith is realistic. He is shown speaking to a shocked audience at a teachers conference about the fact that some kids will get left behind… that he knows that’s the truth and that some kids fail. His point is that if everyone is given a fair chance, it is then up to the kids to decide to do the work. He has a big poster in his classroom that reads, “There Are No Shortcuts,” and in one scene he is shown talking to some kids he caught cheating… he talks to them quietly and says afterward that he knows it won’t happen again.

The students are from immigrant families — the year this was filmed, all the students spoke English as their second language and spoke their native language with their families at home. Most are Latino or Korean. The neighborhood is rough. Esquith wants them to get out. He wants them to get a taste of the world they can strive for, so he takes them on trips to Washington DC and Mount Rushmore and they stay in nice hotels and eat at good restaurants (a nonprofit organization started by a former student funds their activities).

He takes them to colleges so they can see what it is like in a place of learning and respect where everyone is working hard and no one will bother them. He tells them he believes in them and he knows they can do it. I wish my kids could have an experience like this instead of the busy work “great curriculum” that results in high standardized test scores (I guess) at their school.

I love writing about literature, but please deliver me from ever having to fill out a character trait map about Romeo or Hamlet. Dear God. I think it would stop even me from wanting to write. Stop me dead and put me into a coma. You should see what it does to my 10 year old. And yeesh, you should see the mess he makes on these things trying to scribble crap into the little boxes and circles. (To be fair, maybe it helps some learners organize their thoughts… it does not work for me, and apparently not for my son!)

I’m reminded of a quote my friend uses: “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” (Not sure if this originally comes from Yogi Berra or Einstein or computer scientist Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut!) I think it describes the situation at my kids’ school. There is a disconnect when they teach mean, median, and mode to second graders who haven’t yet mastered division. There is a disconnect focusing on the mechanics of writing and leaving out the art and creativity and meaning. I think teachers like Escalante and Esquith make the connection between theory and practice. They create a passion in the kids and help them find meaning. It’s a rare gift.

The film about the Hobart Shakespeareans ends after their performance of Hamlet, as the children are filled with emotion and many in tears. Esquith gives them a final pep talk, telling them that they have learned things they never thought they could learn and that this is just the beginning… that he knows they can do so much more. Reminding them of the life lessons they have learned, he quotes Hamlet by saying, “The readiness…” and the children finish “is all!”

The readiness is all.

© All Content, Copyright 2011 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

Bookmark and Share

Permalink Leave a Comment

Anonymous

November 5, 2011 at 6:38 pm (Asides, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Life) (, , , , , , )

The authorship debate is not my thing. At all. I believe in my man, Will. Will wrote the plays, people. Got that?

So, when I heard rumblings about this film, Anonymous, I was not interested, not even thinking about going to see it. I thought I might watch it on video some day when I had nothing better to do. I thought it was going to be just so much more noise. I heard it compared to Oliver Stone’s JFK. Conspiracy theory extraordinaire! The real inside scoop! Someone finally put all the pieces together!

I am so glad I left all THAT NOISE behind and actually went out to watch this film! It is wonderful! Splendid! I loved it!

And no, I have not suddenly turned Oxfordian! Have no fear. That will not happen!

Let’s get the truth out right now, okay? It’s Fiction. F-I-C-T-I-O-N.

I hate to break the news, but the historical accuracies in this film are by far outweighed by the fun fiction. Hello? Do people really believe that Queen Elizabeth had multiple bastards? Hello? Do people really believe… okay, I’ll let it go.

It’s fiction. So is Shakespeare in Love, and you know I love Shakespeare in Love. I think I may love Anonymous even more.

This film is luscious! Beautiful cinematography. Absolutely breathtaking! Wonderful acting! Fantastic sets and costumes. A feast. I mean, wow! And smart. And entertaining! There’s romance, tragedy, intrigue, farce… even a miracle at the end that saves the plays from destruction.

This film is truly Shakespearean to the core (a seemingly impossible feat since the film is set on portraying Oxford as the Bard!). We revel in the beauty of the words here. The plays are beloved and treated with reverence in this film. Many are partially staged and it’s just lovely to see.

Shakespeare loved the play within the play. This whole film is a play within a play… and so much more! Here when the Mousetrap in Hamlet is staged, we have the play within the play within the play within the play within the movie. Bravo! (Let’s go over that… we have the Mousetrap which is Shakespeare’s play within Hamlet and it’s all happening in the play which is the story of Oxford’s authorship which is set within the framework of a modern play about the authorship question in the movie Anonymous. Yes, there will be a quiz!) It reminds me of the scene in Mad Men where Sally Draper talks to the neighbor boy about the infinity of little Land O’ Lakes Indians on the butter box (the Indian is holding the butter box with the picture of the Indian holding the butter box with the picture of the Indian holding the butter box…).

I think Shakespearean scholars (which I’m not) would catch all kinds of allusions in this film that go over my head. I think Shakespeare/Tudor film/TV buffs (which I’m not… keep your eye on BardFilm) will see all sorts of allusions to shows that go over my head (for example, I noticed Elizabeth’s finger sucking in her dotage, which I just happened to see Glenda Jackson do in the old BBC series Elizabeth R).

Love this film. Love it! I was so happy watching it! I was smiling through much of it and smiling on my way home! Oh my goodness, Rafe Spall playing Shakespeare does such a fully fantastic performance of this farcical jackass… I literally laughed out loud every time he appeared on screen. And can I say, thank you Rafe, for redeeming yourself in my eyes after that truly godawful film One Day… one of the few movies I would have walked out on, but my friend kept telling me it HAD to get better (it didn’t). Rafe Spall, you are redeemed. (I just want to point out that Rafe is the son of Timothy Spall who played the trippy Don Armado in Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost).

Rafe Spall’s Shakespeare is a relatively minor character in Anonymous. The film belongs to the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans who has been a fave of mine since the quirky Danny Deckchair). Oxford is also played well in his youth by Jamie Campbell Bower and  by Luke Thomas Taylor as a boy. Other fine characters here are Queen Elizabeth (played convincingly at different ages by Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson), Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), and then there are the Cecils, Southampton, Essex, etc.

It’s a great story… and amazingly loose ends are tied, i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed! It makes perfect sense!

Just one more reminder, repeat after me: It’s fiction. It’s wonderful Shakespearean fiction! Enjoy!

© All Content, Copyright 2011 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

Bookmark and Share

Permalink 2 Comments

It’s Too Darn Hot

November 4, 2011 at 11:53 pm (Live Performances, Shakespeare's Plays, The Taming of the Shrew) (, , , , , , )

The Fall colors really popped out today and I played hooky from all the work I shoulda coulda woulda been doing. So, instead, I went to see Anonymous, which I will blog about soon. And, in a Shakespearean double whammy for the day, I took in a really fun performance of Kiss Me, Kate done by Rockville Musical Theatre.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen a show on Broadway, but I was getting those good pre-show vibes while I was listening to the musicians warm up. I just kept feeling transported to New York and was all excited waiting for the show to start (of course, the tix were a lot cheaper in Rockville than Times Square!).

The show is fantastic! I can’t remember if I’ve seen Kiss Me, Kate before. If I did, it was decades ago. The story is so cute, set in post-WWII Baltimore and involving the relationship between the actors Lilli and Frederick as they play the roles of Kate and Petruchio in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew.

It’s great fun how the 1940s storyline mirrors and weaves in and out of the play within the play (and they stage quite a lot of The Taming of the Shrew!).  The actors do a wonderful job, the leads have beautiful voices, and the dance numbers are well-done (I especially enjoyed Too Darn Hot).

The Cole Porter tunes are familiar and fun and the musicians are excellent. I was surprised to see one of my kids’ pediatricians as the musical director… that’s what I love about community theater! And while I was impressed with this production all around (singing, dancing, music, acting, costumes, sets), what I like best of all on the Rockville Musical Theatre’s website is their “Oh S#%t Awards” for the biggest goofs during each production. I got a good laugh out of that (but did not notice anything tonight that would earn the award)!

Anyway, great fun and I highly recommend it to anyone in the DC area. Kiss Me, Kate continues this weekend and next at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville. Tickets are $20 and I was pleased to see a good crowd there tonight! Head on out, folks. It’s Wunderbar!

© All Content, Copyright 2011 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

 Bookmark and Share

Permalink Leave a Comment