Shakespeare Uncovered

February 2, 2013 at 10:31 am (As You Like It, Film Adaptations, Hamlet, Macbeth, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , )

shakespeare_uncovered_basic_page_main_image_528x297CI wanted to post a detailed review of the exciting new PBS series, Shakespeare Uncovered. Unfortunately, the shows air late on Friday nights and I keep falling asleep while I’m watching them, so I am not able to give you a useful summary. But I will tell you to watch them! The videos are on the PBS website, so watch them at your leisure… I plan to!

Each of the six episodes features a different Shakespearean actor delving into the “story behind the story” of various plays. In the first episode, Ethan Hawke takes you on his journey to prepare himself for playing Macbeth. He talks about the dark side of this man… is the evil in this play supernatural or is it within Macbeth? He goes into the theatrical history of the play, the witches, the unfiltered evil of Lady Macbeth, and the drama of the dagger speech. And much more. When I have a chance to re-watch, I will post more about it.

In the next episode, Joely Richardson talks to her mother Vanessa Redgrave about the wonderful women characters in Shakespeare as she focuses on the comedies, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. I admit to major snoozing during this one, but no fault of the show itself, which I am eager to re-watch.

shakespeare-uncovered-8Last night, Jeremy Irons talked about Henry IV and V… made me really excited to watch and read these history plays down the road. I have gotten so bogged down with my project for this blog, but I still plan to read through and comment on all the plays some day, and this episode made me quite excited about the Henry plays.

And then the late one (the snoozer for me) last night was Derek Jacobi on Richard II… again making me look forward to this history play. He talks much about the modernity of the play, how it speaks to the behavior of despots throughout history. Jacobi also brings up the authorship question and his Oxfordian beliefs.

Next week comes The Tempest with Trevor Nunn and Hamlet with David Tennant. Don’t miss this series… it is really special.

I was also excited to see my favorite local Shakespeare group, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, do a series of entertaining 60-second Shakespeare videos that show between the episodes of Shakespeare Uncovered on Maryland Public Television. I hope they get wider distribution, as they’re really well done. Watch here, the short videos on Ghosts, Hamlet, and Shakespeare in America. CSC is also hosting a number of roundtable discussions in conjunction with Shakespeare Uncovered. There is one left about Hamlet next week, February 5 in Annapolis.

I’m so excited about this nicely-done series, and I look forward to enjoying it again and again in the future!

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Standard Deviants

August 17, 2012 at 12:50 am (Asides, Film Adaptations) (, , , )

I had never heard of the Standard Deviants PBS series, but I saw a disk on Shakespeare’s tragedies available on Netflix and thought I’d give it a try. This video focuses on Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. I found it enjoyable, if not earth-shaking. It’s geared toward kids, and presents everything in a lighthearted, easily accessible way. It looks quite low-budget, but I thought it was well done.

This disk begins with Titus Andronicus, describing Shakespeare’s sources and influences. There is an amusing, but easy-to-follow plot summary of the carnage, and an analysis of the good, the bad, and the ugly of this little-known play. They end it up by describing it as a failure as a tragedy, due to poetic excess and theatrical busyness — cluttered and contrived drama that doesn’t work. And yet, they admit, this play was loved by the Elizabethans — you could consider it the Elizabethan equivalent of today’s slasher flicks. I thought this was quite a cute analogy. I loved this quote:

A bunch of dead bodies lying around on the stage or a severed-head casserole does not a tragedy make.

You gotta laugh at that. Actually, there is quite a lot to laugh at during this discussion of a rather drab play, and I think it would help kids understand the development of Shakespeare’s skill as he moved from the failed tragedy of Titus to the experimental tragedy (with comic elements) of Romeo and Juliet and culminating in the masterpiece… Hamlet.

The discussion of Romeo and Juliet focuses on the beautiful poetry, images of light, and on the great characters. But it points out that the characters are not tragic figures and that the coincidences that result in the unhappy ending are simply plot devices that weaken the dramatic whole of the play… like everything would be cool if only an audience member would yell out “She’s not really dead!” before Romeo drinks the poison. These are not inevitable events, and they “stretch believability to the breaking point.” So, in their analysis, R&J does not represent a great tragedy, but is an interesting experiment by Shakespeare in combining comic characters with comic situations and taking them on a tragic journey. I think this is a great way to explain it to kids.

Hamlet is given more analysis. In addition to the plot summary, they discuss mystery and intrigue (the spying, lack of trust), Hamlet’s character (set in high relief against the other characters who each serve as a foil to Hamlet), philosophy (morality, how to endure suffering, the meaning of death), revenge (a popular theme in Elizabethan theater), and again an analysis of how the play fares as a tragedy (perfection!).

They point out that Hamlet is a “play of questions” and how the entire play is a riddle, with great characters, great dialog, and great ideas — endlessly fascinating. Hamlet changes and grows and audience members each see themselves in different aspects of his character.

I just noticed a local connection… the actor who portrays Hamlet and performs other scenes in this video is KenYatta Rogers, who now teaches at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD and is the contact for their annual WillPower program.

Anyway, this video is not going to provide insight to a Shakespearean scholar or even a college student probably, but I think for a nice general overview, accessible to kids, this does a great job. There is apparently more to the set (another disk on Macbeth, Lear, and Othello, as well as background info on Shakespeare, verse, and Elizabethan theater), but these do not appear to be available on Netflix now. You can get them on Amazon or for 7-day use for $1.99 on YouTube.

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Shakespeare’s Women

June 10, 2012 at 6:17 pm (Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , )

Got an hour? Get Shakespeare’s Women & Claire Bloom (it’s available on Netflix). There’s nothing earth-shattering about it, but it’s enjoyable. Actress Claire Bloom, now in her 80s, played many (most?) of Shakespeare’s great female roles opposite leading men like Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton. The 1999 video is a mix of her commentary on the various female characters and reminiscing about playing them on stage and film.

Current recitals are intermixed with video from her performances back in the day. There are also a few clips from silent Shakespeare, including the only existing video of the famous Sarah Bernhardt in performance — playing Hamlet!

She packs quite a lot into just an hour. Some highlights include her discussion of playing Lady Anne in Richard III and how she is often asked if she found it difficult playing a character seduced by her husband’s murderer at the coffin… her response: “It’s easy if it’s Olivier!” She talks about how Juliet is no English virgin, but a very sexual 14-year-old Italian woman waiting with excitement to enjoy her wedding night. “It’s most wonderfully put by Shakespeare — who knew everything about everybody — and knew everything about a 14-year-old waiting for her wedding night!”

Bloom touches on Portia in the Merchant of Venice, Rosalind in As You Like It… she finds it amazing and intriguing that these roles were played by young male actors in Shakespeare’s day. Boys playing girls playing boys and even further convolutions. And beyond that, even the older female roles being played by boys — Bloom ponders what this was like to see.

Bloom played Ophelia in Stratford-upon-Avon at age 17, and then reprised the role at the Old Vic at age 22 with Burton as Hamlet. Later, she played Gertrude and was surprised to find the older woman a much more interesting role.

She talks about Imogen in Cymbeline, Volumnia in Coriolanus, Lady Constance in King John, and Katherine of Aragon in Henry VIII. Finally she describes Emilia’s speech to Ophelia about men… she finds Emilia ironic, accepting, funny, and thoroughly modern.

Bloom, who continues to act (she was Queen Mary in The King’s Speech), ends the video by saying she looks forward to playing Shakespeare’s crones and any parts that are left for her, because “even the smallest are worth doing.”

I would say this was an hour well-spent!

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And It’s One, Two, Three… What Are We Fighting For?

June 1, 2012 at 6:07 pm (Coriolanus, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Yeah, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He’s got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.

And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.
“I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by Country Joe McDonald

I’ll put it right out there to stem any confusion. I’m anti-war. I’ve had a little coincidental convergence of anti-war stuff going on this week. I’ve been reading Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop — a satire about the media creating news about a promising little war in Africa in the 1930s. Then, my dad, a WWII vet, mentioned watching a touching documentary on PBS on Memorial Day. This is Where We Take Our Stand is the story of Iraq Veterans Against the War. It was available on YouTube briefly this week and I was able to watch it. Amazing stories of patriotic young people who want to tell their truths about the wrongness of the Iraq war. Oh, and then this morning, I saw today is the 40th anniversary of the famous napalm girl photo. Sigh. And so my thoughts turn to Country Joe and the Fish at Woodstock. Whoopee! We’re all gonna die. Really, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, where ever. What’s the point?

So, the Fates converged on my pessimistic mood by putting Ralph Fiennes’ film Coriolanus out on DVD this week and there I found it in my mailbox yesterday fresh from Netflix. Ahh. Well, here’s the thing. When the film came out earlier this year, I knew I’d see it eventually. Shakespeare didn’t shy away from tackling difficult topics, so I knew in the course of this blog project that I would have to eventually face the ugly stuff along with the fairies and ass-heads. War. Let’s put a face on it. Coriolanus.

So, I broke my basic movie-watching rules (I avoid blood and gore, violence, Mafia movies, and war movies, in general) and I watched Coriolanus. I’m glad I did.

I am not familiar with the play, have not read it, have not seen it staged, and honestly, I think I would not like it if I’d read it first without seeing this film. Thanks to HarperCollins for sending me a copy of Coriolanus: The Shooting Script… I got a lot of insight about the film and the play by reading the commentary from Fiennes and screenplay writer John Logan.

First, the film makes this play completely contemporary and accessible. The film was shot in Serbia, but it could be any modern city. From “The Shooting Script”:

It might be Mexico City. Or Chechnya. Or El Salvador. Or Detroit. Or Baghdad. Or London.

This Rome is a modern place. It is our world right now: immediately recognizable to us…. It is a volatile, dangerous world.

The story involves Coriolanus, a Roman, and his fight against the neighboring Volsces, headed by Aufidius (played by Gerard Butler). The film portrays them as modern guerrillas. Again, from “The Shooting Script”:

The Volsces are an insurgent force challenging the monolithic might of Rome: rebels that suggest to us Latin American revolutionaries or Hamas fighters or Chechnian separatists.

The war story is the backdrop in this film for Shakespeare’s amazing characters. I think of Mad Men, where none are likable, but their personalities and stories are irresistible in their awfulness. I feel like I understand the deep pride and inner pain that drive Fiennes’ Coriolanus, the killing machine, to such destruction of others, and finally himself.

Coriolanus is a tragic, bedeviled man, uncomfortable in his own damaged and flawed skin. Fiennes explains in “The Shooting Script”:

Coriolanus comes into the opening of the story and basically tells the people to go fuck themselves. I think we in the audience decide we don’t like this guy based on that simple fact. But then the audience experiences him as a soldier, an extremely brave, almost crazy kind of soldier. They come to see that he has a kind of integrity, which is manipulated and destroyed by the world around him, and by his own arrogance and pride. Coriolanus wants recognition and doesn’t want it at the same time. He is very riven. I think he’s happiest in the battlefield; that’s where he is at one with himself.

I have to say that reading that gave me a much deeper understanding of what Coriolanus was about… his motivations and his ambivalence. It’s very true.

This man, so brave and proud, so sure of himself and his decision to make Rome pay for their treatment of him… he’s really a mommy’s boy and a pleaser. As writer John Logan says in “The Shooting Script”:

What is Shakespeare’s genius in Coriolanus? To me it is this: in a play about so many things, and so deeply and murkily about them, the climax is a boy weeping into his mother’s arms. It’s dead simple. It’s not a political or military climax, it’s not a grand speech or battle; it’s not about the ostensible “issues” of the play. It’s a boy and his mom.

Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, and Harry Fenn in Coriolanus. Photo by Larry D. Horricks

I love watching Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of Volumnia, the mother who creates the ultimate soldier and then asks for his mercy. Her profound complexity — a mix of pride and ambition and fear and mother’s love — it’s amazing and frightening. Redgrave, though she doubted her ability to play the part, is perfect for it.

In “The Shooting Script,” Fiennes also explains his choice of Jessica Chastain for the innocent, sweet, and nearly silent wife Virgilia (what a breakout year for Chastain… with her performances in Tree of Life, Take Shelter, and The Help). It’s a quiet part, but she serves as witness to the chaos in Coriolanus’ mind.

In the end, I got a lot out of this difficult film, enriched by The Shooting Script. I had never heard of The Shooting Script series, and will definitely keep it in mind when I want to learn more about a film.

I think I’ve had enough war for the week. Now I’ll return to my regularly-scheduled programming.

© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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Slings and Arrows

May 24, 2012 at 3:11 pm (Film Adaptations, Hamlet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

Oh my, oh my, what fun I’ve had the last couple weeks watching the first season of the 2003 Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows. The show is set in fictional New Burbage where a venerated Shakespeare festival (a la Stratford, Ontario) is undergoing major changes in personnel, funding, and focus. I will be honest, I didn’t expect much from this series, but oh my, it is excellent… modern and funny, wonderful characters, great acting, and of course, the central theme is the actors’ efforts to put Shakespeare on the stage.

The show begins with the performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the accidental death of the festival’s artistic director Oliver (played by Stephen Oimette). Former actor Geoffrey (Paul Gross) is pulled in to replace Oliver, and finds himself haunted by Oliver’s ghost. Sounds corny, but it works! Many complications ensue, as Geoffrey must produce Hamlet, a play that marked the end of his acting career when he suffered a nervous breakdown in the middle of a performance. The back story unfolds slowly over a number of episodes, with the help of Oliver’s ghost. We learn that Geoffrey was in love with leading lady Ellen (played by Paul Gross’s real life wife Martha Burns) and heartbroken when he learned that Ellen had slept with Oliver, who is gay.

The comic foil to the actors’ drama is the hilarious, almost slapstick idiocy of the marketing office, fronted by clueless general manager Richard (Mark McKinney) but really controlled by the corporate schemer Holly (Jennifer Irwin). Holly sends elderly board member May into a coma when she brings into her hospital room a scale model of the proposed “Shakespeareville” theme park, complete with glitzy theater for performances of two musicals per day!

There is also a great side story involving the young Kate (Rachel McAdams), who ends up playing a mighty fine Ophelia, and her Hamlet, the American movie star Jack (Luke Kirby), who lacks the courage to face his slings and arrows until the very last moment, when he pulls off a great performance. As Anna the stage manager says at the end, “F— me blue, we’re done.” (Umm, yeah, this series is not recommended for children.)

What I liked best, not surprisingly, was watching actors discuss Shakespeare’s words and meaning and how to bring it to life on the modern stage. I’m sure all modern Shakespeare companies face these realities… marketing, financing productions, the difficulty finding audiences, artistic differences, personality conflicts. It is fun to watch it all play out. When Geoffrey takes over as director of Hamlet, he says, “One encouraging thing that I can say is I just happen to believe this play is the single greatest achievement in Western art. We’ve got that much going for us.” Bravo!

I’m looking forward to watching season two unfold around Macbeth and season three with King Lear. I don’t think I’ve seen another TV series rated 5 stars on Amazon, but this one is. It’s also on Netflix. Watch it!

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Shakespeare in Words and Music

April 20, 2012 at 6:00 pm (Asides, Film Adaptations) (, , )

I’ll watch nearly anything having to do with Shakespeare, but I couldn’t watch this. Just simply unwatchable. I got it on Netflix and thought it sounded like an interesting idea. From the Kultur website:

There is a strong and indelible bond between Shakespeare and music. Many of his plays contain songs and ballads (for which the author often supplied the texts) while incidental music was often added by celebrated composers for specific productions of his plays.

This DVD presents six half-hour programs that contains certain spoken texts (from his plays or poetry) and linked musical excerpts within a given theme. The programs are centered on vocal excerpts but also contain instrumental and chamber-music pieces, directly derived from and inspired by the works of William Shakespeare.

The six episodes are centered on the following themes: Restoration Rules, Operatic Love, Foreign Masters, Ophelia’s Story, Broadway Bound and The English Renaissance. Sounds interesting, right?

Wrong. There are annoyingly bad actors jumping around doing a painful job with their lines and not doing much to explain why certain lines were selected or how they link to the ensuing music. The music is fine, but I had no understanding of how it related to Shakespeare. Much of it is sung in foreign languages with no translation or it’s instrumental with no explanation.

I could not even get into the Broadway Bound episode with music from West Side Story. It was sung by an opera singer which just annoyed me more. I kept thinking why not get West Side Story on Netflix and actually enjoy the song and dance?

Awful video. Avoid.

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My Shakespeare

March 3, 2012 at 3:50 pm (Film Adaptations, Romeo and Juliet) (, , , , , )

Paterson Joseph, an actor who grew up in one of London’s gritty, inner-city neighborhoods, challenges himself to bring Shakespeare back to the ‘hood by directing a high-quality, West End production of Romeo and Juliet using kids off the streets as actors. He gives himself a month to accomplish the entire task.

My Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet with Baz Luhrmann is a 2004 PBS documentary that follows Paterson through the whole process, from casting through final performance. Baz Luhrmann provides long-distance advice and moral support from Australia via videoconferencing (pre-Skype, which appears very clunky now!). Paterson deals with enormous challenges as he helps cast members learn lines (many of the actors are immigrants), gain confidence in their ability to act, their ability to commit to something like this, to attend practices, pay attention, try hard, see it through to completion… every bit of it is new for all of them, including Paterson himself, who has never directed a play before.

I thought the story was very touching… how Paterson was able to really reach these kids and demonstrate for them the relevance of Shakespeare in their lives. The girl playing Juliet is a shy Afghan refugee who begins rehearsals completely unable to imagine herself kissing a man at all, let alone in front of an audience. Paterson helps her gain confidence and bring emotion into her part and her final performance is lovely! The boy playing Mercutio identifies fully with the part and is able to really project the meaning of Mercutio’s words, including the difficult Queen Mab speech. Romeo is so taken with his experience that he decides to pursue an acting career!

I really disliked Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes. In this documentary, in addition to serving as Paterson’s long-distance mentor, Luhrmann also is interviewed extensively and serves as the resident expert on directing Shakespeare and teasing out Shakespeare’s relevance in the modern world. I found him somewhat distracting and pretentious much of the time, as he’s interviewed from his enormous, swank Sydney mansion against a Wall of Fame in honor of himself with posters from the film and lots of candles everywhere. But getting past my prejudice, I think he does sometimes add interesting insights into working with Shakespeare with modern audiences.

I like this film a lot. I worried with Paterson about whether he had bitten off more than he could chew. I empathized with Juliet about whether she could really pull off this whole acting thing. I enjoyed watching them all learn to emote physically — Paterson has them do exercises where they express joy, pain, sadness and other emotions at different levels on a scale from 1 to 10. It was riveting hearing from Romeo about his actual stabbing in a street fight and what this brought to his understanding of the fight scenes in the play. I felt sad that the girl playing the Nurse just did not have it in her and had to be replaced days before opening night. I loved watching the actors tour the Globe Theatre and imagine themselves there with the Bard. And finally, I was so happy for them, as they performed the play admirably to their West End audience. Very nicely done!

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A Waste of Shame

February 24, 2012 at 1:20 pm (Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Life, Shakespeare's Sonnets) (, , )

Do the sonnets reflect the dark underbelly of Shakespeare’s love life? I watched the BBC’s 2005 A Waste of Shame which is based on this premise. Here we have Shakespeare in midlife crisis brought on by his 11-year-old son Hamnet’s death from plague. The whole world seems filled with death and filth and darkness. The theaters are closed. What is there to live for?

Love. Or maybe it’s “Love.” Or even just “luv”… as in infatuation. Shakespeare becomes infatuated with a young pretty boy, William Herbert (the fair youth). At the same time, he lusts after a half-Moor French prostitute named Lucie (the Dark Lady). Between the two, he seems to barely come up for air. But the sonnets pour from his pen in the mix of emotions from these two simultaneous infatuations.

Shakespeare eventually realizes neither of these “luvs” are all that. And when he finds that the young lad is playing house with Lucie, a double betrayal, it sends Shakespeare into a bit of a tailspin. The tailspin is furthered by his diagnosis with the “French pox” (syphilis) which kind of gives the whole infatuation thing a nasty turn, since syphilis was incurable (although we see him endure a bizarre treatment involving mercury and a soak in what looks like a torture chamber). Source of more sonnetizing.

Poor, long-suffering, sharp-tongued wife Anne Hathaway is living in poverty in Stratford with Shakespeare’s daughters. There is a creepy peeping Tom scene where Shakespeare watches her through the window. He has been not much of a husband or father, and it’s unclear what he’s feeling as he watches his wife. Shame? Wistfulness?

Shakespeare eventually has the sonnets published, and then leaves London to live his last years at home with Anne in Stratford. No more of the whoring and night life of Elizabethan London. What were those last years like for him? Was he ill? Decrepit? Depressed?

We’ll never know.

I can’t say that I loved this movie, but it was interesting. I haven’t studied or even read most of the sonnets yet. I look forward to it some day, but wonder what they mean and what the real story was behind them. I would rather think that the emotions behind Shakespeare’s love poetry were something more real or lasting… less dark than portrayed here.

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December 12, 2011 at 2:59 pm (Asides, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Life) (, , , )

I enrolled in graduate school unexpectedly shortly after I started this blog project. So, my progress on the project of reading through Shakespeare’s plays has been glacial, but I intend to keep plugging away. The Two Gentlemen of Verona are sitting there patiently waiting for me. They’ll get my attention soon.

In the meantime, it’s the end of the semester, and while I’m over a year from finishing my degree, I have already earned a doctorate in procrastination! Yay, me! Shakespeare is not wholly responsible for my distractions, but he has his place in my Netflix queue, and every little bit helps!

So, I was pleased today to watch a brief survey of Shakespeare’s life and works courtesy of A&E’s Biography series called William Shakespeare: A Life of Drama. It’s an easy watch, nothing too exciting, but a good basic biography. The story is interspersed with clips from film and stage, there are interviews with Shakespeare scholars and other experts (I enjoyed seeing director Peter Hall). This would be a good introductory classroom video… at 45 minutes, it’s the right length, and it moves along fairly well. This was produced quite a while ago, but A&E still has a classroom guide on their website.

So, I gave you the good news first. Now for the other in my twofer post. I had the misfortune last week of watching The Shakespeare Conspiracy. After seeing Anonymous, I was vaguely interested in learning more about Derek Jacobi’s part in the authorship debate. He narrates this one.

Well, what can I say? Yawnnn. I’ll be honest, I watched it with the same complete slack-jawed disbelief that I felt when first learning about the tenets of Rastafarianism… what with the holy weed smoking and the deification of Haile Selassie (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Um, yeah. So, I felt that same kind of disconnect from reality while watching this. Really? I mean… really?

Alrighty. Well, they served their purpose of distracting me from my studies at a critical moment. Well done! Now, I have one exam left, some Christmas decorating and cookie baking, etc., and then The Two Gentlemen are waiting for me in Verona and maybe I’ll even get to The Comedy of Errors during winter break!

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

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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.

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