Thursday, November 17, 2005

Outside Program

I got great news the other day!

Early this fall, I'd applied for a scholarship program which provides funds for university faculty to lead programs at the local public library. I went to one of the programs last year, when one of my colleagues led a discussion on linguistics, and it was fascinating and a load of fun. I even learned some stuff, which is always a bonus. Seeing the discussion group that formed and watching how it went gave me the idea that I could do something on a Shakespeare play. So, I wrote up an application and program outline for a four part discussion of The Winter's Tale.

My application was accepted a couple months ago, but there was a funding glitch, which now seems to have gotten worked out. (Don't tell, but I'd have done it even without the funding, just for the fun of it.)

I unabashedly love The Winter's Tale, even though it makes me cry pretty much every time. Still, the sense of magic, of hope, of possibility when (oops, SPOILER INC!) the statue comes to life (or not, since Hermione may just have been hiding out all the time) thrills me. Every time, when I read as Leontes approaches the statue of his dead wife and so wants it to be alive, and then she is, I'm moved pretty much to tears.

Who doesn't have someone they wish could come back from the dead, whole, healthy, forgiving, loving? Somehow this play lets me have this little fantasy without making it trite or immature, just for that moment.

Mostly my students go with the "Hermione's been hiding out" theory, but Paulina tells us she's dead early on, and I believe her honesty. (Not that Shakespeare is above having someone hide out for a while pretending to be dead but I really like feeling the magic.)

The Winter's Tale should work really well for this crowd, if they're anything like the folks who showed up at my friend's program.

This program will be my third foray into outside programming since coming to the Northwoods. My first was a short talk last year before a play presented on campus by an outside theater company. The campus activities folks invited me to give a talk to people who'd buy extra tickets for desert and a pre-show talk on campus. Mostly these were community members who come to campus for performances, talks, and other activities. It went well. (What could go wrong? Let me blather about Shakespeare for an hour or so, and I'm a pretty happy Bardiac.)

My next was scarier! One of my colleagues (let's call him T) from the theater department who works in children's theater education invited me to participate in a program for local high school students; they worked for two weeks and then did several public performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream. T asked me to spend about an hour a day for the first week with the group of students talking about Shakespeare and the play. They were all pretty much in my "class" and also chose from costuming, set design/building, and props, and spent a good part of their morning learning about those and preparing for their production. Afternoons they spent rehearsing.

I was hesitant at first about working with high schoolers because, after all, they're HIGH SCHOOLERS, and just thinking back to what a miserable piece of work I was in high school makes me want to crawl under a bed and hide in a fetal position. But T assured me these kids were self-selected, motivated, and generally really a pleasure to work with, so I did it.

T was right. The students were a blast! It helped immensely that they were all interested in acting or theatrical stuff (some were doing the technical side rather than acting), and were also memorizing and preparing to put on a play. Yes, motivation rocks. But the whole week, I wasn't sure they were getting much out of our work together, and I was worried they were bored. (Just an aside: it's darned hard to work a room without a board if you're used to writing on a board; a theatrical space is also hard to make work as discussion area, especially with dim lights.)

We spent about a day on each act, focusing on working through the meaty speeches, talking about staging issues, texts, language, and other stuff that makes Shakespeare so fun.

For example, in the first scene (uh oh, SPOILER INC again), Theseus is eagerly awaiting the wedding night with Hippolyta, who's less than eager since she's basically being forced to marry him after he conquered her. Yes, he's pretty much waiting to rape her, and she's understandably less than thrilled. So, when we put on this play, or read it, or watch it, we need to come to terms with that marriage "problem" (to put it mildly).

The play doesn't really work it out for us, since we don't see them again until near the end, in Act 4, scene 1, when Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus (Hermia's father) and other court folk hunting in the woods stumble upon the young lovers, Hermia, Helena, Demetrius and Lysander. Egeus goes into patriarchal power mode, and wants Theseus to force Hermia to marry Demetrius or suffer serious punishment. Demetrius, however, has changed his mind, and wants to marry Helena. Theseus comes down on the lovers' side and pairs them off.

None of the women has anything to say in the process. When we talked about the bit, I had the students play it with only the speakers on stage. It worked okay; you really don't need the women hanging about just staring, and it forefronted the male power. Then I had them play it with the women hanging about, and that made the male power feel even more overwhelming.

Finally, I had them try it with Hippolyta being proactive: she went over to Hermia and they "whispered" quietly together, and then while Theseus was listening to Demetrius, Hippolyta went to Theseus, touched his arm so that he turned some attention to her, leaning to hear her while she "whispered" to him. The students loved it.

Now when Theseus came down on the lovers' side, it felt like Hippolyta had some say in the matter, that he'd listened to her. She then took his arm (before he tells her to "come"), and off they went.

Of course, the scene's still incredibly patriarchal, but it's different, too, since Hippolyta seems proactive and more powerful. Only the men speak for the audience to hear, but there's a clear implication that the women have some quiet input, and that their input matters.

Playing the scene this way resolves the rape issue somewhat, since it shows that Hippolyta's not just unwillingly waiting, but rather that the relationship with Theseus has changed: he listens to her, she chooses to touch him, she takes his arm. It's fairly subtle, but it works pretty well. At least, it worked pretty well in their performance, since it was one of the things we talked about that they used in their production.

I went to the first night of their performance, and boy was it surprisingly good. I was also surprised at how warmly the students greeted me, how happy they seemed to be that I was there. Most of them said they'd really enjoyed the classes; one of them told me that some outside theater director/expert person had come to see their final dress rehearsal, and had been full of praise for their work, noting especially that they seemed to actually know what they were saying. The student thought our classes had something to do with that. (I heard the same from T, who was also impressed at how well the students seemed to understand the play.)

All in all, it was a hugely satisfying experience, which I'd gladly repeat.

So, now I get to try a new outside program, and I'm really looking forward to it!

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