Summer Shakespeare

Summer Shakespeare 2010

Balancing close reading with creativity...

We discussed why Shakespeare might have included an Amazon in a play in which women are forced at the point of the sword to conform to their fathers' wishes.  After learning Classical and Renaissance beliefs about this violent, fiercely independent, exclusively female tribe, the  girls discussed how these mythic women warriors might serve as foils for the play's female and, for the most part, lovesick characters.  Next we went to the park where we learned some "bad acting" skills including some vaudeville era slapstick and then used these new skills to recreate an early scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream in a way that gave the Amazon character more presence in the play and increased the scene's comedic value as well. 

After discussing a few fairy-filled scenes, we launched Project Runway: A Midsummer Night's Dream Edition first by considering the way Shakespeare's imagination, especially his representation of things magical, is so deeply linked to his extensive and intimate knowledge of the natural world.  Then, using not just the text of the play but also an actual mustard seed, cobweb, and blossom as inspiration, students designed costumes for the play's main fairy characters: Mustard Seed, Cobweb, Peaseblossom, and Moth.  After learning about social stratification in Shakespeare's England, students were introduced to Keith Johnstone's idea that all comedy is rooted in "status transactions."  We did some physical exercises to get a better grip on the concept of status.  As it turned out, impromptu discussions of sixth and seventh grade social interactions and cliques probably helped clarify the idea better than anything else could have done.  Finally, we tested Johnstone's idea against the text of the play. 

Students spent a short time finishing their costume designs while chatting and listening to classical works by Mendelssohn and Britten inspired by A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Then we returned to the park to go over memorization techniques and look at the monologues they were choosing from among to memorize. Next, students performed more advanced status-based improv scenes.  Finally, they watched the opening of a 1995 film version of Richard III set in 1930's Great Britain as lead-in to an exercise in imagining an unconventional staging (or filming) of A Midsummer Night's Dream.  (I wanted them to approach the play not just as readers, students, and actors but, to some degree, as directors as well.)

In preparation for final-day performances, each student worked to  better understand her monologue's meaning and to imaginatively discern her character's motivations, emotions, physical gestures, and moments of transformation.  Next, by  considering diction, imagery, and meter in speeches by Thisbe, Juliet, Pyramus, and Romeo, we investigated how Shakespeare managed to write the same story as a tragedy (in Romeo and Juliet) and as a  comedy (in the play within a play in A Midsummer Night's Dream).*   We intermittently interrupted this more academic work by challenging one another to various playful Monologue Challenges such as a Silliness Challenge and later a Props Challenge  which required  each performer  to incorporate meaningfully into an impromptu monologue performance a prop assigned by the challenger.  (An improvised reggae version of Helena's first act lament accompanied on the ukulele was one memorable response to this challenge!)

Using as a guide Hamlet's advice to the players in Act Three, Scene Two of Hamlet, students performed the monologues they had memorized and prepared.  One last challenge, this time suggested by a student, a British Accent Challenge(!), insured that the playfulness from earlier in the week continued.  Next, we compared several of Shakespeare's sonnets to speeches by various lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream to determine whether the play contains any autobiographical elements and also what exactly these texts taken together suggest about romantic love.

*I adapted this exercise from Beth Botdorf's lesson plan "A Scene of Tragical Mirth" archived here.