Monday, September 15, 2014

As You Like It, by Rebel Shakespeare

I love it when I get to talk about Rebel Shakespeare. For almost 25 years Keri Ellis Cahill has been teaching generations of children of all ages how to understand, love and appreciate Shakespeare. The first time I wandered out to their home on Winter Island (Salem, Massachusetts) and heard kids shouting "Thank you, Shakespeare!" into the universe, so loud it echoed back at them, I was hooked.

Unfortunately the Rebels are over an hour away from me, which makes it difficult to see their shows. That is, until I made arrangements with my local library to bring the Rebels to us!  Ever since, I've looked forward to when the stars align and my family vacation schedule is free that particular week in the middle of summer when the show comes to town. You know that scene in Hamlet when the players roll into town?  It's a little like that.  I haven't used them to exact any vengeance plots, however.  Yet.

This year the show is As You Like It. Our forest, it appears, will be a plethora of coat racks.  Interesting. At first I think that they've come upon these props this very day at the library, but later when I go see the show outside and they're still using them I realize that this was part of the plan all along. Our "trees" are arranged between scenes accordingly - when somebody needs to come bursting through them they are bunched together, when characters are supposed to walk among them they are made more sparse, and a couple of times they were lined up like a wall behind the action so we could focus on the characters and not the scenery.

Something fascinating about the staging of this production is that the entire cast was on stage at all times.  Not center stage, but in chairs circling the room so that the audience could plainly see them at all times. When they needed to enter they stood and entered, when they needed to exit they sat back down. They paid attention to the action, laughed at the jokes, and in no way tried to hide their actions from the audience.

Then an amazing thing happened. During the first major break in the scenery, when everybody has explained their reasons for running into the forest and now we're going to switch the action to primarily inside the forest? The entire cast got up and started to sing. Trunks were opened, costumes appeared, and everyone started changing right there on stage, singing all the while. Doubled actors were plainly shown to be doubled actors. Clothes, clothes, everywhere clothes, hung upon the coat racks as if leaves, suddenly transporting us to a deeper part of the forest.  And then just like that? They sit back down, the scene resumes, and we are in the middle of Arden Forest.

I LOVED IT. I loved it so much that I assumed there had to be a name for it, and sought out my research assistant Bardfilm to confirm my suspicions.  "Definitely sounds Brechtian," he wrote, "Epic theatre."


The purpose of this technique was to make the audience feel detached from the action of the play, so they do not become immersed in the fictional reality of the stage or become overly empathetic of the character. Flooding the theater with bright lights (not just the stage), having actors play multiple characters, having actors also rearrange the set in full view of the audience and "breaking the fourth wall" by speaking to the audience...
They didn't go for the full "breaking the fourth wall" effect of speaking to the audience, but many of the other elements were clearly there.

The show itself is quite good, and my kids enjoy it. I thought the staging of the Orlando/Charles fight was particularly innovative, as the entire cast gathered around to watch, shouting, "Charles! Charles! Charles!" Only...their shouts echoed what was happening.  So when Charles threw Orlando it was "CHARLES!!!" but when Orlando threw Charles it was, "Charles?!"  Hard to explain without seeing it, but imagine several minutes of wrestling action punctuated nothing but the Charles chant, and it still worked. At least once I'm pretty sure I heard Rosalind squeak "Orlando!" but she did it so quietly I may have been mistaken.

How about the cast? I wish I had names to give to all the players, but I don't think they print programs. Celia was my favorite, and had to be one of the more experienced Rebels given how confident she was on stage. Even when she was not speaking her occasional shrieks at the action (as in the above wrestling match) made her an unforgettable presence.

Rosalind, rather than playing the giddy giggling school girl I've seen in the past, played it more as a shy tomboy type, which made her transition to Ganymede all the more believable. She already had short hair, so a quick switch from dress to pants and suspenders was all it took. I think I might have preferred a hat, since absolutely nothing was done to disguise her face, but that's just me. It was hard not to think "That's a girl dressed in boy's clothes" but that goes back to the epic theatre thing above, too. Yeah, it is. We know that, just go with it.

Funny story #1 goes here. My girls (10 and 12) saw the show with me at the library, but later that week we took in another outside production one town over, and brought my son who is 8. We came in at the middle, guaranteeing that he would be pretty lost, but I did my best to catch him up.  But, here's the thing.  Silvius in this production was played by a girl (who did a great job, from moping around all sad and forlorn at the beginning to beaming happily once Phoebe had no choice but to marry her. Seriously, you could almost see the "Woohoo!" thought bubble appear over her head, it was adorable).

So, Silvius is on stage with Phoebe and Rosalind/Ganymede and I'm trying to explain this to my son.  "Ok, you see that girl in the green shirt?" (Silvius) I ask.

"Yes," he says.

"She's pretending to be a boy, named Silvius. And Silvius is in love with that girl standing next to him, who is Phoebe."

"Ok, got it," he tells me, "What about that other girl?" (Rosalind)

"Ok, that girl is pretending to be a boy but she's actually a girl."

"Right, I know that, the girl in the green shirt. I mean the other girl in the red shirt."

I realize quickly that this is not going to go well.

"The girl in the green shirt is really in real life a girl but for this show she is pretending to be a boy and everybody knows that she is a boy, ok? So he is in love with the girl in the middle (Phoebe), who is really a girl and is playing a girl. But the girl in the red shirt, who is really a girl in real life is also playing a girl in this play, and the girl in the play is pretending to be a boy. But the girl in the middle is in love with the girl in the red shirt because she thinks she's a boy but the girl in the red shirt know that she can't be in love with her so she is trying to convince the girl in the middle to be in love with the girl in the green shirt who really is a boy."

"I don't get it."

"Yeah, I didn't think you would. Never mind."

Who else.... how could I forget Jaques? He had an interesting character going on, a little something that made me think "carnival barker," mostly because of the hat. He also led all of the songs which were used to transition the scenes. If he'd broken out in "We've got big trouble right here in River City..." it wouldn't have been out of character at all.

Funny story #2?  Before the show I noticed that the play poster described As You Like It as, "The source of many of Shakespeare's most famous quotes, such as 'All the world's a stage...'"  I notice two of the actors (who turn out to be Touchstone and Orlando, though I didn't know that at the time) reading the poster so I ask, "Some of? Can you name another one?" They think about it and can't decide on any other famous AYLI quotes.  "Isn't, 'I do desire that we may be better strangers' from this one?" I ask.

They think about it and decide that no, that's not from this play.  I don't have a text handy but I say I'm pretty sure it is, in the banter between Orlando and Jaques at the river.  Touchstone tells the other actor, "That's your line!  Kind of."

It makes sense in context, because they cut that scene. Bummed me out, because I quite love that scene. They didn't cut it completely, they just edited it down greatly.  "I do not like her name" / "There was no thought of you when she was christened" was still in there, but nothing about better strangers.  Oh well.

Jaques redeemed himself however when Orlando burst into Duke Senior's dinner party demanding, "Forbear and eat no more!" and Jaques replied exactly as you would expect, "I have eat none yet!" as if this raving lunatic that's just jumped out of the trees gets exactly the same attitude he gives to everyone else around him. I laughed out loud.

I wish I could call out every actor by name and sing their praises. I hope they love performing this stuff as much as I love sitting in the audience and experiencing it. I hope that they understand and appreciate how it important it is that they are a part of this, and how different their lives will be because of it.  Lots of kids will shoot a bow and arrow during their summer camp, or paddle a kayak, or make friendship bracelets. You're performing Shakespeare. If you can do Shakespeare, you can do anything. I only wish every kid in America got the chance that you've gotten.  Maybe some day.

Keep doing what you're doing, Keri.  Well done, Rebels.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

And The Most Influential Book For The Facebook Generation Is....

Harry Potter.

So says this Facebook research project that asked users to list, in their Facebook status, "10 books that have stayed with you in some way."

First of all I think we need to get our terms straight. The Mashable article I'm linking to says "influential" books.  The request was "books that have stayed with you." That's not even remotely the same thing. I can sing you the rubber ducky song from Sesame Street but I'm not sure how much you could say it influenced my life. Likewise you are influenced by many different events in your life, without being able to recall them explicitly upon request.  Memorable and influential are not the same thing.

Second, I think I'd like to see this data broken out by age groups. The younger you are, the less time books have had to stay with you. Someone in their fifties or sixties stating that Catcher in the Rye (#9, 1951) stayed with them tells me something different than a thirty year old telling me that for her it was Hunger Games (#8, 2010). Or vice versa, which would be even more interesting.

Maybe someday, someone will try to assassinate the president and he'll be found with a well-worn copy of The Fault In Our Stars (#42, 2012) in his back pocket, but today is not that day. The only influence that book's had time to have is in influencing the parents of twelve year old girls across America to let them see the PG-13 movie.  (For the record my twelve year old girl has not read the book or seen the movie. I have read the book.)

It also really bugs me, by the way, that the Mashable author says "Unsurprisingly" the #1 went to Harry Potter. Is it unsurprising because you're a twenty-something who hasn't read many other books besides those, and still thinks that they are great literature? Or should that be taken more as an "it figures" commentary on the poor reading habits of the Facebook universe? I hope the latter.

To keep it relevant to this site, does anybody want to guess where Shakespeare shows up? He only shows up once, at #30, with Hamlet. I can find no other entry in the list that is older than this, however, so we'll give him special points for being memorable after four hundred years. Well, not counting the Bible and Book of Mormon. Those always show up on these lists, just out of sheer numbers.

I guess I'm trying to figure out whether there's anything to learn from this list. Does it even make sense for The Help (#48, 2009) to appear on a list next to Kerouac's On the Road (#43, 1976)? Or childhood favorite Where The Sidewalk Ends (#77, 1974) alongside Stieg Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (#78, 2009) which half the audience read for the sex and the other half read for the computer hacking bits?

Here's a theory. Let's look at how many books out of the top 100 had a movie or tv version come out in the last, oh, say ten years.  I count 27 of them.   That's actually lower than I expected, I'll admit. But I'm sure it's a pretty big contributing factor. I find it hard to believe that so many people actually read Gone With the Wind (#16) or Les Miserables (#60) and it didn't have at least something to do with the movie/stage versions.

Personally I've read about a third of these.  A number of them are on my "never got around to it but probably should" list, but I tried that once with Catcher in the Rye and it just wasn't worth it. I'd be willing to bet that many people answered with books that they had some familiarity with, and didn't necessarily limit themselves to "read it cover to cover".  If I consider all of the entries on the list where I saw the movie, or at least attempted to read the book? My number doubles.

What do you think of the list?  What surprises do you find?

So Lady Macbeth was Pontius Pilate?

Spotted this article on 5 Cliches That Mean More Than You Think and figured maybe there'd be some Shakespeare in it.  I was right, but not in the way I thought!

Cliche #2 is "I wash my hands of it," something that, the notes tell me, is known as the 'Macbeth Effect'. Really? Shakespeare gets to call dibs on ritually cleansing yourself morally as well as physically? Because I'm pretty sure that Lady M was beaten to the kitchen sink by Pontius Pilate when he sent Jesus to his fate.

I get that there's a difference in the guilt thing. Pilate washed his hands of it and that was that, he never thought of it again.  Lady M, well, we know what happened to her. But I'm questioning the assumption that everybody who says "I wash my hands of it" really means "I will try to wash my hands of it because of the moral stain I feel that will never quite go away." I think it's quite possible to wash your hands of something and never look back.

Then again, on the "think outside the box" cliche...

Study participants came up with fewer creative answers when they were literally sitting inside a cardboard box than the people who were seated next to the box.
I think that maybe this is a very silly study that I shouldn't taking so seriously.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review : "Teaching Will" by Mel Ryane

So the other day, the good people at Familius wrote and asked if I'd like a review copy of Mel Ryane's "Teaching Will : What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me that Hollywood Couldn't". A book about an actress who starts a Shakespeare Club at the local elementary school? How could I resist?

Having gone into my own children's classrooms since they were in the first grade (which would translate to maybe six years old, for my non US audience), I admit that I was looking for tips. All I ever do is a one time unit on some Shakespearean topic of the teacher's choice, I've never had the guts (nor the opportunity) to set up a full length after school program, culminating in a performance. This is exactly what the author does.

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: my POV for stuff like this is always, "I'm in it for the Shakespeare." The Shakespeare bits will exert their force on me like a magnet. The more Shakespeare, the more drawn I am into the book.

Having said that, there's not much Shakespeare in this. This is primarily a book about the author's adventures in trying to teach these children how to work together to achieve something that they and most everyone else thinks is beyond their abilities. But it could just as easily have been about teaching them how to sing, or play baseball. A scene where a child finally "gets" the rhythm of iambic pentameter might as well have been the scene where the catcher finally manages to get the cut off throw to second in time to tag the runner.

Perhaps my baseball analogy isn't completely fair, however, because that makes it more about competition. You'd expect the big climax of a baseball story to be the ragtag team of misfits winning the big game. Shakespeare is not about competing with anyone or anything, except maybe your own limiting beliefs about what you can accomplish.

The big climax of this story is the performance at the end of the year. With each chapter comes a week of rehearsal, chaos and catastrophe, and I spent the entire book thinking, "She'll never pull this off." Half the time it was impossible to tell who was playing each role because half her students quit and the other half refuse to play the parts they are given. It seemed like every chapter ended with the author going home to her dinner with her husband, sipping a glass of wine and pondering why she'd gotten herself into this in the first place.

A few words on that subject. The book really tells three stories. First is the attempt to put on a Shakespeare performance (A Midsummer Nights' Dream, by the way, if that wasn't your obvious first guess). The second is the "behind the scenes" story where we learn all about the author's interactions with the kids, their own family situations, and basically all about life outside Shakespeare Club. Which kids hate each other, and why? Which parents are supportive of the idea and which are just using it as glorified daycare? It probably should not come as a surprise that this had to be a ... what's the politically correct term to use here ... ethnically diverse, lower income, dare I say "inner city" environment? Nobody ever seems to want to tell the story of upper middle income white kids? I admit to making the comparison to Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, only with elementary school children. I hope that doesn't sound racist of me. It comes from a POV that I can't escape. When I walk into a classroom and try to teach Shakespeare to kids I will not have to deal with those issues. I respect and appreciate that somebody is doing it, hey, more power to them. But it makes the story less relevant to my own life. If I went into this book looking for tips about how to wrangle children into performing Shakespeare, too much time was spent hitting me over the head with "yes but don't forget where these kids come from and the other issues they have to deal with". That's true of every kid. Just because their stories are different doesn't mean that they don't all bring something unique to the party.

The third story is that of the author's childhood and her relationship to her own parents. I just plain didn't care for these bits. Whose story are you most interested in telling? I would have preferred more content about the actual play rehearsals. I suppose it's only now that I realize the subtitle of the book is "What Shakespeare and 10 kids gave *me*..." so perhaps that was really her goal all along? If so, I clearly missed it.

But, back to the story. I approached the end of the book, the performance was only a week away, students were still fighting and dropping out and chaos still reigned. Through the entire book I'd been saying, "This is a failure, and it will end." It did not. The show must go on, and it did. It's not a big movie scene with the whole town packed into the auditorium. On the contrary, the author goes to great lengths to let us know that some of the parents could hardly be bothered to show up at all. The performance goes exactly as expected, mistakes are made, lines forgotten, props dropped, and generally the chaos of rehearsal projects itself upon the stage, exactly like you'd expect in any other elementary school production.

"When it was over, we all cheered."

I admit with no shame that my eyes watered and my vision became blurry the instant I read that. Hell it's happening again just recalling it so I can write this. Good god, isn't that what it's all about? They're kids for heaven's sake. Of course it's not perfect. It's not about perfection, it's about accomplishment. They didn't quit. The author didn't quit. As a parent I know that feeling of cheering your brains out not for the quality of your child's performance, but for the very fact that it's your kid up on that stage, showcasing not how well they did it, but that they did it at all. That's something to cheer indeed.

"Hamlet's on my nuts!"

Ok, I'm not telling where that line shows up, I'll just say that the book is not over at the performance of Midsummer, and when I got to this part I laughed so hard I cried all over again. I'm glad I excused myself from the room to finish the book, otherwise my friends and family would have thought I'd gone mad.

I get that this was not a handbook in how to teach Shakespeare to elementary school children (though I would have liked that very much). It took me most of the book to accept that. As I said at the beginning, the Shakespeare content is a magnet to me. Every scene or line that snuck its way into the text made me want more, and it was difficult not getting that. I think that Ms. Ryane's story is an excellent one, very well told, and I'm very glad that it had a happy ending. I just wonder how important Shakespeare is to that story.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review : The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth

When Bardfilm showed me his early review copy of The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth I was all, "Awwww!  Want."

Then Ian wrote and asked if I wanted a copy as well and I was all, "Yay!"

This ... can we call it a graphic novel? Tells the story of animals in the zoo putting on a performance of Macbeth.  Not only do you see the audience, the audience interacts with the show in a series of inset panels, commenting on the action and making various puns and other jokes. This has been done before (Marcia Williams' books come to mind) but I like it even more here, because it doesn't overpower the story. The audience gets a single panel at most, in context with the rest of the flow of dialogue. You don't feel as if one story is talking over the other.

This is a very kid safe version of the story. Macbeth, a lion, does not kill people - he eats them (apparently whole, as they keep talking to him from inside his belly). There is no blood, there's ketchup (and lots of it). Lady Macbeth, forced to do her husband's laundry, cannot seem to get the ketchup stains out and this drives her a bit crazy.  As people begin to notice Macbeth's increasing waistline, they start asking questions and he starts overeating.   The best part is that somehow Lendler manages to give us a happy ending, while staying pretty true to the original story (including a nice twist on the "not borne of woman" thing).

The best praise I can offer comes from my son, who is 8. Right now we are going through a tough time getting him to read. He sees it as a chore, and no matter what we put before him, he'll kick and scream and go through the same routine even though he knows it never gets him anywhere. It's worse than pulling teeth.

Well, when this book showed up I brought it to him and said, "You and I need to read this book. This is a big deal, because the man who wrote this book knows that I have kids, and that my kids like Shakespeare, and he thought we might like to read his book and write a review of it so other people can decide if they might like it."  At first, without opening the book, he gave me the same eye roll and drooped shoulders I've become so familiar with.  But I persisted, and said that we should sit down and read Act 1 together, which we did.

The next day, before I went off to work, I told my son, "Don't feel as if you have to wait for me, you know. I know that story. You can go ahead and read it without me." Fast forward to later that night when I returned?  He tells me, "I finished the Macbeth book, Daddy. I like books like that, get more of those." Not completely ready to trust that it had been that easy, I asked him to tell me the story. He told me of how Macbeth's friend "Banksy" talked to much and got eaten, and how Macbeth's wife had to do so much of his laundry to get the ketchup stains out that she used up all the soap in the castle, and how "Detective" Macduff eventually solved the mystery ... but I'm not going to spoil the story for anybody. :)

Ian tells me that Romeo and Juliet is already planned, and I can't wait. This one may not score highly on the classic Shakespeare scale, but I'm ok with that. I'd rather have a book like this that has my kids asking for more, than a more advanced book that I feel like they're only reading to keep me happy.