Shakefest Inspires Educators at Drew University in New Jersey
For Bonnie Monte, artistic director of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, “Shakespeare is the best interdisciplinary teaching tool in the world.” And for a dozen teachers, including this writer, a week at STNJ’s “Shakefest”, a program for teachers, it was easy to see how this could be true.
Based at Drew University, in Madison, NJ, STNJ, in its 45 years, presents 8 plays a year by Shakespeare and other notable playwrights. It offers student matinees scheduled during school time, as well as troupes that travel to schools to perform assemblies. The Shakefest program, designed to assist teachers with their lessons, is in its 6th year.
For a week, the group—representing public and private schools, and as far away as Hawaii, Finland, and Greece (and as near as New Jersey)—participated in activities and text analysis designed to engage students in Shakespeare. STNJ staff conducted the daylong workshops which included theatre games, exploring language, and ways to bring reading Shakespeare to life in the classroom through “on your feet” exercises. Special guest discussed movement, taught stage combat, and suggested ways teachers can expand classroom work into school-wide festivals. Monte addressed the group daily, emphasizing how teachers should encourage student to think of Shakespeare “outside the box, that there’s no one way to perform Shakespeare.”
Through Shakespeare, students are exposed to “everything,” said Monte, including botany, astronomy, medicine, social interaction, law, religion, and everything having to do with human behavior. For young people to be truly exposed to Shakespeare, they need to either see it, perform it, or both. But merely reading in a classroom isn’t sufficient, said Monte.
Teachers were led through exercises similar to how actors preparing a play for STNJ. We addressed the fundamental questions required before performing. First, there is a story. The director, serving as a designer, determines the goal. This decision then guides the production. Monte urged teachers to enlist students through brainstorming ideas and research to create specific settings. Called “tablework”, actors analyze the text before rehearsing, to answer “hundreds of questions” about the setting, the characters, their motivations, and the plot. Analyzing characters presents the second fundamental question. Monte stressed how each actor must know his character—what motivates him, what angers him, what pleases him, how others perceive him, etc.
“Approach reading Shakespeare like a detective novel. Shakespeare gives lots of clues; keep adding up all the clues to understand a character,” she said.
Answering “what” and “why” conclude the tablework. “What” refers to the themes of a play, or what is the essence, or what should the focus be. “Why” addresses why things happen and whether something can be assumed or not.
Lessons on interdisciplinary hooks and creating landscapes provided suggestions on how to stage Shakespeare in classrooms. Monte encouraged teachers to utilize different talents of students, noting those that don’t want to act, can create an orchestra of human sounds or create music from instruments made from household objects, such as vacuum cleaner hoses and garbage cans. Contemporary music that relates to the play can be used for transitional music between scenes, or one type of music can be used throughout—either music by one composer or by one instrument but different composers. Similarly, a single painting can provide inspiration for a play’s setting and theme, or works by one painter or by many painters representing a particular genre. A single color, and different shades of it, can also guide selections in a performance.
Associating a physical movement with every word or line assists students in memorization. Costumes should be simple—jeans and t-shirts of different colors, for example, can easily represent characters. Long prologues can be done as a choral reading, or split among many students and characters can also be played by several students, blending lines to show the transition between one student and another acting the same part.
Whether a series of scenes from a play, a series of scenes based on a specific theme from different plays, or an entire play, it’s crucial for students to have some performance experience. “Shakespeare was meant to be performed,” said Monte, “even if it’s just for the class next door, they need an audience.”
For more information, contact www.shakespearenj.org.