Friday, December 23, 2011

Framing Literature Accordingly

Would many have thought in the 1590s that William Shakespeare would be read and taught 500 years later?  Hard to say.

Do video game programmers imagine a time in the future when their work will be taught as a form of story-telling?  Hard to say.

Framing William Shakespeare in a context so that his writing is not intimidating to my students takes  time, patience, and a willingness to see his plays for what they are--plays.  None of his plays are novels.  They are plays bound in book form, true...but they are not novels.

Placing a Shakespearean play in front of 13 year-olds and telling them to read it (using only the tools currently in place to decode and process a novel) is any shot at their developing a(n) love, admiration, or receptive attitude for Shakespearean literature.

Tell this to students up front--if I asked you to read it, without any training, I would be failing you as your teacher.  It isn't your fault that reading Shakespeare as if it were a novel often results in heavy eyes and somnolent breathing patterns.

Explain that their ears are not tuned to hear Shakespeare.  Plays from the Elizabethan stage are meant to be heard--not read.  My 43 year-old ears are not tuned to listen to rap, hip-hop, or whatever else my students listen to--I'm probably behind the curve by calling it rap and hip-hop--yet, with some guided practice my ears could be tuned to comprehend any rap or hip hip.  I'm not incapable.  I'm just not used to it.

Tell your kids that they are not incapable--they are just not used to it.

Imagine a music classroom environment in 2011 where classes are taught without instruments.  Imagine students learning about The Beatles, Mozart, John Phillip Sousa, or Elton John without ever having heard them (either the original stuff or even being allowed to play instruments and singing the songs)--they just read the lyrics and sheet music.

In the same way that one needs an instrument in a music class, one also needs the benefit of an instrument when teaching any theater--the human body is our acting instrument.   To a certain degree, equate teaching Shakespeare with The Beatles in a music class and allow the kids to move and stretch and speak and howl--let them use the instrument!  Free the acting instrument--they don't need to be great actors.  No one is winning a Tony during our classroom lessons--but put the play in the context of how it is supposed to be used: heard and seen...not just read.

I spend some time teaching some of the background and framing different access point for my students:

a) Elizabethan audiences said they were going to hear a play...not see them (a very contemporary idea).  This is something we'll have to grow used to for this lesson--and I ask for examples of how we are a visual society.

b) The best seats in the Globe Theater were to the side and on the second level--it is where they sat the Queen and any royalty.  Sound rises...and for people needing to hear a play, those seats suited them best.  (It was also under cover and shielded people from the elements in that particular theater space.)

c) The Elizabethan theater experience was one of light and noise.  Performed in the daylight, audience members could see each other.  Think that doesn't matter--turn the lights on in any public speaking event--there is often a dull murmur in the room, and always people who speak too loudly and rudely.  When the lights are on, human beings are more social--Shakespeare's audience talked through the performance...and at times they yelled and got involved, "She's not dead yet Romeo!  No!"

e) Because of the light, actors could see the audience--again, another huge difference.  When there is light and you can look into the faces of your audience, you gain an advantage--you can connect.  You can look people in the eyes, smile at them, roar at them.  Henry V could now speak to the audience and engage their imaginations as if they were the soliders digging their heels in at Agincourt--a little more impressive than trying to pretend the four other actors onstage represent the entirety of the army.

Of course, there are any number of connections we can use to ease the transition into difficult literature.  What I offered here is only a portion of what I do, and I owe all of it to my training at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts--and to Kevin Coleman and Maynard (Sandy) Mack specifically.

Whatever your context may be, create a framework which speaks to the unique nature of the text.  For me, it is providing examples of why we need to hear and see and move and play with the text.

Disarm any preconceived notions and resistance to difficult literature by addressing it head on.  If we don't explain why different texts can be difficult then we leave young people to create reasons of their own: it is boring; I don't get it; I'm stupid; it isn't relevant to me; it is stupid; and on and on.

We do read the text--but only after framing it and engaging actively with it.

Now imagine a classroom 500 years from now learning about the birth of story-telling in video games (not too far-fetched).  If all they'll do is read a script of a game from 2011 or a detailed explanation of the story of the video game Red Dead Redemption (an open-world game where gamers can explore and create their own narrative to a certain degree), and never play the game, never engage with the controllers, hear the sounds, see the images, experience the challenges, hurdles, and tasks--make decisions--what will they have learned about the experience?  How in tune would they be?

Teachers in that futuristic environment might be best served allowing their students to pick up the instrument and explore...just as teachers can do today.

Note: link to an interesting interview with author Salman Rushdie on video gaming and story telling.

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