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Archive for April, 2013

The Sonnets of Shakespeare Take To The Streets of New York – And Local Thespians Are Involved

One hundred and fifty four  actors  will speak the “bard’s”  speech in the yearlong Sonnet Project, an undertaking of the New York Shakespeare Exchange.  The company will film all of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets  each performed by a different actor in a New York City location.  Over the course of the next year, videos will be released singly or in small groups on the Web site SonnetProjectNYC.com, and through a soon-to-be-released mobile app.

The goal of the company according to its artistic director, related  in a story in the New York Times,  is  ”to try to figure out how to make Shakespeare a part of contemporary culture in more than a pull-it-off-the-shelf-and-blow-the-dust-off way.”  The article continues to explain that  the group aims to increase appreciation of Shakespeare – and classical theater in general – and hopes the videos will reach an audience of a million by the time Shakespeare’s 450th birthday arrives on April 23, 2014.

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with ‘surprising Shakespeare…

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Born with teeth

Celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday (a tad belatedly) on Saturday, April 27th at 2pm for the Epic Theatre’s production of “Born With Teeth” (aka, Richard III) in the in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W. 42nd Street).

Stay afterward for the Post-Show Forum:

“Teaching Shakespeare: Approaches & Perspectives” co-presented with The Shakespeare Society and The English-Speaking Union – Expert panelists will discuss strategies for engaging young people in Shakespeare’s text and engage in dialogue with the audience on the role of Shakespeare in education. Featuring Jordan Dann, Education Director of The Shakespeare Society and Carol Losos, Director of Educational Programs for The English-Speaking Union.

Educators are invited to use the special discount code TEACH20 for $20 dollar tickets.

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Character Shields:  A True Testament to Assessment

By Jordan Dann

Every successful artist knows that organization and critical review is an essential component for contending in the business of art. Whether you have those skills or you hire someone who does, you need them.  The same rule holds for teachers; you can be an unbelievably magnetic Pied Piper but until you can grade papers, take attendance, get good test scores, and teach to the “common core” you probably won’t keep the job.

As Education Director for The Shakespeare Society, it has become increasingly important for me to serve my teachers in equal parts “arts” and “organization.”  It’s equally important for me to employ teaching artists who have trained their instruments and can express themselves both physically and vocally, but who can also create a well scaffolded lesson plan.

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As I search for the best ways to support teachers, I find that “assessment” is of paramount teacher concern. Assessment has largely been a mystery to me.  How does a teacher go about assessing his or her student’s knowledge?  What do they learn about their students through assessment? What do they learn about their teaching through assessment?

The foundational question for Shakespeare educators is: What are you teaching your students?  In performance with a good director, one hopes that every actor is learning the story and exploring the director’s vision.  Then each actor has her own responsibility in shepherding her role and figuring out how she fits into the world and connects to the story being told.  Any individual actor’s quality of understanding of the play is expressed in the performance.

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When you are teaching Shakespeare, your students do not have this autonomy, but depend more directly upon your choices. Do you teach students how to read the text by exploring close reading strategies?  Do you focus on imagery?  Verse structure?  Language?  Or, do you approach the text as literature and discuss plot, character, and theme?

These decisions directly influence the assessment process.

As we draw closer to performance for The Hunts Point Children’s Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of Romeo and Juliet, I keep wondering: How well did I do my job?  I often feel that I am dragging students to the finish line, rather than directing a play. I wonder if they know the story or understand the inner dynamics of the people’s lives whom they are portraying.

Last week my teaching partners and I took the actors through an exercise called “Character Shields,” in which students were asked to draw a shield with four quadrants and fill in the following information:

  • Top left:  List 3 adjectives about your character
  • Top right:  Your favorite line from the play
  • Bottom left:  The thing your character most wants (or, in actor terms your super objective)
  • Bottom right:  The thing your character hates the most

From this simple assessment exercise I could easily discover: how these actors understand the story of Romeo and Juliet, their opinion about what their favorite bit of text is, and most importantly, that they are able to use their imaginations to step outside of themselves and into the shoes of another person.

I often say that I like to think of teaching Shakespeare as the “thinly veiled mask of changing lives.”  In the past when I said that, I meant that I believed that the context of rehearsal and performance offered a platform for students to learn accountability, punctuality, self-preparation, and collaboration. I’ve recently come to think differently.  I think that Shakespeare is the “thing” and that through the empathic engagement with his magnificently drawn characters, the grip on one’s own “self” loosens.

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Jon Stancato
Director, CUNY/Creative Arts Team New York City Student Shakespeare Festival

As a 9th grader, I was so smitten with a girl that I joined the Shakespeare club and its production of As You Like It not, as one would rationally expect, with the hopes of playing Orlando to her Rosalind, Oliver to her Celia, Touchstone to her Audrey, Silvius to her Phoebe.

Nope.

She had mesmerized us all as Antony in the prior year’s Caesar but had since transferred to another school.  I joined the club just to impress her when I would subsequently follow her to the same school.  Pretty ridiculous, yes?

Life grew more ridiculous still, when I, a wrestler who figured he had a lock on the character of Charles the Wrestler, ended up getting cast as Touchstone, the play’s fool.  I can’t say that, clad all in black with a jangly fool’s hat upon my head, I had the comic chops or the wit to bring Shakespeare’s clown to life, but that didn’t seem to matter.  As I nervously dashed through his opening monologue, a ridiculous labyrinthine diatribe involving, if memory serves, a noble and some mustard, the audience responded with chuckles.  These nearly 500-year-old words had survived not only the ravages of time, but the pitiful performance of a love-struck 14 year-old — and they still managed to amuse.  Talk about transcendence!

Since then, Shakespeare has played a key role in my life as a student, as a performer, as a director, as a theatre educator, and as a human being trying to answer the massive and minuscule questions of life on this here planet of ours.  Today, I am the director of the CUNY/Creative Arts Team New York City Student Shakespeare Festival now in its 20th year.  The Festival has given over 10,000 young New Yorkers the opportunity to use Shakespeare’s text to express themselves and comment upon their world.  The Festival uses a professional development model to teach teachers how to create a theatrical platform for their students to remix the Bard by devising their own original work of theatre using Shakespeare’s text.  While the students might not necessarily learn what Hamlet does in Act 4, Scene 1, they do gain ownership over Shakespeare’s text as they prove its timelessness and universality by re-appropriating it to tell their own stories.

I may be a seasoned veteran now, but every time I work with these young people – be they 7 or 17 – I am inspired by their willingness to throw themselves into Shakespeare’s text and am continually floored by how much they’ve made his words their own.

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_DSC6528It’s been literally decades since a NYC kid took the national honors…we are delighted to announce that this year’s winner of the English-Speaking Union National Shakespeare Competition hails from the borough of Queens. Xavier Pacheco, a student at Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts in Manhattan, won the entire Competition on April 22nd at Lincoln Center Theater with his performance of Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing and Sonnet 29.  Full story here.  A shout out too to Melissa Friedman and our colleagues at Epic Theatre Ensemble who do amazing work with Xavier’s school!  Video of his Finals performance to follow.

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Katharine Moran (far left) at the ESU National Shakespeare Competition.

Katharine Moran (far left) at the ESU National Shakespeare Competition with students and ESU Chair the Hon. Patricia S. Schroeder.

Katharine Moran
Manager of Shakespeare Education Programs, The English-Speaking Union

My story about Shakespeare is ultimately a tale of two classrooms. The first one belonged to my freshman English teacher. In his classroom, we learned Shakespeare in probably much the same way he learned it: sitting in a circle mindless taking turns reading aloud. Our voices may have been in time to the rhythm of the lines, but there was no harmony in that classroom, no greater understanding being reached. This active (but not interactive) method of teaching caused Romeo & Juliet (full of bawdy humor) to turn as dry as the paper in our books.  I started to think I would never understand why Shakespeare was considered a brilliant writer; I couldn’t see the greatness that was being thrust upon us.

Luckily my first impressions of the Bard were reversed years later by my junior English teacher. In her classroom, things were completely different.  The desks were banished to the perimeter of the room, and we all got up on our feet performing Shakespeare.  I say performing now because we weren’t just reading aloud lines: we were finding our own interpretations of characters and discovering the relationships between them together.  During this engagement of voice, body and mind, Shakespeare came alive for me; only through this interactive work was I able to see beyond the text to the wonderfully, nuanced subtext below.

Unfortunately the sad truth is that a majority of students never reach that second classroom; they are forever cut off from the genius of Shakespeare’s works. Through my work at The English-Speaking Union, I strive to change that reality for as many students as possible across the country. Through our National Shakespeare Competition for high school students and Shakespeare Set Free Institutes for English and Drama teachers, we bring educators the tools and resources they need to make every classroom like the second option. Through our educational work, co-founding of the New York City Educators Roundtable and now with this blog, I continue working towards the goal that every student will get the opportunity to fully access and enjoy a playwright who truly is for all.

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