Teaching the Bard

August 1, 1997

Judith Zwolak

By accident most strange, bountiful Fortune, now my dear lady, hath mine enemies brought to this shore; and by my prescience I find my zenith doth depend upon a most auspicious star, whose influence if now I court not but omit, my fortunes will ever after droop.

High school students may not understand every utterance of Prospero, the ousted Duke of Milan, in William Shakespeare's The Tempest, but they certainly can comprehend his need to seek vengeance against his scheming brother, Antonio, who forcibly sent Prospero and his young daughter to sea in order to usurp his crown.

"Shakespeare's characters, although usually aristocratic, have problems that are very relevant to students," says Louise Gabriel, a high school English teacher at Metairie Country Day School. "Students face some of the same dilemmas as these characters."

Illuminating the Bard for her students is nevertheless a challenge, Gabriel admits. To gain some insight on teaching Shakespeare, she attended the first BellSouth Institute on Teaching Shakespeare held at Tulane June 20-22 in conjunction with the Tulane Summer Shakespeare Festival. The institute helped 18 public and private school teachers from southeast Louisiana explore the language of Shakespeare and offered ideas for bringing the Bard to their classrooms.

Aimie Michel, artistic director of the festival and director of this year's play, The Tempest, came up with the idea for an educational program after attending a month-long workshop at Shakespeare & Company, an organization in Lenox, Mass., which provides educational workshops and actor training as well as stages performances of plays by Shakespeare and other playwrights. Michel became friends with Kevin Coleman, the organization's educational director, and the two talked of developing a program at Tulane.

BellSouth provided the funds, and the institute was born. Coleman came to Tulane to help run the program with Annmarie Davis and Robert Davis, two Shakespeare & Company veterans and faculty members in Louisiana State University's Department of Theatre.

"It is really about teachers exploring," says Robert Davis. "It's fun but it really requires a great deal of stamina." The participants spent the three-day program on their feet and in motion. They explored the physical properties of words, engaging in heated debate over such mundane objects as dryer lint. While tossing a ball to each other, they shouted words while being mindful of the release of energy that accompanied their shouts. Designed to reveal the power of the spoken word, these exercises brought home the fact that Shakespeare's words were meant to be said aloud and intensely felt.

"These are very powerful words," says Georgia Flynn, an English teacher at Alcee Fortier High School. "If you try to uncover what the characters are saying, you make a connection." Flynn says one of the techniques she learned will be especially handy in her classroom, where some students struggle with reading. "It's called shadowing," she says.

"The teacher reads the line to the student in a non-judgmental way and the student says the words the way the character would. It takes a bit of the pressure off of them and frees them up to get with the meaning."

Davis says high school students can become excited about Shakespeare when fully engaged in the power of his language. "Adolescence is a time when teen-agers are just full of curiosity, full of energy," he says. "We are exploring ways of getting them into relationships with each other, getting their bodies moving and showing them that communication is really an exciting thing. Words are really an exciting way to communicate with each other."

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