A Lot More Background: A Night with the Bard

“Let’s put on a show!”

cue the Mickey Rooney / Judy Garland reference machine (btw, Rooney played Puck in a 1935 film, that also included JAMES CAGNEY AS BOTTOM… I’ve never seen it, but just thinking about Cagney as Bottom makes me want to…)

OK.  But how and what?

I laid down two limits.  The first was that they had to use the text; they could make cuts, but no “modern” additions.  The second was that I would advise, but that was it… students would need to drive everything else.  And I mean everything.

Those who wanted to share something would need to direct; so they picked their scenes, edited them to focus their theme and vision, auditioned actors (from both within and outside the course), and began their rehearsals.  Others who weren’t either directing or acting took on other roles: stage management, house management, logistics, lighting, program and ticket creation.  It was heady times because although we created a production crew, none of us had put on a play before. A special education student, too shy and without the memory to perform, became our lighting director. Two girls, leaders but not performers, became the executive producer and stage manager. Nine directors came up with scenes, edited their texts, and chose their actors. Everyone had a job. It was going to be an event.

Word was getting out, and some of the faculty were starting to look at me like I was Kurtz in the jungle. Some voiced their concern that I was asking too much of the kids. And I took pride in relaying these messages (but not the messengers) back to the students. They don’t think you can do it. But I do. And they did. We took over a local junior high school, since at the time no high school in our district has a theater facility of its own (all had gyms–fancy that–but acoustics are crap-tastic).  We borrowed lights from the drama club, a lighting board from a local college.  We went in on a Sunday, set up the stage and the lights, and ran a tech rehearsal. That night we tore down the stage, only to come back the next afternoon to set it all up for that night’s performance. After the show, we broke down the stage, took down the lights, cleaned the room, and left it better than when we had found it. It was guerrilla theater: get in, set up, do the show, break down, clean up, get out, and leave no trace except good memories in the audience’s collective mind.

We had hoped for fifty or so parents. We set up seventy seats. This was a mistake and I should have known better. If you set up too many seats and don’t fill them, when your actors come out and see empty chairs, they deflate and it kills their performance. The show was to start at seven, the doors opened at six-thirty, and at six-twenty-five, our first customers showed: my parents, ever supportive, and my first wife. No one else. Shite. We are gonna die. We let them in early. Six-forty, a trickle started. I was sweating like a pig. I ran backstage to change into my sport coat and to take one look at my prefacing material, the prologue to Henry V, and to wish the actors “break a leg.” I met with the directors to quell their fears and to make sure they were ready to introduce their works. And I headed back into the “house.”

In five minutes, everything had changed. There must have been forty people there. And a line at the door. Hot Damn. I smiled at the house manager, who asked if we should get more chairs. Don’t get cocky. I told him to wait. By six-fifty-five, we had over eighty people in the house and house crew scrambling for more chairs, even taking some from actors backstage. It was wonderful.

We didn’t start until seven-ten; it wasn’t until then that the flow of audience slowed. We had a hundred people in the house. And I took the stage. I welcomed our audience, and told them that this was students’ night. This was Shakespeare directed, edited, acted, produced, lit, and managed by students. These scenes were experiments, and some would be more successful than others, but all had succeeded because they were being produced. Then I told the audience to imagine a great set, wonderful costumes, and a state-of-the-art theater, because imagination would be the only way they would get it…and I presented the prologue to Henry V. The show started.

I stood in the back of the house, with the directors. After a director would introduce her/his scene, s/he would come back and stand with me and watch the scene. The first half went well with some strong ideas (including a Richard III opening soliloquy with three Richards, each a different aspect of his personality; a wild take on Romeo and Juliet, with the cliched balcony scene twisted so that Romeo was receiving cues from a Cyrano de Bergerac-type character). The big cards were set for the closings of each act (with an intermission of student-performed music): the first half closed with a VERY physcal Petruchio Taming Kate; the close of the show would be a great A Midsummer Night’s Dream “Pyramus and Thisby.”

One of the actors from that year has even posted the evening’s program.

It was a success in almost every way: we made money to buy texts for the spring semester’s Modern Literture class, raised visibility on campus for the Shakespeare class, and presented a good show.  But more importantly, the students learned… about Shakespeare, about logistics and planning, about putting on a show… about their own capabilities.

One of the student directors was presenting a scene frm The Comedy of Errors, and she was terrified.  She was nearly in tears when she left the stage (after introducing her scene) to stand at my side. As the lights dimmed for the scene, she looked up at me, panicked, and said, “What if they don’t laugh?”

I smiled. “They will.” I hoped. Maybe she was right. Her scene was filled with puns and verbal humor in the first half, before the sure-fire slapstick kicked in.  We got the jokes in class because of the two readings, but the audience?  I crossed my hands and fingers behind my back.

The first verbal joke hit. And missed. Not a single laugh. And I could sense her tense beside me. I wanted to reach out and put my arm around her, touch her shoulder, something to allay her fear, but I couldn’t move. I was too scared for her.

The second joke…a laugh. One person. The third…maybe a half dozen people. They were getting in the rhythm of it. A few puns later and the entire crowd was going off like clockwork. Then when the physical stuff went off, so did the audience. The student looked up at me again. Her eyes were still wet, but a good kind.

“It worked,” she said and jumped up and hugged me.

“Told you.” I couldn’t see the stage all that clearly. My eyes had misted over, too–though I told teasing students later it was because I was laughing too hard.

I lied, so sue me.

My first three years of teaching had had some great moments, but nothing touched this Comedy. This was the best instant of my teaching career. It’s still a highlight.

And right about now, I miss teaching more than ever.

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