Episode 197: Production Case Study: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Tracy Garratt’s students wanted to be challenged and show what they could do. In this Production Case Study we’re talking Shakespeare. More specifically, student driven Shakespeare.
Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk – the Drama Teacher Resource Company.
I’m Lindsay Price.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!
This is Episode 197 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode197.
Today, we are doing another production case study and we’re talking about Shakespeare – more specifically too, student-driven Shakespeare. Where do you start with Shakespeare? How do you get your students to make the decisions? Well, you should listen in if these are your questions. I think we might have some answers!
Let’s find out together and let’s get to it.
LINDSAY: Hello everyone! I am here, talking to Teacher Tracy Garratt today.
TRACY: Hi! How are you?
LINDSAY: I’m wonderful.
Let’s start. I like to let everybody know where in the world our guest is. So, where in the world are you?
TRACY: I am in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada.
LINDSAY: Which is literally a hop, skip, and a jump away from me. We can’t quite wave to each other but it’s almost.
TRACY: Almost, half an hour drive.
LINDSAY: Half an hour away.
We’re going to talk today about you recently did a production of our adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with some fabulous pictures which are going to be in the show notes. But, first of all, I want to just sort of talk to you.
How long have you been a teacher?
TRACY: This is my sixteenth-year teaching.
LINDSAY: How is it for you sixteen years down the road? Are you still happy teaching?
TRACY: I still love it. I still think that it’s the best choice that I’ve made in my life – other than having my son. Most days, I get up and think, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this,” and I have taken to saying to my kids, “You know, you have to find work where you get up and you wonder, ‘Are you stealing from your boss?’ because I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.” That’s my attitude. Thus far, I still feel that way. I’m still lucky. Of course, we have days that are not great but, most of the time, I don’t believe that I get paid for this. It’s crazy.
LINDSAY: I sit around sometimes and there are some days where I am in my pajamas at noon and I’m like, “How did this happen that I have a job where this is happening?” It’s just wonderful, you know.
What is it about teaching that that was the thing that you wanted to do?
TRACY: I just love kids. I love being around kids. I love their energy. I love their positive aura, if you could say that. I love the fact that everything is new to them. They’re not afraid of making mistakes. I just think that kids are the best and they keep me young. So, I’m really appreciative of that, especially as I enter my fifties.
LINDSAY: I would never know that. You always struck me as very young – no more than 30.
TRACY: It’s the kids!
LINDSAY: We are talking about A Midsummer Night’s Dream and taking a production from beginning to end. What has been your relationship with Shakespeare? I know students and teachers have a myriad of relationships with Mr. Shakespeare.
TRACY: Well, you know, when I was in high school, I found Shakespeare kind of difficult. I found the language really hard to understand. You know, understanding the story is a bit of a challenge. I feel like there’s a rule, especially in North America, studying Shakespeare. Somebody’s decided in their infinite wisdom that we should be doing that.
And so, in my younger days, I found it hard. But then, when I went to university and I took a course. I thought, “Oh, this is a little bit better now that I know and now that I understand the plotlines and I sort of get a little more of the history and the context of some of the plays, I started to enjoy them a lot more.
And then, probably in the last five or six years, I’ve taken some workshops with Jonothan Neelands and he’s from England. I don’t know if many people out there know who he is. But, anyway, he does a lot of lesson planning and unit design for drama and one of the things that he does really well is he makes Shakespeare accessible.
And so, I took a couple of workshops with him and I thought, “This is the way to do it.” So, I try to mimic some of the things that he taught me in my own classroom and I found I was being really successful and some of my colleagues were asking me if I could deliver some of the workshops to their English students from a drama perspective and the kids were really biting. I thought, “That’s pretty awesome.”
The school I teach at right now is a really academic school. The kids want a really good grade and they think that they should be studying challenging material. In their eyes, Shakespeare is challenging material. Whenever they ask for it, of course, we give them whatever they need and want, and they wanted Shakespeare this year. So, I thought, “What better to do than a comedy? Because comedy is always more fun, I think, and accessible for more people.” So, we chose to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
We didn’t want to do a full version. We needed an abridged version because one hour is about as much time as we can spend either in a courtyard or on a stage. Usually, most festivals are an hour long. We just figured one hour was the best format for us. That’s why we chose your abridged version.
LINDSAY: We’re going to come right back to the production, but I wanted to just take one step back just because there really seemed to be something that struck you about teaching Shakespeare in a specific way. What is it exactly that you clicked to that you were able to connect to Shakespeare and you were able to connect it to others? What was the specific way of Shakespeare?
TRACY: Shakespeare should be seen. You know, up until more recently, everything that I had done with Shakespeare was always reading. we would read aloud or maybe we would see it on a film, but it wasn’t meant to be seen on a film. It was meant to be seen on a stage. It wasn’t meant to be read aloud. It’s not reader’s theatre, in my opinion.
And so, when Jonothan Neelands showed me some strategies for making it more accessible and more physical – because kids love to be physical – that’s when I knew that we had something really great that I actually could impart this kind of theatre upon the kids and with the kids because he really helped me to see more basic foundational knowledge can be… you know, you can use this kind of theatre, Shakespearean theatre, to help kids see the more everyday average experiences. I thought that was really cool.
LINDSAY: I’m going to put you on the spot. Can you think of a physical exercise that you used with your students while working on Dream?
TRACY: We did a part where we got into a circle and it was a monologue that we were using where each kid had to say one word from the monologue. It was one shared monologue and we spoke the monologue together. It’s sort of like passing the clap – only this time we’re passing words around the circle.
And then, we changed it to phrases and we tried to find the cadence and the rhythm of the piece and we talked about iambic pentameter and we talked about how Shakespeare should be read and how it should be spoken and what happens when we change where we’re going to put our pauses, et cetera. You know, that exercise was really great, and it helped the kids to understand the rhythm of the piece. So, I use that exercise.
Other exercises that we used – oh, gosh, I forget most of it.
LINDSAY: That’s okay. I put you on the spot on that, but I can imagine that, by doing the exercise standing in a circle instead of sitting and reading with a book, you become a physical being because you’re standing and, if you’re passing a word verbally, you want to pass it physically, too.
TRACY: Yeah, exactly. And so, the kids had to embody the shape and the speed of that particular word or phrase and receive it the way that they thought it should be received and it was almost like a physical object being passed along.
We would start with passing a ball or passing a physical movement and then I added the phrases in and it ended up working out really, really well and it started a good discussion about meaning and context and all of the great bits that are sometimes forgotten when you’re studying theatre or studying Shakespeare. It was a great exercise.
LINDSAY: It kind of sounds like your students were part of the decision-making process of what play you were going to do, is that right?
TRACY: Definitely. We make our decisions the year before. Before school is let out, I ask the kids what they’re interested in. sometimes, you know already what they’re interested in because we spent a year with them already and they’ve talked to you about what they would like to do.
There were a lot of kids who were really stuck on fairies and I knew that this was a good one to do, if you wanted to do some fairy work. There’s that whole group of kids who love cosplay and, depending on how you want to costume this piece, it works well for that as well. And then, there’s another group of kids who really wanted to bite off a big chunk of Shakespearean show that they could do something that was challenging like that.
The kids are quite bright; they want to be challenged and they thought this piece would be the one.
LINDSAY: Once you knew which piece you were going to do, what was your first step? I’m assuming, since you knew before the summer, did you spend some time over the summer last year thinking about working on it? What was your first approach?
TRACY: During the summer, what I do is I will map out all the scenes and I’ll make a drawing – an actual drawing – of each scene.
It’s sort of like football where you’ve got your X’s and O’s and you want to move your people around. I’ll do all my blocking over the summer – or at least imagine it – and design my costumes or get a theme going on, figure out what I want to do, how in-depth I want to go, what my budget’s going to be, how much I want to allow to spend on it – stuff like that.
Yeah, I do a lot of work in the summer. I find that the summertime is the best time to be able to sit down and focus on it for an extended period of time and it’s accessible because I was able to take it with me when my partner and I would take a holiday. We would go and, when she was on the treadmill, I would be reading my script and it was perfect.
LINDSAY: Treadmill on one side, Shakespeare on the other, I think that is the perfect image. I like that.
TRACY: Treadmill? No, thanks!
LINDSAY: What led you to the theme? What theme di you choose and why did you choose it?
TRACY: Well, we wanted to honor the fairy atmosphere and the magical atmosphere that is set up in the play – the dreamland. You know, the kids really love that. So, we decided that we would make it really pastel and go with what might light up really well at night because we knew we were going to play it at night. We also wanted to keep it pretty budget-friendly. So, by the time that a yearend rolls around, there’s not a lot of money to spend on anything. You know, we kept it pretty simple and we made all our costumes and everything out of leftover scraps and materials that were donated, et cetera.
We had a vision board and the kids contributed to the vision board. Eventually, it lands in someone’s lap. Someone decides that this is this is their project. We start with the larger group and people start to splinter off into their areas of expertise or their passions and there were two young ladies who decided they were going to take the vision board and create the theme for the show. It turned out really well, I thought. And then, we had our art club making the costumes and they ran with the ideas.
LINDSAY: So, this is a really student-driven project, eh?
TRACY: Oh, it definitely was because all the costumes were made by the kids – all the ideas about what it should look like and where we should play it – all of that really ended up being in the kids’ hands.
When I talked about doing some preparation in the summer, that’s basically me making sure that we have somewhere to start. The kids, it’s hard for them to get started and you kind of have to give them some ideas to get going. Once they do know what to do, then you can let them have the rest of it by themselves.
I usually will help to block the piece – all the actions in the show – but the kids will take most of the other bits themselves.
LINDSAY: How long does it take for that kind of momentum to happen? Because I think this is an excellent little segue here in that this kind of stuff can be student-driven. How do you encourage? Is it because they’re seniors and they’ve done this kind of thing before? Is it because you say, “Okay, by such and such a date, someone has to take charge of this…”? How are you a leader in the classroom as opposed to someone who dictates?
TRACY: Hmm… That’s a great question.
I think that once you realize that kids can be trusted with this kind of project, then you can let go of the reins. That’s when it becomes a lot easier. I think, if you’re a control freak and you need to have everything to be just so, you know, this is maybe not your idea of a good time, I would think. But, for me, I love the fact that the kids want to take over.
Usually, what happens is, during the process of our discussions and our meetings, somebody in the group decides that they want to do a particular aspect of the show, it’s like you’ve got this big plate and each person wants to eat a particular part of the meal and you just let it happen. I think I was really lucky that way. it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes, you’ve got kids who have talents in certain areas and other areas are lacking. And so, you have to pick up the pieces there. But I had some really great kids.
In terms of getting it off the ground this year, we had a really wonky year. We had another production that we put together. Again, last summer I told myself, “I’m going to do a little production. I’m going to have four kids and that’s all I’m going to do.” Of course, that thing ballooned into a monster and we ended up with twelve kids – twelve or sixteen, I forget – and we ended up winning a festival and we had to go on which is great. I’m not saying we had to go on.
LINDSAY: Oh, we had to win. Oh, no!
TRACY: No, we were lucky, and we moved forward which was great and we produced this piece again and again. But that wasn’t planned. And so, what happened was it sort of took away from the time that I was going to devote to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I started to panic because I thought, “Oh, my gosh, I’ve got all this time and money and kid energy invested into A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I have to keep putting it on the back burner because we keep moving forward with this other piece that we did and it’s great, but I’m pulling my hair out because the schoolyear is quickly evaporating into thin air.”
We literally put A Midsummer Night’s Dream on in a two-month period because we had no choice, but it turned out great and thank goodness for that!
LINDSAY: I’ve said it before, I always say this, “The amount of time it takes is the time that you have.” If you had seven months, it would have taken seven months; and you had two, so it took two.
TRACY: Right. We started in September and we were like, “Oh, let’s read this play and see where we go and let’s have a couple of meetings.” The other one took over – the other play that we were doing took over. Lord, help us all. We weren’t ready to get going really and earnest on A Midsummer Night’s Dream until after the March break. So, we ended up part of March and all of April, a little bit of May, and there we were onstage. It was pretty cool.
LINDSAY: Sometimes, I think a shorter time is not a bad thing. It really shows you what you can do.
TRACY: Oh, I agree. Also, if you can get it done in two months, then why wouldn’t you? It was great.
LINDSAY: How are your students with the language? Did you do some specific exercises or was it a lot of discussion on context and word understanding?
TRACY: They struggled a little bit. You know, I found a lot of times, the kids, I had to remind them, of course, that they had to do their homework, and that they had to read, and they had to decipher it and figure out what it meant and Google everything. Because they’re smart kids, they figured they could do it on the run, off the cuff. So, they did struggle and we had to spend a lot of time working on context and talking about meaning of all these different phrases and monologues, et cetera. They struggled.
I know that, if I had more time, I would have been able to spend some time and energy doing some exercises on how to define – what’s the word I’m looking for?
LINDSAY: Just understand the words, right?
TRACY: Comprehend and break it down. But we didn’t have that kind of time, unfortunately. Most of it ended up falling on their own laps. They did okay.
LINDSAY: I want to come back to it because I know you did it outside in a courtyard, right?
TRACY: Yes, we did.
LINDSAY: Okay, I’m going to come back to that.
They were on their own and some of them struggled and some of them tried to do it on the fly. How did that end up in their performance with audience comprehension? What kind of feedback did you get from the audience in terms of them understanding the text?
TRACY: You know, we were very lucky because, by the time we were hitting the stage, the kids had really developed a better understanding of what it was that they were saying and doing. And so, they were able to communicate that through physicality.
When there was a week left before we were getting onstage, the kids and their physicality totally morphed. It was really interesting to watch how their understanding of the text had become more physical and their inflections all changed and they started to really understand, “Where will I take a pause? What should my volume be here? How should I inflect in this phrase?” They really started to understand it about a week before and the physicality really got solid. To tell you the truth, it was really solid on the rehearsal day before. IT was really last minute.
You know how theatre works – sometimes, you’re pulling your hair out, really, up to ten minutes before the show and then it all works out, but you have to remind yourself that, unfortunately, so that you don’t go crazy. But, yeah, it started working out probably a week before.
LINDSAY: What was the decision to plae it outside?
TRACY: We don’t have a theatre at our school.
LINDSAY: That’ll do it.
TRACY: We have a small theatre that can fit 99 people and, if we’re very careful, fire code allows up to 112 people. So, we do put people up on the sides and stuff, but we were like, “Oh, gosh, this isn’t going to work because we don’t actually have any entrances and exits. We’ve been very creative in the past on how we use our space. We oftentimes have to use the same doors that the patrons come in. we’re interactive with our audience every time we take the stage.
But, this time, we thought we need more space and we wanted to incorporate a more authentic setting. So, we thought, “Why can’t we use our courtyard?” We’ve got a beautiful courtyard and it is surrounded on all four sides and there are doors on all four sides. We had multiple exits and entrances and it was just so beautiful.
LINDSAY: What was the audience response? It’s sort of otherworldly; you not only have the other language, you’ve got the otherworldly characters, you have a space that is otherworldly because it’s not in a confined theatre. What was the response?
TRACY: Well, they loved it. The audience, when they entered the theatre space, they had to go through, we created a space that they had to walk through in order to come into the courtyard, so they were already entering the magical world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as they came in and took their seat. That started the whole process, I think, of creating an environment for the audience right away before it even started.
As the sun began to set and the lights really started to take effect, the audience, you could see that they were really pleased with how they were integrated into the show. That works really well, I think, for most people when they find that they’re right in it rather than observing it. They were part of it and that was really sweet.
LINDSAY: That’s the complete application of your thought – Shakespeare must be seen.
TRACY: You know, we almost did it the round – not quite. Because the space was tricky, we had to put our audience members all over the place and we were very aware of our blocking so that everybody could see at all times. It really worked out well. It was a beautiful little thing and the kids felt really proud of themselves.
LINDSAY: As we wrap up here, in reflecting back on this whole project, what would you say was the biggest success? What’s your success takeaway?
TRACY: For me, I think, always as the teacher rather than the theatre producer, having students understand Shakespeare on a different level is really a coup, I think. I think, also, that when kids start to see that their own accomplishments can be bar none and superior to what they thought they could do, it’s just an amazing experience. I love that theatre helps kids to see that something that they’re going to try and do is going to be even better than they thought. That is the best part.
This particular piece of theatre, the abridged version that you have for us makes it even more accessible, so you can get it all done and get a little taste and still feel that great accomplishment.
LINDSAY: It’s interesting. For some of these Shakespeare pieces, you know, you really don’t have to do a four-hour Hamlet. You really don’t. And Dream is a perfect example of that.
The script is put together for a loud audience who perhaps wasn’t paying attention to a scene, previous scene, or was talking, or was eating, because there’s a lot of “I’m going to show you, and then I’m going to tell you. I’m going to show you, then I’m going to tell you.” For that purpose alone, our audiences aren’t like that and I’m on the camp that it’s not a bad thing to cut Shakespeare and to give students that nugget of experience and do it well rather than a four-hour Hamlet.
TRACY: I agree. The other thing that’s great about it is that, if the kids who are playing particular roles decide that they want to go and look at the original version and pull out other bits and monologues, for example, that they think would add to it, then they can do that. I did have two of my kids do that when they thought, “Well, I have to audition for Sheridan or Humber or wherever they were going to go. Do you think I could use this as my audition piece?” I’m like, “Absolutely, because it fits well with what we’re doing already and you’re preparing twice over.” So, it worked out really well that way.
LINDSAY: Awesome. All right!
Thank you so much, Tracy, for sharing your insights into this project. I really love the idea of not just a student-driven project but student-driven Shakespeare. As you said, they seem to be really proud of their efforts at the end. I’m sure that carried on. I’m sure that carried on past the performance.
TRACY: Yeah, they were really happy, and they wanted to take home the props that they had made and all of the costumes. I said, “Yeah, they’re yours!” It’s awesome!
Thank you so much!
TRACY: Thank you!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Tracy!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
Any links to today’s episode can be found in the show notes a Theatrefolk.com/episode197.
And let me tell you, if Shakespeare is something that turns your stomach, you hated it in high school, you think your students hate it, you hate teaching it, well, let me direct you to something that might be of help. I know it’s going to be of help and that is the education arm of Theatrefolk. That’s the Drama Teacher Academy. In there, we’ve got lots of professional development help, lots of community help.
We have an awesome Facebook group where everybody is there talking about their successes, asking questions, sharing their struggles, and we also have some professional development courses and we’ve got two courses specific to making Shakespeare accessible – not just for your students, but for you, too!
What that means, we think, is physicalizing the text and not just sitting and reading in a classroom and approaching Shakespeare from a character perspective.
We have Friendly Shakespeare which teaches a simple and effective method of script analysis that uses punctuation and keywords. Character needs and tactics are used to bring Shakespeare to life.
Shakespeare’s Toolkit is all about breaking through the language barrier. You know the language barrier, right? We’re breaking through to provide insight into a character’s thoughts. Awesome stuff!
You can learn about these great professional development courses at DramaTeacherAcademy.com – that’s all one word. Or through the link in the show notes at Theatrefolk.com/episode197.
Finally, where can you find this podcast? Go to Theatrefolk.com/podcast and there you’ll see that we’re on iTunes, Android, Google Play, Stitcher, and more. So, that’s Theatrefolk.com/podcast.
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.
Music credit:”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.