Episode 174: Teaching, Performing, Directing, Shakespeare
Chris Veneris hated Shakespeare in high school. He had a teacher who made it absolutely boring. Now he’s approaching Shakespeare from all angles – he teaches it in the classroom, he’s directed it and he’s performed it many times. In this conversation we look at how to look at Shakespeare from both a teaching and an acting perspective and why Shakespeare fails in the classroom.
Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk – the Drama teacher resource company.
I am Lindsay Price.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!
This is Episode 174 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode174.
So, what are we talking about today?
We are talking about Shakespeare.
I know, we’ve done a lot on Shakespeare in the past few months, but it is something that comes up time and time again. Shakespeare can be a vital, exciting learning experience. It can also be the worst, most painful kind of experience that makes you never want to look at a Shakespeare play ever, ever again.
Our guest today, Teacher Chris Veneris, had that kind of experience in high school. But, now, he’s on quite a different footing with his approach when it comes to teaching, performing, and directing Shakespeare.
Let’s get into it, shall we?
LINDSAY: All right, I am here speaking with Chris Veneris.
CHRIS: Hello, Lindsay! How are you?
LINDSAY: I’m excellent. How are you?
CHRIS: I’m wonderful.
LINDSAY: Hey! Good, good, good.
All right. So, tell everybody where in the world you are.
CHRIS: I am sitting in my home in Greensboro, North Carolina.
LINDSAY: Hey! Very good, very good!
And how long have you been a Drama teacher?
CHRIS: I just completed my twelfth year with Guilford County Schools. I’m at my third school which has been my longest tenure and I just completed my eighth year at that school which is Southeast Gilford High School in Greensboro. I have also taught at Lincoln Academy which is a middle school and, my very first year, I taught at Western Guilford High School.
LINDSAY: So, what keeps you coming back? What keeps you connected to being a Drama teacher?
CHRIS: I really think it’s kind of a calling.
I’ve looked at leaving the profession with all the negativity that teachers are receiving. I have thought about going and getting an administrative license and becoming a principal. I have thought about going out and getting my MFA.
Every time, right before I’m about to sign paperwork or to really start studying for the GRE and get down to it, I just look at myself in the mirror and go, “I can’t give up teaching. I don’t want to give up teaching.”
It’s really coming back to the students because, even in a really terrible year, there’s always a bright spot. There’s always at least one student – usually, it’s ten or fifteen, even in the worst situation that you can find a bright spot in. it’s just the ability to pass on the knowledge that I’ve received.
I had a really awesome Theatre teacher – a man by the name of Allen Osbourne who went by “Oz” – and I can’t think of doing anything else. Since my sophomore year in high school, it’s been my dream. I want to be a teacher and it was always I wanted to be like Oz. He was kind of like a second father to me. He was my dad’s best friend!
From there, I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. Even on the worst days, I look at myself and I just can’t give it up.
LINDSAY: I think that’s wonderful and it’s really great to hear that because I know that we have so many people listening who struggle and who sometimes are in the same boat. It’s like, “This is the calling that I have.”
I love when particularly teachers speak of teaching in that way because it just shows how important it is, I think. And you’re important! You’re important, Chris.
CHRIS: Well, thank you!
LINDSAY: I think I know the answer but I guess it’s always been, has it always been Drama? What’s connected you to Drama? Was it just Oz’s influence?
CHRIS: It was at the age of three. I remember my mom taking me to see my dad in a community theatre production of The Music Man. I don’t remember making it through the show. I didn’t, but I can remember very early on, begging my dad to take me to audition for a show. When I was in kindergarten, he took me to audition for Oliver and I was bitten right that very minute.
I also have a degree in History. It was actually a toss up of what I was going to teach coming out. I knew I wanted to teach but, for me, it’s the fact that I can just teach history through theatre. I can teach literature through theatre.
Theatre kind of encompasses everything and I think that’s why I really sought that out more than even a teaching history was to just be able to teach everything in one subject.
LINDSAY: Yeah, just that there’s so many things that we can bring to light and to life through theatre. What do you think is the most important thing that you are doing in the Drama classroom for your students? What is the most important thing they’re learning?
CHRIS: I think the most important thing they’re learning is empathy – to be able to see the world through other people’s eyes; to be able to understand a historical event or a written text through another person’s eyes, not just through their world experiences. They have to gain other people’s world experiences and the ability that theatre itself can change them and it can make them think.
Okay, there’s the biggest point – they can be freethinkers.
LINDSAY: I like that. I like that a lot. I think that’s something that’s really important – even on those dark days, right? when you’re struggling.
If you can teach anyone to be a freethinker, I think you’ve done your job, man. I think that’s it.
CHRIS: Absolutely. When it’s the worst days and somebody gets something, they come to that. They find a realization or they find a truth within themselves or within their circle of friends or within the wider student population or the community and they’re never going to lose that. They may need to diet for a while but they’re never going to lose that moment when something clicked in their head or when something really sparked an idea or feeling.
LINDSAY: So, our main theme that we’re talking about today is Shakespeare.
I’ve talked about Shakespeare a lot over the past little while with teachers and I find that it’s always interesting for me to come back to because it is something that he and his work – the work – is something that puts a lot of fear into teachers and students alike; offers up a lot of really horrible performances as people struggle; and, also, that moment when everybody is on the same page, some of the most, I think, rewarding experiences.
I would say, Chris, from talking to you, that you like Shakespeare, eh?
CHRIS: It’s an understatement. I think it’s becoming a little bit of an obsession right now.
LINDSAY: Why do you think that is?
CHRIS: I think I was like a lot of people, especially in high school. I hated Shakespeare – absolutely detested Shakespeare. I had an English teacher early on – and I won’t name names – that made Shakespeare boring. I remember reading Julius Caesar in class and wanting to be Julius Caesar so I could get out of it before the third act started.
And then, it honestly really changed when I was in the college at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. I had a wonder director – a guy by the name of Michael Campman. He was doing his MFA thesis and chose The Winter’s Tale which, if you ask, even people who really like Shakespeare can sometimes go, “Oh, my gosh.”
LINDSAY: It’s not on the list.
CHRIS: It’s not, but I auditioned and got a callback and ended up going into callback for a messenger part. And then, he saw something in me and gave me a second callback and I ended up reading for the Old Shepherd and ended up getting cast as the Old Shepherd and that’s kind of where everything changed and I really started to enjoy Shakespeare.
But it probably wasn’t until I got really involved with Greensboro and Shakespeare in the Park which is a group that was cofounded by myself; my wife, Linda; a friend of ours, Matt Ringrose; and the late Stephen Hyers with the Greensboro Parks and Rec.
The four of us came together and had this idea to do Shakespeare in the parks of Greensboro and then I really kind of took off that first year with that. Linda and Matt codirected Macbeth and I played the role of Duncan and Old Gentleman and also served as TD for that show. And then, I’ve been directing the past five years since then.
Right now, we are two weeks from opening Henry IV: Part I.
LINDSAY: Not all of the Henrys, right?
What do you think it is that has just let this spark in you grow? Do you connect to the characters or the stories? Have you found the key to the language? What is it that really excites you?
CHRIS: To me, as an actor, I’ve been working with a director who has really opened up the language to me. The first thing that I’ve really started to focus on is punctuation. I feel that, with Shakespeare – well, with all playwrights – punctuation is key. Playwrights use punctuation to make a point, to help the actors find where to breathe, to let us have our ideas…
LINDSAY: It’s very, very important.
LINDSAY: We spend a lot of time on it.
CHRIS: And, I think, as a director, as an actor, as a teacher, punctuation has been a key for me.
I had my director, Sherry Rayford who is our artistic director for Sheer Radiance, one of the things she learned was about how this punctuation is so key and it’s kind of one of the key elements for me to unlocking any Shakespeare show. As I’m reading it, I’ve paid very close attention to the punctuation and I’ve realized that there are a multitude of Shakespeare works that have different punctuations in the same play based off which folio it is and where you get your copy.
LINDSAY: Well, there was, at some point – and I’m speaking second-hand but I know that at some point – like, all the semi-colons were changed to colons or all the colons were changed to semi-colons. I think all the semi-colons were changed to colons and about how sort of what does that mean and how does that change where the momentum of the speech is and what that means for them. It’s a fascinating thing.
To switch from acting hats to teaching hats for a second, how do you talk about punctuation when you’re teaching Shakespeare with your students?
CHRIS: When I’m teaching it, what I do is, if working just on a small scene, I’ll have a read through the scene once – just stand up on their feet. If it’s a monologue or soliloquy, they’re just going to read it to me and in front of the class and I tell them to just read it.
And then, the next thing I do is I tell them to go back and circle every single punctuation mark in the piece. And then, I give a value to each punctuation. For a comma or a semi-colon, I say it’s kind of like a yield sign. You just slow down for a period. For a colon, you stop and you can take a full breath there. Same thing with a question mark or an exclamation point. But, after that, I also tell them, “Walk the line until you hit one of those punctuation points.”
Now, it’s an exercise called Walking the Punctuation. I say, “Now, walk until you hit the comma or semi-colon. Just slow down and just kind of shift your direction so you get a feeling for where that is in the piece. For a period or a colon, stop completely and then turn around and walk in the opposite direction.” And then, for a question mark, I tell them to raise up on their toes and kind of lift their hands in kind of a “huh?” or “what’s going on?” type of look so that they understand that there is a difference between that question mark and that period or colon. And then, for an exclamation point, when you hit one of those, it’s got emphasis to it so jump in place when you hit that exclamation point.
That’s the first way I start to unlock the language and the first thing I’ve noticed when I talk to students – and I found this out at ITF when I was talking to a group of students in my workshop – the first thing they said was it was easier to read because they weren’t focused on this old dead guy’s language so much as they were focusing on making sure they didn’t miss the punctuation. So, their bodies naturally take over.
LINDSAY: It’s all about the movement as opposed to words they don’t understand.
LINDSAY: Yeah, I know. I’m familiar with that exercise as well. I just think it’s a fantastic thing. You physicalize it instead of, you know, having these conversations about iambic pentameter which I think is very valuable but, I think, when you’re talking about, you know, 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds, maybe not so much that, when you stick it in language that they understand, “Let’s just look at the punctuation,” and the other thing that I heard was that, with the colon where you consider change direction, with the semi-colon you change direction and you don’t think about where you’re changing direction, that was another one action that I heard.
But, by using this movement and by physicalizing it, you’re giving a doorway, I think.
CHRIS: Yeah, it’s being able to kind of open it up and it gives you a jumping off point. I think probably the problem – at least what I see as a teacher – is that, when I get students, especially if they’ve already read a couple of Shakespeare plays and perhaps we have an English teacher that I know of in our school who is “I hate Shakespeare; I do it because I’m forced to” and the kids get that idea, too. The first thing I tell any of the students that I have that have come from that teacher is Shakespeare wrote plays. He didn’t write books or novels. Books and novels are awesome. I love to sit down and read. But, for Shakespeare, I want it up on its feet. I read Shakespeare for enjoyment sometimes too, but it’s not nearly as enjoyable as it is getting up and actually doing Shakespeare.
LINDSAY: So, let’s talk about that – let’s talk about getting students to act Shakespeare.
How do you get them to approach character?
CHRIS: The first thing I have them do is still the punctuation and then I have them go through and I say, “Find verbs.” Verbs don’t change. They’re there. What is the action? What’s going on? I think that’s kind of a key thing. I say, “I don’t care where you’re coming from. Each actor has to approach things differently. We know some actors like to internalize things and they’re all about what’s going on here,” I said, “But every character has to have something they want. If you start to look for those verbs, you’ll find what they want. Our verbs tell us – a lot of times – what we’re trying to do,” and that’s kind of the second thing I have them do after I have them walk the punctuation. I have them look for the verbs. What’s the action?
LINDSAY: Do you get them to get it into their own words when they’ve rocked the physicalization, when they’ve got the verbs? Do you get them to start retelling in their own language so they really understand it? Is it language understanding first and then character?
CHRIS: It is some of language understanding. I have them do what I call an improv through. Once they have an understanding of what’s going on in the scene, I have them improv it through and just kind of go with their own words. Don’t worry about going word for word yet. Just kind of improv through it.
And then, I’ll have them come back down and sit down with the piece and then write it out in their own words. I tell them, “Please, don’t use No Fear Shakespeare.” I say, “No Fear Shakespeare is a great tool to use but, right now, I want to know what you think it means – not what No Fear Shakespeare has already translated it to mean.”
From there, we start to really dig into who are these characters and we use resources – I can’t think of the book off the top of my head, I’m such a bad teacher – but there’s books out there that have every single, it’s basically a dictionary of Shakespeare words.
LINDSAY: I bet you we can find it. We can put it in the show notes.
CHRIS: Yeah, I could probably send it to you once I find it. It’s out in my car because I had it at rehearsal.
LINDSAY: Let’s all wait while Chris goes… No, no, no, we won’t do that. We’ll find it and we’ll put it in the show notes.
CHRIS: It’s a great tool because, if Shakespeare said it and it’s not a commonly used word, it’s in that dictionary and it’s there. He’s also got one that has all the pronunciation of his words. Once you get to that stage and they’re starting to do the research, then they’ll start to know what they are saying and then we can start to, piece by piece, start to figure out exactly who these characters are and what they want.
LINDSAY: I’m switching a little bit now to a director’s hat.
When you’re working on scenes with students or actors, do you ever give them a synopsis of the play first? Do you start from there or do you start right away with language?
CHRIS: I’ve pretty much started right away with language. I may give a very brief synopsis of kind of the overview themes of the show.
For instance, with Henry Ford, the first thing I talked about is I talked about the historical aspects of what was going on. You’re talking about you’re taking part of the hundred years war and we talked about some of the characters and whether they were real or not and talked about the fact that Sir John Falstaff is a fictitious character just thrown into this world by Shakespeare and that’s really it. I don’t try to go into a huge synopsis because I want them to work through it and that’s a lot of what we do in the read-through is kind of work through it – just trying to not overload all at once because I think that’s sometimes why, for me, as a director, I’ve seen Shakespeare fail in my classroom or even as I was trying to work through a show. If you try to overload with too much right at the beginning, people – especially kids and even adults – will just shut down.
LINDSAY: Oh, absolutely. Well, it’s like learning another language. Once that barrier goes, then everything is free and clear. But, if you are like, “Well, here’s this, here’s the synopsis. Well, here’s this and here’s this language and don’t forget the punctuation,” I think anybody would say, “I’m not doing this.”
CHRIS: Yeah, and that’s why we shut down – to break everything off into kind of bite-sized morsels. So, once they’re cast in a show and I’m directing a show, especially Shakespeare, the first thing we do is we do a read-through. I stop after each scene. Well, I should say giving them luxury time in a classroom, I stop after each scene and go, “Okay, what’s this about? What do we have? What are just kind of some basic things that you’re picking up of what’s going on here?” I have a stage manager or ASM kind of just write down what they get from the cast and what they get from the class as a whole and I kind of wish sometimes – directing outside of the classroom – I had that time period to go through these steps.
LINDSAY: Yes. In a rehearsal situation, time is not a luxury.
CHRIS: Unfortunately, not.
LINDSAY: No, but it’s good because, when you’re in a classroom situation, you can really start to see who is frustrated and who is struggling. I imagine that any time you can throw some support or encouragement along the way, that that’s probably quite helpful too, huh?
CHRIS: Well, yeah, that’s kind of the whole adage that I’ve always heard in theatre – from an actor’s standpoint at least – is there are no wrong choices. The only bad choice is the one you don’t make – because we can learn anything from any of our choices and, occasionally, you get that kid that gets it right away and they want to be the first answer and I kind of just step in and say, “Okay, take a step back,” and I’ll start to call on certain individuals saying, “What do you think? Don’t worry about it. just give me your ideas or your feelings at this point.”
LINDSAY: Which can be scary, too. In this world where they’re so conditioned right now that there is only one right answer and all the answers are wrong.
CHRIS: I think, educationally speaking, we’ve kind of killed that idea of the freethinker and the critical thinker because now everything’s about a test – at least it is in North Carolina and a lot throughout the entire United States. There’s no longer time to explore – to really find knowledge. You have to be able to bubble it in in a timed manner.
LINDSAY: A timed manner and a multiple choice option. But we carry on!
We carry on. How do you deal with blocking? Because I find that that’s something that I see a lot of that, when students get really caught up in the language and I’m watching a production, it can turn into a lot of stillness because they’re not being guided in terms of how they’re going to move onstage. And, as a director, how do you get students to move with Shakespeare?
CHRIS: I know I keep going back to this – punctuation and the words.
The punctuation and the words, I tell them, “Shakespeare tells you when to move and when to stop. He actually tells you where you’re coming in base on what you’re saying, when you’re saying it.” I let my students know upfront.
In Shakespeare’s days, everybody was doubled up. You played multiple roles and you’re going to find out where your character is just by reading it – where they come in. Julius Caesar is great for this because it tells you exactly who’s there and where they are in each moment of each scene by when they enter and when they exit. So, who’s the most important in that scene? Usually, if you have a king, in Henry IV Part I, in any scene that Henry IV is in, it always says, “Henry IV enters with flourish…” followed by, if it’s certain lords, it’ll tell you kind of when they come in.
As far as once they’re onstage, I tell my actors to use their instincts. As a director, I really hate an overblocked show and I think sometimes there are directors that do wonderful work, they make beautiful stage pictures, but it doesn’t feel real to me. for me, I think the actor has to move where they feel their character should move when they feel their character should move and I’ll tell my actors when to enter and when to exit and unless they are – I won’t say that they’re not getting it – but unless they’re making…
LINDSAY: Well, if they’re struggling.
CHRIS: If they’re struggling or if they’re making what I would consider major theatrical errors like turning their back on the audience.
LINDSAY: Yeah, the basics – if they’re not incorporating the basics.
CHRIS: Exactly. Also, with Shakespeare, I tell all my actors, “Especially if you’re onstage alone or an aside, speak directly to the audience.” There was no fourth wall. I think, with so much proscenium-based theatre that we’re trained on, everybody is like, “You have to be in the moment and you stay in your little box, stay in your little bubble.” Shakespeare is not that way.
Any time you can find a reason to speak to the audience, speak directly to the audience. Make them a part of the show. I’m a big believer that, when Falstaff has a major monologue soliloquy right before he’s going off to war where he’s standing on a road in Coventry, talking about the men, he’s used the Kingsmark to get a bunch of money and is taking a bunch of lackluster soldiers and he tells, the actor I have playing Falstaff right now wanted to make it very internal and kind of talk to themselves about it. I said, “No, talk to the audience. It’s funnier if you talk to the audience.” This is a relief point. There’s a huge battle coming and the audience’s tensions are rising. Talk directly to the audience. Make them relax. They’ll follow the story more.
LINDSAY: This all connects right back to what Shakespeare’s audiences were like. Shakespeare’s audiences were standing right up close – most of them – and, as they were being talked to, they were reacting – or so the history books say. They were calling back. They were booing and applauding. The reason that there’s so much repeat in Shakespeare is because things needed to be repeated because the audiences were so noisy.
CHRIS: Well, yeah, I mean, the groundlings themselves, if they didn’t like something or didn’t get something, they were going to throw something.
CHRIS: I mean, that was a lot of money for them to come in and have their value of entertainment. That’s another thing that I really try to emphasize to anybody I’m talking Shakespeare to is cut Shakespeare.
LINDSAY: Yeah, me too!
CHRIS: Please, cut it. Cut it. Cut it. Cut it.
LINDSAY: Well, that whole thing in Midsummer Night’s Dream where we see the whole thing with Bottom and Titania and then, “Oh, look! Here comes Puck! Here’s going to tell us the whole story all over again.” I’m like, “We just saw this. We don’t need to hear this again.”
CHRIS: Exactly, and so much of it, too.
You’d have some of it talking where Shakespeare is basically begging for money from whatever royalty – lord, lady – that’s there so he’s got to talk in the heightened, flowery language and then he’ll make a joke to the groundlings but it’s the same thing. Cut it.
I think any Shakespeare show that goes over two hours is too long. Shakespeare now is the two-hour traffic of our stage. There you go. Two hours I think is a good runtime on a Shakespeare show. If you go under, great. If you go a little bit over, there’s more you could have cut.
I love to cut Shakespeare and right now I’m kicking myself because we’re two weeks from going up and now I’m finding more things that I think I enjoyed Henry Ford so much when I was first reading it that I didn’t cut nearly enough.
LINDSAY: You were too in love but that’s okay.
Awesome. Oh, Chris, I really could talk about this kind of stuff until the cows come home because I think it’s important. I think there are lots of tools that teachers can use and directors can use and actors can use that can really key into finding the doorway to Shakespeare. I loved the whole notion of punctuation. I think that is really important from the classroom use or from the actor’s point of view. The whole idea that, if you’re directing it, cut the piece. If you want to let your actors find their way, aside from their exits and entrances, look to the script and that’s going to tell you the information that you need to know.
If you could give one last piece of advice for those out there teaching Shakespeare, what do you think that would be?
CHRIS: Go online. Find a scene or find a play you’re at least somewhat familiar with from Shakespeare’s work. Download it. Print it off. Grab a couple of friends. Just go play with it.
I think, the more we play with Shakespeare in small groups, he’s free. Whatever it cost you to print it off, that’s your only cost. You don’t have to pay royalties. Grab a couple of friends. Go play with a scene from Shakespeare. Have fun with it. Talk about it in the small groups and then grab a couple of friends and perform a quick bit for it.
As actors, as directors, as educators, we need to constantly keep learning. We need to keep constantly trying new things. So, go out there, grab a group, and just play with this language, play with these characters. They’re fun! So, play!
LINDSAY: I love that. That’s the one thing. I’ve stopped acting, oh, twenty-plus years ago, but I tell you now, if someone said, “Come be in a Shakespeare play,” that’s the thing that I would, in a drop of a hat. I just think that I totally agree with you. These characters are such fun and I think if that’s the only thing that we can impart on students, I think that is a big success.
LINDSAY: Okay. Thank you so much, Chris, for taking time out and talking to me today!
CHRIS: You’re welcome! Thanks for having me!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Chris!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
Are you interested in a more in-depth look at teaching Shakespeare? Have you listened to this podcast and you’re like, “Lindsay, tell me more!” – or maybe not but I will suggest something? Let me suggest the Drama Teacher Academy to you!
The DTA is the professional development arm of Theatrefolk, offering courses, professional learning community and opportunities as well as curriculum, units, and lesson plans. Yup! That’s right – all of that is in one place!
We’ve got a course called “Friendly Shakespeare” that gives you practical exercise to working with the text and another course upcoming called “Shakespeare’s Toolkit” and not to mention the available lesson plans and units on Shakespeare. It’s all there for you!
Check it out at DramaTeacherAcademy.com or in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode174.
Are you doing one of our plays? Do a rehearsal picture. We want to see it!
Working on a monologue in a classroom? Take a picture and do what? Send it to us!
Are you a member of the Drama Teacher Academy and you’re using an exercise? Well, take a short video. Maybe it’s Shakespeare? Maybe your kids have cracked the code when it comes to Shakespeare? Well, take a video – thirty seconds – send it to us because we want to showcase you on Facebook. We want to brag about you. Send anything and all – as long as it’s pictures and thirty-second videos. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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.