Episode 169: Drama Teachers Directing Shakespeare for the First time
If you’re a drama teacher, at some point Shakespeare should make it on to your stage. But what if you’ve hated him since high school yourself? Shakespeare is a challenge, it’s a great challenge and one that is easier to embrace than sky diving. Maybe. Listen to a couple of teachers talk about their first time battling the bard.
- Romeo and Juliet 1 hour cut with annotations
- Much Ado About Nothing 1 hour cut with annotations
- Shakespeare adaptations and parodies including Drop Dead Juliet & Much Ado High School
- Shakespeare in an Hour
- Solo-Speare a collection of Shakespeare Monologues
- Scene-Speare a collection of Shakespeare Scenes
Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and Theatre educators everywhere.
I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!
All right, this is Episode 169.
You can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode169.
Ever since it’s been made aware to me that I saw “drama” weird, that’s all I think about every time I do these podcast intros “Is drama the right way to say it?” You guys will still like me, right? If I say drama the wrong way.
Okay. Today, we are talking Shakespeare and Shakespeare in school – middle school and high school. I know that, just by saying that sentence, either there was a smile on your face – “Shakespeare! Yay!” – or you made a scrunchy face, right? Or your stomach went all squishy. You’re thinking about that experience right now, right?
Your experience with Shakespeare is one of those two things it’s either “Shakespeare!” or it’s “ugh, Shakespeare.” But, if you are a drama teacher, at some point, Shakespeare should make it onto your stage. What if you have hated him since high school?
Shakespeare is a challenge – yup, it’s a great challenge! It’s one that is probably easier to embrace than skydiving but, you know, I could be wrong.
In this podcast, we’ve got two teachers – Heidi Frederic and Hilary Martin – both of whom, in the past year, directed Shakespeare for the first time. It took Heidi fourteen years of teaching before she was able to tackle the bard. In Hilary’s case, not only was she directing Shakespeare for the first time but many of her actors were acting Shakespeare for the first time. They had no previous exposure. That sounds like an adventure! Yeah, I think so. Let’s find out.
Let’s get to it!
LINDSAY: I am talking with Heidi Frederic.
LINDSAY: How are you doing today?
HEIDI: I’m great! How are you?
LINDSAY: I am swell.
So, tell everybody, where in the world are you?
HEIDI: I am in Louisiana. I’m in a small town called St. Amant which is probably about twenty minutes south of Baton Rouge and about forty minutes north of New Orleans.
LINDSAY: Oh, cool. Perfect. I always like it when I can get a good image of where people are.
LINDSAY: So, we’re talking today about Shakespeare, but not just that – that the whole idea of tackling a Shakespeare show for the very first time.
How long have you been a teacher?
HEIDI: This is my 14th year.
LINDSAY: This if your 14th year and you just did your Shakespeare show.
HEIDI: I’m actually just about to open it.
LINDSAY: That’s it.
So, are you nervous?
HEIDI: I’m very nervous! My very first Shakespeare show and I’m very nervous.
LINDSAY: Well, I bet you, you did fine.
Let’s go back to the very beginning. What made you decide that you had to tackle Shakespeare?
HEIDI: Well, I’ve always wanted to do Shakespeare but I’ve always been very apprehensive about tackling Shakespeare. The language, of course, has always held me back. I had taught English for many years so I had taught Shakespeare before and I knew the struggles that students had with the language.
Even though I knew Shakespeare was written to be performed, I was very nervous about having my theatre students perform it, but I like to let my students inspire me, especially my advanced students. They inspire me as far as what plays I choose for them to perform for their particular production that semester. I kind of get the feel for them, see what they’re into, and – I don’t know – I was just looking for shows and everything kept coming up Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare.
And so, I finally said, “Look, maybe this is the year. I’ve been teaching for a while. I’m not a spring chicken. But maybe I can do this.”
LINDSAY: It kind of sounds as if you’re looking to your students to influence the shows that they were onboard with it, too.
HEIDI: Yes, they were. At first, they were a little apprehensive. We went to our state thespian festival in January and we went through a Shakeapearean workshop After that, they felt a little bit more comfortable with the language, learning the iambic pentameter. Also, our local university, LSU, they came to our school and they did a Shakespearean workshop with us and so that helped us and helped the students to, again, become a lot more comfortable and familiar with the characters, especially with the language.
LINDSAY: What a great idea! If you’re in a thespian troupe, you’re going to have a festival, there’s going to be some help for you. Instead of just struggling alone, bring in the Calvary. Bring in the people who can give a doorway for your students.
HEIDI: Yes, definitely.
I was calling all the troops to help me out. “I cannot do this alone!”
LINDSAY: In this day and age, you just don’t have to. There’s access everywhere – even if it’s just online.
LINDSAY: Which show did you put up?
HEIDI: We are doing Romeo and Juliet.
LINDSAY: What was your first step? When you have Romeo and Juliet in your hands and before your auditions, before you’re even thinking about sets and costumes and all of that, what was your first step to approach this thing that made you feel apprehensive.
HEIDI: The first thing that I did was I looked at many different abridged scripts to see if I could find one that wasn’t too long but wasn’t too short. I found many one-act versions but, with it being my advanced class, I wanted them to have a full-length version but I didn’t want it four hours long.
LINDSAY: For your first time, four hours is a little much.
HEIDI: Exactly. So, I reached out to the open forum through Educational Theatre Association and I got a lot of my colleagues on there sent me copies of their abridged versions so I kind of started from there and I ended up writing my own version of Romeo and Juliet.
LINDSAY: Holy smokes! Did you amend the language or did you keep the original Shakespearean text?
HEIDI: Oh, I kept the original language. The only thing that I changed was Seattle because we set it in Seattle instead of Verona and I changed Mantua into Everett because that’s a city right outside of Seattle. Those were the only two words we changed.
Let’s get into your vision for this. You obviously had a very specific place that you wanted to set it and it’s a place that’s got a different feeling and vibe from where you are in Louisiana. Why did you want this particular setting location? What was your vision for this show?
HEIDI: Well, I knew I wanted to set it in a different period and I didn’t want it to be the regular Shakespeare with the beautiful costumes. I wanted to do something different and fun and funky. I’m 37 and so, when I grew up in high school, I was very much into the grunge music, the alternative music – Nirvana, Pearl Jam, things like that.
The story between Romeo and Juliet is very fast-paced. It’s very angsty and it happens over the course of five days so I thought, what other perfect time period to place it in other than teenager times?
So, I thought back to my teen times and what was inspiring to me. Of course, it was that kind of music. And so, I started listening to some of that music and I was like, “Wow! I’m feeling this! I’m thinking about the plot and I’m getting inspired by the music.”
And so, I’m thinking, “Okay, it’s kind of like Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain almost.” Their kind of love story was very fast and had a lot of angst in it – just like Romeo and Juliet. That’s kind of where I started thinking about setting it in Seattle.
LINDSAY: You know what? What a great sort of hint out to teachers who are listening who are like, “I’m never directing a Shakespeare play.” When you’re doing something so far out of your comfort zone, find a little comfort, right?
Find something that you connect to and that you relate to. It’s just going to make your experience smoother.
HEIDI: Definitely. It’s definitely made the experience much, much easier for me. I don’t know. Well, I don’t know if “easier” is the right word but it’s so much more fun and I know, when I’m having fun, the kids are having fun and they’re learning about this whole new era which was my high school time, but I think it’s also helping them to understand the story a lot better and to understand the language a lot better.
LINDSAY: Any doorway you can give them, I think that’s the way to do it.
Shakespeare is so interesting because the stories are so universal. You really can put them in a different era and it doesn’t affect the story all that much.
HEIDI: Exactly. I mean, our set is scaffolding. We’re using scaffolding for our set. We have a balcony for the Capulets, a balcony for the Montagues, and then we have a neutral platform in the middle. And then, I have some broken pieces of technology – computer screens, TV screens. My kids will have pagers because it’s set in 1994 so it’s the beginning of technology and the internet and things like that. They’ll be dressed in that style so they’re learning about that period but also the set is kind of aesthetic if you will and also kind of grungy as well. They’re learning about that, too.
I think it also kind of sets the mood for the feelings of Romeo and Juliet.
When you started down your rehearsal road, what about any changes that you had to make in your rehearsal process? You’re been teaching for fourteen years. You have a lot of shows under your belt. How does Shakespeare change your rehearsal process?
HEIDI: We definitely had to look at the language and analyze the script a lot more closely than any other script I’ve ever worked on.
I actually have taught Romeo and Juliet six times to an English class so I guess maybe that’s why I picked it – because I felt more comfortable with it – but most of my students had never even read Romeo and Juliet. So, we got some No Fear Shakespeare books and we went through them.
They went through them individually. We went through them together, looking at the paraphrasing and what each line meant so that they know exactly what they’re saying so that they’re not just up there saying all these words. They know what’s going on. They know the story. They know why they’re saying these things and to whom they’re saying them.
So, looking at the words has been a much more intensive and intimate process for this play than any other show I’ve directed.
LINDSAY: It’s just amazing. Teaching is one thing but then bringing it to life…
So, what was your collaboration like with your cast with this play?
HEIDI: Oh, it’s just been wonderful.
I get inspired by my students, especially my advanced class. At my school, I try to make my advanced class kind of like the honors type theatre class. They have a lot of input into their show.
I want them to provide suggestions, especially with their characters. If they feel, with their blocking, they need to move somewhere, of course, they have to tell me why they’re moving but they’re providing the evidence from the script and from their character and so I know that they’re thinking about all these things.
To me, that just means that I’ve done my job as a teacher and they’re analyzing their script, they’re analyzing their character, and I love to collaborate with them. It’s not just my show; it’s their show. It’s them bringing these characters to life and they are telling the story. As we are working together to create this show, the more that they can bring to the stage and the more that they can bring to the show, I applaud them for that. I love when they bring ideas.
LINDSAY: Was there ever a point, as you’re heading towards your opening night, where they got frustrated and they weren’t sure if they were going to be able to pull it off?
HEIDI: A couple of times, they did. Memorizing has not been as easy as they thought. But, actually, they’re surprising me. they’re much further along at this point than I thought they would be. I’m actually pretty proud of them. They’ve been studying a lot. But, yes, they definitely have gotten frustrated time and time again.
LINDSAY: You know what? It’s that thing though where, if you have a high expectation for your students, if you just go, “I expect you and I know that you can learn these lines,” they always do surprise you, don’t they?
HEIDI: They do.
LINDSAY: They always go to the bar that you set.
HEIDI: They do, and I guess that’s the reason I keep coming back every year.
LINDSAY: That’s awesome. Well, what else? If it’s not fulfilling for you, then, well, why do it?
So, what do you think you’ve learnt in this process? What has Shakespeare and tackling Shakespeare taught you?
HEIDI: I’ve definitely overcome my fear of Shakespeare. I will definitely be doing more Shakespearean shows – possibly even tackling maybe some Tennessee Williams on a small scale. I’ve definitely been nervous about tackling him but I’ve always been kind of leery of playwrights that I hold in high esteem because I wasn’t sure if high school students can really comprehend the text. But I think that, through this process – and watching my students comprehend, analyze, understand, and bring these characters to life in Romeo and Juliet – I now know that my high school students really can do this and they can fully bring these characters to life and they understand and they know and they can put on a phenomenal show.
LINDSAY: I think that’s a lovely place to end in that, if you can see them do the work and you can see them bring something difficult to light, then there’s nothing they can’t do.
LINDSAY: I think that’s a good message for anyone out there listening who is a little Shakespeare weirds them out. It’s like, well, why not? Why not take on the challenge?
HEIDI: Let them try it. Most of the time, they will rise to your expectations.
Thank you so much, Heidi!
HEIDI: Thank you so much!
LINDSAY: All right, I am talking to Hilary Martin.
LINDSAY: Now, we’re talking about directing Shakespeare, working with Shakespeare for the first time. You’re in the middle of a production, right?
LINDSAY: Much Ado About Nothing.
HILARY: We are.
LINDSAY: Awesome. And so, before you took on this challenge, this journey, what had been your relationship with Shakespeare?
HILARY: I mean, I’m very familiar with Shakespeare – read a lot, studied it in school, written about it, acted in a couple. I’ve actually been in Much Ado About Nothing. Stage managed Shakespeare – that’s my background, stage management. So, I’m very, very comfortable with Shakespeare but had never had the opportunity to direct it or to do it with students.
LINDSAY: Because that’s a different thing, isn’t it? It’s one thing to be on the side when you are reading it, studying it, doing it as part of classwork. When you have to step over the other side of the table – and not only create a world or a vision for the play, you also have to bring students along.
HILARY: Yes, it’s a whole different ballgame and a big part of it was getting the kids to trust me.
This is my fourth year at this school so I have my core group of theatre kids who have enough trust in me now that, when I said, “We’re going to do Shakespeare,” they were like, “Okay…” instead of saying, “You’re crazy!”
LINDSAY: That was the most trepidacious “okay.”
HILARY: Yeah, they still probably do think I’m crazy but they at least were willing to come along for the ride.
LINDSAY: What made you decide that now was the time to direct Shakespeare?
HILARY: I’m at a K-12 school so I see kids starting when they’re in kindergarten and then, by middle school, high school, the theatre kids have sort of decided who they are. And so, I have a core group of really committed kids.
I have one girl who’s a senior now who, in her sophomore year, we studied some scenes from Much Ado in the directing elective that I teach. She loved it and she was like, “We have to do this play!” She’s a very talented actress and I felt like she deserves the chance to play Beatrice so I was like, “All right, it’s her senior year, we’re going to go for it.”
LINDSAY: That’s kind of awesome. It’s sort of like, “Okay, you opened the door, let’s all go through it together.”
HILARY: Yeah, and this was also sort of the year, you know, I have the right kids for the parts, I have the right numbers. Like I said, they finally trust me enough that they’re willing to pretty much do whatever weird experiments I decide to put them through.
LINDSAY: So, you made the choice. You were like, “Okay, I’ve got my Beatrice, I’ve got my kids, I am going to now put on my director’s hat and take this play on.” What were your first steps when you were approaching Shakespeare for the first time as a director?
HILARY: The first thing I did was think a lot about what can I do as sort of pre-rehearsal things to get these kids to understand the story? So, we spent two weeks before they even picked up the script. We watched one of the film versions. I found some great lesson plan resources online for introducing the characters and story. We sort of talked about Shakespeare in general. We looked at some little bits and pieces of language to say, “Okay, what’s happening here?”
In terms of developing my vision for the show, my directing process with kids is very collaborative so I usually have a few loose ideas but a lot of it comes together as we’re rehearsing.
For this particular show, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure where I wanted to go with it until we started rehearsing and, one day in rehearsal, as we were doing a scene, a couple of kids – a couple of the seniors who could sort of understand the scenes better – sat in the audience and were doing sort of a studio audience kind of a thing – you know, they went “ooh” at the right moments and stuff like that. I went, “Oh, my gosh! This is a soap opera.” So, we’re doing Much Ado as a soap opera.
Isn’t that interesting, too, because it’s really nice to hear a different kind of process because, for a lot of directors, we talk about vision and this and that. “I’m going into it and here’s the vision. I’m going to explain the vision to you.” Not all directors work that way and that collaborative process is sometimes really necessary for students to feel at home in a piece.
HILARY: yeah, and I think, especially with something like this where it’s hard for them to own the characters, it’s hard for them to own the language because it’s so difficult. But, once I came up with this soap opera idea, they really latched on and it’s helped them grip on to, “Oh, okay, so my acting should be kind of like this and, when I’m sad, it should be a little over the top. When I’m angry, it needs to be big.”
I think it was really important that they helped me find that.
LINDSAY: There’s such extremes. The villain…
HILARY: Don John.
LINDSAY: Don John, he is a soap opera villain.
HILARY: Oh, yeah, absolutely. He is a bad guy because he’s a bad guy and he wants to ruin their lives.
LINDSAY: Yeah, and the typical hero who is the heroine, that kind of thing.
So, once you established this, how did you develop it with costumes and with sets and with characterization? You sort of talked a bit about how they’re going to act in soap opera but how did the whole piece come together in that theme?
HILARY: Like I said, the acting is going to be kind of over-the-top which I’m hoping will also help the audience a lot. Just like the kids don’t have a lot of experience with Shakespeare, our audience won’t have had a lot of exposure to Shakespeare.
So, anything we can do to help the audience come along with us, even if they don’t quite understand, “Oh, what does he think Hero did?” They’re going to get Claudio is mad at Hero and he’s done this horrible thing casting her off at their wedding.
The acting will be very over-the-top. Our costumes, my assistant director and I are delving into fashion color theory and sort of seasons we’ve assigned each kind of grouping of characters a season. You know, who’s a summer, who’s a winter, who’s an autumn? Our color palette will be all based around that.
LINDSAY: That’s pretty awesome. I have a question. I love any time we can talk about visuals.
Before Beatrice and Benedick are together, are they in the same color or is it something that changes?
HILARY: That will change a little bit. They are both going to be autumns. They’ll both have kind of autumn colors but different ones. And then, once they’ve fallen for each other, we’ve going to add something. I’m not sure what yet. For Benedick, it’ll probably be a tie. For Beatrice, I’m not sure. But something that’s the exact same color.
LINDSAY: Yes! I love it!
You make a good point. If your students haven’t had that much exposure to Shakespeare – which we’ll talk about in a second – your audience probably doesn’t and anything you can do to visually tell your story is going to be helpful.
LINDSAY: So, let’s talk about this. Not only is this your first time directing Shakespeare with students but you have a fair number of students who have had no previous experience with Shakespeare.
LINDSAY: So, talk about that. Talk about what it was like to sort of bring them into this world and what was their resistance?
HILARY: I’ve been amazed at how little resistance they have had. They’re like, “All right, we’re going to go for it and do the best we can.”
I’ve also been amazed at how well-developed their acting instincts are. I kind of talked about how we did a lot of pre-rehearsal stuff and sort of got to know the stories and characters. But, even from the first time they picked up scripts and we started reading through scenes, a lot of their delivery wasn’t perfect but it was on the right track.
They could tell, “Okay, this is supposed to be a little sarcastic” or “This is supposed to be a little angry,” which I thought was really impressive. You know, they were able to use what language they could understand and use punctuation and what they knew of the story to figure that out.
They’ve really enjoyed watching me try to explain the double entendres and the dirty jokes without coming right out and being really inappropriate. They’re enjoying those verbal gymnastics and there have been a few times where I’ve just looked at one of the seniors and been like, “Can you just whisper in his ear what he’s saying so I don’t have to say it?”
I’ve used a lot of resources. I have a great book that’s basically a Shakespeare dictionary that has a lot of specific words and phrases. That’s been really handy.
I think the key has been going really slow. We spent a lot of time just reading through. “We’re going to read through the scene. Stop me every time you’re confused.” The first time through, we’re stopping every line or two. “What am I saying here? What would be the reaction to that?” But, now, they’re really starting to get it and sort of piece it together.
LINDSAY: Well, I think, just the fact of when you started rehearsals, it was two whole weeks without even looking at a script, you know?
LINDSAY: Can you imagine if you had just delved in and went, “All right, guys! Sink or swim! Here you go!”
HILARY: Right! It would have been a mess.
LINDSAY: You’re working with a large age range, too.
HILARY: Yes, I have seventh graders up through seniors.
LINDSAY: How is that? Is there some sort of camaraderie because they’re kind of all in the same boat? Is there some mentoring? How is the age range working for or against you?
HILARY: I think it really works for us. Because we’re a K-12 school, we’re very small. Our high school has about 60 students. Our middle school has about 35. Our shows traditionally – other than our one-act competition show – our fall and spring shows are mixed middle and high school so this group of kids works together a lot.
They’re a very tightknit group. You know, you see during lunch the high school kids go and sit for a few minutes with the middle school theatre and chat in a way that you don’t see as much across the age range with the other kids in the school. There’s a lot of cast leadership amongst particularly the seniors. You know, the seniors are the ones kind of, when they’re off-stage sitting with one of the seventh or eighth graders and running lines or when we’re doing a character building journal entry or a character building improv, sitting with the younger kids and figuring it out. My ninth graders who I’ve been working with since they were in sixth grade are now starting to come into more of that leadership role as well which is really fun to see.
LINDSAY: Absolutely. It’s more than Shakespeare.
LINDSAY: Yeah, cool. What has been the thing that you learned the most in this process?
HILARY: The thing that I’ve learned the most, that’s an excellent question. Your English teacher is your friend. Definitely don’t be afraid to collaborate with the English teacher. There’s been a few times I’ve gone upstairs and been like, “Can you help me work through this scene? Because I get it but I don’t know if I get it well enough to explain it.” That kind of thing. You know, she’s taught Shakespeare so I’ve worked a lot with her to figure out how do I teach them this so I’m not just explaining, “Oh, this is what you’re saying here.” I want them to be able to do that kind of decoding on their own. I don’t want to just be saying, “Say it like this.”
LINDSAY: Right. You want to know it so that you can guide them if they start to go astray but you don’t want to do the work for them.
LINDSAY: So, where’s your fear or trepidation of directing Shakespeare? You sound pretty good, actually. It sounds like it’s been pretty comfortable.
HILARY: Yeah, I was definitely nervous to start out with. I was definitely nervous to start out with but sort of fake it till you make it, I guess. I can’t show fear to the kids because, if I’m scared of Shakespeare, they will be.
LINDSAY: That’s exactly it, isn’t it? The only way to show them that it’s okay is to show them that you’re okay with it.
LINDSAY: That’s all your acting skills coming home to roost, you know?
When you do you open?
HILARY: It’s Memorial Day weekend.
LINDSAY: You have so much time, you guys are going to rock it. You’re going to rock it!
LINDSAY: Thank you so much for talking to me today!
HILARY: Thank you! My pleasure!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Heidi and Hilary!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
Let’s talk Shakespeare adaptations!
I have my hands in the air like, “Yehey! I won the lottery! Shakespeare adaptation!”
You do not have to take Hamlet in its four-hour glory, plunk it down in front of your students, and say, “Okay, make it happen, kiddos. Make it happen.” Not only will that turn off your students, it may give you the stomach ache to end all stomach aches.
So, how do you gateway into Shakespeare? Let your friends here at Theatrefolk help you!
First of all, we have a Shakespeare monologue book and a Shakespeare scene book – Solo-Speare and Scene-Speare, reflectively. Reflectively? Respectively! Yes, I’m reflecting on that it is respectively.
Okay, start slow with monologues and scenes. Both these books have summaries of the moment, what’s happening, and vocabulary help, too – what your students will need to give their best in that moment.
We also have two Shakespeare categories – Adaptations and Parodies and then Shakespeare in an Hour. Let’s start with that one.
Our Shakespeare in an Hour series takes a variety of Shakespeare’s plays in the original language so it’s all-out Shakespeare but we have cut them down to about an hour which I think, in high school, is a manageable amount. We’ve also included annotated notes, vocabulary help, character questions, action suggestions, story details. It’s all there for you to have an experience with the original language of Shakespeare but with a little bit of help.
With our Adaptations and Parodies, we’re taking the original stories and giving it a twist – whether it’s making it modern or whether it’s taking the story and turning it upside-down.
For example, in Drop Dead Juliet, we have the story of Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is sick of the dying. She wants more love and less death. How does she retell the original story? Is she able to retell the original story?
And then, in another one, Much Ado High School, we have the plot points of the original play but the whole thing is set at a high school dance. I think these plays are a great introduction to Shakespeare. The context is a little more welcoming – a little more of an open door.
You can introduce your students to Shakespeare. You can interest your students in Shakespeare. Who knows? Maybe even some of them will love it. We can be optimistic, right? Yes; you and me, we can be optimistic – of course, we can.
I put the links in the show notes for all of these goodies which you can find at Theatrefolk.com/episode169.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.