Episode 212: Drama Teachers: Take back the classics
Julie Hartley wants you to take back the classics. Lose the idea that Shakespeare is high brow and just for people who only have a grasp of the language. Listen in to learn a practical and classroom driven approach to a classical text.
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 212. You can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode212.
Today, we are talking the classics – the “classics” with quotation marks and fancy fonts.
For example, classics, Shakespeare!’
Now, we’re not just talking Shakespeare, we’re not just talking the classics. We are specifically talking about taking back the classics.
The word “classic” has such a connotation to it, right? It makes some people think of a piece that is beyond them. “Oh, it’s so uber important! Oh, it’s a classic!” Or the opposite. “It’s dusty and boring and completely irrelevant to the current times.”
Our guest today wants you to trash both those notions. Shakespeare is current and relevant. Shakespeare should not be put on a pedestal. I love it! I love her approach, and I know you will, too!
Let’s get to it. I’ll see you on the other side.
LINDSAY: Hello everyone!
I am here today, talking with Julie Hartley.
LINDSAY: First of all, could you tell everybody where in the world you are?
JULIE: Physically, right now, I am in Toronto. I work generally all across Southern Ontario.
LINDSAY: Very cool. Very cool.
When this goes to air, it will be hopefully nice spring weather and maybe even summer weather. Right now, though, I think we’re both dealing with a little bit of winter fatigue. How was the ice storm where you are?
JULIE: Hopefully, it’s clearing up today. It was pretty bad over the weekend, though. We’re definitely ready for spring here.
LINDSAY: I know it, I know it.
I know too that spring for you means something kind of exciting. We’re going to be talking about Shakespeare, and particularly how you can take classical text and really make them come alive in the classroom.
Julie, you were many hats, and one of your great hats is an arts summer camp. Talk about that for just a second.
JULIE: Yeah, sure!
We’ve been doing this for the past 24 years. What we do is, every summer, we bring together up to 500 children and teenagers from all over the world. They come and join us at a big center down in the Niagara region, and we bring together arts professionals – mostly from all over Canada – who offer specialized courses for the teenagers.
In theatre, we have everything from stage combat, clown, improvisation, comedy. We have programs that focus on scene study and other programs that focus on devised theatre. Pretty much, I guess, a child or a teenager could come to us every summer for about five to six years and never cover the same material twice. They have so many different focuses they can choose from, all of them to do with theatre.
It’s a summer camp, but it’s also an arts training ground for kids in the summer.
LINDSAY: I think it’s wonderful. And the name of your camp?
JULIE: It’s Centauri Summer Arts Camp.
LINDSAY: Very nice. Very nice.
You’ve had quite a journey because you didn’t start in Canada. You started in the north of England. I think everybody knows that you are from England, but I’ll just say it.
How long have you been in Canada?
JULIE: I’ve been in Canada now for 25 years. We emigrated in order to set up the camp and it was successful, so we stayed here, and we built an arts career for ourselves here. I was a teacher in the UK before we emigrated.
LINDSAY: I know that you do a lot. I know you’re a writer and I know that you do a lot of workshops in the classroom, specifically around this whole notion of practicality and just having practical tools for teachers to use and for you to share with students.
What is it about teaching theatre that appeals to you?
JULIE: Well, that’s a really difficult question.
LINDSAY: “It doesn’t! Our conversation is over!” No, no, no.
JULIE: I guess there are so many different ways to answer that question. I love working with kids. I love seeing what they can come up with creatively.
One of the things that really interests me is how, when you really delve into acting technique, what you’re really looking at is life. It’s the philosophy of how we live and how we operate physically, emotionally, intellectually, and I think it’s very exciting to engage young people with those kind of ideas in the theatre classroom because it means that whatever they’re interested in – whether it’s the creative aspect of theatre or whether the psychology of it, there’s always something that they can grapple with, I think, when you can approach theatre from that sort of angle.
I’m interested in the creative aspects of the arts, but also very much what they can tell us about us as human beings.
LINDSAY: I love that perspective. I’m doing some work right now with theatre and empathy and just about how the theatre classroom is a great place for that. The person I’m working with has a background in just working with all kinds of different students.
He’s really big on the idea that theatre classrooms can be just about that about how do we connect with each other, how do we connect with our characters, how do we connect with the outside world and life, and what it means to us as human beings. I just think it’s lovely.
You know, it’s one thing to say, “Oh, we should look at process over the product,” which is a little bit difficult sometimes because there is product in the theatre classroom as well, but to think about it all in the realm of “how are we as human beings?” I like that.
Sorry, I just went on a little tangent there.
JULIE: I think it’s entirely true, yeah.
When I was teaching in England which is obviously a long time ago now, the GCSE syllabus – which was the syllabus the kids took up to age 16 – did not explore theatre as an artform at all. It was all about how drama could enhance a life experience for kids, for example, by placing them in situations that they may not have encountered yet and examining how those situations might play out in reality and then getting them to talk about it afterwards.
It’s a very experiential process, and it was only really when you move into 16 to 18-year-olds and the A-levels that it became about theatre and about performance. I think I probably carried a little bit of that forwards although I tend to mix the two now.
Let’s talk about some of that – that concept when we’re dealing with classical works like Shakespeare. There’s a lot of fear in students when they approach the Bard and you feel quite strongly – from what I know – that students can do it and they don’t need coddling or they don’t need translation. They can actually take it and work it.
JULIE: Yeah, it was interesting.
I have a 12-year-old daughter and the first time we took her to see Shakespeare, she was 10. We took her to Stratford, Ontario, to see a production. Before we went in, we wanted to give her something to hold onto because we knew it was going to be very difficult for her. And so, we sort of stressed all along. Sometimes, the most important things that we can do are the ones that we have to work for.
I remember the last thing I said to her before we went in to see the production was, “It doesn’t matter if you can’t understand every word. Look for concepts, not for every word, and that’s a good place to begin,” and that was the thing she held onto.
When we came out, she said, “Mummy, I really enjoyed it and there was so much I understood.” She said, “I didn’t understand every word, but it didn’t matter.” I think, if students understand that they can begin at that place, then they’re very empowered because an understanding of every word comes when they have a reason to understand every word. Then, it becomes good for things like their understanding of literature on a much denser way, I guess.
But, first of all, it’s just about appreciation. It’s about enjoyment and it’s about hooking them on something that can be a love of something for life.
LINDSAY: I just love that idea of saying upfront, “It doesn’t matter if you can’t understand every word,” because I think particularly in the classroom – in an English classroom and sometimes in theatre classrooms and even if you’re producing a Shakespeare play – that language piece sometimes comes first, and that’s a big hurdle.
JULIE: Yeah, absolutely. I think we also tend to forget that, obviously, Shakespeare is revered because of his language. But, I think, when we’re drama teachers and we approach Shakespeare from the perspective it was supposed to be approached from which is not just the words, what we realize is this was a guy who really understood action.
He understood the importance of moving beyond words into what was beneath them, into human experiences, into incredible aspects of action and experience that move beyond an understanding of the words anyway, and that means that, as drama teachers, we can often tackle a lot of Shakespeare and involve our students in what Shakespeare was trying to do without necessarily having to fall back on language right away.
LINDSAY: I actually wrote this down – that Shakespeare was a guy who understood action.
How can we translate that into a drama classroom? Obviously, when teachers are wanting to study Shakespeare with their students or put on a play with students, text is not the first thing, right?
JULIE: No, I would introduce so many other things before I introduce text. For a start, if you look for those moments of group action that are not text-dependent, it’s a great way in for students.
Just to give you an example, if you think about the opening sequence of The Tempest, it’s a shipwreck. It’s a ship going down in a storm. If you were to actually approach students with that concept, how do we take a ship and a bunch of people eon it and create for an audience the sensation that this ship is sinking, and everyone is frightened for their lives? Where do we begin and how do we do this onstage?
You don’t have to use the words. The words are actually not the important thing about that first scene. We’re approaching it through physical theatre and looking at action, looking at profound levels of movement and sound, and these are all things that are very exciting to drama teachers.
Without checking the text, I don’t recall but I think the actual scene itself – Act I Scene I of The Tempest – is probably 20, 30, 40 lines long. Once we’ve actually got the action, we’ve got that physical movement of the ship at sea, the ship sinking, it’s not hard to introduce the words afterwards and give them meaning.
LINDSAY: Well, Act I Scene I, there aren’t any soliloquies. Actually, the words are very action-oriented because they’re trying to save the ship.
I’m going to go back to this. What is the action that’s happening and how can we put people on their feet right away?
JULIE: Yeah, absolutely. Also, I think, as drama teachers, one thing that we’re really interested in is how we involve all of our students all of the time, and that’s something that’s really important to me as a teacher because kids take drama partly because of the way they learn, and they learn by doing.
There are many students for whom sitting and watching other people do things and taking notes and learning from the experience is not going to be the most effective way. Being on their feet, doing something, being involved, and being plunged into something, that’s how we need to hook them. That’s how we need to involve them in Shakespeare without them actually realizing we’re doing it.
You’ve got an entire drama class enabled in that scene and an entire group of people on their feet doing and creating. Before they know it, every single person has been involved in staging a scene from Shakespeare. That’s one of many possible ways in that does not rely heavily on text.
LINDSAY: I also think too that, nowadays, particularly in the classroom or at the high school level, I mean, in Shakespeare’s time, there are a gazillion parts plus one, but they were all played by ten people. In a high school production, all of those parts are probably played by single actors and there would be so many young people who maybe have that one line and then they’re sitting around and they’re not part of the experience.
It’s about ensemble too, isn’t it? How do we create the ensemble – whether they’re doing Shakespeare or a modern piece?
JULIE: Yeah, absolutely.
I think, regardless of whether you’re working with young people in a drama classroom or working on a production, the important thing is that the style of the director or the style of the teacher needs to continually involve everybody, and that doesn’t mean everyone always has to be playing a role, but it does mean everybody always has to be somehow engaged. What that requires is a particular style of directing because that’s not something that a professional director or an amateur director working in community theatre has to think about.
When we’re working with a whole group of young people, we need to accept that their need for engagement means that we have to adapt our directing style so that all of them are engaged all the time.
If you were actually to speak to a group of kids who’ve signed up or have shown an interest in working with a school production and ask them why they want to get involved, probably most of them would articulate somehow that it’s the need for community – the desire to be involved in something that matters to them and to engage in it with other people. I think we owe that to them when they’re involved in the process to keep them continually engaged in the way that we direct.
LINDSAY: If you start to breakdown the different stories of Shakespeare, they’re all around groups or being isolated from groups. There’s the two sides in Romeo and Juliet. There’s the people who are with Hamlet and the people who are against Hamlet and just that notion of that is my community is something that you could really play with without ever dealing with the thee’s and the thou’s.
JULIE: Yeah, totally.
Also, the style that we use as directors means that nonspeaking roles do not have to be unimportant roles, and that’s very important to me as a director. For example, I created a production of The Tempest a few years ago for the University of Waterloo and we had so many students who wanted to get involved.
For some reason, half of them were in the math department. I never quite figured out why, but they all wanted to get involved. And so, my first question was, when you’ve got 80 people turning up to audition, I kind of feel a sense of responsibility to involve as many of them as I possibly can.
What we did was we created an island culture for Prospero’s island and that meant that we could add a number of scenes which involve physical movement, drumming, building a culture using mask and movement, and this aspect of the production was interspersed with Shakespeare’s scene, and those characters were onstage a lot of the time even when they weren’t speaking, but they also had their own scenes which relied very much upon physical theatre technique and we developed a culture for the island and a tribe and this meant that we involved probably about 20 or 30 additional people in the production.
There’s also ways of doing it that perhaps Shakespeare might not have envisaged where what you’re doing is allowing students to explore different theatre forms and styles, but you’re also staying true to the language which is really important, too.
Well, it’s all about visuals. You know, how do we visualize the text? That’s another thing that sometimes gets lost by the wayside when schools tackle Shakespeare where there is just someone standing onstage, shuffling back and forth, and trying to get through a monologue, without any understanding of environment or their community or what’s happening.
Do you think it’s important to start not with the text, but do you want students to have an understanding of the story before they go into the text?
JULIE: Yeah, absolutely, and I think one of the interesting things is that we can also use story to engage all students or all actors equally.
As soon as we start to work on the actual scenes of a play, we often find ourselves reduced to, for example, a scene that might involve three speaking parts and, straight away, the other actors in our ensemble are less involved whereas, if we were to actually begin with story as a concept and intermingle all the roles and allow our students really to explore the plot of the play that they’re staging, you’re getting everybody to take an equal ownership in the creation that they are attempting to make – the play that they’re intending to make.
If all of them are equally involved and equally engaged from the start by creating story, then that involvement is hopefully going to stand us in good stead later on when we do have scenes that involve fewer actors.
LINDSAY: Again, it’s about getting them to buy in from the very beginning. If you want students to be engaged in your whole production or your whole time in class that you’re working on it, you need to engage them.
JULIE: Yeah, absolutely. You need to engage them from the start, but then I think we also have a responsibility to keep that engagement going throughout the rehearsal process. We need to remember that our students – again, this isn’t professional theatre. We know that the kids involved in our productions are also involved in several other clubs after school and maybe they have jobs after school.
We need to make sure that they don’t see the work that they’re doing with us as not very important. Even if they had a small role, they’re engaged in the entire production all of the time, and they see themselves as integral to the whole production and vital to its success.
LINDSAY: That’s so lovely.
I see this all the time where teachers are struggling with those final few weeks and people dropping out. I wonder if it’s because, in their minds, it’s a journey towards the product and getting the product. Therefore, that has the most importance rather than having everybody all on a journey together. I know that sounds a little weird, but I just think you’re so right. Everyone has to be engaged and think that the whole thing is important.
JULIE: Yeah, and there’s no doubt that it’s difficult. I’m not saying that this is easy. At the end of the day, it’s probably one of the great questions that we grapple with as directors and educators and drama teachers.
How do we get that balance right between process and product, especially in a world where product often is overemphasized by those around us? So, we feel that we need to make sure that what we show at the end of the day shows not only our students in their best light but also our school and ourselves.
I think we need to accept we’ve all seen situations where we come to a final production – whether it’s a production we’ve created, or we’ve watched elsewhere – and maybe the product itself isn’t flawless, but what we see is a group of actors who are deeply and passionately engaged in what they’re doing and somehow that becomes more important when we watch a piece of theatre – that we understand these kids have learned something, they’ve gained something, they care about what they’re doing, there is a meaning there for them which creates meaning for the audience. Often, that sensation, that feeling isn’t there in a flawless production.
I’m not trying to say here that you couldn’t have a flawless production and also have that incredible sense of meaning that students bring to it, but only that maybe what we need to be putting first is that engagement that the kids have from beginning to end.
LINDSAY: You can see it. I see it all the time. I go to see a show and it comes off the stage in waves. You can tell when they are working together, and they’re engaged.
Kids ask me, “Oh, what did you think? What did you think?” and it’s like, “You know, I loved it because of what I can perceive as their engagement.” You can just tell so clearly when a group is engaged, and they want to help each other and work together and when they’re just going through the motions or not listening to each other, not thinking about what they’ve been through. It’s my favorite thing, actually.
I love watching a group who has gone into a process and come out the other side and are changed by it. I actually think high school theatre is one of the few places where that can happen.
In fact, I saw a great production that really typifies that last week. It was a production of As You Like It. The way the kids tackled the language, the way they tackled the characters and the play itself was so filled with passion, but the students had to a certain extent been allowed to guide the thematic approach to the play and production.
They decided that they wanted to create the Forest of Arden not as a forest but as a desert. And so, they set the play in the Desert of Arden and created a whole number of characters and situations as a result that would have seemed very alien in the original play, but there was a balance there.
Clearly, that choice had given the students ownership of the play that they were producing. But, at the same time, the teacher had still made her important mark on the play in that she had created a production where the kids clearly understood what they were saying and cared about the words that they spoke and engaged with each other effectively. It was a coherent whole.
As we wrap up here, I think that ownership is a really great word to use in terms of how we get students to engage in Shakespeare. Do you have another couple of tips for teachers who are resistant to ringing Shakespeare into their program or producing it? What would you say to those teachers?
JULIE: I think it’s important that we lose this idea that Shakespeare is somehow incredibly high-brow and is just for people who have an incredible grasp of language or an intellectual ability of some kind.
When we label something a classic, we give it something, but we also take something away. What we need to do is take back ownership of the classics. Instead of seeing them as classics – which, of course, they still are – see them as something that is closely related to the life we lead and the world we live in.
You know, Shakespeare lived in dangerous times. He wrote for everybody. There’s so many ways in which you can relate the works of Shakespeare and the experiences of the characters to all of your students’ lives regardless of where they come from and what they’re grappling with.
LINDSAY: Take back the classics. Take ownership of the classics. I think that should be on a t-shirt. I love it!
Julie, thank you so much for talking to me today! I really like it when we can just have a conversation about taking something which is usually done in a very specific way and just looking at it from another perspective that is just so doable. It’s doable for a classroom to do Shakespeare and it always hurts my heart just a little bit when a student says, “Oh, we could never do that.”
JULIE: I like to see that as a challenge.
LINDSAY: That’s right! Challenge accepted!
Awesome. Thank you so much for talking to me and have a really great day!
JULIE: You, too! Thank you very much!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Julie!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
Julie is not only a great podcast guest. She’s also a great instructor in the Drama Teacher Academy.
In the DTA, we’ve got a wonderful course from Julie on directing. Julie’s approach to directing is a lot like her approach to Shakespeare – involve everyone, focus on the ensemble, and always think about the educational experience.
Want to learn more about the Drama Teacher Academy and see what Julie and many more have to offer? Go to DramaTeacherAcademy.com – that’s all one word. Or click the link in the show notes – Theatrefolk.com/episode212.
Finally, where can you find this podcast? Go to Theatrefolk.com/podcast and there you will see we are on iTunes, Android, Google Play, Stitcher, and more. That’s Theatrefolk.com/podcast.
And that’s where we’re going to end.
Take care, my friends. Take care.