Shakespeare out Loud! Freeing Macbeth from the Page

By Berg, Emmett | Humanities, July/August 2003 | Go to article overview
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Shakespeare out Loud! Freeing Macbeth from the Page

Berg, Emmett, Humanities

"THE WAY TO REALLY GRASP SHAKESPEARE is to get up and do it," says Mary Hartman. "Technology affords us the opportunity to make it easier, but at heart it's just getting up and doing it."

Hartman is director of education for Shakespeare & Company, which is producing a multimedia companion guide for Macbeth to help high school teachers teach the play.

In February Shakespeare & Company videotaped a group of thirty-one students practicing exercises and rehearsing scenes. The footage will be integrated into a multimedia guide, scheduled for release next year in DVD, videotape, and print formats. Selections will also be available on the Internet free of charge.

The study guide, being produced with NEH support, is designed to appeal to the teacher navigating Shakespeare with a class for the first time, or for the teacher seeking a new approach. Along with footage of students acting out key scenes, the guide contains printable assignments and technique instructions, annotated text, a synopsis, character summaries, and historical background.

"We interviewed the students extensively during the videotaping," says technical consultant Pam Johnson. "They talked about their own lives in relation to the events that happened in Shakespeare's plays. Many, if not all of them, have their own tragedies, dilemmas about relationships, or axes to grind over what's the right thing to do. When they're struggling with these things, they don't have the word to put to these experiences, but Shakespeare does."

Modeled on the actor-managed troupe of Elizabethan times, Shakespeare & Company trains professional actors and performs plays as well as educating students. Based in Lenox, Massachusetts, Shakespeare & Company has led performance workshops in local schools for decades. Several dozen area schools of all levels have played host to these events, some as brief as a day, others lasting nine weeks. During the past fifteen years, NEH has supported summer performance institutes for teachers at Shakespeare & Company. The company is now looking to digital media and the Internet as a way to reach an even greater number of secondary school teachers.

The company is working in collaboration with five high school teachers from Massachusetts and New Haven, Connecticut, to develop and fine-tune Macbeth in Action. They are adapting techniques the company uses professionally to rehearse and learn lines, and drawing up lesson plans with the teachers' recommendations.

Together they have formulated three distinct approaches, or lesson plan blueprints. One approach focuses on the play's characters, encouraging teachers not to begin discussion with Act I, scene 1, but rather to concentrate on each character, one by one, contrasting passages that reveal the character's makeup.

In another curriculum, the emphasis is on preparing students to move from the page to the stage. Performance exercises are provided, along with a ninety-minute cut of the text. According to Pam Johnson, such a cut is in keeping with the Shakespearean tradition. She says that in the time of Elizabeth I, a full four-hour play was rarely, if ever, performed.

The third approach is more flexible. It provides recommendations and techniques for each scene, moving through the play in chronological order and combining techniques so that a teacher who is comfortable with the material will have a choice of exercises.

The students who participated in the filming in February came from western Massachusetts and Chatham, New York, just over the state line from Lenox. They ran through exercises, choreographed fight scenes, and gave their thoughts on-camera in a short segment about the play's violence.

In one filming session a student rehearsing as Macbeth was told to leave the stage and go through the motions of killing Duncan, the king of Scotland, then return to the room and do the scene. He re-entered the stage, shaking.

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