by Jan Helling Croteau, Perform It! Young People’s Stage Company founder and long-time artistic director
“Oh, this learning what a thing it is!”– Romeo and Juliet
Grammar School Years
“Proceed, proceed: we will begin these rites,
As we do trust they’ll end, in true delights.” —As You Like It
I think most educators agree that the success of the early years of a child’s educational experience is pivotal to the future of his or her academic growth. The grammar school stage of development requires accumulation of knowledge primarily through memorization. Learning the alphabet, math facts, spelling rules, basic grammar, and phonics all require memorization. However, many children struggle with this skill. Bringing fun into the experience can make a crucial difference. Using body movement, rhymes, and songs helps young students to memorize with greater ease. In this stage of child development, the building blocks for all other learning are set in place. As teachers we need to help young students construct a solid foundation in learning to memorize.
In the theater arts, one of the most important skills an actor needs to acquire is the ability to memorize lines. I work to foster memorization skills with the students throughout the school year with specific theater activities and techniques that will enhance their ability to memorize.
I introduce theater games in September that require varying levels of memorization, and every year I see an improvement in the students’ ability as the months pass. The exercises can be used in a classroom, onstage, or at home and include the following activities: Flash Back, Change Time, and Add a Pearl. Some activities require groups of 20 or more and others require as few as two students.
Flash Back helps students to develop memorization skills and to implement observation techniques vital to problem solving. We first split the group in half. One half of the group goes behind the curtain on stage and sets up a tableau using a few props and creating funny poses with each other. For example, 15 to 20 students will make a scene of character poses where a few are sitting on each other’s laps, some are lying on the ground, while others are posed like statues. When they are ready, I open the curtain so that the other students can focus on the scene. I give them only 30 seconds to silently take it all in. Then I close the curtain and the students trade places. The group now onstage must set up the exact same tableau.
The second activity, called Change Time, involves the development of conscientious observation skills which gives students practice in memorizing small details. We start by dividing the students into pairs. Each pair has two minutes to carefully observe one another. When I call out “change,” the students turn their backs to each other and change five things. Maybe they take off a sweater, tuck in a shirt, etc., or maybe they make more subtle changes like taking off a ring and putting their necklace inside their shirt so it does not show. When I call out “change” the second time, they face their partner once again and try to name all five changes.
The activity called Add a Pearl helps students to memorize body movement sequences as they choreograph a short dance scene. The students divide into groups of eight to ten. Each student in the group creates a move or dance step; then everyone mimics the move. The next student adds to the first movement until everyone has had a chance to contribute. After the entire group has added a movement, the kids perform the dance onstage.
During the course of participating in these activities, I see improvement in students’ ability, not only to memorize more quickly, but also to retain information. I also introduce soliloquies and use them in theater games. I give small groups of students the first few lines of a soliloquy, give them the context in which it is used (I identify the play and the character who speaks the lines) and ask them to create a skit around it. The interpretation can be literal or metaphoric. The students take between five to 10 minutes to create the skit and to memorize a few of the lines in the process. The more they play with memorizing and language skills, the more proficient and confident they become as actors and learners.
When we first start the activities, many of the kids are reluctant because they feel unsure of their memorization skills. Although the activities are fun, they also take a great deal of concentration. After a few weeks, the entire group gets quicker and asks me for the specific activities to see how fast and thoroughly they can accomplish each exercise. I am reminded continually that education and fun go hand-in-hand. Of course, learning always requires effort, and I discovered, in my early years of teaching, that whenever we include fun, learning occurs without fear and students remember with greater ease.
Using Shakespearean theater as a way to reach students in the early years gives them an opportunity to learn that language is playful and expressive even to adults. At this stage, the students have the ability to understand the plot but are not yet ready to dive into the subtext. They can, however, appreciate the beauty of the sound of the language and can memorize the lines easily. Many of our grammar school-aged students memorize entire scenes and even acts of the plays being produced. They are like sponges soaking up the language. By the time they move into the middle school years, the foundation has been laid and their ears have become accustomed to the structure of the heightened language. And they already know the plots to a few of the Bard’s plays.
Middle School Years
The middle school years are difficult for children as they start to make the transition from childhood into young adulthood. Ideally, this is the time when students become aware of cause and effect and of the way facts fit together into a logical framework. This is the stage of development when students best learn the skills of organizing and questioning.
Shakespeare’s scripts are filled with conflicts, some humorous and others quite serious. He deftly illustrates the consequences suffered when poor choices are made. Shakespeare is a good way to introduce cause and effect–the way certain actions lead to inevitable downfall–and the importance of making moral choices.
Theater production is an excellent vehicle for learning organizational skills. The entire process of the production requires logical thinking, from designing and constructing set to rehearsing scenes and remembering stage blocking (placement onstage). As our young students mature, they are given more responsibility. When students are ready for positions of leadership, they learn how to stay on top of the workload and to take each job, whether onstage or backstage, and break it into logical and manageable steps.
The rehearsals and actual performances of the show are especially beneficial for middle school-age students. This stage of development is defined by the questioning nature of the student and involves the development of abstract thought. To encourage young people to question is vital to their learning.
Forming various discussion sessions are invaluable. Discussion periods give student actors an opportunity to verbalize different ways of portraying various roles in the play. Students start to explore beyond the plot and become aware of the subtext when they question the motivation of their character’s role. They begin to play with the language and to ask why. “Why does Tybalt kill Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet?” “Why does Viola change into a man’s clothes after the shipwreck during Twelfth Night?” “Why were women not allowed onstage during Shakespeare’s time when the country was ruled by a female?” This is an excellent time to introduce the students to the life and times of William Shakespeare. Learning the play in context (i.e. through Elizabethan history and biographies of the Bard) gives them opportunity to get a glimpse into the rich complexity of Shakespeare’s writing without overwhelming them with the “strangeness” of the heightened language. We connect Shakespeare’s characters to modern-day personalities, and students are introduced to the way the classics have relevance to their own lives. They become aware that human nature does not change and begin to see the similarities that all people share.
High school years
When students enter high school they are developmentally ready to begin to learn how to express themselves articulately. Their thinking deepens as they apply the rules of logic (cause and effect) learned from the middle school stage to the foundational factual information gained through the grammar school stage and learn to express their conclusions, opinions, and insights with emerging clarity. Of course they continue to use the skills they acquired during the first two stages of development, but the teen years have two new vital components: establishing their identities and expressing their knowledge, opinions, and insights through writing and speaking. Shakespearean theater is an invaluable opportunity at this stage as it is dynamic and interactive, and it offers students an avenue to learn and to creatively express their newly acquired knowledge.
Through my experience as a theater director, I am aware of the ways that actor training enhances students’ confidence in every aspect of their lives. Voice training is helpful not only to increase volume and to learn enunciation for stage work, but in the process, to enhance all verbal communication. A well-trained voice is one that commands attention and can hold an audience of any size. Students whose educational experiences are primarily focused in the language arts learn to express themselves with greater clarity and ease.
Shakespearean theater training is at the center a language-focused, experiential educational opportunity. Learning to express the heightened language of Shakespeare is challenging, and I often tell my students that the Bard’s language is like a code, and once they break the code, a new world opens its door to them. I explain that their ears must get accustomed to the way Shakespeare uses phrasing, verb placement, and the sounds of words. I introduce iambic pentameter, alliteration, metaphor, personification, and imagery and give them basic ideas of how to scan their lines for meaning. Then I step back.
When teachers respect and encourage their students’ insights, young people become eager to dive deeply into their subject. Introducing students to clear enunciation and proper word emphasis is pivotal to portraying a Shakespearean role. Of course it is equally important that students understand what they are saying. Taking the lines apart, debating and analyzing them, and putting them back together gives students the tools to portray their characters convincingly. Looking up word definitions can be a laborious roadblock to their success so I give them the definitions in the script, which helps them to grasp the gist of what they are reading at first glance. I try to make the steps manageable so that students do not feel frustrated or overwhelmed at the beginning.
Clear and effective delivery of their lines is based upon their understanding and insight, and I want them to dive beneath the surface and explore the text as soon as possible. Our students learn to “speak the speech … trippingly on the tongue,” as Hamlet advises the players. Training students at an early age to understand and enact Shakespeare convincingly has deep and lasting effects. Because training in the theater arts uses the body, mind, heart, and soul of each participant, the tremendous learning that occurs during our yearlong theater program helps students become better readers, piques their curiosity about history, gives them an excellent exposure to classical writing, helps them become aware of the importance of developing organizational skills, and enhances learning on every level. But the most important aspect of the work is that students learn to look deeply for the meaning. In life, that is critical to their success as adults. In our Yearlong Program each stage of educational development is addressed with hands-on learning in a fun, yet serious and respectful, environment.
How Theater Arts Enhance Moral Maturity
Moral development involves many components. Most educators and parents understand the importance of teaching our children right from wrong and helping them to develop a strong sense of healthy service to others. Throughout history, parents and teachers have used time-honored stories as a way to illuminate the idea of cause and effect. Simply stated–in black and white–in doing right one is rewarded; in doing bad one is punished. Of course as children grow older, they continue to need guidance, especially as they learn that the world is not painted in black and white. They must learn to negotiate their way through the many shades of gray.
In the introduction to Books That Build Character, author William Kilpatrick writes, “If you are a parent, you’ve got a battle on your hands—a battle with popular culture over your child’s imagination.” I would also add that the battle with popular culture can undermine parents’ efforts to pass on their values. Empowering children’s imaginations through reading and performing classical stories is a way not only to “win” the battle, but also to build a strong moral underpinning, one story at a time.
Throughout human history, cultures have taught morality by passing stories from one generation to the next by using the oral tradition. These classic stories illustrate the importance of possessing virtues like honesty and compassion, courage and perseverance, fairness and sensitivity to the needs of others.
Teaching Shakespeare through performance is a valuable tool for presenting morality to young people. Part of what makes Shakespeare’s classic work enduring and still popular is his attention to moral dilemmas. Enacting a Shakespearean role is a powerful aid in the development of moral awareness.
Students experience greater self-awareness through their stage roles. By taking on dramatic roles, students are able to explore the complexity of conflict. They begin to see how conflicts define character motivation.
When young people try on different dramatic roles, they take a walk in the shoes of another human being. They learn to think and act like someone else. Through discussion periods, students can intellectualize the conflict and the action of the play through analysis. Students have the unique opportunity to “be the role” while distancing themselves enough to discuss the moral complexity of their characters. This gives them deeper understanding of the dilemmas presented in each play. For example, during rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet, the students decided that the love between Romeo and Juliet was really infatuation, which spurred a discussion about true love verses romantic entanglements. They also decided that Romeo was impulsive by nature and rather unstable. The moral implications of Romeo’s actions were a clear lesson in cause and effect. The students surmised that had Romeo been less impulsive, he would not have murdered Tybalt. But alas, Shakespeare needed to ramp up the action. Certainly Mercutio’s death scene is filled with drama and is pivotal to the play (not to mention how fun for young actors to learn stage combat!).
Often times during the course of auditions, many male students want to try out for the “villain” role. The actors who play the evil guys are excited at the beginning, but by the end of rehearsals they burn out. The experience of being hated and doing horrible things weigh on them. One particularly “good” villain told me after a performance one night that he never realized how much energy it took to be bad and that hurting people purposely only caused misery in the world.
The beauty of teaching virtues through Shakespeare is that it doesn’t take any prior organization. The process is organic and happens when the play is openly discussed and the characters are analyzed. This kind of learning lasts a lifetime. The lessons are brought into the hearts of each student. Childhood and adolescence is the time to introduce and strengthen moral awareness, and Shakespeare is an effective tool for teaching the importance of living a life of integrity.
Although the hallmark of the teen years throughout history has been to experiment, the new millennium brings with it a set of circumstances that is difficult at best for any adolescent to navigate. Experimenting with alcohol, drugs, and sex has been a repeating theme for America’s teens during the last century, but the climate of technology (like never before) brings serious complications into the picture.
The computer age sets the stage for some of the greatest advances for humankind; however, as we all know, it is a double-edged sword. The exposure to inappropriate material via internet, movies, television, computer, and video games is having a detrimental effect on young people as they pass through one of the most difficult stages of human development.
As a society, we are aware of the consequences and are fully conscious of the statistics that support the premise that our children and adolescents are in trouble. According to clinical psychologist William Pollack, Ph.D. in his book Real Boys, “Some 3.5 million children under the age of nineteen are clinically depressed in this country…” He goes on to state, “Suicide is the third leading cause of death between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, behind only accidents and homicides. We are losing almost five thousand teens every year to their own despair in what has truly become an epidemic.”
Contentious issues face teens on a daily basis; they are assaulted with the meaningless icons of popular culture, the disintegration of family life, the confusion of hormonal changes, and the feelings of isolation. Even children and teens from the most caring family circumstances are not immune to the pervasive intrusion of pop culture.
At their best, theater arts programs offer a safe environment for young people to fully explore the human psyche, to grapple with tough issues, to examine the cause and effect of specific conflicts, and to process their own conflicts through dramatic roles. By playing a dramatic role, young actors observe the richness of human psychology. The symbolic nature of Shakespeare’s work creates a perfect opportunity for students to look more deeply at life’s many challenges. The timeless quality of the Bard’s plays help students to understand the universality of conflict.
The value of exploring the psychological make up of each character and portraying the role with complete honesty is a healthy way for young people to process their struggles. As a theater teacher, I feel honored to be allowed into the hearts and minds of my students. I respect their emerging opinions and strive to give them an attentive ear and a safe environment to express themselves artistically. In return they have given me deep appreciation for history, an on-going examination of life in the present, and a solid optimism for the future.
© Perform It! Young People’s Stage Company 2014
Perform It! Young People’s Stage Company
P.O. Box 2093
Wolfeboro, NH 03894