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The Play’s the Thing for the Shakespeare on Love Senior Seminar

In the summer of 2005, I was fortunate enough to participate in a National Endowment for the Humanities summer course entitled Shakespeare in Production. University of Delaware professors Jay Halio, an eminent Shakespeare scholar, and Leslie Reidel, Director of the Professional Theater Program, led English and drama teachers in a study of Shakespeare intended to, in the words of Peggy O’Brien, who has led the Education Depart at the Folger Library quite brilliantly for decades, “set Shakespeare free.” Also known as “Shakespeare on your feet,” this approach to teaching and learning Shakespeare combines close reading of the text, an expectation for every English classroom, with an appreciation for the performance choices that actors and directors must make to stage a compelling version of the text, which students experience in the drama classroom.

Well and truly converted to this methodology, I began to focus more on helping students to “speak the speech,” as Hamlet famously explains. The emphasis shifted the focus from merely thematic development and dramatic convention to a marriage of how these literary devices promoted a divergence of possible, plausible performances. Quite simply, our study prioritized the opening up of the text. 

Our practice for this theory centered on the reading, analysis, memorization, and performance of a single sonnet, chosen by each student to be performed for the group. This exercise is a well-known and well-practiced exercise for actors at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and has enjoyed notable success (including, I am told in confidence by one of my former students, setting the spark to a romance that has recently kindled into marriage—the most Shakespearean of stories!). But as satisfying as this exercise has been, I have always felt that it is best supported by considering how other readers, most notably professional, classically trained actors, would engage Shakespeare’s texts. To that end, the Shakespeare on Love seminar trip to Chicago was born.

This past weekend the Shakespeare on Love Senior Seminar embarked on its nearly annual trip to see a performance staged by the world-famous Chicago Shakespeare Theater. After a pandemic hiatus, our Senior Seminar restarted the tradition of studying a first-rate performance to understand the transition of Shakespeare’s plays from page to stage. Previous trips have boasted performances of plays ranging from the popular—Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, and Taming of the Shrew—to the less familiar—Two Noble Kinsmen, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Pericles. 

On this particular trip the class enjoyed a novel staging of As You Like It. Set in the 1960s the production leaned heavily on caricature, smaltz, and broad physical comedy to find a balance between pain of betrayal and banishment and the joy of loyal friendship and true love. Director Daryl Cloran cleverly adapted the text to include a full playlist of Beatles songs seamlessly knitted into the fabric of the play. 

I asked the students who took part in the trip for feedback and Avni, a senior, remarked that she “loved how the play was modernized and set in the 60s,” adding that she “especially loved how they incorporated the Beatles songs, because they added an element of surprise to different scenes.” 

“I thought it was really great,” Maddie explained, “that they kept Shakespeare’s lines while using modern inflection and adding little extra moments to make them more comedic/relatable. It was quite funny, and the character/costume design was very cool.” 

The full effect was “really refreshing and engaging,” Sarah remarked. “It reminded me that Shakespeare can be interpreted in many ways and can be made to fit any context. The play was a perfect balance between the spontaneity of the music and still keeping the plot relative and true to the original play.” 

Dylan agreed: “I think that the performance was top-notch, and it was obvious that everyone involved in making it was extremely dedicated to making it the best play it could be.” 

Jacob and Ryan summed up the seminar experience in their comments: “It kept me engaged and made clear what was going on in the play,” said Jacob, and Ryan concluded that “the production was excellent. It really felt like the actors understood the characters, and they succeeded in bringing the audience along with them.” 

As always in Shakespeare’s comedies, the satisfying ending is managed by miracle and magic, as well as smart women who teach men to get out of their own way, a sentiment to which Ms. Randolph, the trip co-leader, gave her full assent.

By Mark Randolph, English Teacher and Shakespeare on Love Senior Seminar trip organizer

Saturday, April 24
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