Friday, July 31, 2009

Here They Come

January, 2009

My eyes pop awake at 5 a.m. and I have jitters in the tum. What, what is it...what is today...Wednesday...but what?

Oh yeah. January 14. I should be used to this. It's my fourth year and I'm not used to it....It's never without terror.

There are professions that call upon the skills of an actor. Lawyers, judges, priests, rabbis — and teachers. However, unlike the theatre, where an audience pays for the privilege, or a courthouse, where a jury is paid a stipend, or a religious setting, where worshipers willingly (I hope) congregate, in the classroom the teacher faces a reluctant audience. Day after day after day.

And here they, screaming, backpacks flying —

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to opening day of The Shakespeare Club, 2009.

Lyndon, our ten-year-old stage manager, called out their names and they lined up in front of Room 39 for warm-ups.

"Big breath, raise your arms high up and — hello, sun — hands to the heart — I honor you — arms up — I'm an eagle, I fly — hang down like a rag dolly — and sweep the arms up, look to sky — hello, sun — hands to the heart — I honor you.

"Congratulations, you just did yoga."

Across the quad she approached. She loped toward us, making an entrance like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western. Tall, so tall, and blonde...and my help. Rachel.

As I am brunette and short, so Rachel is the opposite. First thought: Hermia and Helena, the best friends from "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Oh, I hope this works. I hope she stays.

So we grew together,
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition.
A Midsummer Night's Dream Act III, Scene II

After a few more yoga poses and some vocal exercises, the kids followed Lyndon into the classroom to learn the Shakespeare Club mottos:

    We are The Shakespeare Club.

    1. We help each other.
    2. We share with each other.
    3. We honor the works of William Shakespeare.

    If can do Shakespeare, I can do anything!

And we were off into the world of the man, his Queen, his girlfriend —

"What? You mean he married that girl in 'Bride Wars'?"

" mean, Ms. Ryane, William Shakespeare married her?"

"No, that was a different Anne Hathaway. Remember, four hundred years ago...but I will tell you something interesting about today's Anne Hathaway. Guess, what play she's going to do this summer in New York City?"

" 'Princess Diaries 3'?"

"Nope, try again."

Blank stares.

"Okay, I'll give you a hint....You guys are going to do the same play on May 28."

Screams: " 'Twelfth Night'!"

We chat about the opening of "Twelfth Night" and what it might be like to be a sailor on a ship in a storm. I hand out their journals and freshly sharpened pencils.

"Why do you think I ask you to write in these journals? To picture what life might be like if you were a kid in Elizabethan England or a sailor on a ship? Why do I ask you to write about your dreams and wishes?"

"For our health?"

They kill me, they really do.

"Actors need to exercise their imaginations and writing helps us do that."

Celia raises her hand.

"Yes, a big voice, ask me your question."

"Ms. Ryane, girls wouldn't speak in those days because if they couldn't go to school and couldn't learn to read — they wouldn't have words."

It's going to be a great year. The best ever.

Thy mother of mine this life tis horrible. I eat but raw fish and raw crab and biscuts. Thy miss you but are family be in great dept. Thy job be worst and tis I resiceve low pay.

Oh my now tis be now a terrible storm. My job be cabin boy tis now worst worst job in such a storm. Thy have one friend he be named Ace. I wish I could come home.

Yours with all my love
Nathan, 3rd grade

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Recess: Mixed Up

I once worked with a producer who consistently introduced me as Mel Brooks. She either had a glitch in her motherboard, or secretly wished that I was Mel Brooks. It started to annoy me until I noticed that one could hardly blame her.

Dressed in our Shakespeare garb the resemblance is uncanny:

Mel B. as HamletMel R. as Olivia in "Twelfth Night"

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Queen and I

Readying my royal bob. To the far left, Stanley Holloway tries to contain his excitement.

In Shakespeare Club meetings we explore the Elizabethan world. The girls get excited about Queen Elizabeth and the boys go crazy for poop being tossed out windows.

There you have it: I think it's safe to end all examination of gender differences.

One year a child brought me a Canadian penny. "Look, Ms. Ryane, Queen Elizabeth! There she is, see?"

We had a chat about number I versus number II....I'm talking about the Queen.

And I told them about my rub with royalty.

When I was nineteen and acting at the Shaw Festival, a company in the quaint Ontario town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Queen Elizabeth came to visit with her husband, Prince Philip.

She came to see George Bernard Shaw's "You Never Can Tell," starring Stanley Holloway and not starring me as a maid. Stanley, an English actor well known as Eliza's dad in the movie version of "My Fair Lady," was 83 and a little deaf when we gave our command performance.

For weeks prior to her visit, we were schooled in protocol befitting a royal assemblage. "Ma'am" was appropriate to use in conversation, but only if asked a direct question. Curtsying was a must and joining a conversation while Her Highness was chatting with one's neighbor was a giant no-no.

On the town's streets, people sat in lawn chairs, waiting for the royal drive-by. Clutching small Union Jacks and mugs of tea, folks patiently tarried as the hours ticked by. Unfortunately, the Queen's people overburdened her schedule and she was way, way behind. Her limo burned rubber as it careened around corners at high speeds. Tea was spilled and her subjects tilted crazily in their rickety chairs. Nerves were jangled.

At the theatre we waited and waited.

It is "commoner knowledge" that Queen Elizabeth II, unlike her predecessor, is not a particular fan of plays. She'd much prefer to spend time at a horse show or in a garden romp with her corgis.

By 9:30 p.m. we got word that she was in the VIP room, sucking back a gin and tonic. We yanked ourselves out of a stupor and our stage manager called upstairs.

"Is Betty Windsor on her way?" he cracked.

"Momentarily" was the curt answer he received, along with a hang-up.

Prince Philip, standing next to the ringing phone, had been the one to answer.

A tiny hole in a black wing curtain allowed us to spy on Her Majesty as she watched our production. Awful. The poor thing kept falling asleep. Repeatedly we saw her noggin droop forward and then snap up as she bolted awake.

Our show didn't start until 10 p.m. and didn't end until after 1 a.m.

When the curtain finally fell and she came backstage to meet us, her eyes were red with exhaustion and we were stiff in rehearsed decorum. Hilarity was hardly in the air.

Until...she neared Stanley and he completely forgot all code of behavior.

"I knew your mother very well!" he screamed.

Quite like Shakespeare's Queen may have roared at the antics of Sir Toby Belch in "Twelfth Night," our Queen, too, managed a good giggle.

Queen photo by Robert C. Ragsdale; theater interior photo by David Cooper/Toronto Life

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Recess: How the 12th Night Became 'Twelfth Night'

"Twelfth Night" was written in 1601. William Shakespeare had earned considerable success and become a sort of Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise of his time.

Back in his hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare invested in real estate and bought a large house he called New Place. In London he built and opened his own theatre, The Globe. And he became the adored playwright of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I.

Here in Hollywood, rich folk will gather friends together for an evening of movies and martinis enjoyed in the private screening rooms of Bel Air mansions. Or so I've heard.

In Elizabethan England, Her Highness, a bit of a party gal, did essentially the same thing by inviting her court together for an evening of plays.

It is thought that to celebrate the twelfth night of Christmas, Elizabeth summoned Will to whip up a little entertainment, and he scratched out a laugh-a-minute romp called "Twelfth Night," or "What You Will."

Apparently, he spent more time on character and plot than title. Those two options strike me as a tad last-minute and, dare I say, lazy. But what you will...agree or was no doubt a riotous evening made more so due to a delicious banquet of boiled lamb and baked calves feet.

Loud guffaws and belches likely filled the hall as the carousers quaffed quarts of mead, apple wine and drinks named Mad Dog and Left Leg. Good times. Good, good times.

New Place photo from InfoBritain

Monday, July 27, 2009

Big Gifts in Small Packages

December, 2008

By Thanksgiving, casting had been completed and I disappeared from the campus after delivering my rejection/acceptance letters. Best to get outta Dodge, I determined.

My script of "Twelfth Night" was ready to go. I had a stack of journals waiting in our garage, an army of HB pencils sharpened, and Room 39 set as the space for our meetings to begin on January 14, 2009.

I was ready for some R&R and this year's club hadn't even started.

I put up a Christmas tree, hung lights on the house, fully messed up the pastry for mince tarts (throwing it in the garbage — a yearly tradition) and filled the CD player with holiday music.

And as Rosemary Clooney dreamed of a "White Christmas," I studied the best gift I could ever have dreamed up. It came in the form of an e-mail.

Dear Ms. Ryane,

My name is Rachel and I received your information from my sister, who teaches at the school. She mentioned that you run a Shakespeare Club that puts on productions. I am very interested in volunteering with your program.

I am a classically trained actress with years of experience working with children. I recently relocated to LA from New York and I am eager to get involved with a Shakespeare program. While in New York I worked with an educational theatre company, performing in museums, libraries and schools, that gave me a true passion for opening young minds to the classics. I have a pretty available schedule and I would love to help out any way I can.

Please feel free to call me.

Could this be? I mean, is she for real?

The idea of having another adult in the room...the concept of help...and she's a trained actor....I mean, seriously, is she for real?

I enthusiastically responded to Rachel's e-mail, giving her an update of the schedule. That night, I tucked into bed with visions of sugar plums and HELP...I was going into Year Four with HELP...dancing in my head.

Yes, Mel, there is a Santa Claus. And Los Angeles is his first stop.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Hard News: Better Than the Best

When I was a small child, summers on my grandmother's prairie farm meant strolling in cow pies. I liked to squirm my bare toes in warm, freshly dropped cow pies and my mother would have a royal fit. Fed up, she'd huff and puff, grab me about the waist and dump my goopy feet into a pail of cool water.

Be warned: I'm about to do it again. Step in it, that is.

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
Hamlet Act III, Scene I

As a citizen and a school volunteer, I'm saying there are things to think about regarding where and how children are schooled.

I'm prepared for the following criticism: You do not have children, Mel. That's fair, but hear me out.

On July 16, President Obama spoke at the NAACP annual convention:

"All of us can agree that we need to offer every child in this country the best education the world has to offer from the cradle through a career. That is our responsibility as the United States of America."

Most parents want the best for their kids. If they can afford a private education, perhaps that's the answer. For others it may be a charter or magnet school. But I think it's also worth stepping back to look at other aspects of the educational experience.

The elementary school where I direct The Shakespeare Club is a Title One school. This means most of the students come from low-income households. Our school is ethnically, culturally and economically diverse.

As our country's economic stresses have risen, I've witnessed emotional angst on the upswing in the kids. It's a rotten thing to see children depressed, angry and hurting. That should not be the lot of a child and yet it is often the case.

"I remember visiting a Chicago school in a rough neighborhood as a community organizer, and thinking how remarkable it was that all of these children seemed so full of hope, despite being born into poverty, despite being delivered into addiction, despite all the obstacles they were already facing.

"And I remember the principal of the school telling me that soon all of that would begin to change; that soon, the laughter in their eyes would begin to fade; that soon, something would shut off inside, as it sunk in that their hopes would not come to pass — not because they weren't smart enough, not because they weren't talented enough, but because, by accident of birth, they didn't have a fair chance in life."

This year I seated two fifth-grade girls next to each other in club meetings.

Alice is academically bright and accountable. She is raised in a household with two parents and two younger siblings. A lot is asked of Alice because she's one of those kids who can do so much. Her parents count on her to look out for the younger ones and her teacher loads extra classroom tasks onto her. Then along I come, casting her in the leading role of Olivia in "Twelfth Night."

Geneva, also a bright girl, appeared ready to sabotage any good that came her way because she was so darn angry. She had been in The Shakespeare Club the previous year and I nearly didn't take her back. Geneva was born to parents who'd split up. Mom left six kids in Dad's hands, so Geneva was sent off to live with an aunt. Geneva acted out on other kids. We had a chat before this year began and I told her straight up about my doubts. She believed that she was capable of changing. Of being a leader and treating others well. I also cast Geneva in a leading role in "Twelfth Night," that of Maria.

I spent a lot of time with my eye on Geneva. She'd elbow Alice, or stick her foot out to deliberately trip another kid or take someone's pencil...on and on and on.

Here's what I saw at the end of the performance of "Twelfth Night":

Alice and Geneva sharing a hug. Together they had survived exhausting rehearsals and together they had triumphed in front of an audience. They are better for each other.

Alice is stronger for Geneva.

Geneva is kinder for Alice.

You do not have children, Mel.

A mother recently told me of her young daughter's new playmate. Of how pleased she was that her child walked to school with this other girl and how they shared time in class. It was all good...except when her daughter spent time at the other girl's place. The unhealthy snacks that were served there...not so good.

Let's call this "The Cheetos Factor."

It addresses this argument:

    I want my kids to be with other kids like mine.
    I want to be around other parents like me.
    I want us all to share the same values, politics, ideas of creativity and...and...and...well, to be like us.

No one is going to die from Cheetos. Not really. But there may be a loss in gripping too tightly to "like us."

This mother confessed that she secretly enjoyed Cheetos from time to time herself. This is all bigger than a snack food, of course. Isn't her daughter, in that other residence, getting something her own parents cannot give to her, read to her, or tell to her? Perhaps her daughter's in an environment with a different point of view, culture and value system. And perhaps that's a great thing.

Seventeen-year-old Zac Sunderland returned home to California last week after sailing solo around the world. His parents have taken a lot of flak for letting their boy loose on such an adventure.

If Zac Sunderland had completed his education with a fistful of degrees from Yale, Princeton and Stanford, he never would have learned what he did in these last thirteen months.

You do not have children, Mel.

Sometimes the experience is the best. Better than the best. Of more value than the best charter or magnet or private.

"And we should raise the bar when it comes to early-learning programs. Today, some early-learning programs are excellent. Some are mediocre. And some are wasting...a child's most formative years."

"We have to say to our children...No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands — and don't you forget that.

"To parents, we can't tell our kids to do well in school and fail to support them when they get home. For our kids to excel, we must accept our own responsibilities....we need to be there for our neighbor's son or daughter, and return to the day when we parents let each other know if we saw a child acting up. That's the meaning of community. That's how we can reclaim the strength, the determination, the hopefulness that helped us come as far as we already have."

People used to call this: a mixer.

Obama photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America; Sunderland photo by Al Seib/LA Times

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Recess: The Setting

I don't much care for cute kids performing in cute miniature Elizabethan costumes. I'm allergic to cute costumes. In fact, I'm beyond allergic; I'm a snob about it and I don't have time to make the damn things. I'm busy enough getting a script together, collecting and making props, and rehearsing and feeding children. Because they, like all actors, will work for food.

Directors of Shakespeare's works are often noted for their ingenious settings of his plays. Some schools of thought — and I don't disagree — believe that placing the story in a modern context can help an audience hear the play anew.

Our productions have a standard format. The actors, each dressed in jeans and a Shakespeare Club T-shirt, sit onstage in a horseshoe formation. The T-shirt color is changed each year to reflect the mood of the play: black for "Hamlet," red for "Romeo and Juliet" and so on.

Props are set under each actor's chair. Because the kids are up there for the duration of the play, I sit out front and take notes. I don't have to do the old run-around-in-the-wings-pushing-children-on-for-entrances thing.

The actors help each other and solve problems on their own. Like real actors in a real theatre.

And, as happens with professional actors, bonds are made between these kids when they stand together in that odd war zone and invite an audience to laugh and cry.

In fact, they make their own case for the non-cute approach.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hard News: Pack Your Bags

A solemn combination shall be made
Of our dear souls.
Duke Orsino, Twelfth Night Act V, Scene I

You'll know when you've seen a Shakespearean tragedy:
The stage'll be littered with bodies.

Conversely, when you've seen a Shakespearean comedy:
Folks are gettin' hitched.

Romeo and Juliet muddied the waters by getting married and ending up dead; I don't know what to say about that.

For the wedding planners among you, I recommend this romantic getaway to tie the knot.*

Verona, Italy, sets up weddings in the House of Juliet (USA Today)

*Don't pack daggers and you should be fine.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Recess: What's in a Name?

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
Juliet, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II

The Shakespeare Club is a well-used handle; our little group is hardly the first. There is a long history of such organizations and I can hardly imagine a better scenario than that of Shakespeare Clubs springing up across the nation, the continent...indeed, the world. Peace would reign as we all stuffed our noses into the plays and whispered iambic verse.

As I researched a history of Shakespeare Clubs, I was particularly drawn to the Victorians. Women in corsets gathered to study the stories of the Bard. How those laces must have popped on a warm summer evening as they pored over the gory shenanigans in "Titus Andronicus."

Mr. Shakespeare, in a particularly colorful mood and clearly wishing to boost his box office, wrote a bloody potboiler chock-a-block with murder, rape, severed hands and tongues, and neighbors served up in a pie. Vapors — big time, I'm guessing.

Here's what our club does not look like:

The Dallas Shakespeare Club, circa 1911.

Dallas photo from the Dallas Historical Society

Monday, July 20, 2009

Nathan: A Zillion-Dollar Idea

November, 2008

It's the day before Thanksgiving break and I'm wending my way classroom to classroom with a bundle of acceptance/rejection letters.

It's been a horrible week. They were all so sweet and tried so hard. I wanted to stuff each and every one into my pocket and keep them. Over thirty kids auditioned for The Shakespeare Club this year, setting a new record.

I went back and forth and forth and back. Up and down the list, finally deciding that a great experience for 21 was better than a humdrum experience for 33.

November 26, 2008

Dear Parent or Guardian:

The Shakespeare Club had a record turnout of eager children auditioning this year. I regret that I couldn't take all of them, but we simply do not have the space.

I'm delighted to report that __________ did a terrific audition and is accepted into the club.

We only have 18 meetings before performance. We will meet every Wednesday, beginning January 14, 2009. A schedule is included with this letter. If the schedule is a problem, please let me know so another child on the waiting list may have a chance to be in the club.

If you can provide something like apples or oranges for a meeting, please pick a date off the schedule and let me know.

If you have any questions or concerns, please don't hesitate to get in touch.

Mel Ryane

The school's parent/booster group has grown from six to sixty people and they're formidable at fundraising. Along with supplying laptop computers and sports equipment to the school and providing The Shakespeare Club with a budget, they've hired an art teacher willing to help with our props. Fantastic.

As I hand out letters to teachers, I know a good number of small hearts will suffer disappointment. I suggest to the kids who don't make the club that perhaps they would like to work on props.

"Hey, Ms. Ryane!"

Nathan is a third-grader. His audition was bold in a clear, sure voice. I often saw Nathan marching across the campus, carrying his soft-cover lunchbox like a lawyer with a briefcase. His hair was sometimes spiked, up and pointy; other days, soft and wavy. Nathan seemed to be a fan of product. I could probably use some tips from the kid.

"Hey Nathan, what's up?"

He's busy cleaning a table in the outdoor eating area. The children have to take turns doing the wipe-down after lunch and Nathan appears to be doing an efficient job.

"I got in Shakespeare Club!"

What the what? I only delivered Nathan's acceptance letter to his teacher fifteen minutes ago.

"You did?"

"Yup, I got in!"

"How do you know that?"

"'Cause I know, that's how I know!" he twinkles and gives me a wink.

He's eight.

"Happy Thanksgiving, Nathan....Gotta run, see ya later!" And I'm off for a teacher visit.


"Hey there, Mel."

"Did you tell Nathan that he made the club?"

"No, the letters are still on my desk."


"Okay Tina, wanna make a zillion dollars? If you could figure out how to bottle that boy's confidence, you could say so long to L.A. and buy your own island."

Orsino is in the house. Orsino, the rich, high-living Duke of Illyria who won't take no for an answer.

Good directors often say the key to their work is in the casting.

Sometimes casting is so easy.

Friday, July 17, 2009


By Year Two, I'd come up with a discipline/reward system of checks and balances. For hard work and generous behavior a club member could earn a . Three s would result in an invitation to sign The Shakespeare Club's Honor Roll, a dazzling piece of white paper glued to cardboard and displayed on performance day for all to see.

Conversely, behavior unbecoming could garner an x. I have zero tolerance for bullying, for example. Scripts forgotten three weeks in a row could earn an x. Refusal to take direction. Rude, puking noises as a reaction to a snack. Acts of this sort could rack up xs and three of those suckers would result in dismissal from the club.

It has happened, under great duress to me and to the club member, but it has always been the best move. The other members see I'm serious and the fired participant finds a way to help the club and participate from the outside. Lessons are learned.

Stella, a member for three years, would be an example. By the time she hit fifth grade, Stella acted trés cool and above it all. She chatted through warm-ups, she talked while others were on stage, she shrugged and shuffled playing Lady Capulet, and she made me crazy.

"Stella," I started in, sitting across from her on a schoolyard bench, "you have two xs. You're about to get a third and be asked to leave."

Her brow furrowed and her face registered a glimmer of shock, which I liked. I had her attention.

"The thing is, Stella, I just don’t get it. You used to love Shakespeare Club. You really liked acting. You wrote in your journal and now" — dramatic pause — "well, to be honest, Stella, it's like you just don't care."

"I care, Ms. Ryane," Stella piped up half-heartedly.

"Do you, though?" I turned slightly away and watched other kids on the grounds. They kicked balls, played tag and screamed like children do.

"Stella, you don't have to be in The Shakespeare Club. Really, you don’t. And I'm thinking that maybe I should just give you that final x and cut you loose. Maybe two years was enough and there are other things you'd like to do. Don’t worry, my feelings won't be hurt."

Stella's eyes widened. Her mouth opened and closed.

"I'll always be fond of you," I smiled. "But when you talk while others are working and you whine through the's like you've just given up. I hoped you'd be a leader to the younger ones but you're not setting a good example. I think you're ready to move on. So, let's do that, okay? I'll find someone to replace you and you can do other stuff for fun."

I placed my hand on her shoulder, gave a little pat, stood up and took a step — the meeting was over and it went so well....

Stella gripped the edge of the bench with both hands as if to hold herself down.

"But, Ms. Ryane, I do care."

"Wow, really? 'Cause I'm not seeing you're saying you don't want out?"

"No, I don't want out. I wanna stay in Shakespeare Club."

"Interesting. Okay, maybe I'm just missing it. Let's do this: I'll look a little harder and you show me a little bigger and maybe some s will appear. Hey, you could still make Honor Roll. Is that the plan you'd like?"

It was.

From that day forth, Stella gave steady, strong warriors in yoga. Stella stopped chatting and took her vocal warm-ups seriously. As Lady Capulet, Stella became a forceful parent to her daughter, Juliet.

And she made the Honor Roll.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

To Volunteer or Not to Volunteer

I don't want to sugarcoat the volunteering thing. It can be a lot of work and, once started, near impossible to wriggle out of.

I consider myself lucky that I had the marbles as far back as my early acting career to figure out that without real involvement in the world, I could easily end up living on Planet Mel. A state of mind less than conducive to creativity, and which could easily erase me from more than a few Christmas-card mailing lists.

Like all artists, actors need to nourish their souls, and volunteering can be a banquet. However, there are pitfalls. The most treacherous is one I like to call "the gratefulness trap."

One Christmas morning in a Pasadena park, I scooped mashed potatoes and stuffing onto paper plates. A California drizzle kept the air damp, but the lady next to me delivered a comment out the side of her mouth that chilled me more than the weather.

"They're not even smiling or saying thank you."

Yeah, well maybe if we were on the other side of this table, we'd be less than thrilled about getting our lunch this way too.

I didn't say anything at the time, but I did have to give myself a shake and remember that story many years later as I started into my first year of The Shakespeare Club.

I struggled as a first-timer with classroom chaos and, I too muttered out the side of my mouth, "Where's the gratefulness? Hey, I'm doing this for free, ya know!"

Yeah, well.

In the end, and to this very minute, I am the grateful one. It's my life that has changed. I have no doubt that these children are affected in a positive way and will always remember their time in The Shakespeare Club, but nothin', nothin' beats the kind of sleep I get at night because they continue to face challenges and take risks with me.

And that's a pretty sweet spoonful of sugar.

Here's an article I recommend on how volunteers can make a difference in schools. Bravo on them.
Struggling school gets a boost (Sandy Banks, LA Times)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Celia: The Un-Henry

When I audition kids for the club, I'm not necessarily looking for twenty future Oscar winners. Could you imagine that? Nightmare.

There are many, I know, who will get so much out of the experience simply by climbing a mountain heretofore unimagined.

I do want eager beavers and I do want membership in the club to be their idea.

Two years ago, I asked the group to finish the following sentence in their journals:

"I want to be in The Shakespeare Club because _______________."

...truth is truth
To th' end of reck'ning.
Measure for Measure Act V, Scene I

This is how a small lad finished the line in his journal:

"I want to be in The Shakespeare Club because my Mom made me."

Never again. I can't let that happen no matter how many moms, dads, grannies and uncles wish they could be in The Shakespeare Club.

So, I always ask...and here I was with a delicate flower sitting across from me, her fairy speech tight in hand.

"Celia, why do you want to be in The Shakespeare Club?"

"Because I think it would be good to act."

I lean in close to Celia because she's speaking in such a small voice that I'm not even sure what she said.

"So this was entirely your idea?"

Her nod is as tiny as her voice.

"Celia, did you learn this fairy speech by heart or would you like to read it from the page?"

"I learned it by heart."

Celia has lots of sisters. Two of whom are also in third grade, as she is, and also auditioning for the club. The others have louder voices and are more direct, but I have a feeling that this year it may be important for Celia to participate.

Again, I lean in close and she whispers her fairy speech. It's active, it's vivid...I can see that in her eyes, wide with fierceness...but, holy moly, it's quiet.

"Celia, you know how big the auditorium is, right?"

A mini head-bob is her answer.

"So, when we do a play in there we have to use giant voices or the audience won't hear the story. You know what I'm getting at here?"

"Yes, Ms. Ryane, I can do that. I know I could be an actress. I know that."

Some of the best actors I know are the shyest of people and almost invisible as they navigate in the world. Sometimes there's just no telling who will become an actor.

"Celia, I have to let all the kids who audition know that I can't take everyone, okay? I just don't have a room big enough. So, if you don't get in this year, I want you to try again next year because that will probably work out, okay?"

"When will you know?"

"I'm sorry...try that question again for me in your biggest voice."

"When will you know?"


"When will you know?"

I already know. Celia's voice did not alter one iota in volume, but here was a case of someone needing Shakespeare to find it.


photo from

Monday, July 13, 2009

Recess: The Script

The town of Stratford, Ontario, in Canada houses the continent's largest Shakespearean theater festival.

It is also the home of one Lois Burdett, a former second-grade teacher, now retired. For over twenty years, Lois incorporated the study of Shakespeare's life and productions of his plays into her curriculum with seven-year-old children.

She adapted and published a series of the plays in a collection called Shakespeare Can Be Fun!

When I wanted to launch my own program, I called Lois for tips and, frankly, encouragement. She was generous with her time, helpful in answering questions, and left me with the belief that it could be done and it could be fun.

Over the four years of my program I have used many of Lois Burdett's texts and paid her well-deserved royalties.

I always have one or two narrators to keep the plot moving and Lois' adaptations are helpful for that. I also add in quite a bit of original text from the Bard himself.

The recipe, so far, has worked in keeping the productions down to 45 minutes or less.

"Twelfth Night" clocked in at 30 minutes. It was hard to keep the story straight but, having acted in two productions of this play myself, I can say at a full three hours it's still a complicated comedy.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


November, 2008

He's eight. He looks like Opie in "The Andy Griffith Show." And he's an actor.

No doubt about it: The boy needs to act like the rest of us need to breathe.

"Okay, Henry, are you ready? Want to give it a go?"

Henry and I are in the school library, sitting at a round table. The librarian tries to make busy at her desk across the way, but I can tell she's slightly mesmerized by Henry.

It's because he can't stop bouncing. He's in the chair; he's out of the chair. He's in and he's out.

"Yes, Ms. Ryane, I'm really ready."

"Okay, Henry, let me just give you a little background. This speech is given by a boy fairy in the play 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' The fairies take care of their queen, Titania. She is about to go to sleep in the forest and you're going to make sure that all the spiders and beetles stay away from her. That's what 'hence' means...get the heck away."

Henry takes all of this in with the look of a very intense actor.

"Okay, you see this rack of books, Henry?"

He nods.

"I want you to imagine that all the creepy crawlers are in this. Pretend it's a tree and you're going to give them what-for. Okay?"

"Okay, Ms. Ryane."

And off he goes. Shouting at the ripped-up paperback copies of R.L. Stine's Goosebumps like King Lear on a bender. The librarian leaps out of her seat.

"Holy mackerel, Henry, you really worked on this, didn't you?"

"Yes, I did. Me and my mom, and I also did it with my little brother. He's four."

"Here's something I think is really neat about acting, Henry. In real life, we can't just walk around and scream at people. We can't push people around and be bossy and stuff, right?"

Henry nods.

"But in acting it's your job to do that. We can put folks in their place and have a fit and behave very badly sometimes...because that's what the character would do."

Henry leaks a mischievous smile.

"Do you like to make people laugh, Henry?"

Dead serious.

"Yes, Ms. Ryane. I love it."

"Henry, whose idea was it for you to try out for The Shakespeare Club? Was it yours or did your Mom or someone else say, 'Hey, Henry, you should do this'?"

"Mine. I wanted to do this. I saw the kids do 'Romeo and Juliet' and I said I want to do that and I told my mom and she said okay."

"Henry, can you do your fairy speech for me again because I have to tell you, honestly, that’s about the most fun I've had in a year."

Henry gritted his teeth and focused:

    [pointing his finger] Weaving spiders, come not here;
    [yelling] Hence, you long-legg'd spinners, hence!
    [giving a dark look with furrowed brow] Beetles black, approach not near;
    [big finish on a high note] Worm nor snail, do no offense!

Here comes Malvolio. This is the boy. This is his year. This is the beginning.

Friday, July 10, 2009

On Fire with the Friar

Last year, in our "Romeo and Juliet," a bright and shining fourth grader played the most difficult role of Friar Laurence. The part is a challenge because the character simply does not stop talking. He concocts plans on top of plans to save and protect the young lovers.

Lyndon, the boy playing the Friar, bravely tackled this zealous chatterbox and learned page-long speeches. Any actor would tremble at the responsibility and Lyndon was no different. His fear showed itself in the speed of his delivery.

"Lyndon, you're almost off-book and that's spectacular, but you must slooooow down."

Lyndon smiled, nodded and launched back in — faster.

"Whoa, Lyndon. Poor Juliet can't keep up with your instructions. At this rate, she might give the sleeping potion to the cat."

Lyndon shrugged, bobbed his head in complete agreement, and went — faster.

"Okay, so Romeo didn't catch the city. What if he goes to Padua instead of Mantua just because he couldn't keep up with you?"

On the day that Lyndon made his way through a particularly grueling speech and we all managed to understand it, the kids in the club gave him a spontaneous ovation and he never looked back. Lyndon was great.

Inexplicably, after his triumphant performance, Lyndon told me he might not audition for The Shakespeare Club the next year.

By the time the audition period rolled around, he was still ambivalent. But I didn't push for an answer.

Lyndon lives alone with his mom. No siblings and dad is occasional. He's academically advanced. He's a good, good kid. He stayed after every Shakespeare Club meeting to help me clean up.

What happened? Did someone make fun of him being in the club or on stage? I simply didn't know and didn't want to prod. I came up with another idea.

"Hey Lyndon, what do you think about being the club's stage manager? We've never had one before and I know you'd be wonderful. You'd be my right hand. You'd be in charge of the props, the blocking and when we do the show you'd direct a crew running lights and sound."

Lyndon liked the plan and signed on as the club's first stage manager. It would take a full year for me to learn the truth of his shying away as an actor.

In the meantime, during the audition process, Lyndon lined the littlest ones up on a bench outside the library to wait their turn to meet with me. He then carefully guided them back to class after their nervous experience. He was both commanding and gentle. He paid attention to my signals and wore authority well.

I had no clue that inside Lyndon a small seed called regret was starting to sprout.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Hard News: Making the Cuts

Are free T-shirts enough?

I learned today that our assistant principal is leaving to take a position as a principal at another school.

I don't know if we'll be getting a new AP. At nearly $4 billion, the proposed budget cuts for public education in California are so Draconian that an answer may be as difficult to come by as paper and pencils.

One of the many duties of the assistant principal is to organize the school's volunteer force. My first foray into public education volunteering was as a Wonder of Reading participant. An excellent non-profit with the mission of rebuilding public school libraries and training volunteers as reading tutors. There are other volunteer reading programs and I'm always running into those happy souls in our restocked library.

Now what? Who will schedule and monitor that helpful league?

Summer school has been cut, teachers have been fired and class sizes are swelling. More than ever, schools depend on volunteers to help keep children from slipping through the cracks because — guess what? — a child, or two, or three, has been left behind despite the bell-ringing of that particular legislation.

photo by Stephan Savoia/AP

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Proposition

November, 2008

With a handful of Shakespeare Club brochures, I visit each third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classroom to give my pitch.

"So, hey...The Shakespeare Club. My name is Ms. Ryane and I'm here to tell you about the club. Some of you may have seen 'Romeo and Juliet' last year —"

A boy-type arm shoots up.

"Um, excuse me...excuse,"

"Ryane. Ms. Ryane, yes?"

"Um, excuse me...were those real swords?"

In Year One of The Shakespeare Club, I practically had to lasso kids to join. I ended up with exactly ten, and only one boy.

Oh, how times have changed. The school kids have seen "Hamlet" and "Romeo and Juliet." Now I have boys interested because they saw crummy little gold plastic swords that might be real.

"Well no, the swords are stage weapons and not real, but let me tell you the acting was real and the stage fighting had to be carefully rehearsed."

"Geoffrey's sword broke. I saw it."

"Yes, that's true, Geoffrey's sword did break" — because it's a crummy little plastic toy! — "but did you notice how quickly he fixed it and continued on playing Romeo? That was pretty cool, I thought."

He gives an eight-year-old's doubtful nod and rests his chin on his hand.

"Okay, auditions are next week if you're interested and available. Talk about this with the adults at home" — I'm careful not to say parents because many kids live with aunts or grannies — "and then work on your audition. I'm looking for children who really want to work hard and make a commitment. The Shakespeare Club is super-fun but sometimes super-boring too. Not everyone gets a big part and everyone has to wait their turn to be on stage."

Another boy-type arm shoots up.

"Is it true that you get candy and have parties in The Shakespeare Club?"

Because I want lots of kids to audition, I'm tempted to say, Yes, yes! Lots of candy, pizza and parties! It's pretty much one constant blow-out.

Instead: "We have a party to celebrate William Shakespeare's birthday in April and we have a wrap party at the end of the year. Not so much candy because sugar isn't good for actors. It makes them too crazy and then too sleepy to act."

Inside my brochures are two four-line fairy speeches from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," one for boys and another for girls. I give them to the teacher and head for the door.

Screams bounce off the walls of the classroom.

"I'm going to audition!"

"Yeah, me too!"

"I wanna do Shakespeare Club!"

"Yeah, me too!"

I can only take twenty kids. At our school, space is at a premium, and the fourth-grade classroom cannot fit more than twenty kids. Nor are there enough parts in "Twelfth Night," and I can only handle twenty kids.

What hath I wrought?