Monday, August 31, 2009

Polly & Ethan: Double Play

March, 2009

William Shakespeare had twins, a son and a daughter: Hamnet and Judith.

It's likely these children influenced his writing. In his first play, "A Comedy of Errors," the riotous, rib-cracking fun arises from the antics of two sets of twins and, oh my, who's who? I'm so confused and I'm wetting my pants!

In Year Three of The Shakespeare Club, I first introduced the story of "Twelfth Night." We watched a movie version together and I had more than one club member slip me this idea:

"Ms. Ryane?" Geoffrey whispered.

"Yes?" I whispered back.

"Next year Ethan and Polly should play the twins!" He elevated his whisper.

"Do ya think?"

"Yes, because they really are twins!" And he bursts into full voice.

"Get out."

And it's true, I have a pair of ten-year-old twins, Polly and Ethan, in the club. I've said it once and I'll say it again: Sometimes casting is so easy.

When we did "Romeo & Juliet," Polly was one of our two narrators and she wanted to play a part so badly. "But, Ms. Ryane, I could learn lines...I could."

Ethan played that naughty boy, Mercutio. He struggled both with his vocal level and with learning lines, but he got his performance up to snuff in the nick of time.

When Polly was in the first grade she was held back a year "because I didn't talk or something," she tells me.

Ethan, also held back, spent his first three years in remedial study. He told his teacher he "felt dirty" in those classes even though he collected copies of Shakespeare's plays and read them at home.

In "Twelfth Night," Viola and Sebastian are at sea in a terrible storm. Their vessel is ripped apart, as are brother and sister, and they spend much of the play trying to find each other in the zany world of Illyria.

Polly, as Viola, has the longest speeches in the play. A child who had a history of not talking or something now has to carry the show.

Ethan, who is entirely self-conscious about even standing center stage, needs lots of coaxing to speak up and face out.

The three of us have challenges ahead, but none more so than the recognition scene at the end of the play:

So I stand there? I never had a brother.
Of charity, what kin are you to me?
What name? What parentage?

Of Messaline. Sebastian was my father.
Such a Sebastian was my brother too.

Viola takes off her cap, revealing her true identity. Brother and sister step toward each other and give the audience a big aaahhh moment as they hug.

"Okay, Polly...Ethan...hug. No really, a nice hug...not hit and run."

I begged for months, never sure it would happen. They never embraced in rehearsal. Not once. They slapped at each other, they faked a fast half-clinch and separated quickly back to their corners like scaredy-cats in a prize fight.

"Okay, you two. I know this feels seriously weird to be hugging your brother or sister on stage in front of all your friends and stuff...but it's not about you's about what's best for the audience and I think they deserve it...don't you?"

Shrug, shuffle, shrug, shuffle.

First happened...lightning fast...but it was there. I caught it out of the corner of my eye.

Then, the reaction....They heard their teachers sigh. Aaahhh.

Second happened again...slower. Ooohhh.

By the final performance they were milking it and I swear Shakespeare from on high murmured, "Yes, kids...that's what I wrote....Good stuff."

Dear Dad,

Methink thy brother Sabastein is gone down in tis sea. Drown tis Sabastein, water filled thy lungs. Thy hope tis is not true, but the possiblites to high and I think only thy capin and me survived. Doom thy feel and hope he is still alive if not I might as well die. This news I hope you don't belive as much as I do.

—Polly, 5th grade

Friday, August 28, 2009

Eduardo: A Writer

As I continued my writing hour each week with Luis, I asked his fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Byron, if perhaps he would like me to teach memoir-writing to his kids. He thought it would be a good idea and I found myself facing his class.

"Here's the theme."

I wrote on the board:

When I was five...

"Think way back to when you were five years old."

I suggested they make a shopping list of ideas.

"One-word ideas or feelings of being little and then, fast — write those down. Maybe favorite toys or people. Maybe things you didn't like — tastes or chores. Quick, quick — make a list."

Many of the kids got right to it, and then there was Eduardo. He of the dark curly hair, the penetrating brown eyes that followed me as I paced, and the clear stubborn gaze of someone who wasn't doin' nothin'.

"Eduardo, can you remember when you were only five?"


"How about eight?"


Eduardo was a fellow of few words, or so I thought.

Certainly, he was immovable and I couldn't make him pick up that pencil. Nope.

Meanwhile, many in the room picked up theirs and, using their lists, formed sentences and paragraphs. Some bravely read their stories aloud. I applauded the use of adjectives. I cheered when a boy wrote of attending his first day at school, wearing a pair of overalls and looking up and up and up.

Mr. Byron, seated among his students, wrote like a man on fire and asked to share his story: an interesting tale of his child-self and a neighbor's creepy cat.

Everyone got into the act...except Eduardo.

The next day, Sydney, the fourth-grade teacher, called me over. Standing next to her was Eduardo.

"Eduardo has something he'd like to share with you, Ms. Ryane. Go on, Eduardo. This is someone who would really like to hear you."

And he began.

"One was really late and dark and like midnight or mom and me and my sister and my brother and my dad...we were all coming home from work and we were driving down the 405. I was with my dad in one car. My mom was driving in front of us with my brother and my sister...and...and...."

The tears started. Slow drips, one after another, rolled down his cheeks and fell off his jaw. We ignored them.

"And a tire came off my mom's car. That made it crash into the side and off the road and my brother he goes far...flying, like a mile away and we run and we can't find him...and people in houses are calling us to help and the police come and finally we find my brother and he is in a coma."

The tears flowed faster. I dug for a tissue without breaking eye contact with Eduardo, and he went on.

"And the doctors said he won't make it...and the priest comes...and my mom is praying and no one thinks he will make it."

"What happened to him, Eduardo?" I asked.

"He woke up after a long time. He made it. He is so strong and now he plays the piano with one hand because the other hand is still wrecked but he can play...he can make music."

"Eduardo, if I gave you your own journal, do you think you might be able to write this story down? And maybe others about your brother and your family? Or how you see things in the world? Because I will tell you something...I think you might be a writer."

He took the journal and the pencil I handed to him.

The next day he showed me, on his phone, a video of his brother playing piano.

"He wrote that song," Eduardo told me.

And for the rest of the year Eduardo shared with me pages and pages of his stories.

Dear Olivia,
my dearest to my honest, true, and lovinglet heart.
You are my only once live, thou eyes sparckel in the gleaming sunlight, thee is in my warm heart. 'Tis is thee wish my love my heart my soul my wish my light and my partener. We were destant to be together I love you and I always will!

Truly yours,
With love,
—Kate, 5th grade

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Hard News: 'How Does It Feel?'

Stan Bosch, a motorcycle-riding priest, seems to have found his calling at a little school in South Los Angeles by asking the simplest of questions and sticking around for the answers.

"How does it feel?" can unleash torrents of truth.

"How does it feel?" can release a pressure cooker of nightmares.

"How does it feel?" can ignite the flame of possibilities.

Bravo on Stan Bosch for asking and asking and asking again.

Encouraged to talk about it (LA Times)

photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/LA Times

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Belinda: As Boundless As the Sea

When she was six years old, she stood on tip-toe at a microphone and announced her first-grade class and their song.

I froze, tingled, grabbed her teacher's arm and asked, "Who is she? I want her for The Shakespeare Club."

"That's Belinda."

Belinda arrived on Planet Earth with a voice, a point of view and raw talent. When she was eight, she played Juliet, but I couldn't for the life of me get her to look at Geoffrey, her Romeo.

"Belinda, you're spot-on. You understand the language, the character and the actions, but you have to look at him when you say, 'My love is as boundless as the sea.' "

I took Belinda and Geoffrey into the library to work privately, away from the rest of the group. They giggled, they half-looked at each other, they scanned the ceiling, the floor, the door, but...nope, they could not play the scene to each other.

"You know what, guys? When the audience comes to see the play, they know that they're not really in Verona and they know that the swords are we have to give them something real. That's the stuff that goes on between the actors. The real stuff you to do. You have to mean it or the play won't work."

They listened quietly to me, shot each other sidelong glances and agreed to try once more for my sake...and...and....

Belinda kneeled, as if on Juliet's balcony, she spread her arms wide and looked right at her Romeo.

My love is as boundless as the sea.
My love as deep. The more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.

Geoffrey stuck his hand inside his jacket, pulled out a lollipop and handed it to her.

Real stuff. I'm not making this up. Worth the price of admission, wouldn't you say?

What I learned today is that Romeo didn't want the name Romeo Montague because he liked Juliet Capulet and the Montagues and Capulets had war.

The prince said "We must stop this fighting."

The Capulets and the Montagues fighting remines me of my mom and dad.

William Shakespere was telling us about theme because people just can fight and fight until their son or daughter dies.

My character is Juilet. She lives in a castle.
—Belinda, 3rd grade (Year Three)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Recess: Why Do We Do Yoga?

Good question. Why do we do yoga or journal writing or vocal warm-ups or Shakespeare, for that matter....Why do we do anything? Gosh, I'm pooped just thinking about it.

Here's what I look like after a Shakespeare Club meeting:

But I'm way off-topic.

"One time an actor wanted a part very badly. He studied the play, he studied the lines and when he went in for his audition, he was feeling pretty good about his chances...until the director said, 'By the way, there's a point in this play where I would need you to leap from one side of the stage to the other...think you can do that?' "

They love hearing stories of people who can't do stuff.

"What do you think happened?"

"He couldn't do it!"

"Exactly. That actor did not get the part but another actor did...because not only was he a good actor but he could make the leap. He was in shape and he was ready."

"Did the other actor cry?" Darby asks.

"Well, I think he felt bad, but I don't know if he actually cried. Here's the thing: as actors we always want to be able to do what we can imagine our character doing. So, we must be ready. Are you ready?"


"Warrior One."

"Warrior Two."

"Warrior Three."

"When do we learn Warrior Four, Ms. Ryane?" Belinda asks.

"There's no Warrior's not like Harry Potter. Anyway, we have to work a little harder at the poses you kind of, sort of, know. Ready?"


Monday, August 24, 2009


Married at nineteen years of age to Anne Hathaway, William Shakespeare lived in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where the couple had three children: Susanna and their twins, Hamnet and Judith.

As a child, William enjoyed the roving groups of players that came to his town to perform. These experiences must have stuck with him and sown the seeds of ambition that would send him away from his family to launch a career in the bustling, disease-filled, theatre-busy metropolis of London.

The children in The Shakespeare Club explore the stories of Shakespeare's life and then journal about what they've learned. Of particular and graphic interest is the plague spread by the fleas that bit the rats that ate the poop dumped from the windows. They love this stuff.

They identify with Shakespeare's characters, who are driven by revenge, power and love. The kids write about their own experiences with those desires.

Except Luis. For the three years that Luis has been in The Shakespeare Club, I've opened his journal to find blank pages. Occasionally, there'll be one line or a picture, but usually the start of a sentence and then nothing.

Luis can read Shakespeare aloud but he struggles with spelling. I think when he sees letters they jumble into a hornet's nest for him and well...I'm guessing Luis sees letters like I see fractions.

This year I asked his teacher, Mr. Byron, if I could spend an hour a week alone with Luis to work on his writing. He encouraged me to go for it.

"Okay, Luis, Mr. Byron says your class has an assignment to write an essay about home."


Luis spills his response with the exhaustion of a man at the end of a day of hard labor.

"You seem pretty tired, Luis."

"Yeah." He yawns and lays his head down on his hands.

"What time do you go to bed?"

"When I want...kinda late, I guess. Then I tell my mom I need water and I go to the bathroom and hang around in there....I can't sleep."

"Hmmm, you're probably a night owl, but you're also an actor in training and you need sleep because the one thing Sir Andrew Aguecheek is not is tired. That guy's got energy to burn."

"Yeah. I didn't have lunch today either."

"Here." I give Luis a bag of roasted almonds and dried cranberries.

"Thanks, Ms. Ryane. What are these things?"


"They're good."

"After we do some work, I'm going to teach you an exercise to help you sleep."

"Hmmm." He nods but can't say much because he's crunching nuts and berries.

"Luis, open your journal to a fresh page."

He does, picks up his pencil and continues munching.

"Ms. Ryane?"


"I don't understand the economy....Did they make the economy bad on purpose...or what happened to it....Like, I don't want you to spend all your economy on me with these snacks."

Here's a word that has popped up a lot with the kids in The Shakespeare Club. The economy.

Why can't we do...? Why can't we go...? Why can't we have...?

The economy.

"Luis, I don't think anyone made the economy bad on purpose...but it does affect all of us....We're in it together and things are going to get better...can't give you a date...but they'll improve. In the meantime, enjoy the nuts and berries....My economy can handle it."

I asked Luis to make what I call a writer's "shopping list." Things he thinks about when he thinks of a home. For almost every word he asks for spelling help and I give it to him.

He writes:

    safe street
    ice cream

Luis wrote an essay about a house he used to live in with his parents and older sister on a street where he could play outside. He wrote of how his sister would take him to the pet store, how she liked to look at colorful fish and how he liked the lizards. They would go to the ice cream shop, where she chose strawberry and he chose chocolate and they'd walk home licking their dripping cones. Then his sister moved out, got married and had a baby boy. Luis and his parents moved into an apartment on a busy street.

The sad thing is I miss my sister, he wrote. My dad bought me a lizard because I was lonely.

"Luis, go to the top of those steps and lie down."

He climbs up the storytime risers, lies down and folds his hands over his tummy. I sit in a chair at the bottom.

"Close your eyes, take a deep breath and exhale. Imagine that your feet are little pats of butter melting on a hot stack of pancakes....Now your ankles are melting down the pancakes...and your knees...and your chest...and your ears...."

I let Luis melt away for ten minutes.

He woke up, stretched his skinny arms overhead and said, "Wow, that was weird. I really disappeared or something."

"Luis, tonight try that when you go to bed. And by the way, congratulations on your essay....Someday it might be a good idea to share that story with your sister. I'm pretty sure she would like it a lot."


Dear Anne Hathaway,

I really miss you & I hope you miss me to. I hope it's going really good where ever you are. Wife I really want to go home but I have too much things to do. Don't worry darling I will come home some day. Take really good care of our kids & tell them that I miss them a lot.

Your Husband
—Meara, 5th grade

Friday, August 21, 2009

Rachel: On the Inside, Outside

For the first time in my four years of The Shakespeare Club, I was able say something like this:

"Rachel, could you take these children outside and create an ocean?"

And, by God, she did it. Rachel took thirty yards of fabric, six girls, her own authority and came back half an hour later with the sea.

Our production would start in the dark as the sounds of an ocean and seagulls faded in. As blue and green lights lit up the stage, we'd hear the bubbly music of James Horner's score from" "Titanic" and see those waves with glittering fishes swimming upstage and children forming the shape of a ship.

Rachel, six girls, and gauzy fabric were a frothy frappé.

Rachel, two rambunctious boys, and one crabby girl...a fallen soufflé.

"Rachel, could you take Luis, Geoffrey and Geneva outside to work on the Toby, Andrew and Maria scene?"

They came back thirty minutes later. Rachel, tight-jawed and pale, signaled me with raised eyebrows that she may have been slammed by a briny swell this time.

After rehearsal:

"Rachel, how'd it go out there?"

"Not good. They were horrible. They wanted to play around, act out, goof off...anything but rehearse the scene. I said to them, 'That's want me to just give up on you? Walk away?' I was sooo mad."

I tracked the culprits down individually over the week.

"So, hey,'d it go working privately with Ms. Rachel the other day?"

His hands were shoved into his pockets.

"Ahh...well...not so great, I guess. We were kinda wild, I guess."

"Okay, look, you know she's a real actor. You three had an amazing opportunity to work with someone who knows her stuff and now you're telling me that you just wasted your time and her time?"

"Yeah...I guess we did, Ms. Ryane."

"Well, I guess next meeting you'll have a private moment with Ms. Rachel to apologize for that. Do you agree?"

"Yeah, Ms. Ryane, I agree."

And so it went with all three. They copped to it and apologized to Rachel because they're still of an age when an outright lie to me is a rare thing.

Rachel wanted to take another stab at a private rehearsal and I sent her outside with Alice and Polly: Olivia and Viola. All three came back glowing. Good work and well-used time.

I took a moment at next week's meeting.

"You know all twenty-one of you were chosen carefully to do 'Twelfth Night,' but there's still a waiting list of other kids who would love to take over in here."

"Who, Ms. Ryane?

"Who's on the list, Ms. Ryane?"

"Hey, Ms. Ryane, how many xs do I have? Do I have any?"

"The s and xs are private between each of you and me. And I'm not telling you who is on the list but I am telling you this: On May 28 I'm not going to be onstage doing this play. Ms. Rachel is not going to be onstage doing this play. You are. And you will have to be ready and you will have to count on each other because we won't be there to save you."

Henry, suddenly worried: "Well, where will you be, anyways?"

"I'm going to be out front taking notes. It'll be you up there, together, and in charge of the show. Not me."


And it was golden.

If I was a sailor on a ship I would eat raw fish and I would see whales dolphins and fish. If I ran out of food I would eat and cut up rats. I would kind of like it.
Nathan, 3rd grade

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Recess: Mixed Up III

Let it be known that I am a happily married woman to a good and funny man, BUT if things had played out differently....

What if I'd married Mel Gibson?

Down the red carpet we'd parade to the announcement:

Ladies and Gentlemen...

Mel Gibson and his wife, Mel Gibson!

A marriage made in Malibu!

Previously at Teaching Will: Recess: Mixed Up, Recess: Mixed Up II

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Lyndon, Faith & Iris: In the Wings

Quietly, patiently they stand on the sidelines, not knowing if they'll ever be chosen.

These are the wallflowers of a school population. You may spot one alone reading on a bench, or on the edge of the softball lineup or in the wings of a stage...waiting, ready and hopeful.

When I auditioned Iris, a third-grader, she was generous to a fault.

"It's okay, Ms. Ryane, if I don't get in this year. I'll understand."

And I picked a boy over her.

I had a similar experience with a Faith, a fourth-grader.

"I do think I really would like acting, Ms. Ryane...but you's okay...maybe props would be fun too."

And I picked a boy over her.

Lyndon had decided to be our stage manager instead of an actor this year and a journal entry clued me in to his regret.

Iris and Faith would now join our ranks and replace the "released" Danny and Russell.

Lyndon. Lyndon. What to do? Give him more responsibility. More than just leading the group into Room 39, or helping set up chairs, or handing out snacks....I had to give him something big.

"Lyndon, the cast is going to do a dance at the end of the play and I want you to stage it."

His eyes popped wide. "Sure, Ms. Ryane, okay!"

In my yoga class I heard a song that I decided to use for this dance. A sweet love song that ended up as a famous ditty used in not one but two nationally-televised television commercials. "Falling in Love at a Coffee Shop" by Landon Pigg.

I think that possibly
Maybe I'm falling for you
Yes, there's a chance that I've fallen quite hard over you

"Hey, that's the AT&T song!" Geoffrey pointed out.

"Yeah, yeah...I know, rats. Anyway."

Lyndon made a list of all the actors and together we paired them up. I brought in ten pieces of yellow ribbon and he handed those out.

"Okay, Lyndon, you tell those ten where to stand on the stage and then have their partners join up and each hold a ribbon end."

For a ten-year-old to enforce even the simplest of commands to his fellow students is a challenge (I mean, it's hard for me and I'm an adult), but he did okay and we got them up and walking in circles to the music. Kind of a "walking around" dance.

Faith, another right hand, dutifully adopted the task of placing scripts and props at each chair. As an actor, she had only tiny parts, that of "guard" and "sailor," but she remembered her cues, learned her two lines and never complained.

Iris had one line as another "sailor" and she was entirely accountable.

Lyndon sat next to me in rehearsals. He recorded blocking and took performance notes:

    Geoffrey and Luis—NEED TO WORK HARDER!!!
    Polly—GOOD on long speech!!!
    Susan—remember RUG PROP!!!

His notes were adamant and I always asked him to address the cast with his thoughts at the end of each rehearsal.

Quietly, patiently, they stand on the sidelines, not knowing if they'll ever be chosen.

Dear Anne,

I am living a life of misery here in London. Bad things are happening here, first of all, I did not manage to get a good job. I got a job as a water boy in a theater and I am not getting payed very much. (at least a penny a day) I miss you very much. I also miss Suzzana, Hamnet and Judith.

—Darby, 4th grade

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Hard News: Scoring

Are ya just sick of it, fed up with the gloomy news? Do ya sometimes think you'd like to curl up in a corner, pop some pills and call it a day?

Well, you can...for free! You too can have a tranquil drug experience and without lurking around a creepy downtown alley, paying an arm and a leg for a good time! Scientists tell us that simple acts of kindness are associated with elevated levels of dopamine and oxytocin: natural opiates. Hey, fun!

Consider Ted and Penny Landreth.

They're in their sixties and each year for the past twenty years they've fed 45,000 folks free lunches. Ted and Penny float off to sleep every night on a little cloud known as "helper's high."

Bravo on Ted and Penny!

I want what they're having.

The rewards of volunteering (LA Times)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Geoffrey: Adding It Up

Geoffrey is a seasoned member of The Shakespeare Club. At eight years of age, he was a success as Horatio in "Hamlet," and at nine, his Romeo was romantic.

This year, ten-year-old Geoffrey will soar as Sir Toby Belch. However, much like his director, Geoffrey struggles with the taxing chores of logic.

I don't think I have a left brain at all. A cursory scan might well show that my right brain took its box of crayons to the other side and colored over the math and science cells.

As Geoffrey and I walk across the campus together, I recognize his level of anxiety. Geoffrey hides his homework and "forgets" to turn it in. His face scrunches in worry. His left brain may be AWOL.

"Geoffrey, are you saying the school is giving you a math coach?"

"Yeah, I got a coach."

He says this with a shrug, as if he's embarrassed about being singled out.

"I'm so jealous."

He throws me a skeptical look and we continue walking.

"I'm serious, man. I never had help and I was lousy at math. My head just doesn't go there."

"You, Ms. Ryane?"

"Yes, Geoffrey, it's the truth. If someone put me in a room and said, 'Ms. Ryane, you can have a million dollars....All you have to do is multiply and divide these fractions,'...Geoffrey, I'd leave with an empty wallet."


"Okay, look at me."

We stop, he tilts his chin up and I put my hand on his shoulder.

"I'm fine. I'm a happy, successful person anyway. You have a golden highway in front of you, my friend. You're talented and super-bright and you're going to have a great life. You just have to get through these few years of arithmetic, so suck up all the help you can because on the other end...seriously, it gets way better. Just breathe, Geoffrey. The only math you're going to need is how to figure out twenty percent for tips...I promise."

Remember this?

"Okay class, solve the problem: Sally is going to visit her grandmother. She gets on a train to travel 45 miles to her grandma's 150-acre farm. Sally carries a basket of 6 apples to share with 3 horses and 1 cow. If Sally leaves at 8 o'clock, the train breaks down, she gets hungry and has to walk 16 miles, how many apples will she have left?"

Here's how a right brain crunches the numbers:

I love the name Sally, it's so me and a train ride, yay! I'll wear my new blue jeans and my peach top and the 6 apples will be green ones, plus I'll have 2 vanilla cupcakes with lemon icing and sprinkles. When I get to the farm, my chubby grandma will give me 12 kisses and 5 hugs. I'll play with her 13 chickens, ride the 3 horses, squish 7 cow pies and tuck in bed at night listening to 45,000 crickets.

Problem solved.

"Geoffrey, do you have your harmonica with you?"

"Yeah." He pulls it out of his pocket.

"I think it would be way cool if you made your entrance playing it."

He shares a sly smile.

"Let's try...go on...sit in your chair...and when I read your cue, you move to the bench playing the harmonica. Ready?"

He jauntily kicks his feet out in his Sir Toby-walk and plays the blues.

"Geoffrey, great! Can you remember the music? I really like it...let's go with that one."

"Oh, I can't do that, Ms. Ryane."

"What d'you mean?"

"It won't be the same every time."

And it never was.

What the hell does an improvising blues player need with long division, I ask you? What?

Dear Olivia,

I will have have revenge and I will rise to show you guys that I am smarter than you think I am and then well get married and have children and I have the names planed out Pico, chico, rico, fico and loco.

—Geoffrey, 5th grade

Friday, August 14, 2009

Not a Leg to Stand On

"Give me a LEFT LEG and be quick about it."

"I don't know what that is."

"Fine...a RIGHT LEG, a BIG TOE...something, anything with alcohol in it....I'm begging you, it's been a rough one."

My husband pops open a beer called FAT TIRE and I am so grateful I miss the hint.

"What happened?" He leans on the counter with an air of sympathy.

"I had to fire two of them. Two. God help me, I should be shot."

Dear Danny's/Russell's Parent,

After much consideration I have decided it's time to take Danny/Russell out of The Shakespeare Club for this year.

I'm very fond of Danny/Russell, but don't think he has the maturity level at this time to focus and take direction.

In other words, he's just too restless to be happy with the demands of producing a play and for those around him to do their work.

I think Danny/Russell might be better suited for the program when he's in fifth grade if indeed he still has an interest at that time.

He is a good boy and I'm very fond of him; this should not be held against his character.

Mel Ryane

Four letters went out the previous day. Two home and two to their teachers. That was the easy part.

Sitting down with Danny and Russell privately was...well, sitting down with an eight-year-old to deliver bad news is never a good time.

"Danny, I think maybe The Shakespeare Club isn't really what you thought it might be. You might be happier kicking a soccer ball or climbing on the playground equipment. What d'ya think?"

He nodded and then his face clouded.

"My dad's gonna be mad cause I got kicked out."

"You didn't get 'kicked out' for bad behavior, Danny, and I've explained that in a letter to your parents. You're a good boy."

And I walked him back to class.


His little hands curled the ends of his sweatshirt sleeves over his fists, ready to catch the tears dripping down his cheeks.

"But Ms. Ryane, I really do want to be in Shakespeare Club...I do."

His nose ran and I handed him tissues and the catch in the throat could've been coming from either of us and it was horrible, it was awful, and I felt like a gorgon.

"Russell...what do you think about being on the Props Crew? You could help make the fishes —"

"I wanted to play Malvolio!"

Now that's just not something you're going to hear from the mouth of a third-grader every day.

"I know, Russell. I know you did. I think we need to revisit you being in The Shakespeare Club maybe when you get to fourth or fifth grade."

"Henry got Malvolio."

"Yes, he did."

"I just got 'sailor'."

"That's true."

"But I want to do Shakespeare Club and now my mom's going to be really, really mad at me!"

"Your mom knows you're a good boy and so do I, Russell. And you're going to find a way, I know you are, to get control over your own body and that will be the time to audition again."

His big brown eyes were water-filled and the cuffs of his sweatshirt were soaked.

We stood outside of Russell's classroom door. I tilted his face up.

"It's going to be okay, Russell. Really, it's going to be okay."

"Yeah. I'm going to Kenya."

"You are? When?"

"In June. Me and my mom are going."

He said that with a final slurpy sniff.

"Russell, you're going to see amazing things and eat interesting food. You're going to have an adventure and please, please keep a journal. I would love to read that."


Hug. Big-time. I needed it more than he did.

Today was fun we got our parts. I get the part of the narrator. I have a lot of parts. Alice she has 56 parts because she has Olivia.
—Belinda, 4th grade

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Recess: Oh, the Rules

    A real actor:

    1. Listens to the director and does as she asks.
    2. Never tells another actor what to do.
    3. Has the courage to be silly.
    4. Never whines.

If 3rd-, 4th- and 5th-graders can get this, don't you think any adult actor could?

I mean, don'tcha?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


February, 2009

"Ma, may, mee, my, mo, moo —"

"Ma, may, mee, my, mo, moo —"

"Baa, bay, bee, bye, bo, boo —"

"Baa, bay, bee, bye, bo, boo —"

"Ms. Ryane...Ms. Ryane...."

Nathan bops around like a kid who has to pee. He waves his arms to get my attention (as if that's a difficult thing) and I raise my finger to my lips to indicate: Wait.

"Ga, gay, gee, gye, go, goo —"

"Ga, gay, gee, gye, go, goo —"

"But, Ms. Ryane...I just want to it today? Is it today you tell us?"

Finger to lips.

"Rubber baby buggy bumpers."

"Rubber baby buggy bumpers."

"Is it today?" The calls echo over the schoolyard.

Today and today and today....

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow....
Macbeth Act V, Scene V

And our vocal warm-up is trashed because it is today...casting will be announced and nothing worthwhile will happen in The Shakespeare Club until the task is done.

"Okay, we've read the play and you all have a pretty good understanding of the story of 'Twelfth Night' and the characters. There are more girls' parts than usual, but still not a lot. Remember why?"

"William Shakespeare didn't like girls."

"No, Luis, and after spending three years in the club, you should know that's not the reason."

"Anyone else?"

"Because boys had to be the girls?" asks Belinda.

"Exactly. Boys played the girls' parts because it was against the law for girls to be actors in those days. So, Shakespeare didn't write a lot of girl characters and that means in our club, girls will get to play boy characters."


Happens every year. Oh well.

"Now 'Twelfth Night' doesn't have a lot parts period, so not everyone gets a big part. But everyone is necessary for us to do a great production."

Russell makes little fists and chants in a low voice:

"Malvolio, Malvolio, Malvolio...."

"If you wish to have a private discussion with me after today's meeting about your part, I will stick around and be available. So here goes...."

I announce the casting and get an equal amount of delighted squeals and disgusted groans.

It was this way in Shakespeare's Globe Theatre over 400 years ago, and it is this way in Room 39 in 2009.

It will be ever thus.

[Dramatis Personae
    Calvin, sailor/guard
    Theresa, Sea Captain
    Beth, ocean maker/musician
    Henry, Malvolio
    Celia, ocean maker
    Alice, Olivia
    Lizzie, sailor/Valentine
    Ethan, Sebastian
    Polly, Viola
    Luis, Sir Andrew Aguecheek
    Susan, ocean maker
    Meara, ocean maker/Curio
    Darby, musician/ocean maker/Feste
    Nathan, Orsino
    Faith, guard
    Belinda, Narrator
    Iris, sailor
    Geneva, Maria
    Kate, ocean maker/Antonia
    Geoffrey, Sir Toby Belch

    Lyndon, stage manager
    Anthony, lights
    Pablo, sound

    Scene: A city in Illyria, and the sea-coast near it]

After our two hours together, the kids scatter out of the room and into the schoolyard. As Rachel I reorganize the room, I notice Celia standing alone at the door.

"Ms. Ryane?"

"Yes, Celia," and I kneel beside her.


"Did you want to talk about the casting, Celia?'


"Tell me."

"I don't really want to be 'ocean maker.' I want...I would like...."

Celia looks around the room, up and down, here and there....It's hard for her to meet my eyes, but what a brave little girl to even have this chat. No one else came forward.

"I know, Celia. I know you're disappointed. 'Ocean maker' is not a speaking part and not a great part, but you and I need to find your acting voice before that can happen."

She looks to the floor and I can sense her holding back tears.

"Celia, you have another big job and that's your understudy part. You have to be ready to do be the Narrator in case Belinda gets sick or misses a rehearsal....You and I will work on that together and maybe find that voice I know you have in there."

"But, Ms. Ryane, at home you wouldn't believe it....I am really, really funny and I have a really, really loud voice."

"I believe it, Celia. And we're going to get that voice here."

She sighs.

"I don't think Belinda will ever miss a meeting."

"You just never know, Celia. We have to be ready because you just never know."

I would like to play sir toby because he is funny like me he is cool like me and likes to party. Because he wrote the joke to Malvolio.
—Luis, 5th grade

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Recess: Mixed Up II

I disappoint. It happens. A lot.

Often when I visit a new doctor, a nurse will breathlessly call out:

"Meg Ryan!"

And I disappoint.

It happened at a booster-club meeting at the school. On the evening's agenda:

Meg Ryan will speak about The Shakespeare Club.

And, once again, I disappoint.

"She wanted to be here, of course, and sends regrets. I'm only here as the understudy."

I'm going to call Tom Hanks and suggest a movie hook-up.

I mean, what's the diff?

Meg R.
Mel R.

Previously at Teaching Will: Recess: Mixed Up