Monday, May 31, 2010

The Chops: Geoffrey and Oliver

Sometimes kids from our local middle school show up after school to do homework under the guardianship of our campus coach. Sometimes those kids are former Shakespeare club members. Sometimes I get to see them.

The other day I ran into Geoffrey and his sister, Kate. Geoffrey had been a member for three years and developed into a top-notch little actor. He played Horatio, Romeo and Sir Toby Belch. He was equally capable with comedy or tragedy.

"Geoffrey! Kate!" I called.

"Ms. Ryane!" They both set aside their bags of Cheetos and ran to me for big hugs.

"It's great to see you two. How's going in sixth grade?"

"Well, Ms. Ryane," Geoffrey lowered his voice to give a manly answer, "it's pretty good, I guess."

"Kate, is the schoolwork tough?"

"Mmmm, no, it's pretty easy, I guess."

"Well, that's because you're a clever girl. I'd be having trouble with the math myself." Geoffrey gave me a sly smile since we both share a disdain for fractions and long division.

"So hey you two, can you check with your parents and see if you can come and see the Shakespeare Club's production of 'Macbeth'?" I handed them a freshly minted program with the date and times.

"Sure, okay, Ms. Ryane," Geoffrey answered as Kate studied the cast names listed on the sheet. "So, who's playing Macbeth, anyway?"

"Oliver. Do you know him? He's in fourth grade and I have to say, he's an actor like you are, Geoffrey. He's doing a really good job."

Geoffrey took the sheet from his sister and checked our Oliver's name next to Macbeth.

"No, I don't think I know him."

He went down the list and came back to Oliver's name.

"But here's the question, Ms. Ryane....Is he better than me?"

Ahhh, yes. Never too young. Once an actor has tread the boards, sniffed the grease paint and accepted the accolades of an avid audience, the addiction has taken hold and the vein of competition pulses.

"No one is better, Geoffrey. You're not better and Oliver's not better. You both have the chops, the acting chops. There could never be world with too many great actors."

"Guess what?" Geoffrey's voice rose.


"I met this guy from New Mexico and his name is Gus and because of you, Ms. Ryane," Geoffrey points a firm finger in my direction, "because of you he thinks I could be a really great actor and he's going to help me with classes and stuff. And that's because of you!"

"That's exciting, but you know what, Geoffrey?"

He blinked his soft brown eyes at me.

"It's because of your talent, your courage and your will. All I could do was hone what was already there. All I could do was encourage you, steer you and give you some craft, but without you taking the never would have happened. We did it together."


Geoffrey exhaled the "yeah" with the gravitas of a mature person, and we both in that second missed it so, so much.

"Great to see you guys, I gotta run." Fast before a maudlin Ms. Ryane makes a fool of herself. "Hope you make it to the show. You have my info, so keep in touch, okay?"

"Sure, Ms. Ryane."

Miss it, miss, so much and soon I'll be saying good-bye to another bunch. So it goes. They go.

I hate middle school.

I want to be in Shakepear club because I want to learn more aboute Shakepear. And because I Love doing plays.

Today I learnd that Willuam Shakspears dad was a glover and Willam got mareid and had 3 babys.
Lizzie, 4th grade

grease paint photo by TrekEarth user broglia

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Holdout: Chloe

Chloe was the last member of the club chosen this year. I was on the fence about her. I'd been told she was extremely shy. When she auditioned, it was near impossible for her to look directly at me. She let the words of her audition piece drip out of her mouth and we both looked to the floor as if they might be laying there in a jumbled heap.

In the end, I accepted Chloe because her mom told me her daughter was eager to be in the Shakespeare Club and, though I wouldn't use the word "eager" to describe what I witnessed, she seemed worth the chance.

Chloe is a tiny girl, but feisty. Through the year I watched her on the playground running, laughing and chatting to friends. But when I said hello she looked away and let her friends respond with "Hi, Ms. Ryane."

When we warm up outside with yoga, Chloe stands still, unmoving, as the others strike Warrior One. When we meditate, Chloe slouches and keeps her eyes wide open as others close theirs and sit up straight. My final clue this wasn't actually a shyness problem was the day the group discussed how to play a king.

"When an actor is cast as the King or Queen, they often wonder 'How do I do that?' I mean, an actor is an actor, not a king in real how do we do that?"

"You could yell!"

"You could be bossy!"

"You could cut off someone's head!"

"Well, I guess we could do those things, but here's the truth: It's the easiest part to play, for a couple of reasons. One, it says right in the program that Henry is King Duncan. Two, he's wearing a crown. Three, when people speak to him, they kneel. See? Easy. Henry, sit on the throne and we'll practice."

One by one each actor came to Henry to beg for something like more money, more food or more jewels, and one by one they knelt in front of Henry. All...except you know who.

Chloe simply would not kneel and I saw that Chloe's deal had little to do with shyness and much more to do with her vantage point on authority. Chloe is a holdout. Chloe ain't looking, ain't stretching, ain't closing her eyes, ain't using a big voice and certainly ain't kneeling in front of nobody. And I got it. Chloe is a rebel, and with a similar vein running through me, I could identify.

Problem: one of her roles in the play is [servant].

"Chloe, do you want to make Honor Roll in the Shakespeare Club? I mean, is that even important to you?"


"Okay, I'm going to give you some big clues how to get there. If it's really important to you, that is."

"Okay." Still won't look at me.

"If you find some courage and share from your journal — because you really are a good writer — and if you kneel and speak to King Macbeth in your biggest voice, you'll probably get those two extra s you need to make Honor Roll."

Chloe looked across the field at kids kicking balls and chasing each other. I could see her ruminating on my proposition.

"If I share from my journal and if I have a big voice, I'll get on Honor Roll?"

"And if you kneel to the King."

She gave a quick nod and returned to a game of tetherball.

Seed planted. Rebel with a cause. We'll see.

My Future

Will I be rich?
Will I have a very fast car?
Would I have lots of clothes and shoes?
Will I have lots of pets?
Would be flying buildings and cars?
What would I look like when I....


Everything from a barbie, barbie clothes, tons of pink clothes and shoes, hair to and a pretty face to, skinny jeans to.

Potion: making a girl
—Chloe, 4th grade

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hard News: Whatever It takes

Poetry in motion (Robert Oliphant, LA Times)

Professor Oliphant, congratulations to you for taking iambic verse to a whole new level. Further kudos for not only teaching, but embracing a willingness to be taught. Seems to me this is a key to keeping young.

NOW is the WIN-TER of our DIS-CON-TENT made GLOR-I-OUS SUM-MER by this SON of YORK!

Okay everyone, join Professor Oliphant. Hit the deck and give me fifty!

illustration by Justin Renteria/LA Times

Monday, May 24, 2010

She Flutters: Darby, Part III

April, 2010

Darby arrived at our Wednesday rehearsal refreshed, prepped and pissed off. The last didn't concern me too much because she was finally awake and with us. I'd imagined Darby as a moth up in a corner of Room 42, looking down at us unengaged and melancholy. She now appeared to have landed and stood at her music stand alert and ready.

Darby understood that Faith, her counterpart as Narrator One, would now cue the actors when they called for lines. This job had been taken away so that Darby could focus on her own cues as Narrator Two.

"Okay, actors, when you need help, Faith will give you the line when you call for it."

The cast looked from Faith to Darby and back again. Their heads swiveled in search of a reaction and, if there was one, I didn't want to see it. Just moving along, people, moving along — nothing to see here, nothing at all.

And so we started our run-through. It was ragged but not horrible. For the first time, I didn't say one word. If a cue was late, we waited while the actors figured out who should be speaking. If a prop was missing, we waited for them to find it. This is how it would be in performance and I needed to prepare them to be on their own up there and relying on each other, not looking at me to help out.

I didn't say one word but someone did. Darby took it upon herself to reprimand the actors all the way through.

"Garth, you missed a line!"

"Oliver, wrong word!"

"Phoebe, you're late!"

"Dominick, you’re in the wrong place."

"Natalie, that's not the right line!"

Endless admonitions came from Darby at stage right.

I shot her a look and she shrugged back with a look that said, I'm just sayin'.

This was I'm pissed-off and I'm back, make no mistake about that behavior and I let her get it out of her system — this one time.

After notes and as the kids settled in to write in their journals and nibble snacks, I took a moment with Darby.

"Hey, thank you so much for staying with the script today. You missed one of your cues on page thirteen but, overall much better.I appreciate it."

"Oh sure, Ms. Ryane, you're welcome."

"One tiny thing."


"You don't need to tell the actors when they drop a line or mess up. We'll just keep going. They don’t need to hear that."

"Oh, okay, sure."

"Good. Start writing, I know that's your favorite part."

She wrote, she shared her writing and we moved on, folks. We just keep moving on.

A Moth: Darby, Part I
A Moth: Darby, Part II


I live in the forest. The forest is really dirty with rodents. My fellow friends are some witchs, gargoleys, rodents, and other outern forest animils. I eat all animals except rodend and bears. EEWW bears. The rodents are gushy and crunchy.

I believe that Macbeth shouldn't have killed Duncan. Also, I do believe that Macbeth has changed the future by killing Duncan. I would like Macbeth ded and earn more greater powers. What the power is to zap and burn people.

What I will do to get what I want is make my spell tell me what my future would be like as a witch. I am scared of Macduff, Banquo and Macbeth. Also, and maybe some fellow witch they are to bosy. I am really afraid to get killed by a wich or even someone I don't no. I am loyal to all my buddys.
—Faith, 5th grade

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Moth: Darby, Part II

April, 2010

I found Darby's script in our Shakespeare Club cupboard. I turned the pages and studied her scribbles and drawings. She'd sketched a Lady Macbeth and a Queen Elizabeth. I sighed. What to do, what to do?


I remember as a child the thrill of seeing a turquoise or red star stuck on a page of my schoolwork. I don't know the history of the sticker thing but it really hasn't lost its luster or ability to inspire, and it's so easy. I opened my book of stickers and next to every one of Darby's speeches I pressed on a cat or a "You did it!" or a "Way to go!" sticker. At the very least, she might want to turn a page, find a sticker and stay current with her cues.

During a lunch break I called her over to our meeting place at the blue metal picnic table. I took a moment and could see she was readying herself for another "talk" or reprimand. What else would she expect?


"So, here's the deal, my sweet. I'm not going to let you get that third x. I'm not going to give you a chance to leave Shakespeare Club. I'm not going to let you quit. Because if you quit now, you will become a quitter and you do not want to be a quitter in middle school or high school or college. You and I are going to make this work and you are going to help the club have 'an awesome show'."

Darby met my eyes and nodded.

"I know how important writing is to you. I know you want to be a writer and that's a great ambition. Because we're getting near our production date and have been busy doing run-throughs, we haven't had time for journal writing and I'm sure you miss that. If you can stay with the play and pick up your cues, we should have enough time on Wednesday to get our writing in. And here, I have a gift for you."

In her hands I placed a "writing muse." A paper cut-out of a lady in a pretty dress with jewels dangling from her hem.

"You can hang this anywhere. A muse is an inspiration for a writer and now you have your own."

"Ms. Ryane, I love it."

"I'm glad."

"And you know what? Things got better at home."

"Really? That's fantastic. How do you account for the change? What do you think happened?"

"I don't know, but they just got better."

"Well, let's thank the universe for that."

Darby threw her arms skyward.

"Thanks, universe!"


A Moth: Darby, Part I
She Flutters: Darby, Part III

If I were a Elizabethan Man, I would wear some beeches, a Hat, And A vest. I would comb my mustash comb my hair. I would use the bathroom and throw it outside. And I would be ritch. I would marry Queen Elezabeth.
Oliver, 4th grade

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Real Stuff

April, 2010

I once read a review of a 19th-century production of "Macbeth" wherein the critic praised the show as being "the most realistic" he'd ever seen. The writer went on to give an example of stage "realism" when he described Macbeth's sighting of Banquo's ghost in the dinner scene.

Apparently the director and designers thought a terrific idea would be for the actor playing Macbeth to wear a bright red wig — the character is Scottish, after all — and attached to this hairpiece would be two long strings traveling down the inside the actor's sleeves, rigged to his middle fingers.

Enter GHOST.

Avaunt! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with!.
Macbeth Act III, Scene IV

Yikes! When Macbeth saw the ghost, the actor tugged the strings and straight up went the scarlet woolly locks, pointing to the ceiling. I'm kicking myself for not coming up with this highly realistic concept. Ronald McDonald, look out: perfect casting.

"Okay, here’s the thing, when the audience comes to see our 'Macbeth,' they will know they're really in our school auditorium and not actually on a heath in Scotland."

Blink, blink, blinkety-blink.

"And they're going to know the crown isn't real gold with real jewels or our swords aren't really sharp metal."

Where is this going? is written all over their faces.

"So, we have to give the audience something real to make the experience worth their while. What do you think that is?"

"Like, you mean our feelings?" asks Garth.

"Kind of like that. It's what goes on between you as actors. That's the real thing. When Lady Macbeth is fed up with Macbeth for being a big chicken, that's real. And when Macduff is furious at Macbeth for murdering his family, that's real. When you really speak to each other, you make the audience sit up and listen. Then you're giving them their money's worth. Make sense?"

We'll see how much sense that makes.

What it means to be a best friend is helping, not telling there secrets, and if they do something terrible I would tell. My responsibility as a best friend is to listen to what they are triening to say, and respectful Yes, I know you shouldn't tell on your best friend but, if they're doing something irresonsable you kind of have to.
Faith, 5th grade

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Moth: Darby, Part I

April, 2010

"Darby, I have something I'd like to read to you."

"Okay, Ms. Ryane."

We're sitting outside her classroom at a picnic table. I've taken Darby out of class for this time together. I open up a sheet of paper and read aloud.

"I want to be in Shakespeare Club because I love acting. Since it's my last year and my third and last in the Shakespeare Club, I want to finish this year with an awesome show."

I hold out the typed copy of Darby's journal writing. She studies it and hands it back to me. I refold the paper and try to meet her eyes as we sit across from each other at the blue metal table. Darby's face is half covered in long locks of her brown hair. She's grown her bangs into a curtain.

"I believe you meant that when you wrote it and I still believe you mean it, but I'm having trouble seeing it. It's like you've stopped caring. Like you're bored or I don’t know what."

"I was just having a bad day, Ms. Ryane. I'll try, I'll do better," she whispers.

When Darby was eight years old and in her first year of the club, I was told by her teacher that she rarely spoke in class. This was not my experience with her. She played Tybalt in "Romeo and Juliet" that year and each week gained traction, voice-wise. By the performance date, Darby was enthusiastically playing her role. In one performance, after she was killed, she rolled sideways across the stage back to her seat. An efficient and creative choice, I thought.

Last year Darby was a musician in "Twelfth Night." She helped write her own composition, practiced and made all of her cues.

This year she has a prominent but easy role as Narrator Two, with a side chore of cueing the actors when they call "Line!" She has nothing to memorize because she's only required to read aloud from a script. And she's failing. Crashing. Falling apart, failing.

"Darby, you're late."

"Darby, the cue."

"Darby, stand up."

My endless nagging has not helped. Nagging rarely does. But I'm at a loss and this isn't our first conversation about the problem. I've asked, "How can I help you? Tell me how and I'll do it."

"I'll try harder," she answers every time I bring it up.

"Darby, this isn't about one bad day, this is every day." I brush my fingers across her forehead, looking for her eyes. Her face is as pale as moonlight, her eyes large and dark and her body thin as a needle. "Sometimes I look across the room at you and it's as if you've floated like a moth up to the ceiling...far away. Where are you, Darby? What's happening? Are you nervous about moving on to middle school?"

"A little."

"What else?"

"It's home."


"It's my parents and...."

"What? They don't understand you? They think something's wrong with you?"

"Yeah...yeah...and I don't's just bad and I can't...they tell me not to say...because...."

"Because it's private."

She nods and looks at her hands.

"Okay, you don't have to say anything to me about this. I can see you're having a rough time but I will tell you this: When I was your age I had a tough time at home and the one thing I knew was that onstage I had all the power. So do you."

"Yeah." This comes out in a sigh.

"Okay, here's the deal, I'm going to take away your job as prompter. Faith will do that because the other actors need those cues. You already have two x's and I'm giving you one more chance on Wednesday to do your part. If you really can't, I will have to replace you. I don't want to do that, Darby, because I can't think of anything more painful than if you had to come into the auditorium with your class and watch 'Macbeth' instead of being up there in it. I still believe what you wrote, that you want this to be an awesome show. Okay?"

I knew the minute this little speech was out of my mouth that threatening her was the worst possible route. I watched Darby lope back to her classroom with her limp hair, her head lolling and her shoulders drooping. I had one of those awful moments of knowing I blew it and was not clear on how to help or repair it.

The one clear piece of knowledge I had was I wouldn't be sleeping well that night.

A Moth: Darby, Part II
She Flutters: Darby, Part III

If I was a girl in the Elizabethan Period, I would try hard to earn my education and become a famous book writer. I would not like to have layers of clothing on top of me, when at home I would cook delicous meals, (including warm dinner rolls with melted butter inside. And do my very best to keep my family happy.
—Darby, 5th grade

Friday, May 14, 2010

Help Me, I'm Falling: Rachel

Everyone needs help. But it's a rare thing to know how to use help. This is the trick of the assistant-thing. How to release control and reap the benefits.

When Rachel showed up last year, I welcomed the idea of her help and so started my own learning curve on how best to let her assist me and our pint-sized club members. Rachel came to us as a trained classical actor particularly well-versed in the works of the Bard but, like me when I started the club five years ago, hadn't spent time in a classroom. This had her a little nervous but I assured her that though it could be daunting, she would be fine, just fine.

Here's how long my learning curve with Rachel took: ten minutes. This was in part because I was ready for help but mostly because Rachel is one of those clever beings who can scope out a situation quickly and find her place as easily as one slips a hand into a satin glove.

For teachers, it can be a time-gobbling endeavor to put a helper to use. Picture a teacher trying to enforce a curriculum while maintaining order...and then having to teach an assistant how to assist. Sometimes it's not worth it no matter how much they need the help

I lucked out. Within short order, I noticed Rachel kneeling beside a child struggling with a journal entry, or whispering encouragement in a tiny ear, or adjusting a yoga pose. She followed up with "You need to listen to Ms. Ryane," and "You need to be over by the bench for this part," and "Don’t forget to pick up your prop before you make that entrance."

I learned to extend trust to Rachel. She asked me once about boundaries. About where or when she should speak. I said, "Anytime, anywhere...I trust you." And I meant it.

I rely on Rachel a lot. I constantly forget the blocking and she keeps careful notes. She comes up with great ideas, like taping the floor to help kids move to specific marks. She offers to bring snacks. She writes our synopsis for teachers to prep their classes before seeing the play. If a parent or guardian shows up with questions and I'm busy, it's Rachel passing on information. For these two years she's been with us, I'm entirely confident about sending Rachel off to work with actors alone.

Rachel watched, adapted and then applied her own creative instincts. This seems to me how an assistant should do it and be trusted to do it.

The one thing Rachel cannot do is assist me on the cold, dark night when I awake in a sweat imagining the day she says, "It's been fun, but I've got another gig," or "I'm moving," or "I'm getting married," or "I’m having a baby," or....

Sadly, Rachel might not be of much help to me on that day.

If I was an Aleabeathen Girl i would wair a white dress and I would go with qeen Alisabeth to go see the plays and I will walk with her around town and keep her safe so nwone tries to kill her. I will eat fruit and love apples.
Lizzie, 4th grade

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hard News: Mr. Big Pants

Macbeth, a talented military general, wins the war for Scotland against Norway. King Duncan, pleased with Macbeth's efforts, ordains the general Thane of this and Thane of that.

*Note to King: No good deed goes unpunished.

Macbeth buys into his good press, becomes intoxicated on the heady aroma of power and listens to his wife's encouraging whispers. Thus begins a litany of social boo-boos. Killing a king when he drops in for an overnight is the sign of a man on a reckless quest for stardom. Macbeth's ego expands to three times the size of Glasgow and there's no stopping him.

In my opinion, his notorious rampage results from an idea that he is above the law, above decent behavior and above the rest of us. He adopts the misguided notion that he won't be caught.

Mmmm-hmmm. Got me thinkin'.

The two most important items Lord Macbeth omitted from his checklist:

1. His own conscience would reduce him to a blithering idiot.
2. Women talk — even in their sleep, Mr. Macbeth — we talk.

When will we ever learn, gentlemen? When?