Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Listen Up...or Watch Up

I'd love to be able to say "I could have said this better," but not a chance. Sir Ken Robinson is saying it best and, in the tradition of great lectures, he makes his case in an entertaining fashion. A spoonful of sugar and all that.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Character Study

"These are some of the first questions an actor asks: 'Who am I?' 'What do I want?' and 'What am I willing to do to get what I want?' "

"Oh, Ms. Ryane?"

"Yes, Garth?"

"I was thinking if Macbeth was a comedy play wouldn't it be funny if when I was being Banquo's, wouldn't it be really funny if I was like eating an apple?"

"Yeah, that would be hilarious."

Garth opens his script, chuckling to himself. He shoots a look to his best friend Oliver, searching for confirmation that this would be a knee-slapping bit, if only....

"One of the ways an actor can help himself with his character is to write a biography. In your journals I want you to write about your character. Where you live, what you eat, who your friends are, who your enemies are and who you are loyal to....Get the picture? You can make stuff up because William Shakespeare doesn't give you all the answers to these questions."

"But, Ms. Ryane?"

"Yes, Darby?"

"I'm Narrator Two."

"Right. Okay, the narrators can pick a character they would play if they weren't narrators. And witches who have other parts can write about your witch character or your other part."

I notice Celia sitting to my right, in her stage manager chair, trying to get my attention.

"Yes, Celia?"

"The movies," she whispers in her little voice.

"Oh, righty-right. Okay, who borrowed movies last week and returned them for others?"

Mary races for her backpack and hands me my DVD copy of "Hamlet."

"What did you think of 'Hamlet,' Mary?"

"I liked it. I liked the fights."

"Yup, pretty good fights in this one. Who remembers where Hamlet lives?"

Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.

"Where does Hamlet live?" I repeat the question.

"Oh! Oh, I know." Mark has his arm pointing straight to the ceiling, meaning he really, really knows where Hamlet lives.

"Yes, Mark?"

"In my backpack?"

"Um, no. You're confusing Hamlet with your script. Your script lives in your backpack."

"I know!" Oliver shouts.

"Okay, Oliver."

"Well, someplace cold 'cause you said the soldiers on the castle roof were cold."

"Denmark. Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark and that's a cold place in winter."

"I liked the ghost," Mary offers.

"Okay, journals out and pencils ready."

"Ms. Ryane? Can I share?"

"Geez, Dominick, you have to write first and then I'll put your name up. Everyone ready? Go!"

When we started the year I could easily remember the one or two who wanted to share their writing. Now I had to keep a list on the board of those who wanted to read and add a stand-by list if we had extra time.

"Is there anyone other than Dominick who wants to share today?"

And there it was: the long lost arm of our Holdout.

"Chloe, bravo. Your name goes up first. Good girl."

CHILDREN'S WRITES: Journal Entries
I live in a small palace.
I'm friends with Malcom.
I eat meat and a few vedgetables.
I believe Macbeth killed King Duncan.
I want revenge because Macbeth killed my famaliy.
I'll kill Macbeth for killing my famaliy.
I'm afraid that when King Malcom will make me an outcast.
I'm afraid of Macbeth.
I'm loyal to Scotland.
I'm loyal to Malcom.
I am lord Macduff and I like to have breakfast with my famaliy. I have a new born daughter named Elizabith. My favorite mead is Firebreath and my friends are Malcom, Donalbain, and King Duncan. My wife Lady Macduff had a new baby. I don't like to fight in wars and its anoying that my parnter Lenox is allways taking braks.
—Dominick, 4th grade

Hi, my name is Lady Macbeth. I want to tell you about my life. I eat cooked sheep and goat. Where I live in Scotland in a castle because I am the queen of Scotland. My frineds are Lady Mucduff and the three wiches.
Amaya, 5th grade

I am Lady Macduff. I live in a big, golden palace, in Scotland. I don't have any friends. I belive my husband won't come back. I'm afraid I'm going to die. I'm afraid of Macbeth.
Millie, 3rd grade

Friday, June 25, 2010

To Be So Honored

It's a little thing, but as I continue to learn by working with children, it's the little things that resonate.

New parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles scour toy stores for the best gifts to entertain a toddler, only to watch the little one sit in the middle of the kitchen floor and bang, clang and rattle pots, pans and wooden spoons. So much for the expensive thingamajig in the corner.

By the second year of The Shakespeare Club, I figured out two small incentives that generate as much excitement as a drawer full of Tupperware does for a two-year-old.

They have to audition to be considered for the club. This isn't because I'm scouting for the best actors. Often it's the shyest that interest me because they may gain the most. I insist on auditions as a way for me to meet one-on-one and determine first, if it's their idea, and second, to calculate eagerness.

Without real desire, they won't have a rewarding time, and I'll be nagging.

My second stimulus is Honor Roll.

I printed out a sheet of paper that said HONOR ROLL, with twenty numbered lines underneath it. Then I glued it to a piece of cardboard. But this makeshift prop might well be etched in pure gold, to hear the kids tell it.

As we near the month or so before production, I set the Honor Roll at the front of the room. Then I make an announcement.

"I'm excited today because one among you has already earned a place on the 2010 Honor Roll of The Shakespeare Club."

I do this in a sonorous voice bespeaking the dignity of the occasion. The kids sit up fully alert and ready. I continue.

"This person has earned three s for leadership, for learning lines, for journal writing and for helping others, as our mottos remind us. I am very proud and ask that—"

At this point, they start pointing this way and that guessing who it might be. I've been careful not to disclose gender or the part the actor may be playing. The anticipation grows and they're buzzing like a hive over jasmine on a summer afternoon. I cut through the hum by raising my voice, a little.

"Congratulations...Ellie! Please come up and sign the Honor Roll!"

In a wave of generosity, the kids applaud and shout out praise for Ellie. In a shy but pleased manner she steps forward, takes the pen from my hand, and in great ceremony signs the document.

"You all have opportunities to join Ellie on the Honor Roll. Right up to the six o'clock performance, you can earn your spot."

Over the coming weeks, the boys especially, will pepper me with questions about who has s and who has xs and I always say, "That's private between me and the actor."

The heat is on, and it's a robust flame.

What it means to be a best friend. I think being a best friend means to look out for each other, being true to your word, not manipulating them and being there for them.

Being a best friend is a commitment to yourself and trusting your self. Sometimes you can have fights or duels but that only builds your friendship.

Every friendship means something special, so you have to keep it strong.
Darby, 5th grade

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


When I get letters to the blog, I sometimes post them. Here's one:

I wrote you sometime ago about our class performance of Macbeth. As it turns out the play did very well. The mayor of the city came to watch! I called the children's author Lois Burdett, and she talked to each child individually. These kids are hooked!

I have never seen anything like it! I was hoping that our school could have an after school program or summer program of Shakespeare. That would be a dream come true!

I know you volunteer your time for your after school program and I can see from your website you have inspired so many children!

In this very difficult economy I am going to try to find people who would be willing to back this idea. Right now the children are asking to perform Hamlet when we have a break!! I cannot let this excitement for learning go away. If you have any suggestions, I would be eternally grateful.

I am thrilled by your progress and success. Your passion will get you far and their passion will fuel you. It's all about raising the bar through giant language, characters and plot.

Tell the kids that to be actors they need to exercise and expand their imaginations like they do their muscles when they go to gym class. The best way to do this is by writing. Have them relate to the characters by writing on a play's themes and identifying from their own lives.

The three top themes for Shakespeare's plays are power, love and revenge. Kids understand these. Have them write about when they wanted power, love or revenge.

Boys learn on their feet. They're not wired to learn sitting like girls do. Suggest they get up and share from their writing. It starts the bravery component and soon they will all be grappling to write and to read aloud.

To teach the kids swordplay, line them up in two rows and have them face each other a few feet apart. Assign each move a number and call out each number as the kids practice the moves. They love this. If line "A" wins, line "B" collapses dead. Then reverse it. You can find these basic moves online or in books.

Keep me posted!

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Votes Are In

Be assured the theatre world does not operate as a democracy. Nor should it. The first rule of Shakespeare Club: Listen to your director and do as she asks.

However, it can be beneficial to occasionally give the actors a vote. Every April, when William Shakespeare's birthday shows up mid-month, we take time off from rehearsal and celebrate with a party. This year I decided to let the kids decide if we should proceed with that plan.

"Okay, here's the deal. We only have a few more weeks of rehearsal. Really, in a month, you're going to be onstage and Ms. Rachel and I won't be. We won't be up there reminding you of when you enter a scene or what you say or what you do."

"Are you going to stay home?" Ellie asked.

"No, no. I'll be in the front row watching and taking notes. Ms. Rachel will be at the back with your stage manager and the sound and light crew."

A couple of club members already knew this because they'd done "Twelfth Night" the year before, but the majority of the group hadn't ever seen a play, much less acted in one, and this was suddenly a dizzying concept.

"So like what what if someone messes up?" Ellie pursued.

"You'll figure it out."

"And also what do we do if no one comes to see the play?" Ellie again.

I could sense this girl was in for some sleepless nights.

"We do it anyway."

The kids shuffled in their seats, shared doubtful looks and worried.

In my first year of Shakespeare Club, I mentioned to the then-principal that the children seemed scared.

"That's okay, Mel" she said. "It's not a bad thing for them to be scared once in a while."

"So, I'm going to give you each a piece of paper and you're going to write your vote on whether we should have a party next week or if we should use the time to rehearse."

"Should we write our names on it?" asked Mark.

"No names will be necessary. Just write 'yes' or 'no' and we'll count them up."

They did as they were asked and I collected the folded squares into a bag. While they started their journal writing, Rachel and I opened the votes.

Of course, I fully expected twenty "yes" votes to scream off the papers. I did not expect the four "no" votes. Rachel and I shared surprised glances.

"Well, the votes have been counted."

They leaned forward in their chairs.

"Looks like next week we'll be..."

They leaned in further, on the verge of a tipsy-over.

...having a party."


"I must say, however, that not everyone agrees. Some among you think we should be rehearsing next week and one person who voted 'yes' also wrote that everyone should take home their scripts and practice their lines."

"That was me!" Ellie cried leaping out of her chair.

Surprise surprise.

I regret that one tie I was climbing in this big tree in my yard. I had a baby doll in my hand and I was going across a medium sized gap. Then my doll fell so I started to reach for it and I let go of the tree and I hit a railrod track and my hed was bleeding and I was crying so hard. I loved the doll so mutch. I just let go. I was 6 years old..
—Ellie, 4th grade

cartoon panel from LOLpups

Friday, June 18, 2010

Great Words/Great Men

On Friday, June 4, 2010, the basketball coach and English teacher John Wooden died. He was ninety-nine years old. John Wooden led the UCLA Bruins to an unprecedented ten NCAA championships. He married his only girlfriend, Nell, and they raised two children. After his beloved wife died in 1985, he wrote her a letter every month and set it on her pillow.

Vin Scully, the legendary L.A. Dodgers broadcaster, quoted William Shakespeare when he spoke of the passing of his longtime friend:

His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world 'This was a man!'
Julius Caesar Act V, Scene V

Here is a partial list of John Wooden quotes. I cannot imagine a single day when at least one of these thoughts wouldn't make me a better person and a better leader of young minds.

Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.

Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.

Consider the rights of others before your own feelings, and the feelings of others before your own rights.

If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. I'm positive that a doer makes mistakes.

Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.

A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.

Adversity is the state in which man mostly easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.

Ability is a poor man's wealth.

Rest in peace, sir, and thank you.

I like to believe you are now in her arms.

AP photos

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hard News: For Big Ears

A lesson for teachers (Mike Rose, LA Times)

What I like about Mike Rose's encouraging letter to teachers is that he mentions aspects of failure with the admonishment to get up and get going again. I'm learning this business of leading children in a classroom as I go along. Fresh, young talented teachers also learn as they go along. I depend on the talent at our school for guidance and am heartened to know that in the community of educators, this is common practice.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Thematically Speaking

"All right, see these three words?"

On the board I've written: POWER. LOVE. REVENGE.

"These are the three main themes of William Shakespeare's plays. Remember last year when we did 'Twelfth Night'?"

Just mention that title and Henry springs to life.

"Good, good memories, Ms. Ryane. That was the best!"

The kid is never going to get over playing Malvolio, ever.

"Okay, so of these three words, what do you think the characters of 'Twelfth Night' wanted the most?"

"It was a comedy!" Henry puts forth.

"Right, it was a comedy. This could get a tad confusing for you guys. His plays were comedies, tragedies, histories and romances, but today we're talking about themes. What the characters want."

"What do you mean...that word...tad?" Garth asks.

It's so easy to slip off topic. We're about one second away from — oh boy, here it comes. "Yes, Mary?"

"When do we get snacks?"

"Snacks in a while and tad means a little. What did Viola, Orsino, Malvolio and Olivia want? What did all the characters in that play want most?'

"Love," whispers Celia.

"Bingo! They all wanted love. Look at the three words and tell me, what do the characters in 'Macbeth' want?"

"Are we going to play bingo?" Mark wants to know.

"What does Macbeth want?" I ignore that last comment.

"Power!" cries Oliver.

"Right, I think that's right."

"Not me!" Dominick answers. "I want revenge because Macbeth killed my whole family."

"That's true, Dominick. I think you do want revenge."

"Me too," adds Mark. "Macbeth killed Malcolm and Donalbain's dad!"

"Also true, but I think if we had to choose one overriding theme, it would be power. Remember I told you the story of 'Hamlet'? That would be an example of a play with a main theme of revenge."

I glance over at the bag of Little Cutie oranges and another with protein bars. It would be so easy to just feed them snacks and forget the themes. So, so easy and maybe I could work in a nap.

"What's the theme of 'Romeo and Juliet'?"


"Easy. Okay, open your journals and here's your theme for today: I want to see an essay of when you wanted power in your life. Go!"

And they open their journals. And they check out their pencils, and even though I've freshly sharpened each one, some need another sharpening because it's fun to stick a pencil in the whirring gadget. Others want an eraser even though not a word has been written. Everyone eyes the bags of food. And off we go writing and eating, scribbling and munching.

"Ms. Ryane, can I share?" Henry calls.

"Henry, you can share but you have to write first. You can't just make stuff up once you're up here. Write first."

Eat, write, share.

Power. Love. Revenge.

CHILDREN'S WRITES: Journal Entries
When I wanted power when I got punshed for something my sister did. I wish I could be a witch, so I could cast a spell on my sister so she would not lie. Eventually, I told my parents but, of course, they didn't beleive me. I would love to prove myself right anyday.
Darby, 5th grade

I wanted power when I went to camp. I wanted power at camp because it was boring. We only waked-up, ate, then started to pick up trash. But I have to admit that in the night it was kind of cool because we roasted marshmellows and saw bears.
—Bettina, 5th grade

Friday, June 11, 2010

When It Works, It Works

It doesn't matter how old an actor is or how much experience that actor has or if they've ever even considered what a resume means because when lightning strikes, it hits and there's no pretending it didn't.

On a movie or television set, when an actor nails a scene, the crew applauds. For the actor it can be the most gratifying response because the crew does not have to do that and most times they don't.

In the theatre, when fellow castmates stop perusing their scripts, or stop grousing about the director or the lousy coffee, and instead watch a scene, the air in the room crackles. Everyone in that room knows what they're seeing is "the real deal."

In the Shakespeare Club, it's a battle to impress upon young chatterers the need for them to respect each other. Not everyone has a big part. Most have small parts and for children to develop the necessary patience to wait their turn is tricky.

Until the day. And there is always a day. When one actor lifts the text off the page, owns it, means it and sends it like a steady arrow across the stage. There is simply no ignoring the power of real.

This is indeed a sorry sight!
These hands have taken the life of our king;
Nothing will heal their burning sting!
Through his chambers I did creep,
A voice cried, 'Macbeth doth murder sleep!'
It was a sound I did abhor,
And still it cried, 'Sleep no more!'
Macbeth Act II, Scene II

The day that Oliver, as Macbeth, revealed his bloody hands to his wife and railed in dismay at his murderous act, I was thinking, Hmmm, this is coming along.

And then I caught young Mary's face upstage as she watched the scene. She was frozen, her mouth hung open in an "O" and her eyes were wide. Mary is eight years old and a sassy force but, at that moment, she was pure audience in the grip. She had the look every actor craves from its public, the look that asks, What's going to happen now?

Of course, Mary knew the story because she'd been studying it for weeks, but when Oliver owned his Macbeth, everything she thought she knew flew out of her head. Oliver had her and I thought, Hmmm, this is going to be great.

There's nothing like the attention of our peers. This is the rich reward of hard work. This is indeed not a sorry sight.

What have I ever done that I feel sorry for? Once when I was a baby I stole some gum and toy. The gum was red and it tace good. I got it from a store I don't now wat store were I got the toy. I got it from target that was red, blue, clear. It was cherye.
—Wendy, 3rd grade

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Recess: Going to the Dogs

I have a number of ways to decompress after an intense rehearsal, or after dealing with a crying child, or when I need to come up with an idea to fix an onstage traffic jam. I take a yoga class, or meditate, or take a long walk with the dog.

On our route we can count on specific houses where dogs will go berserk as we amble by.

There's the white poodle yapping a mile a minute while fiercely pawing the living room window.

There's a furry bundle of...something...running wildly across the yard behind a picket fence, all the while barking in a frenzy as if grenades were in the offing.

There's that tough-guy Doberman throwing himself against iron gates to get at us.

My favorites are the little dogs on leashes. They tug, snarl and yelp to get to us.

Our dog weighs seventy-five pounds, he's twelve years old and in his dotage. The little dogs do not know they are little. They act as if they could take on a big dog and reduce it to smithereens.

Little children are the same. I like it when an eight-year-old tells me about when he was "a little kid."

"I was so dumb when I was little, I didn't know anything." Or "When I was a little kid I thought...."

That's as it should be. We don’t know when we're little, or young, or naive.

If we knew all that, we couldn't keep going. We wouldn't keep fighting. We'd back away from the bigger and the older and we'd get nowhere fast.


My most disire is to be King. I want to have a normal family. And be ritch. I would want to be all ways loved and rule a very wide land. I want to be a good King.
Oliver, 4th grade

painting by Cindy Hall

Monday, June 7, 2010

Hats Off!

Consistency. Consistency. Consistency.

I've noted this admonition when it's delivered to parents and teachers. I take the concept seriously and do my best in The Shakespeare Club to do what I say and say what I do, but it's an unnatural component in my motherboard.

My husband and I have a dog and a cat. We often muse what lousy parents we would be since the discipline we set forth with our pets is ludicrously inconsistent.

"All right, that's it, you two. No more treats, bedtime, lights out and I mean it."

"Okay, just one more and then — I'm dead serious — that's it."

"What, what is it? What do you need?"

"Just one more baby-size snack? Okay, and then lights out."


Both in that I can't follow through and I'm talking to a cat.

One hot May afternoon I went to the school wearing a sun hat and sunglasses. I stopped into a third-grade class for a quick word with a couple of club members.

"Ms. Ryane! Ms. Ryane, is that you?!"

A ring of panic in the little voice filled the room.

"Oh, Ms. Ryane, we've never seen you in a hat!"

Another day I curled my hair and then got caught in a windstorm.

"Ms. Ryane, are you fed up?"

"What do you mean?"

"You look like you're kinda crazy mad or something. Ms. Ryane, we've never seen your hair like that!"

Another cold day I stood on the campus clad in a white down coat.

"Ms. Ryane! Really, is that you? I thought you were my granny! What are you wearing, anyway?"

Consistency. Consistency. Consistency.

I need a uniform and a wig, and I have to follow through.

"You cannot willy-nilly miss meetings for parties or field trips. You signed up knowing that all meetings are mandatory. That means you have to come to every single one and not let your team down."

Parents and teachers, take heed. I mean it, I really do.

Lights out. I'm changing hats.

If I was a Elizabethan man I would be a scientist and discover new stars. I would wear a white coat and black pants and any kind of shoes. Tell when a earthquake is going to happen.
Mark, 4th grade

Friday, June 4, 2010

Going Private: Mark

He's whippet-thin and quick as a rabbit. It's taken Mark months to focus his energy and hold a Warrior One yoga pose without throwing himself on the ground for laughs. His hands appear to work independently from the rest of his body when they reach out and grab at a fellow actor. He's a boy's boy and there's no getting around it.




And the innocent, wide-eyed blink.

"Yes, Ms. Ryane?"

Mark is playing Malcolm, King Duncan's eldest son and heir to the throne. He's learned his lines and gets points for that. But he rattles them off so quickly that it's anyone's guess what he's going on about.

"Okay, mister-mister, you and I are going to tackle this language once and for all. But first we're going to take a look at your journal writing. You started out pretty well but in the last few weeks you haven't been writing more than a few words."

"Yeah," he nods in agreement.

"You want to make Honor Roll, don't you?"


"Okay, I'm going to help you. Today I want an essay on the theme of power and, by essay, I mean more than half a sentence. I'll sit over here and you go for it. What power means to you, when you wanted it or had it or would like it."

I made myself comfortable at the back of the classroom while Mark opened his journal up at the front. Fifteen minutes later, he looked back to say he was finished and I asked if I could read it.

"Well done, now take a look at your character essay and finish that one. Good?"


After he'd written the pieces it was time for the young Malcolm.

"Mark, don't be afraid to use your foot to stomp hard on some of these words. It can really help you spit them out clearly."

Every soldier must cut a branch from the trees
And hide himself behind one of these.
We'll shadow our numbers we as move up the hill.
Macbeth won't guess our numbers still.
Together our armies will fight as one!
The battle for Scotland has just begun!

I handed Mark his prop, a small green plastic branch.

"You have ten thousand soldiers listening to you right now. Look out there at our schoolyard. We'd barely be able to fit that whole army there. That's a lot of soldiers and it's up to you to inspire them. You have to make them want to fight for you, to take down the bad King Macbeth. Go."

Mmmm. Not so hot.

"Okay, Mark, look at me. See how I'm lying down on this table? I'm going to take a nap and you have to use your speech to wake me up. Go."

Mmmm. Not so hot.

"What...? Who's making that little noise?" I look all groggy and half-sit up. "Oh, I see it's just Mark....Night night, Mark."

We did this a couple more times and then he stomped his foot hard, held up his branch, raised his arms in a call to arms and used his biggest voice.

"What?! What's going on here? Who woke me up?"

This is where my acting career has taken me.

"Did you feel that, Mark? Did you feel the tingles up your arms when you did that?"

"Yeah, I did," he says with a mischievous grin.

"That's acting, my friend. That's what it feels like. You do that, keep up the journal writing and you will make Honor Roll, I just know it."

"I could stomp my foot like that always, you mean?"

"Always and every time."


I live in a palace
My friends are my brother and Macduff. I eat pig, cow, rice and chicken. I believe Macbeth killed the King. I want to kill Macbeth and stick his head on a stick. Go at night and cut threw everything and cut his head off and stick it outside on a stick. I'm afraid of some one thinking we ate the murderers.
I'm afraid of the murderer.
I'm loyal to my family, I'm loyal to my father. I have a lot bravery.
—Mark, 4th grade