Friday, July 30, 2010

Knowing Your Audience

Back in the day, when I worked three jobs six days a week, attended auditions and acting classes and survived on vials of ginseng and take-out salads purchased at the corner grocery markets...yeah...back in those days...I had a friend from Los Angeles visit me in New York City.

My friend came to Manhattan to sit in the VIP section of the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade because she was one of the stars of a popular NBC television show. While she was in New York we shared my room in the one-bedroom apartment that had been divided in half for me and a roommate.

You get the picture: I was poor and struggling. She wasn't.

"Mel, come with me, seriously these coats are sooooo cheap. You'd look fabulous in a brown or black...last forever...Italian leather, really, come with me. Just try one on!"

My friend wasn't paying attention to her audience. Italian leather? I couldn't buy an Italian pizza on my three paychecks.

A few times a year I poke my nose into one of the parents' meetings at our school because these good people fund the Shakespeare Club and they deserve to know what I'm doing with their cash. Toward the end of the school year I gave a report and disclosed my thoughts on the bumps as well as the triumphs I'd encountered in 2010.

"This year was more challenging in some ways," I launched, "in part because my husband was across the country working for five months, and with our rehearsal schedule I was only able to see him for a couple of days."

Honestly, I thought this might be an "Awww, poor Mel" moment and that I might garner a smidgeon of sympathy — but I misjudged my audience.

In the middle of my speechifying, as I looked out at many moms and a good number of dads with blank faces staring back at me, I saw what they were quite possibly thinking:

Wait a second, she's been living ALONE with no spouse and no children for FIVE MONTHS? That's a spa vacation in my book. What's her gripe?

Yup, you gotta know your house.

CHILDREN'S WRITES: Journal Entries

I feel sorry for buying a cat from the book fair. I did not tell my parents anything about it. Then they found out that I brought something from the book store. It was as white as snow. It had a very pink nose. It came with a purs to carry it. The purs was very colorfull. I loved it so much that I will snuggle with it in my bed. I would give it reall cat food. When ever I went out side I will bring it.
Natalie, 4th grade

Something I regret is takeing this really pretty ring when I was 4. It had a silver band. It also had a fake diamond. It was ouvisly pretty because of the fake diamond. My mom wasn't letting me so I tuk it.
Faith, 5th grade

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hard News: Self-Esteem

I'm all for praise. I like it a lot and could dine on it every night...but if I did, I'd be a bloated fatso.

Approbation is meaningful when earned. I wish it were possible to hand out self-esteem and confidence like gifts stuffed into stockings, but this isn't so.

In my experience, the recipe for plucky self-assurance is found in the adage of falling off the horse and crawling back on.

Let's help kids get the real thing. This article makes a valid point.

A downside to high teen self-esteem? (Chicago Tribune)

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Captain: Oliver

"Ms. Ryane?"

"Yes, Oliver?"

"I think I'll really be an actor when I grow up."

"That wouldn't surprise me one bit, Oliver. Why do you think so?"

"Because when I play Macbeth I feel like...."

At this point Oliver looked heavenward and stretched his arms wide.

"I feel like I go back in time to a wondrous place."

"Yeah, Oliver, I get it. That is what makes you an actor. You have the imagination for acting."


We sat together and pondered these facts and wondrous places. I'm sure Oliver's mom would like him to be a doctor. So would I. But...

"You know, Oliver, you really are the captain of our ship."

He gave me a puzzled look.

"If we think of the Shakespeare Club and our production of Macbeth as a great ocean liner cutting across the sea, you are the captain. When you work hard and concentrate, the other kids follow your lead. They want to be like you. You know what I mean?"

Oliver looked across the schoolyard at his peers, wrestling and horsing around.

"Yeah, Ms. Ryane."

I instantly worried that I was overburdening the young fellow. As if playing the title role wasn't enough.

"Only one thing, Ms. Ryane."

"What's that, Oliver?"

"I just hope I don't run the ship into the rocks."

I put my arm around his shoulders and gave a squeeze.

"No chance, Oliver. No chance at all of that happening. Enjoy the ride — you already have smooth sailing."

My future?

If I would be told my future, I would like to know if I had achieved my dream to become a writer, how successful I would be if would have a very big family, when I would pass away and how painful it would be, and finally, how many people will think of me.
Darby, 5th grade

Friday, July 23, 2010

Ring! Krystal and Wendy


"Hi, Ms. Ryane!"

"Hi! Who's this?"



The next week Krystal and I had a chat on a bench outside of her third-grade classroom.

"How are you doing, Krystal?"


Krystal, tiny in stature, is a fashionista. Every day a different look with a different color choice. It could be all blue or all pink or all purple. She coordinates right down to her sneakers and shoelaces. Krystal should have a contract with Crayola.

On Halloween she wore a pageboy wig perfectly sized for her little head. She looked like a cast member from "Dreamgirls."

"Hey Krystal, did you phone me the other day?"

She looked down at her swinging feet, clad in bright green tennis shoes.


"I thought that was you. Then what happened? Did someone come in the room or did you get scared when you heard my voice?"


I wasn't sure which of those questions she was answering.

"Was there something you wanted to ask me, Krystal?"


"It's okay, Krystal, that you called me. You can call any time, it's all right. I was just a little worried because you hung up."

"I just wanted to say hi."

"No problem then, any time. You better get back to your class now."

"Okay, Ms. Ryane."

And she squished her arms around my thighs for a hug.

A couple of months later.


"Hi, Ms. Ryane!"

"Hi! Who's this?"

"It's Wendy."

"Hi, Wendy. How are you?"


"What's up?"

"I just wanted to see if you were okay."

"Well, I'm just fine and happy to hear from you. How are you?"

"I'm good."

It went back and forth like that for a few more sentences. We covered the benefits of ice cream and summer fruits and made sure we were both AOK before signing off.

Because Wendy and Krystal are best friends they one-up, argue and irritate each other as much as they laugh, play and share secrets.

They're the only two in this year's club that phone me. I appreciate the concern for my well-being and the bravery at picking up the phone. I appreciate that this too will pass as they move toward fourth grade.

My job is as a friend is to care about them to share with them to not be mean to them because if u want to be a friend you have to act like it do not be mean to them behind there back. It will be mean and plz don't be rude.
—Wendy, 3rd grade

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Double, double, toil and trouble,
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a finny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake.
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing.
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Before students see our production, I make sure that all the teachers have a story synopsis, and I offered suggestions to prepare their classes.

The littlest kids could draw pictures of what it means to be a friend or what power means to them or what they would put in their witches' potion. The older grades could write on those same themes.

I stopped by Tina's third-grade classroom. On the wall her students had hung cut-outs of cauldrons with their potions listed like recipes. Tina had even figured out a way to apply the potion principle to arithmetic.

Back in Room 42, I had the club members pull out their notebooks.

"Today's journal assignment is to create your own potion. What would go into that magical brew? And what would you use it for?"

Had me thinking it was about time to whip up a concoction to clear my head and get a great night's sleep.

peoples hair
the germs, in air
snakes and rat
maybe a whole cat
I would wear a magicians hat
How about a toe
Nails of a dog
I'll try out a log
Dirty clothes
An apossum

My potion would be so every one would have enough money to have a horse.
Celia, 4th grade

hair of a fly, a tail of a rat, head of a butterfly, wings of a tat, a stem of a flower, a drop of water from a shower

Potion: To be a knite
Garth, 4th grade

My potion is to get a bear fur a frogs tong a birds wing a rats nose and bublebees sting and Pages ear Wendys eye and the snakes poop.
—Krystal, 3rd grade

I would want to make a potion that would make my parents let me have anything I want. I would put my moms toothpaste, brothers gum, yams, dads hair, wing of a fly, spots of tiger, bulb of light, cats wisker.
Eleanor, 4th grade

tung of cat and tail of dog. Dinamite and ear of rat. Crown of King and finger of Prince. Sord of gard head of trator. Organ of bat and foot of liserd.

Potion: to make shakesper acters get a long.
Henry, 4th grade

Monday, July 19, 2010

Duly Noted: Celia

When Celia joined The Shakespeare Club last year, she desperately wanted to act — and I desperately wanted her to — but she could not find her voice. She assured me that inside her head she had a big voice, but it wasn't coming out. Celia played non-speaking roles in "Twelfth Night."

This year I asked if she would like to be our stage manager and she agreed. I gave her the special stage manager's binder with pencils, paper, an eraser, script and cast list.

By the time we were ready to try run-throughs, I asked Celia take to notes that she would deliver to the cast. I recommended that she be gentle because the actors were nervous about their work.

She designed two columns in her binder:

Dom: good voice HororWitches: don't fade at the end
Garth: good vioceBettina: speak louder
Millie: holding the baby keep up with the voiceNatalie: fase forward when others speak
Oliver: good acting, tommarrow wife deadPhoebe: speak up
Oliver, Dom: good fightingMurders: neal like there is a King
Good job: Mark when find out about your father dieingGarth: speak properly Villiones crime
Lizzie: good job, Beyond my practice...Party: don't talk in backround or drag your feet, don't play around
Good Job EverybodyChloe: hurry with what you need to do

Celia found her voice and they listened.

I would like to know,.....

1. If I'm going to be rich
2. going to be poor
3. where I would live
4. if I'm going to have a lot of clothes
5. if I'm going to have kids
6. how many kids I'm going to have
7. If I'm going to have a big house
8. what my kids would look like
9. what my kids names would be
10. how I would look like
—Celia, 4th grade

Friday, July 16, 2010

Filling the Big Shoes

For two years of Shakespeare Club performances, Anthony was our lighting operator. After fifth grade he had to move on to middle school and his younger brother, Calvin, asked if he could now be our lighting operator.

"Sure, Calvin, that'd be great. Here's how it'll go: Later in the when the cast is ready to do run-throughs, I'll have you come to rehearsals along with our sound operator. You will have your own script and become familiar with the story."

"Okay, Ms. Ryane."

Then for months, every time I stepped into Calvin's fourth grade classroom or saw him on the field, he'd run up.

"Um, Ms. Ryane, should I come to Shakespeare Club?"

"Not quite yet, Calvin, but soon."

A couple more weeks would go by and I'd be wondering myself if the cast would ever be capable of a run-through, let alone a performance.

"Hey, Ms. Ryane."

"Hey, Calvin."

"Today should I come to Shakespeare Club?"

Calvin wears his hair in a buzz cut and he's a skinny, smallish nine-year-old. He squinted his eyes up at me, all serious, with these queries.

"Pretty soon. I won't forget, Calvin, I promise."

One day at lunch break I caught up with him on the field.

"Hey, Calvin!"

He zoomed over.

"Today's the day. Instead of going to regular afterschool you'll come to Shakespeare Club and see a run-through. Good?"


I'd typed out lighting and sound cues, cut them up and pasted them into the appropriate scripts. I set chairs up front for Calvin and for a third-grader, Mariah, who would run our sound cues. The twosome sat between Rachel and Celia, our stage manager.

"Okay, cast, today you have your first audience. Let's welcome our sound and lighting departments to rehearsal."

The kids clapped and the run-through started.

At the end, I gave notes, Celia gave notes and Rachel gave notes.

We formed our good-bye circle.

"Arms high." They raised their arms. "That was a pretty good run. Let's seal in our good work and see you next week." We gave one solid group clap and they flew off to the rest of their lives.

A few stragglers helped clean up the room and I noticed Calvin standing alone.

"Calvin, what did you think?"

He was still and quite pale.

"Are you okay, Calvin?"

"Ms. Ryane...I don't think I could do it. Anthony could do it but I don't know...."

I kneeled down to look into Calvin's worried face.

"The reason Anthony could do it, Calvin, is because he was trained to do the lights. We had an adult teach him how to do it and that's what will happen for you too. You don't have to know this already. Ms. Rachel will be there to help and you will have proper training, I promise. You don't have to worry about this, Calvin. You're going to be fine."


Calvin had big shoes to fill and we all had to help him grow his feet over the next few weeks.

My big brother Anthony punched my back for no reason. So I wanted revenge. My dad disided to go to his friends house. When we got there my big brother Anthony was going to swing but I told him my dad has a suprise for him. When he left I losined the swing. When he came back he said I was lying. So when he was going on the swing he sat on it and broke. He fell on his butt. I was proud because I got my revenge.
—Calvin, 4th grade

"Broken Swing" by MarsW

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Recess: Who Are These People?

For three years I was a member of the Stratford Shakespeare
Festival in Stratford, Ontario. The company has four theatres for its long calendar of productions. The largest, at over 1,800 seats, is the main Festival stage.

It must be expected, with so many people filling the seats, there will be a few noodles in attendance.

During one performance, as the house lights came up for intermission, a certain dimwit proceeded to wander across center stage toward the backstage.

"Excuse me, where are you going?" asked an usher, stopping the patron mid-cross.

"Oh, I just wanted to tell the actors that they're doing a great job and that I'm enjoying the show."

Yeah. Theatres, like churches, can attract all kinds.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Long Road

"Look at those little kids, Phoebe. Do you remember when you were that small?"

Phoebe pointed to a five-year-old rehearsing a dance sequence with her kindergarten class.

"See that girl, Ms. Ryane?"


"I was smaller than her when I was five."

"That's pretty small. Where were you when you were five?"


"And then?"

"When I was six I moved to Chicago."

"That must've been some change, Phoebe. Haiti to Chicago. How was that?"

"Well," Phoebe laughed remembering, "I couldn't even speak English. I could only speak Creole."

A year and a half ago Phoebe left the adoptive family in Chicago and found herself in Los Angeles and into the arms of new parents, who love and appreciate Phoebe's gifts. She now has three Haitian sisters to lean on, wrangle with and share the unique experience of having traveled the long road to home.

"Look at you now, Phoebe. Three years ago only Creole and now not just English, but big fat Elizabethan English."

Phoebe is our Lady Macbeth. Full of saucy attitude and with that special something we call charisma. She has the light. She was born with it. It's impossible to overlook Phoebe on a playground or ever, ever on a stage.

"When I was in Chicago, my mom there took out my hair and didn't know how to put it back together."

"So, what happened?"

"I just figured it out and did it myself. I made my own cornrows."

Little tiny fingers on a little tiny girl figuring it out.

"Phoebe, you will always succeed. You are talented, smart and resourceful."

She nodded. She smiled the smile of someone who already knew. We continued to watch the five-year-olds rehearse their dance for a few more minutes.

"Should we run the sleepwalking scene, Phoebe?"


She walked away from me, picked a position and turned to face me.

"Ms. Ryane, I'm so excited."

Here's where I expected her to express the thrill of playing a leading role.

"Why's that, Phoebe?"

"Macbeth is going to be King and I will be Queen!"

Like a real actor, Phoebe thinks from the inside out.

"That's true but right now we're looking at the scene where you're kind of cracking up."

Yet here's a spot.
Out damned spot! Out I say!
Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him.
What, will these hands ne'er be clean?
Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh. Oh. Oh!

Phoebe smacked at her hands, trying to get the imaginary blood off her palms.

Oh Phoebe, I'm so excited, I thought. You are the gift that keeps on giving.

I am the witches cures. I live on a little hill. My friends are Miranda and Maritea. I eat bugs, fish and stinky worms. I believe in powers. I want everything in the whole world. I will make a poshin that turns my mother to yes everytime. I am afraid of lions at night. I am afraid of other witches. I am loyal to my powers. I am loyal to the other witches. I am a really sassy witch. I dress pritty. I am mean because I am a witch. I am a really brave. Exepet at night.

I will even drink a lot of poschen. The poshin is a pinkish brown. Pink stands for witch. I you put them together it brings power to the wand. The wond is hot pink with red dots on it. At the end it has my face on it encase some other witch snatch or steal it. The stick is I put my stuff and house. I have to do a special power to go in the stick. My house is old and cracy. Every time you go in the bat tickle you. If it is me it gose to it's place. We never go some where exept to the castle. We have to dress really nice. If they found out some people weren't invited to the party they would kill you.
Natalie, 4th grade

Friday, July 9, 2010

All Clammed Up

Now that I've taken my own advice and agreed that the club's attempt to perform "Macbeth" is not about me, it's time for an experiment.

"See what I've written on the board?"

The kids crane their skinny necks to look around me to the whiteboard.


"See that? That's your goal for today's rehearsal. I want you to impress me. And—"


"Like you're supposed to pick up your socks and pick up your toys I want you to pick up your cues. You're holding your scripts, so there is no good reason for you to be late on a cue. You know what they say in the theatre about long pauses?"

I can see by their blank faces that they have no idea what I'm nattering about but that's okay. As in any lecture, or perhaps sermon is the word, something will click. Maybe.

"They say, 'Holy smokes, that's a pause a truck could drive through!"

They're really not talking now because they think an actual truck is going to show up.

"That means you left a big hole in the play. A hole wide enough for a huge truck to drive through and that's not good. When you do that, the audience says, 'Oh, I guess that was it. It's over, so let's go home and just as we thought — little kids can't really do Shakespeare. Nice try, kids. Bye!'"

This is working. Faces are scrunched up. They're gettin' mad. They're not going to take it.

"I'm going to press this button, the music will come on and you will begin. This is a run-through. More importantly, I'm not going to say one word. Neither will Ms. Rachel."

I smile at Rachel because sometimes she mouths the witches' lines along with them.



I press the button on the CD player and the soundtrack from the film "Kingdom of Heaven" blasts its drama into Room 42. I watch.

And watch.

And watch some more.

As NOTHING happens.


Oh, there it is. A look shot here. A look shot there. A foot kicks another foot. Pssssst....

We listen for a long time to the music because Bettina, who is supposed to walk to the throne, pick up the crown and place it on King Duncan's noggin, is asleep at the wheel of an eighteen-wheeler stalled stage right.

And then they notice that I'm really not going to do a thing or say a thing or even flinch.

Suddenly, Henry's had enough. He leaps out of his chair and runs to the throne. Bettina snaps to attention, whips over to the throne, and we're off. And guess what?

Little kids really can do Shakespeare and do a run-through all by themselves.

What have I ever done that I fell sorry for? I want's stold my Mickel Jakson movie from home and my dad told me not to take it but he wasen't looking I took for 2 days and when he picked me up from school he got very mad at me we had an argument at home my dad told my mom and I got in a lot of trouple the next day the teachers asked the class have they ever stoleden something and I didn't answer because I did not want to get in trouble by the teacher.
—Krystal, 3rd grade

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Taking It in Stride

Every year in The Shakespeare Club, at about the halfway point, I have to take myself to the woodshed for a chit-chat.

"It's not about you. It's not about you. It's not about you. Repeat."

"Okay, it's not about me...but...but...what if?"


"Fine, be that way."

The performances of "Macbeth" will be a celebration of our exploration and discovery. We will revel in our unearthing of story, voice and self. The performances are not the goal. They are the party. The kids' ability to act "Macbeth" is not about my ability to direct "Macbeth." It is always about their attempt to leap the high bar all by themselves on performance day. I'll give notes and encouragement but won't jump up to save them in a tricky bit.

At about the halfway point is when I can see the absorption of the program.

Dominick and Millie play Lord and Lady Macduff. There is a new baby in the Macduff household — picked up, by the way, at a discount toy store and wrapped in a worn blanket from the back of my linen closet.

I suggested the actors come up for a name for their baby.

Dominick liked "Elizabeth," naming her after the queen of the period.

Millie agreed with her pretend-husband's choice.

I needed to check some blocking and asked Millie to take her place stage-right.

"Should I bring Elizabeth, Ms. Ryane?"


"Elizabeth," Millie answered, all business and matter-of-fact.

"Oh, of course. There she is, sleeping under your chair."

Absorption. It's becoming real for these guys.

Millie watched the DVD of "Twelfth Night" and wrote me a thank-you note:

    Dear Ms. Ryane,

    Thank you for letting me borrow "Twelfth Night" by Willi Shakespeare. It was kind of confuseing, but my dad loved it. My mom did not like how long it was! My brothers questions were, "Why is it called "Twelfth Night!"

    I replied "Because he wrote it on the Twelfth Night of something for Queen E."

    That's what my teacher told me last year.

    Well that's it.


Millie's into Shakespeare Club big-time. All her. Not about me. This is the idea.

King Duncan's Biography

He lives in the royal palace. His friends are his subjects, advisors, cooks, servants, etc. He eats sheep, chicken, turkey, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, fruits, love apples, vegetables, and French bread. He believes in doing the best for Scotland and his army. He wants to keep his country in a perfect state. He will rises to the utmost to get the best.
Henry, 4th grade

Monday, July 5, 2010

To Rave or Not to Rave

The votes to celebrate William Shakespeare's birthday with a party instead of a rehearsal came up more "yeas" than "nays." So, we'd gather in our school library and I'd don my flight attendant persona.

Before the kids stormed the room, I dragged tables and chairs together and set a napkin at each place along with a juice box and a bag of Sun Chips. My duties from the time of their arrival to their exit would be collecting garbage, handing out refresher drinks, serving fruit salad and, for a big finish, red velvet cupcakes with fluffy white icing. I would make my rounds approximately sixty-eight times, servicing children as if we were all embarked on a transatlantic flight aboard the Concorde. This is how we do parties in The Shakespeare Club.

In between snacks I played a stream of club members' favorite videos: The Simpsons in London to see "Macbeth," the Simpsons performing their version of "Hamlet," and the Simpsons version of the story of Henry VIII.

Then I held up two big envelopes. One marked INSULTS and the other marked COMPLIMENTS. One by one, each child came forward with sticky, salty fingers and blindly drew a Shakespearean insult, then chose a victim and, using a big voice, told them off Elizabethan-style. This was followed by drawing a name from the
COMPLIMENTS envelope and delivering a kind word to a fellow thespian.

These are usually reduced to "nice shirt."

As we were three-quarters of the way along in our festivities, I overheard a pair of riled-up boys. Drunk on salt and sugar, they were hurling real insults at each other. I stepped into the fray once, twice...turned my back, heard a loud "Baldy!" from Dominick and whipped around to catch Mark's hand slap his enemy's cheek.

Our civilized party was now a rave and I was a lone flight attendant over the Atlantic with intoxicated and violent passengers.

"Stop it! Right now!"

The room froze.

"Dominick, you complain about people calling you names. How do you account for your action, my friend?"


"Mark, do we ever, ever hit?"

More silence.

"Boys, we will have a sit-down about this, count on it. In the meantime stay in your seats and the cupcakes will be passing you by."

Two days later I met with the culprits.

"Okay guys, level with me. Just tell me straight up: Do you dislike each other?"

"Well, no, Ms. Ryane," Dominick answered. "We just cross the line sometimes."

"Are you saying you actually do like each other?"

"Yeah, sure, Ms. Ryane, we like each other," Mark offered. "We sometimes just go a little crazy."

"Okay, I get it, but here's the thing: I don't have time in Shakespeare Club to rehearse the play, have parties, and monitor you beating each other up. Also, you are a breaking your mottos of helping and sharing by doing this. So, you've each earned an x."

The boys shared a look. They grimaced but accepted the punishment.

"Now, I want to see a handshake and a promise of no more of this in our meetings."

And so it went. We were, once more, back in flight to God knows where, but we were flying high.


I want power because I never get listened to at home. I want power so I can stop people from making fun of my weight. I just need power so I tell people what to do.

When ever I get power nobody make fun of me if they know whats good for them. If they do they better be ready to suffer the conquences.
—Mark, 4th grade