Monday, August 30, 2010


I was curious how Richard from Texas was impacted by his experience of touring "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as Snug the Joiner.

Here is another piece of his correspondence to me:

Howdy Mel,

Last November our DREAM TOUR group met in Reunion. I wrote a letter to THE QUEEN of ENGLAND to tell her about our 1959 TOUR. There were 17 of the original group met with family. We honored the head of the Speech Dept. and his wife Dr. and Mrs. MacDonald W. Held. We had a lot of stories and pictures to go through. 50 years after the DREAM TOUR.

(click to enlarge)

I like that Richard addresses both her Majesty and me with the same "Howdy."

AND he got a response from Buckingham Palace:

Howdy Mel, Do you believe this? In Sept. 2009 I wrote to THE QUEEN to tell her about the 1959 TOUR. Go to the Reunion and tell 'em. I wrote to THE QUEEN. Some chuckled. Then Nov. 21,2009 I received this letter from the Lady-In-Waiting. I opened that big brown envelope from BUCKINGHAM PALACE. What an honor to receive a letter from HER MAJESTY. I tell everybody about it. Nobody in my family has ever gotten a letter from THE QUEEN OF ENGLAND. The chuckles have stopped. The letter is in a safe place.

(click to enlarge)

Friday, August 27, 2010


Many people recall some encounter with the works of William Shakespeare. Sadly, many of those experiences are boring, dry recitations in high school. Or, they could be an exciting life-impacting event — as I've recently heard from my new online buddy, Richard in Texas.

When Richard was enrolled at Howard Payne University in 1958 he found himself and his banjo in a cowboy-style version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Richard was cast as Snug the Joiner in a production that left Brownwood, Texas, and embarked on a tour of England.

This is Richard's first letter to me:

Howdy Mel Ryane, Saw your interesting website about teaching William Shakespeare. Thought you might enjoy the story about our DREAM TOUR back in the summer of 1959. I was Snug the Joiner. It was a real experience.

Richard shared pictures and located a 1959 Time magazine story about the tour:

"It's kinda funny when Ah say 'Perish on mah sword,' " mused a Colt-toting Texas lad, and it may be even funnier than he supposed. This week he and 27 other Texas students are due in London with what is likely to be the oddest U.S. export to Britain this year—an "adult western" version of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, produced by Howard Payne College (enrollment: 1,100), a Baptist school in Brownwood, west of Waco.

Just as unlikely is the Dream's creator: a trim, urbane Englishman named Alex Reeve, 58, who turned up at Howard Payne more than two years ago as speech professor, after 14 years as a director at the Royal Theater and Opera House in Northampton, England. When Reeve descended on Brownwood, he was appalled to find that Shakespeare had not been presented there professionally for 40 years and not even by amateurs for 20 years. He promptly put the Bard and his students in the same corral. Instead of "a wood near Athens," Reeve's Dream is set on a Texas ranch in the 1880s, and the guitar-twanging players appear in Stetsons, bandannas and bustles (Hippolyta is an Indian princess in white buckskin). The dialogue is unchanged except by Texas tongues: "O naht! alack, alack, alack! Ah feah mah Thisby's promise is furgot."

Last fall this hilarious enterprise was boffo at the Texas State Fair and invitations to hit the road in Britain landed on Reeve's desk. To pay their way, the players kicked in their savings, worked at all sorts of odd jobs, raised $10,000 on their own. Friends, teachers, fellow students boosted the ante to $17,000. Result: the Howard Payne Dream will be sole U.S. representative at Bristol's prestigious International Festival of University Theater, and for nine weeks will get top billing at professional theaters in Coventry, Northampton, Cambridge, and Dundee, Scotland. If this is the way to meet up with ole Shakespeare, the students say, "we feel raht at home doin' it."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hard News: The Names We Remember

Chances are the names you recall are either those of teachers you remember fondly or the other ones...not so much.

Miss Grey wore her face in a scowl and her faded hair in a tight bun. She paced the rows of our fourth-grade desks slamming a pointer stick into her hand and offering quips like "Does a plumber go to work without his tools?"

Beats me. My mom says we can't afford a plumber and my dad has to fix the sink.

Miss Grey wasn't big on jokes.

Mrs. Woolcomb dressed in a mini-skirt and crossed her long legs, one over another, ON TOP of her desk and read us the lyrics from Leonard Cohen's songbook.

Mrs. Woolcomb offered counsel on how a thirteen-year-old could heal a heart smashed into smithereens after a first crush. She was super-cool and we all wanted to be her.

The L.A. Times has unleashed a vigorous conversation regarding test scores and how teachers are to be judged. I think writer Sue Horton's commentary is worth a look:

There's teaching, and there's learning (Sue Horton, LA Times)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Life Is Choices

When the fifth-graders' "cruise day" showed up, I was in a serious snit. I was about to lose four actors to an all-day outing when I needed them for our technical rehearsal.

I arrived at the school early to see how this would play out. I knew the parents had been informed of the conflicted schedule because I'd called each one to explain that, as unfortunate as these circumstances were, they and their offspring had agreed when signing up for The Shakespeare Club that mandatory attendance was Rule One.

I ran into ten-year-old Faith, one of our Narrators for the play.

"Hi, Faith, what have you decided to do today?"

She looked at the ground and then looked back up to me. Her eyes were wet.

"Well, I'll stay for rehearsal."

"Really? That's fantastic, Faith. You're my hero. If you do this the others will follow. I'm so proud of you."

Let me be clear: The children should never have had to make this decision.

I went into the school office where I saw Faith's mother waiting to speak to our principal.

I introduced myself because, even though her daughter had been in the club for two years, she and I had never met.

"I just spoke to Faith and it seems she has decided against the cruise trip, is that your understanding?"

"No, it is not," Mrs. Mom answered with a chilly look.

"Oh, alright then."

"I want my daughter to be happy. I want her to make a choice that will make her happy. That's what I want."

"If I may say, that choice doesn't exist. If she stays she will miss something and if she goes she will miss something. There is no happy choice, it's just a choice. Faith plays softball, she knows what teamwork means."

"Of course she understands the importance of teamwork, but I want her to be happy."

I believe Faith grasps the meaning of teamwork. I'm not convinced that the adults around her entirely get the concept. We have to do better. Life is a series of choices and they're not always obvious, easy or happy-making. They just are.

I watched my four actors walk away with their classmates, teacher and assorted parents carrying bags of potato chips and bottles of soda. The troop climbed on to a bus that would ferry them to a harbor where a boat waited to sail them onto the Pacific.

A choice was made.


As last year I would like to have a life of adventure. I would like to do the most wildest things.

One wild thing is sky diving. Sky diving because you can fall and see amazing view. Also, go to the South Dakota, black Hills. Finally the Simthsonian in Washington, D.C. I just want to go around the whole world!
—Faith, 5th grade

Friday, August 20, 2010

Rumor Mill

Occasionally, a well-meaning soul will suggest that I should be paid for my Shakespeare Club efforts but, though I'm not one to look askance at cold, hard cash, in this case it would not be my preference.

As a volunteer I have certain advantages. One of these is autonomy. I can run the program as I see fit and with my rules. If I were paid I would likely come up against the sort of angst a sports coach often encounters, such as, "Hey, why's my boy not pitching?"

I can hear it now. "Why's my daughter not Juliet? She's perfect for the part."

It's not such a bad thing to be in the position where others are grateful and not so argumentative.

On the other hand, as I slide under the radar, I can be overlooked in a not-so-fun way. Important information has a habit of getting to me via a nine-year-olds and not from the higher-ups who should know better.

I'm fastidious about keeping teachers and other school officials apprised of dates and schedules regarding the Shakespeare Club. They're all given lists of names and rehearsal dates. Our school is super-tight on space and I have to book the auditorium well in advance to be assured of one day for a technical rehearsal and one day for the performance.

The time I spend rehearsing children is matched by the time I spend hammering out letters to adults. There is no guarantee, however, these missives are even looked at let alone read, as I would find out from a nine-year-old on the playground.

"Hey, Ms. Ryane, I think the fifth graders are going on a cruise on Wednesday."

"What? What cruise, what Wednesday?"

"They get a graduation cruise on the Wednesday we'll be practicing in the auditorium."

This couldn't be. It couldn't. No way. The day before performance and with only one single day to rehearse sound, lights and cues. No way.


I checked the facts with the principal and with the teacher arranging said cruise. Oopsie.

And then I went home, buried my face in a pillow and cried. I could use a friggin' cruise myself. Four club members, including two of our narrators, would be sailing the high seas with their classmates and missing this most important rehearsal.

It didn't matter that parents and staff had been reminded that membership in The Shakespeare Club required mandatory attendance.

It didn't matter that my words about teamwork suddenly meant zero.

It didn't matter that those children were being taught a terrible lesson.


My best friend is Phoebe. My job as her friend would to stop her and remind her to be good and do not be mean. The things I would remind her not to do would be bully, be rude, or not following directions. I also have a responsibility of lestening to her and having to keep secrets for her that are private.
Ellie, 4th grade

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hard News: Hip-Hop Hamlet

Whatever it takes to get them engaged, try it. Rap, hip-hop and video will get teens' attention. Marry Shakespeare's words, plots and characters to those devices and anything can happen, as illustrated in the article below.

In our club, we're going even younger than high school and it's working. One of the keys is to get them up and moving while speaking.

Teaching Shakespeare in the old-fashioned way of dryly reading the text whilst trying to sit up straight and stay awake is just that: old-fashioned.

Teachers Shake Up Shakespeare with Digital Media (Edutopia)

Monday, August 16, 2010

One Day

I'm often told, "Mel, you're changing children's lives."

And I always answer, "They're changing my life."

This is true and I'm not ducking the compliment. What these children are learning and doing for themselves in The Shakespeare Club cannot be underestimated. I'm proud of my commitment and every year impressed by what we accomplish.

I ran into Luis one afternoon on the campus. Luis played Andrew Aguecheek in last year's production of "Twelfth Night." He was in the club for three years and is now in sixth grade at the middle school up the street.

"Luis!" I gushed.

"Hey, Ms. Ryane."

He did not gush. Luis was a little shy with me, as if all we'd been through was a distant memory. That's how time floats by when you're a kid. Summer vacations are endless and by Labor Day your pants are too short. For Luis his time onstage was eons past.

I gave him a quick hug anyway and said, "I miss your acting, Luis."


"How's sixth grade?"

"It's okay, I guess."

"You get a locker, right?"


"How's it going with the reading?"

"I'm reading more, like you told me."

"Great!" more gushing from me. I was thrilled that he remembered something of my influence.

I figure it'll hit them one day, someday when they're about thirty-eight. They'll think, There was this crazy lady and I did Shakespeare and I was...hmmm...I was really, really good at it.

"You're tall, Luis. I see the inches. You're about as tall as Andrew Aguecheek now."

Luis laughed. "Yeah."

Good, got him.

"Keep up the reading, Luis. Come by on May 27 and see 'Macbeth'."

"Yeah, okay."

That wouldn't happen. He wouldn't be there to see the show. Maybe he forgot. Maybe his parents couldn't bring him. Maybe it would be too difficult to see other kids up there doing what he loved and did so well.

I was driving past the middle school another afternoon and saw Luis walking home with a group of lanky boys. Behind them I saw Geoffrey and his sister Kate. And further along a few others from years past. I wanted to roll down the window and shout "Shakespeare Club!" But that would have been dumb and they'd have been embarrassed.

So, sometimes I see them up close and sometimes I see them afar and always I remember each and every one and miss them.

I planted seeds. They've taken root and one day they'll remember.


What it means to be a best friend or have a best friend is to always do the right thing. For your friend and always help them. And to responsible of your friend is like if my friend was in trouble I would help them or if I was in trouble he would help me.
Garth, 4th grade

Friday, August 13, 2010

Don't Get Me Started: Mariah

We had a capable, note-giving, cue-calling stage manager, Celia.

Calvin was gaining a tiny bit of traction in the confidence department to support him as our lighting operator.

Now for the sound department.

I wrote a note to Mariah's mom asking what she thought of her daughter taking on the job. Mariah is the youngest of the four daughters adopted by this family. All four girls were born in Haiti and Mariah is now in third grade.

When Mariah auditioned for the Shakespeare Club, she spoke so quietly I had to lean far forward to hear her. She had learned the lines and I noticed that she'd rewritten those lines on her own paper and decorated them with swirls of sparkly ink.

Her mom answered my query by saying Mariah would likely be terrific as a sound operator because she's very bright...but: be prepared for acute shyness.

When Mariah joined us to watch a rehearsal, she sat next to her sister Celia. Mariah followed the dialogue in her own script. When she noticed Celia's page hadn't been turned to the next scene, she gave her sister a nudge. Oh, she's a bright one all right. Mariah's all over it.

But she barely spoke. If she spoke it was a whisper.

"Do you think you'd like to be our sound operator?" I asked.

Blink. Think. Nod.

"Okay, then," I answered loudly as if to make up for her quietness. "Don't worry, we'll train you how to do it."

Blink. Think. Nod.

"See ya soon!" I called out, hugely chipper.

When Mariah came to rehearsals, she joined her sisters and helped clean the room after everyone else had gone. I showed her the CDs she'd be using. Music for pre-show and another disc of cues including the opening, three bell chimes and our curtain call music.

I let her press the buttons on the CD player we used for rehearsals.

And something happened.

Tina, Mariah's third-grade teacher, found me on the campus.

"She's talking. Mariah's chattering about the play and her job as sound operator and what she will do and the actors...and everything. She's talking!"

Once Mariah was in the auditorium — set up with her equipment, trained, ready and pressing those buttons — she was suddenly fully engaged conversation-wise.

Rachel shared with me how Mariah was all, "My dad this and my dad that", "And I was thinking this and I was thinking that" and "She should do this and he should do that." Fully engaged.

Don't ask me how that happened. I have no idea but it did.

If I was lady Macbeth I would live in a BIG house. And I would have a BIG BED whith purppleish blueish courton auround the whole bed. And every morning I sit in a green chair and eat bread and drink wine.
Lizzie, 4th grade

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hard News: In the Suburb of Sin

Funny how long it takes to unearth the obvious. I mean, why is it only now that we're digging out London's first theatre? An Elizabethan structure known plainly as "The Theatre"?

Read the tantalizing account below for delicious details like how they've also discovered the pub next door where audience members juiced up before and after seeing great dramas. Or that the stage was built outside of London's walls to keep the disreputable entertainment at bay from its good citizens.

The building dates to 1576 and only today are London Museum archeologists digging away because a present-day theatre troupe wishing to build on the site thought the scientists should "have a look."

I guess so.

New Playhouse Planned For Shakespeare Theater Site (NPR)

Lady Macbeth

I live in a great home. The home has beautiful chandelears in every room. A huge table on both sides there are big confy chairs, 30 room, 5 bathroom, 10 bedroom 5 bedrooms for the 50 servents.

Lady Macbeth friends are her husband and banquo most people in the play.

Lady Macbeth eats fancy dishes everyday. She eat a big turkey some mashed potatoes, sometimes they had big piece of meat some rice noodles, apitizer, salad and a big dessert.

Lady Macbeth. She believed to be special very rich.

She wanted to be queen. How she got to be queen was that she killed the king.

She afraid someones going to find out that she killed the king.

She is afraid of her friends because maybe they're find out.
Celia, 4th grade

photo: AFP/Museum of London

Monday, August 9, 2010

Where's Barney?

When I chose "Macbeth" as this year's production for The Shakespeare Club, I met with our school principal for her recommendation on age-appropriateness for the audience.

"Obviously, we're using an adapted script and the bloody hands are little red gloves with red ribbons attached, but even so...what do you think about the kinders seeing this?"

"Mel, it's 'Macbeth,' not 'Halloween.' It's Shakespeare. They'll be fine."

And she was correct. The kids had been prepped by their teachers on the basics of the plot. Some had conversations about ambition, turning on a best friend or what might go into a magical potion.

One mother expressed an idea: "I think you should use more props. The kids need more things to look at."

Another chimed in. "I don't agree. I like the simplicity of the production and how it focuses on the language and story."

I contemplated these two points of view because each was valid and each mother was concerned about her child's experience.

My conclusion, given we're all on the superhighway of sound and imagery: It can be a challenge to slow down to iambic verse whatever age we are, but slowing down can be its own unique adventure.

I also think it's worth noticing what children notice, what draws them in and what sparks their imaginations. Hands down, I think kids are fascinated by other kids.

Watch them as they're wheeled around a mall or the walkways of a zoo. As moms and dads point out the seals and tigers, the toddlers stare at other toddlers.

I watch the faces of the kindergarteners and first-graders when we do our shows. Whether they're into the plot or language is irrelevant, because they're gripped by seeing versions of themselves on stage.

They tilt their small faces up and see other children, in light and on fire with power. Maybe better than Elmo.

What does it mean to be a best-friend?

1. If your best friend is doing something wrong...
you should gently tell "Thats not ok. It could be dandres."

2. If your bff is sad you should cheer them up.

P.S. You should look after them
Millie, 3rd grade

Friday, August 6, 2010

Sugar and Spice: Dominick

When it comes to our club's snacking habits, I try to make sure the only sugar they get is fruit-based, but occasionally the refined stuff shows up.

During meetings, our snacks are handed out at the end, which relieves me of sugar-rush behavior. Of course, when we have parties, I enjoy the full effect and have Advil waiting for me on the other end.

Most people have some kind of reaction to pure sugar. Personally, I get sleepy and fat. Others get peppy. And still others can have an almost allergic reaction, swinging them into moods no one wants to experience.

I was informed at the last possible moment that Dominick was of the latter group.

"I'm sorry but I forgot to tell you that he must never, never have sugar."

I received this urgent whispered message from the classroom assistant assigned to help Dominick day-to-day.



This was on our performance day.

I wracked my brain, trying to remember what the kids had eaten so far.

"I know he had an apple, some water...oh boy...Twizzlers...he had a Twizzler!"

"Okay, nothing else...make sugar!"

The Shakespeare Club on performance day has a picnic-type dinner break. In years past this meal was made up of turkey-wrap sandwiches I bought at Costco, Papa John's pizza and an array of grapes, pineapple and melons.

For the first time in our history we were having an elegant dinner. A mother in the school's parent group is a caterer and we signed her up.

I looked over the beautifully arranged food and immediately spotted the dessert end, with tiny bread puddings and pots of chocolate mousse. I cast a quick look to Dominick — who'd also detected the forbidden.

He came to me near the end of the repast.

"It's not fair."

"Yeah, I know."

"I want some of that. Just a little, just some."

"Come here, Dominick, sit next to me. I have to tell you something."

He slumped over but kept his eyes on the other actors munching away on the sweets.

"You know, Dominick, real actors on Broadway...they can't eat whatever they want."

He shot me grumpy look.

"It's true, I'm not making this up. They have to be very disciplined about what they eat, especially before a performance. Dominick, you are a real actor and we can't have you putting anything in your body that would jeopardize your final performance tonight. Can you imagine how awful you'd feel after that?"

Dominick tore his eyes from those puddings, thought for a second and nodded.

"I agree, Ms. Ryane. Okay."

Another bullet missed. Bravo, Dominick.

My Futer

My future is to live in candy world and eat lots of candy every day and not eat helthy.
Krystal, 3rd grade

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Hard News: What Can't They Do?

I'm often asked this question:

"Mel, do the kids really understand Shakespeare's language and all those words?"

Not entirely. I have them circle difficult words when we read the script aloud, and when I meet privately with each club member I yank out ye old dictionary. We discuss the new words and they write the definitions into their scripts.

Do they remember them? Not all, but we've cranked open the vault of possibility.

Stories abound of extraordinary children taking on huge responsibilities or surviving what seem impossible circumstances. Charles Dickens penned tales of children enduring against terrible odds and our current headlines match whatever he fantasized.

I don't wish any child to have to climb adult-size mountains, but when I read of a young boy raising four small siblings on his own, or a girl working in a factory and taking care of ill parents, I think Shakespeare's language is doable.

6-Year-Old Becomes First Child To Complete Solo Ride Around Block (The Onion)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Meanwhile, in the Garden...

Once Macbeth has killed off his best friend, Banquo, he becomes totally unhinged.

His wife, guilt-free and delighted to be Queen of Scotland, is likely redecorating the palace lickety-split and has her heart set on a royal Banquet — yes, with a capital B.

All those lassies in grade school are going to be darn sorry they ever snubbed our new Queen once that invitation list goes out and the celebrations for her husband's crowning raise the roof on ye merry Dunsinane Castle.

Everything's ready.

Hair: Check.

Nails: Check.

Goblets polished: Check, check and check.

The regal hall fills with kilted Lords and Ladies dressed in satin. Lady Macbeth wanders the palatial room, fine wine in hand, a smile plastered on her face and fresh roses in her cheeks. All is going swimmingly until her husband blows it and starts talking to an empty chair. Oh, for crying out loud, this guy is just the limit.

I saw a production of "Macbeth" wherein the director had cleverly staged the party crowd, moving them around the stage to steal the audience's attention at perfect spots so that Banquo's ghost appeared and disappeared as if by magic.

I wanted to replicate this idea with the young thespians of our club.


"Okay, here's a neat trick. When actors have to gather onstage for a party scene and need to look like they're talking and laughing but can't make noise they say, "Rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb" to each other."


"Come on, try it. As if you're saying, 'Oh, Natalie, I love the ribbons in your hair," but you nod and smile and say, 'Rhubarb rhubarb!' Get it?"

"What is that stuff, Ms. Ryane? Rhubarb?" Mary asked with a grimace of distaste on her face.

"It's a fruit or vegetable kind of thing. You put it in pies. Or go to the garden with a bowl of sugar, pick a stalk of rhubarb, lick it, stick it in the sugar and eat. Delish!"

This is another way I test their patience. They have zero idea what the heck I'm on about.

"Let's try 'rhubarb' with the moves. Ready?"

It would take weeks for them to learn the cues for moves toward the chair and away from the chair in order to reveal and hide Garth's Banquo — who by the way, would act like a complete joker until performance day.

But, they love rhubarb rhubarb and repeat it over and over, killing themselves laughing. Oh, it's a good party all right...for everyone except our mortified hostess.

Husbands. Honestly.


My name is Ross. I live in the part of the palace where all the lords live. I'm married. I have 6 children their names are Scarlet, Cole, Jill, Robert, Emily and James. What do I belive-one day I open my own bisnis. I want to make swords and sell them. I am loyal to whoever is King. I love riding horses. I like to eat chicken pot pies, steamed veggies and muffins. I like to wear satin and lether.
—Mary, 3rd grade