Friday, April 29, 2011

In Character: Peter

Where does funny come from? I don't know, beats me.

It's all in the...wait for it — darn, too long...missed it — TIMING.

Maybe angels randomly hand out funny bones to newborns because we all know funny can't be taught. Funny ya got or ya don't got.

If you got it, a sense of humor can be cultivated, and it should be. It's the healthiest antidote to pain.

When a third-grader, Peter, came in to audition for Shakespeare Club, he was efficient. He'd worked on his audition and was all business when he entered the room, gave me a once-over, strolled to the chair, sat, and answered my questions as if he were dressed in a mini three-piece pinstriped suit and interviewing to be the new CEO.

I didn't see the funny.

That is, until he was cast as Francis Flute, the mechanical assigned the role of a girl, Thisby, in the play within the play. It's a little confusing. But Peter followed it.

"So, I'm a boy playing a boy playing a girl."

"Correct. Can you work with that?"

Peter and I were alone in the school library and at my question he flung his forehead onto the tabletop and his shoulders shook with laughter.

"I'll take that as a yes."

Francis Flute is a bellows-mender and I sketched a lousy version of a bellows to explain this to Peter.

Peter has the confidence of a kid who can waltz into a classroom wearing a purple shirt, tie, striped trousers and jaunty cap, as if we were all living on Carnaby Street in the 1960s.

As it turns out, Peter's version of Francis Flute is also a chef, because Peter's journal entries often include his fantasy career in the culinary arts.

"Well sure, Peter, maybe Francis Flute is a bellows-mender and a chef and he could be planning the wedding banquet for Duke Theseus and his bride, Hippolyta."

Peter gave a nod as he approved the idea.

"Okay, I have to ask how strongly you feel about making an audience laugh because I see some real opportunities here for comedy with a capital K. For example, it might be worth finding a Thisby voice."

Peter read a Thisby passage in a high-pitched voice and again, pressed his forehead to the table, cracking himself up.

"And what about this scarf? You could wear it when Francis becomes Thisby."

"Oh, a fitting," Peter answered, taking the scarf like a pro.

Peter has every girl in the club in the palm of his funny hand. There's no aphrodisiac like funny.

Believe me, Justin Bieber isn't funny, and girls are going to figure that out.

Our Thisby, née Francis Flute, née Peter, has all the funny.

I wanted to be in Shakespear club because I want to learn to act better. Today in Shakespear club I learned when Shakespear was born. If I was a protigey I would be a chef.

If I was Francise Flute I would live in C.A. have a mantion be a profeshinal chef...bake kakes.
—Peter, 3rd grade

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sitting in the Sun

That's what I call it: sitting in the sun. Others call it meditation, and that's fine too.

Meditation is simple in concept and astonishingly difficult to do.

Two main points:

1. Sit still

2. Keep errant thoughts at bay, concentrate on a single thing, like a flower, a candle flame or, as we do in Shakespeare Club, a sun setting over an ocean.

"Feet on the floor."

But mine don't reach!

"Some feet can dangle above the floor, that's okay. Hands on lap. Eyes closed...closed...shut — all the way, Laci — and deep breath. Fill the tummy...hold it, hold it, hold it and let it go."

I carry around a photo of an evening sun setting over a peaceful ocean.

"Take that sun and place it right in the middle of your forehead, and inhale. The waves come in....Exhale, the waves go out. Inhale, water in....Exhale, water out...."

Some eyes try to stay shut and others peek open to see where I am.

"Your brain is the mommy and daddy of your body. Your brain says, 'Stay still....No fidgety fingers, not right now....Be still, feet....I am the boss of me....Inhale, the waves come in....Exhale, the waves go out....' "

When they do it, they do it all the way. Shoulders drop, quiet reigns, anxiety disappears and their faces register peace as if their brains are floating in a far-off galaxy.

It has been said children are struggling with heretofore-unexperienced levels of stress. Testing, divorce. Where's the money? Where will we live? Homework, middle school, high school, college. And it starts up again: Where's the money? Where will we live?

If sitting in the sun can ready twenty-four kids for a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," imagine what it could do before a test, in the midst of a schoolyard brawl, or as peer pressure mounts and we don't have what we need. Where's the calm?


I think William Shakespear had been through alot and when his son died I thought that was tragic. And then his thetre that he built was distroyed by a cannon. I feel bad for William Shakespear.
—Sabrina, 4th grade

Monday, April 25, 2011

Greener Grass

Spring. A time to mow our lawns and take a gander at our neighbors' lawns. As always, they look greener.

I asked the girls in The Plot People to share their family traditions for this time of year.

"Some people celebrate Passover and some Easter. Some have special dinners while others search for chocolate eggs. What do you do in your home?"

Millie started the discussion with a description of a Seder, the history of Passover (complete with lamb's blood), unleavened matzo baked on hot rocks and the journey of the enslaved leaving their captors.

Willow, a fourth grader with pale skin and long dark hair, speaks with a soft voice and a slight lisp. She's a terrific participant in our plot study group because she contributes ideas and loves to read aloud.

However, when we discussed Passover, Willow furrowed her brow and gave me a worried look.

"Ms. Ryane, we don't have Passover at our house."

"Not everybody does," I answered. It was impossible to keep the wistfulness off my face.

"Ms. Ryane, are you Jewish?" Willow asked.

"No." I shook my head, fiddling with a green marble egg.

In my experience — and admittedly, this is a big generalization — Jewish parents believe their children are exceptional and touched with genius — and tell them so.

I know that comes with a truckload of pressure, but I would have traded my upbringing of Easters, with way too much pink and purple, too many hats and falling-down knee socks...and an understanding that in our home we lived in a realistic world.

Translation: It's not important that you're not pretty, not smart or that you won't accomplish much. Let's be realistic. Now, eat your ham. It didn't grow on a tree.

This time of year I buy matzo and eat it for breakfast. I stop into delis and order up bowls of chicken soup. And I try to make children believe they have greatness and that they are exceptional — and I tell them so.

It's a tradition.

If I was queen I would live in Englend. I would have a big castle and a big backyard. I would have 3 dogs, 2 rats, and 3 cats. In my room I would have a hammok, a desk, and queen size bed. In my 2 bigest rooms would be librays. I would help the homeless. i'd be the best queen.
—Millie, 4th grade

Friday, April 22, 2011

Shhh, Don't Tell Them

"Sabrina, downstage right."

"Krystal, up center."

"Peter, stage left."

The kids scurry to their places as I call out stage directions. The others giggle and raise their hands, urging me to call on them.

Me, me, Ms. Ryane, call me.

They're learning stagecraft...but don't tell them. They think it's a game.

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night.

I hold my fingers high and count out ten beats to each of Oberon's lines.

"Do this with me," I say, and use a finger to draw a cup in the air followed by a slash. They match me and follow: I know a bank where the wi-ld thyme blows....

They're scanning iambic verse...but don't tell them. They think it's a song.

"Why did Henry the Eighth divorce Catherine of Aragon?"

Because he wanted a baby boy!

"And why did he chop off Anne Boleyn's lovely head?"

Because she had a baby girl and he wanted a baby boy!

"Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived."

Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived!

"What job did William Shakespeare get when he arrived in London?"

Water boy!

"When did he practice writing his poems?"

When the theatres got closed 'cause of the Black Plague, and he sold his poems!

They're studying history...but don't tell them. They think these are crazy stories of a fat, single-minded king and an ambitious theatre wannabe.

Ms. Ryane! Come on tell us another scary Shakespeare story....You promised, come on!

"I did promise and I will, but I didn't say it would happen today....Oooh, I've got a good one, too. All about this girl who liked to climb trees because she was a tomboy and she had this dipsy sister with a bunch of boyfriends."

When I sit on a schoolground bench, they gather around. They ask questions, or jump on one foot, or hold a lunch bag, and stare at me.

"Aren't you going to eat your lunch, Audrey?"

Yeah. And she keeps her blue eyes on mine.

"Anytime soon?"


Wednesday, Wednesday, Wednesday.... Peter hops foot to foot while chanting in anticipation of Shakespeare Club day, as if his incantation will bring the day quicker.

They haven't fallen in love with me. No, they've fallen deeply in love with themselves. 'Tis springtime, after all, when all things bloom with possibility.

"Dominick, let's try the Oberon/Titania scene."

Okay! And guess what, Ms. Ryane? We're going camping on spring break.

"Camping? Like in a forest?"

He jumps straight up. Oh, oh...I just thought of that! Like our play is in a forest!

"Right, so when you see a grassy spot, you can think of where 'Titania sleeps sometime of the night.' "

Ah, children levitating in their own greatness.

They don't know they're swinging on the high bars of language arts. They don't know they're advancing their writing skills, acquiring theatre artistry, disciplining their bodies in yoga, and gaining articulation with voice exercises. They don't know they're learning Elizabethan history or tackling the most advanced works of the greatest playwright.

Please don't tell them. Shhh.

If I were queen Elizabeth I would wear big gowns and silk gloves and have a super big bed. I would love Williams plays and this is what I would write to him in a letter to preform a play for me.

Dear William,

I want you to write a play. I think you are a big success in writing poems and acting. You may gather your best actors and if you want to have certain people to watch with me you may invite them.

If I were queen my name would be Queen Bridget. I would not wear gowns or dresses. I would were jeans and shorts and blouses. I would make a law wich is that everyone can have a personal hovercraft. I would live in Ireland and I would eat el pollo loco and a burger and I cook my own food at home. And I would never become like Henry the 8th. I would be nice but greedy sometimes.
—Bridget, 3rd grade

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dreaming It Up

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" toys with the mystery of what actually happens as we sleep.

Help me, Lysander, help me; do thy best
To pluck this crawling serpent from my breast.
Ay me, for pity! What a dream was here!
Lysander, look how I do quake with fear.
Methought a serpent eat my heart away,
And you sat smiling at his cruel prey.

In verse, Shakespeare has written a chilling speech that has the girl's heart pounding when she attempts to find reality. Was there a snake? Am I awake or asleep?

Who of us has not experienced a similar jolt after waking from a frightening dream? Sometimes my body is in a state of paralysis, followed by a painful thaw as I search for my bearings.

Many of the characters in the play struggle to know which way is up as they are sent reeling through a forest on a hot summer's night.

Did Titania really fall in love with a donkey? Did Lysander really awake enamored of Helena? Do fairies exist?

Every Wednesday I pick Henry up at another school to join us at Shakespeare Club. I look forward to the drive, when the two of us catch up on events of the past week.

"Ms. Ryane, I'm reading a really great book that's helping me in my life," Henry announced as we buckled up.

"What's the book and how is it helping you, Henry?"

"It's called 'The Boy Who Would Be King' and it helps me with my little brother, who gets kinda crazy and hits me and stuff. So, like, in the book, when bad stuff happens, the boy just walks away and stuff."

"Oh, you mean like putting up a wall or talking to the hand?"


"That can work."

"Oh, and Ms. Ryane, I had this wild dream."

"What was that?"

"Well, I was dreaming, I couldn't tell if I was watching this or if I was in it but it was Hamlet and...oh, the ghost came and then it was me seeing the ghost and it was telling me to follow him but then the ghost was my dad."

"You mean your real dad? Your dad who lives far away?"

"Yeah, like my real dad and I was like Hamlet."

"Well you're doing what real actors do. That's called identifying with the character. Pretty cool."

And there we were. Which way is up? A boy dreams of a ghost dad who lives across an ocean. A boy who would be king.

My nightmare was about my family sleeping and a few robbers sneakin in our house. I woke up and tried to tell my family that robbers were in the house but they didn't believe me and I had magic powers so I tried to carry my family.

I also had a dream of me going to school and coming back in front of our house but our house turns to be not their anymore a total different one. So we go in and many monsters and robbers are in their so we run out and try to find our home and our mom but we never do.
Celia, 5th grade

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Ghost Story

"Okay, I have to tell you about this teenager."

Some of these children are nervous about a near future in middle school, where teenagers roam hallways. Some of these children are in awe of teenagers because they've seen the telltale swagger of know-it-all-ness.

All of these children want to be teenagers because they associate those kids with power.

"So, this teenager is about eighteen and going to college. His college is far away in London, and he has to get there on a ship because his home is a castle in Denmark. That's right, a castle, because this teenager is a prince. His dad is King and his mom Queen."

Right, I wanna be that teenager.

"His name is Hamlet, and while he is at school he gets a letter from his mom saying, 'Dear Hamlet, you have to come home right away because your dad died. He was taking a nap in the garden and he died.' "

Whoa, seriously?

"I know, shocking. Hamlet whips home on a ship for the funeral and then the next day, like right after the funeral, his mom, Queen Gertrude, marries his Uncle Claudius. What is up with that?"

This is why I don't miss my acting career. I have a ready audience every week.

"Hamlet goes up to the roof of the castle to see his buddies Horatio and Marcellus and some other guys he hangs with. It's freezing cold and snowing because it's winter. Hamlet is already pretty freaked out by his mom's sudden wedding when Horatio says, "Well, man, you think that's wild, check this out: The other night a ghost showed up here and he looked like your dad, the king."

I stopped walking to and fro and we all took a deep breath together.

" 'A ghost? Are you for real?' Hamlet asks, and just then the ghost appears. He's super-tall with a crown on and carries a sword, and Hamlet can kinda see through it because it's a ghost, after all, and it does look like his dad."

Seriously, seriously?

"And the ghost does this with his hand" — I made a follow-me sign — "and Hamlet starts to go with the ghost. His friends shout, 'Don't, Hamlet, don't go! You don't know that could be evil....Please stay, Hamlet!' But Hamlet follows the ghost around a corner, and when they are alone, the ghost speaks. He says, 'I am your father, Hamlet, and I was murdered by your Uncle Claudius. He poured poison in my ear while I was taking a nap. You must kill him!' "

It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
Hamlet, Act I, Scene II

"Poor Hamlet. He's thinking, 'Criminy, I'm just a teenager. I can't be killing someone...but then again, that Uncle Claudius, what a creep he turned out to be...."

"Ms. Ryane?"

"Yes, Laci?

"Did this really happen?"

We could have been gathered at a campfire, a classroom, an auditorium or a theatre.

When I wanted revenge it was on my brother cause he stuck his tongue out at me and told my mom that I stuck my tongue out at him. So I wanted revenge but I still haven't got it. I am mad at that so I will get revenge one day.
—Bridget, 3rd grade

snow photo by Flick user Betty Olsen; Hamlet photo from Shakespeare Theatre Company

Friday, April 15, 2011

Spring Break

Walking about the campus, I can spot teachers internally calculating. Some are counting to the halfway point of their school year, and others are adding up the days to ye olde recovery week, when hope might spring eternal.

Here's my list of DOs and DON'Ts for spring break:


1. Do not check into a hotel. Not a Motel 6, and not the Four Seasons. Not in sunny climes, nor in neighborhoods known for mere drops of sunshine. Avoid every hotel room everywhere because it's spring break and mobs of teenagers will check in.

Said youth will save dollars by sleeping twelve to a room. They will guzzle liquor then run up and down hallways, screaming about guzzling liquor. They will be sick, pass out, and start all over again. For an entire week.

Industrial earplugs will not help and calling the front desk will not help.

You will not sleep and you will not recoup from the nasty viruses which have been circulating in these young crowds from November to April.

2. Do not patronize movieplexes showing blockbuster spring break fare. Crowds at such places crawl with viruses and the popcorn has thousands of calories, even without the "butter" topping.


1. Teach children food preparation.

Start with a fruit salad. A knife is not needed. Give them bananas to peel and break into chunks. Give them berries to rinse and pour into a bowl. Little fingers can dislodge the stems of strawberries and split the morsels in two. Let them pour yogurt over the mixture and tell them they now run the kitchen while you nap.

2. Take a walk somewhere you've never been. Breathe deeply, look, and do not speak. If you're with children who say I'M BORED, shrug and continue strolling.

3. Attend a foreign-language movie. No one will be there and you can bring your own popcorn; it's expected.

4. Look at the ceiling. Consider the cobwebs, but don't remove them.

5. Eat Indian food and sweat out all impurities.


If I was queen I would eat baccon, eggs, and milk for breekfast. egg salled sandwiches, egg, picls, and sourdow bread, and strawberry juce for dinner. I would have steak and water. I would rule roam. I would have a three story manchen with balcony in every room. I would sleep in a huge huge bed room, with a big window.
—Rebecca, 3rd grade

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Say What?

Hermia doesn't want to obey her dad. He says, "You will marry Demetrius, the boy I chose for you."

Hermia runs away with Lysander.

Obey. It's a tough and unsavory word.

I once fantasized living my life as a nun. Really, three squares a day and not a bad uniform — which would end my struggle with shopping for trendy apparel. And I would perform good works in the world.

That's how I saw it. Maria von Trapp and me: one and the same.

Until I reckoned with that word: obey.

"Oh hey, Mom Superior, thought today I'd bake a chocolate three-layer for the girls."

Nope, latrines on the double.

"What about me and the gang hiking to the top of a hillside while exercising our pipes with top ten tunes?"

Nope, potatoes. Twenty-five pounds' worth.

And that's why they're called fantasies.

Obey is a reality for kids. They have to obey parents, teachers, coaches, babysitters, piano teachers, and me. My heart goes out to them.

As does Shakespeare's. His opinion on obey is clear. Hermia doesn't obey and she ends up fine, with exactly who she wanted in the first place, Lysander.

And that's why they're called plays.

I asked the kids to write about that word: OBEY.

CHILDREN'S WRITES: Journal Entries
I first start for breakfast in the morning in a summer day, 12:00-2:00 pm for lunch, 3:00-5:00pm for dinner. The rest of the time is for video games. Sometimes my grandma says to stop playing video games. I say, "OK." And then I have to read a book.
—Vincent, 5th grade

Once when I was at camp we were playing freze dance. I had to dance big and move more that I was but I admit I am shy so I felt sort of embarist but I still did it because I had to and because I like freeze dance. P.S. it was the first day so I didn't know any one but my one friend.
—Rebecca, 3rd grade

Last year I had to obey Ms. Ryane when I didn't want to do the exricusie and the scripted but I did it any way and look at me now I am in the Shakesphere now and I was in last year. I love Shakesphere and I will love it for the rest of my life even when I die I will still love it.
Wendy, 4th grade

Today my dad said I have to drink some honey medicune to make my coffe go away but I said no because to me it is nasty so had to obey him bye drinking it and i spit it out in my bathroom.
On Monday I went to the doctors and they give me a grown up peal to swallow then my mom said swallow it. When the doctor left I ate half of it and I spit it out in my mom's hand. I had to obey the doctors that way they can make my throught infection go away.
Krystal, 4th grade

Once I had to write a paper on flys. I had a very big fit because I hated flys. I thought they were distausting. I told my mom I did not want to. When I talked back to her she got extremly upset with the way I talked to her. When she told me to go to my room. Instead of going to my room I acted like I was going there but I went to the basement so I could play with something instead of being bored. After about 5 minutes she gave me a pencil and paper to write my paper.
Phoebe, 5th grade

Once when I was early in the morning when my mom told me to go clean my room. I didn't want to because my room was a mess. I had to first fix my book case, make my bed, clean off my dresser, the top of my book case, orginize my trophies, clean out my electronics, put away my clothes, orginize my drawers, try on my shoes, try on my clothes, fix my drawers, go through all my toys and try on my jackets. It was too mutch and took me all DAY. Now I know to always clean my room right away.
Ellie, 5th grade

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Class Act-or

Alas, classy behavior can be a rare commodity. It's usually jerk behavior grabbing headlines and holding the attention of our voracious collective consciousness.

"Okay, today I'd like to address the issue of classy actors versus jerk actors."

They respond to the word jerk by sharing smirks and sitting up to hear all about world-class jerks.

"No one likes a jerk actor. No one. Ever."

On the board I write JERK and next to it CLASSY.

"Jerk actors make fun of other actors, talk while other actors are onstage, tell other actors what to do — and whose job is that, by the way?"

They look to each other for the answer.

"Whose job is it to direct the actors?" I repeat.

Oh yeah.

"Yours, Ms. Ryane!"

"Correct. So jerk actors try to take my job away and I don't like it."

I list the jerk items on the board.

"Now, let's take a look at what classy actors do."

"I know," Mark has his hand in the air. "They let you tell the actors what to do."

"Correct, and what other things?"


"Well, for one thing," I forge ahead, "they live up their mottos. They help and share with each other. Look up there at that stage."

They turn in their seats and take a look at the empty stage.

"When you perform 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' I will not be up there helping you. My job will be done. Now, look at each other. Right now, take a look."

They swivel their heads this way and that.

"This is your other family. These are your new brothers and sisters. You will help each other up there to do your best. If a prop breaks or goes missing, if an actor forgets a line or an won't be me helping you, no sirree. It will be you guys helping each other."


"So, we have to start with choosing to be classy actors and that begins with not talking while another actor is talking."

Easily said. It will take weeks of me talking about not talking to prevent the intrusive talking, talking and more talking.

"Peter's mom told me a story of when she was acting in a romantic scene and the actor she was working with excused himself for a moment and ran his hands under hot water. Do you know why he did that?"

"His hands were dirty?" Dominick suggested.

"Nope, his hands were cold. He had to put a hand on her face and he wanted it to be warm."

They look at their hands.

"That was a classy actor and I'm keeping my eyes out for classy actors. Let's rehearse the gentlemen leading the ladies to their seats. Fellas, get this right and your parents will be blown away."

If I was a groundling I would think that to stand up wouldn't be fear and that I since had a thought it isn't fear I would maybe throw rotten fruit at the rich people but that wounn't really be nice but it worth it because it not really fear that only the rich people get to sit down. It not my fault that my boss didn't pay me.
—Carina, 3rd grade