Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Stage Manager: Celia

Celia began her adventures with The Shakespeare Club when she was in third grade. Inside Celia's head, she was a star. As Celia saw herself, she was a big-voiced, center stage-stealing headliner. At a mere eight years old, Celia found me and said, "I don't want to be an ocean maker."

In our production of "Twelfth Night," six girls were required to wave long swatches of gauzy fabric in waves. These roles were not actual parts. They were not star-making parts and clearly not in Celia's game plan.

I understood ocean maker was not Celia's idea of acting, but we had voice work to do before she could take on a role like Viola.

Over our three years together, Celia and I worked on her small voice as her elegant body grew taller into what could be mistaken for a runway model's physique.

Celia, two years ago.

By her second year in the club, Celia recalibrated her goals and became the club's stage manager. She settled into the role, was good at it, and appeared to enjoy it. Stage managers must have good voices and Celia continued to find hers. It was Celia's job to call lighting and sound cues, and to give the actors notes after run-throughs.

Celia drew her spine upright as she shared measured thoughts to the group. The cast also sat up straight to receive Celia's help. No one dared mock Celia. No one questioned her opinions. Everyone waited, still and quiet, as Celia spoke.

These are a sample of Celia's notes:
When Helena and Hemeria have their little chat in the beginning every time one of them talk it should be louder than the other

Bailey use the other hand so the audience can see you

Bailey that was perfect when you woke up from your dream

Donkey don't cover Peter

Phoebe don't face your back against the audience

Kamili when Sam comes in you were very good because you spoke loud and clear

Sam and Peter good acting for bieng an actor for the performance

Carina don't get yourself dizzy

Broadway stage managers, take note of these notes. Fair and balanced. Encouraging and correcting. Delivered in a small but clear voice from a tall and caring leader.

Celia is off to middle school next year, and it's an adieu I do not want to make.

My goal for shakespeare club is and was to speak a little higher. I kind of did but I still could speak up.

What I learned was that you don't just have to be important when you are an actor but the whole point you are supposed to be on stage.

What I loved were the plays.

I will miss you Miss Ryan
—Celia, 5th grade

Friday, June 24, 2011

Ahoy, Maties!

It interests me how personality types seek their place in the world.

I can pretty much recognize a production designer from a sound mixer on a film set.

The former, dressed in ramrod stubbornness, will vehemently fight over a peach-toned vase placed on a Queen Anne table in a room painted robin's egg blue, no matter what the director might have dictated.

The latter wears a headset and listens to dialogue all day — both the scripted kind and the gossip-kind (when wired actors forget they're wearing microphones) — and imagines himself an authority on anything. Seriously, all subjects are included in a sound mixer's purview. Production sound mixers have advised me on how to clean eyeglasses, on how to walk a dog, on how to write letters....

This year our Shakespeare Club crew was made up of four unique young persons led by Celia, our stage manager. Celia, in her third year as a club member, wrote a mission statement in her journal:

My goal for shakespeare club is and was to speak a little higher. I kind of did but I still could speak up.

Calvin sorts light gels with Henry watching.

Our sound operator, in her second year, is Celia's sister. Mariah is also a quiet speaker but off-the-charts brilliant. This came from Mariah's journal:
I learned about William Shakespeare and his time. I also learned more about actors and Ms. Ryan.

My goal for Shakespeare was to do a good job on the four plays and make Ms. Ryan and Ms. Rachel proud and glad.

What I loved about Shakespeare Club this year were the snacks, treats, play, rehersols, performence, food, movies, time, most of all The Shakespeare Club.

Calvin started in our club as an actor then found his home running our lighting board. Calvin had a difficult year academically and domestically. The little fellow was challenged on all fronts, more than many adults could reckon with, and yet, when faced with complicated light cues, the boy was captain of his own ship.

This is what Calvin wrote:
Shakespear is awesom. I've been in it for three years. My first year I played a sailor and a gaurd. On the second year is that I controled the lights. My big brother Anthony used to do it but now he is in 7th grade. I did it this year again.

Our newest crew position was that of props master. Fifth-grader Vincent asked to speak to me in the autumn, when I was arranging auditions.

"Um, excuse me?" Vincent said, approaching me.


"Um, I would like to be in Shakespeare Club but I don't think I can...you know...like...be up there...or...you know...."

"Ah, I think you mean you would like to be in the club but not as an actor."

Vincent nodded and appeared relieved that I understood.

"Well, let's see. We have a stage manager, a sound operator and a lighting operator, but we've never had a proper props master. What about that?"

Vincent blinked.

"Vincent, you would be in charge of all the props for the actors. You would make sure that they're in good repair and that the actors get their swords or crowns. No one but you or the actor could touch that prop. What do you think?"

Vincent jumped on board and wrote as he liked to, in Elizabethan english:
My goal for thy Shakespear Club was to learn about thee and be in thy play. I have accomplished that goal. I loved the play, thy job, and everyone in the shakespear club.

These four attended rehearsals and joined the actors for meditation, yoga and voice work, but then had to sit quietly while the cast struggled to get the play on its feet.

These four waited all year for their moment until, in the dark at the back of the auditorium, they glowed under their own private sun.

A true friend is someone that doesn't make fun of you, well it's okay if you make fun of you're friend if it'll make your friend laugh, act like sisters. Have hang outs at each others houses every few days or every weekend. Don't fight too often they fight like every 2 time a year. Also you enjoy doing the same things.
—Celia, 5th grade

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Recess: Acting Class

Pretentious acting classes stuffed with know-it-all acting teachers and above-it-all acting students are ripe for mockery.

Super-fun and well worth the drubbing. Have a look:

Monday, June 20, 2011

Running Through

And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake.
A Midsummer Night's Dream Act II, Scene II

Henry as Lysander.

Yeah, no kidding. I was ready to run through fire myself after witnessing our first run-through. It was a falling-down, chaotic, incomprehensible mess, and not in a funny kind of way.

This year had been made more difficult because I had ten fifth-graders in the club and their teacher, perhaps burdened by state testing, appeared reluctant to release any of them for private coaching. I grabbed as many as I could on lunch breaks but these kids had big roles, and with a long week between each rehearsal, it was difficult to maintain momentum. All very dicey.

At the end of our run-through, I shot a quick look at Rachel to confirm we were both feeling as if we were up a tree. She gave a tiny nod and I faced the group.

"So, how did you guys feel about that?" I asked.

They slumped in their chairs. They looked as deflated as any professional acting troupe I'd ever seen after a bad rehearsal, and it made me smile. These are little kids, I had to remind myself. The bar for Shakespeare Club had been raised so high I sometimes forgot how short they actually were...until one would ask me for help opening a water bottle or starting the peel of an orange.

Oh right, they have tiny hands. They have tiny hands because they are tiny children, not small adults.

Ellie as Helena.

"That was pretty bad," offered Ellie, the fifth-grader playing Helena.

The other kids nodded in agreement and looked at their shoes.

"Okay, I'm not going to lie to you. It was pretty bad. But pretty bad is about on target for where we are in our process. We can only go up from pretty bad, right?"

"I guess," confirmed Dominick, the fifth-grader playing Oberon.


"Let's remind ourselves of the ritual. After you've brushed your teeth, washed your face and put your jammies on, what do you do?"

"We take our scripts to bed and whisper our lines and they magically go into our heads," Mark answered.

"Exactly right," I nodded. "I will be here to meet with any of you who want to work at lunch. Our next run-through will be better, I promise."

After they'd gone, Rachel and I were cleaning up and I released a long sigh.

"I have to remember every year the first run-through is awful and then I have to further remind myself this program isn't even about the performances. It's about what they're learning and the fast track to learning is through mistakes. It's okay if they mess up as long as they try...right?"

"Right, Mel," Rachel smiled.

We both knew. On track. Our train was on track....Run-through, run-through, run-through....

Kamili as Peter Quince.

How I am like my character is because Peter Quince is bossy, and sometimes I can be pretty bossy. Another way I am like my character is when I like to direct.
—Kamili, 5th grade

high bar photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Actress: Bailey

She flashes her dark brown eyes, tosses her locks and fidgets. Bailey is abuzz. Bailey squirms, whispers and rarely sits at attention. Bailey is abuzz. Bailey strides to center stage, hands on hips, and assails her co-star with a Shakespearean barb. Bailey is an actor.

"Bailey, shhh."

"Bailey, you probably don't want to be talking during the dance....We can see you."

"Bailey, slooooow dooooown."

Bailey is abuzz. Bailey is an actor.

She seeks light like a moth. Intrepid is at her disposal. Her voice is clear; Bailey will be heard, no question about that.

"Bailey, what do you want to do when you grow up?"

"I want to be an actress on Broadway, Ms. Ryane."

"Okay. Let's look at what you've learned and where you need to go."


"Focus has to be your new best friend. Remember how many times I asked you to slow down the pace in Hermia's nightmare?"


"And when you finally took your time with it, remember how the audience listened?"

"Yeah," she twitches, squiggles and leaks a satisfied grin.

"That's the power. Your job is to tell the story through your character. The audience doesn't know Hermia....You have to take them there, and that work requires stillness and focus."

"I know, like, I think about how my face looks and how angry I am with Demetrius...."

"Here's the thing, Bailey. You never have to think about how your face looks, ever again. That's not where your focus needs to be. You have to put all your attention into the other actors. You have to think about how you're trying to change those people to get what your character wants."


"And think about this: every day, from the moment you wake up, you are in relationship with people. The way you behave with your sister is different than how you are with your mom and different than how you are with your teacher or best friend. All those parts of you are in the characters you will play."

Bailey gives a bum swivel on her bench. She blossoms in a big smile and whispers: "Broadway."

"Okay, Bailey...off you go, back to class."

"Bye, Ms. Ryane," she quips and skips.

I know her. I was her....I was reprimanded far too many times for exuberant chit-chat.

Alas, my little actress. Alas.


If I had a life of peace I would live in a 1 story house. It would be blue, purple, and yellow. It would smell like citrus fruit and lavendar. I would wear dresses, tights, flats, and a prettie bow. I would eat meats like turkey, beef, pork, and ham. I would eat vegitables like brussle sprouts, asparagus, and artichoke, sometimes bean, meat, and corn. I would take long walks and live in small towns with cute animals like squirls and birds. I would live near rivers with rocks. I would hop and sing peacefully.
Ellie, 5th grade

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hard News: Let's Learn This

In 2005, I read astonishingly high statistics on student dropout rates. Children were quitting school in large numbers as early as ninth grade, in large part because they thought they would never make it, never catch up, never be able to read and never succeed at algebra.

I could do absolutely nothing about helping with math, but determined I could do something about language arts.

In the six years I've had with The Shakespeare Club, I've witnessed even the meekest of children gain confidence as a passion for words and story were sparked.

"If I can do Shakespeare, can do anything!"

They stomp their feet and shout this claim because they believe it.

Read on:

Report: Why we need arts education (not only to improve test scores) (Valerie Strauss, The Answer Sheet)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Hey, You Guys...

The more things change....

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" was written in the early 1590s. It's no small wonder Shakespeare's plays endure, as our humanness gallops wildly, century over century — yet advances minimally, if at all.

Here's what I know after six years of working with children:

  • Girls gang up in cliques and use words as weapons.

  • Boys elbow, kick and jab with grunts.

  • Girls like to keep a tidy desk, draw curlicues and can sit up straight when asked.

  • Boys learn best on their feet and cannot quite recognize the difference between a neat work area and a messy one.

Everyone wants power. Everyone wants love. Everyone wants revenge.

William Shakespeare knew this, and even schoolchildren can identify with the desires of his characters.

Hermia and Helena are best friends:

...So we grew together,
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition,
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem;
So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart;
Act III; Scene II

Until it all falls apart over a couple of guys.

I asked the kids to write of friendship, to write of when they longed for love and of when they felt left out.

Not only did they compose thoughts in their journals, but they stood courageously and read their words aloud to each other.

"Look around the room right now," I instructed. "This is your other family. When you perform the play, Ms. Rachel and I will not be onstage with you to solve problems. You will depend on each other."

And so they do, and so they did, and so they can.

Friendship is when someone is your friend. Usually in friendship you have fights, but make up and you have a realasionship with them. I have a lot of best friends so its kind of hard to choose one of my best friends because I don't want to.
—Bridget, 3rd grade

Friendship is being honest with your friend. Being nice, polight, and caring. You be interested in things your frend is experionsing good or bad. Friendship is well...being friendly and friend like.
—Rebecca, 3rd grade

One time I wanted love was when I had my reletives come over and was a very mature party and no one payed attention to me and to my cosins and I wanted them to give me love and attention.
—Bailey, 4th grade

I wanted love when my mom threw all my halloween candy in the trash. I thought she didn't love me and my brothers.
—Sam, 4th grade

When I was left out of kickball when I was 6. Nobody wanted to have me on there team. They picked every body exzept me and my friend Jeremy. Exept we had fun playing tether ball by are self.
—Peter, 3rd grade

A time when I felt left out was when every one was playing a game and I asked can I play and they said No, it made me feel left out and I would ask and ask until they finally said yes.
—Kamili, 5th grade

Friday, June 10, 2011


"It's the part I wanted, Ms. Ryane....It's the part I hoped for!"

Directors rarely hear this from actors. Actors don't make the best judges of how they should be cast. It's notable when it works out and delight reigns.

"What is it you like about Puck, Sabrina?"

"I like that Puck is kind of a trickster and mischievous. I like that Puck can be magical and be invisible."

"What do you think Puck wants most in life?"

Sabrina tips her head to the side. Her long sandy hair drips over her skinny shoulders and she leaks a Puckish grin.

"Puck wants to be the best fairy for Oberon."

"I think you're right about that. Puck does like to play tricks, and so does Oberon, and Puck is what we call 'a pleaser.' "

As Shakespeare Club neared its production day, Sabrina was the only actor who approached me for some private rehearsal time.

"Sure, Sabrina, I'll talk to your teacher and you and I can have some time together."

Sabrina's fourth-grade teacher was happy to release her from an afternoon schedule. Her teacher admired Sabrina as a student and as a generous young girl.

Sabrina had already experienced Shakespeare, on a grand scale, when earlier in the year the Royal Shakespeare Company rolled through town with their production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor." They needed child extras; Sabrina auditioned and was chosen. She offered some of her paycheck to help fund the fourth-grade class field trip to Sacramento this year.

"Sabrina, what did you learn from being in that show?"

"Well, I really noticed backstage, like in the dressing rooms, how quiet everyone was. And they did a warm-up and were serious and so when we do yoga in Shakespeare Club I know why."

"And what is it that has you concerned about playing Puck?"

"I just don't think...like...that I'm strong enough in some of my lines."

"Okay, let's get to work."

I read Oberon across from Sabrina's Puck. I urged her to scoot downstage to match Oberon toe-to-toe, to avoid upstaging her fairy king. I found the places where she felt uncomfortable and helped her find the playful aspects of herself to bring to her Puck.

"You are Puckalicious," I told her. "You already have delight and fun in you....Not much acting required."

Sabrina chewed her lip and smiled.

"And you have one of the biggest moments in the play with your final speech to the audience....You close the show and you will be great. Believe me?"

"Okay," Sabrina answered.

Brave. Brave to ask for help. Brave to stand center stage and deliver.

I see friendship as caring for one another and when one hurts the other one helps. That is what I think friendship is like.

I am not my character because I am not a fairy. But I love helping people just like helping Oberon.
—Sabrina, 4th grade

"Merry Wives" photo by Gary Friedman/LA Times

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

From the Bellows

"So, Peter, you're a boy playing a boy playing a girl."

Peter beams up at me through his eyeglasses and says, "Yup! And look, Ms. Ryane!"

He crosses his eyes, because he can, and because one time I said anyone doing that always makes me laugh. Peter gives laughter as love.

"And your character, Francis Flute, is a bellows-mender. Know what that is?"

"Ummm, not really."

I draw a lousy picture of a bellows and tell him it's what helps a fire take hold. "It's all in the air, Peter. We have to feed the fire air."


What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.

So building fires
requires attention
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.

When we are able to build
open spaces
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that makes fires possible.

We only need to lay a log
lightly from time to time.
A fire
simply because the space is there,
with openings
in which the flame
that knows how it wants to burn
can find its way.

—Judy Brown

And this is how I direct, and how I teach...and then I step back and marvel. Every time I meet with these children, we explore what a character wants, how that character is like us, and what that character does to get what he wants.

I set them up with blocking, give them the text, and watch as they explode as ideas catch fire.

I am nothing more than a good match.

What I would get for William Shasepear birthday is I would get him a book about plays because I know he likes to write about plays. I bet he would be so happy. I would also get him a book so he knows what to do for his play that he will write.
—Calvin, 5th grade

Monday, June 6, 2011

Just Do Your Job

I asked a nine-year-old thespian if he had any tips to make The Shakespeare Club better.

Sam, thoughtful fellow he is, gave the question some time to swirl around in his head. We were sharing a bench under a tree on campus. Above us a bird tweeted and leaves fluttered in a breeze.

"Well, the one thing I would say is that if there are lines that the actors want to add or change...like, say...when I'm playing Nick Bottom...I could say, 'Wow'...or 'No way!' Like, I think that would be a good thing in Shakespeare Club if we could do that."

"I hear you, Sam, and yet that's the one thing we can never, ever do. We can't change the playwright's lines. We can make cuts in the play, but we can't change the lines."

Sam accepted my answer. UNLIKE MOST ACTORS IN HOLLYWOOD.

I've spent a lot of time on the boards as a theatre actor. I've worked on my share of film and television sets and I've been to film school, so I think I have a right to air a grievance on the issue of folks doing their assigned jobs and leaving others to do theirs.

I have a bias toward theatre discipline in this regard and applaud the Dramatists Guild for protecting the words of their members by not allowing actors and directors to make changes.

Screenwriters, unfortunately, do not have the same protection — and I have never been on any set, as an actor or acting coach, where non-writers haven't taken it upon themselves to make changes willy-nilly.

Often with this reasoning: "But I would never say that!"

It's not about you, you ninny!

Directors seem to think that by placating these whiners, they'll achieve a "naturalistic performance" and "make the actor happy."

What nonsense.

To those actors, I say:

If you want to write, go learn the craft and write your own script.

And to directors who insist upon delivering line readings to actors:

If you want to act, go take a class, or a hundred, and cast yourself.

And to producers who like to throw around lens sizes and stand behind a director, mumbling ideas:

If you want to direct, go to film school and learn how to frame a shot.

So I'm sorry, Sam, we won't be changing Shakespeare's lines to make ourselves more comfortable. Anyone can do that. Anyone can rattle off one-liners to spice up a conversation. That's what dinner parties are for.

Actors do what regular folks cannot do: Take someone else's words, own them, and spit them out as if they just thought them up.


If I had a life of peace I would by me a fridge and fill it up with all of the food I have. If there is still food that could be put in there. I would stuff food in there and hurry and shut the door. Then when it falls out of there I would stuff some in a empty closet until it gets full. this just a dream it won't come true.
Mark, 5th grade

Friday, June 3, 2011

Wednesday's Child: Rebecca

I saw a public-service announcement recently about teachers and teaching. The gist of the spot was the plight of the middle child.

The teacher in the ad spoke of kids who grab our attention either through superlative dazzle or mind-bending ill behavior, and how those in the middle can be overlooked as a result.

Rebecca is one of those middle children.

I arrived in Rebecca's third-grade classroom to announce the Shakespeare Club for 2011, and Rebecca bounced out of her seat. Her leaping up made me smile. She didn't say a word but, as if she'd been waiting for this news, was up and alert like a bunny out of its hole.

When she auditioned for The Shakespeare Club, Rebecca stepped into the room and made her way to the actor's chair. She did her audition piece off-book. When I gave her a tiny adjustment, she listened and answered my request with a second efficient round.

I don't think Rebecca necessarily wanted to be in Shakespeare Club because she imagines a life onstage. If anything, Rebecca shies from the spotlight. But she wanted in the club nonetheless and proved herself to be the gold teachers sometimes overlook.

When chaos reigned — and it did (those boys, those boys...those ramped up boys) — Rebecca settled into her seat as if her composure would calm the room. As I raced to douse fires, I would catch her in my periphery and think, Thank God for Rebecca....She is reason personified.

Rebecca never threw her arm in the air asking to share her journal writing. In an effort to have her drum up the requisite courage, I made a suggestion around the time of her birthday.

"Rebecca, you know what I like to do on my birthday? Something I've never done before. Like maybe eat something new or walk someplace new or...I don't know...maybe read aloud from my journal or something."

I know. Tremendously sly on my part.

Rebecca nodded, took it in and said nothing.

Until the day she said, "Ms. Ryane, today....I'm reading from my journal today."

She did, it was lovely, we shared her courageous step, and she never did it again because she didn't need to.

Rebecca was proud of the club and our production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" because of the work of others. When showing her mom a collage of club photos, Rebecca pointed out funny, funny Peter. She insisted her parents avoid rehearsals and only see our final performances; she wanted them to see the other kids' work fresh. As rehearsals progressed, Rebecca focused her attention on the comedic hijinks of her peers. She giggled, her face behind her palm.

When Audrey broke her leg, it was Rebecca who walked her to the library, carrying her lunch box and filling me in on her progress.

"She's doing so well on the crutches, Ms. Ryane!"

"Audrey got her walking cast and she's practicing walking without crutches, Ms. Ryane!"

"Audrey will be able to do the dance, Ms. Ryane! She walked without the cane for a whole hour!"

What happens to Wednesday's children? Where do they go? What do they do in adulthood?

The actress who can stand in the limelight without craving it. The child who shows genuine compassion for others. The girl who celebrates the accomplishments of others with pure joy....Where should these people go?

Rebecca for President, I say.

If I had a life of advencher I would travle to grees. I have always wanted to go to grees because of the buityful stachuse and water fontens, and amazing stone work. Another place I would go would be Ozz (from the wizzred of Ozz) I would want to go to Ozz because I like the color green, and it just seems cool.
—Rebecca, 3rd grade

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hard News: The Green-Eyed Monster

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.
Othello Act III, Scene III

Check this out: The entire community of San Diego, a mere two hours south of Los Angeles, not only encourages the exploration of Shakespeare in their schools, they celebrate it with a festival.

Check out the size of the classrooms they rehearse in. Check out that they work during regular school hours and aren't relegated to the status of an after-school anomaly.

I'm so jealous that I'm checking out. I can't watch it.

7 Quirky Ways Students Learn Shakespeare (The Huffington Post)