Friday, July 29, 2011

What Sticks

What fools these mortals be!
A Midsummer Night's Dream Act III, Scene II

It's common practice in elementary school for parents to celebrate their child's birthday by bringing treats for the class to share.

Add it up and that means teachers can expect twenty-five days of sugared-up, salted-up students. And that's not counting other treat-fest occasions like Halloween or Valentine's Day.

I recommend we go back to the recipes of Charles Dickens: gruel on the house!

I was heartened to hear this anecdote from a fourth-grade teacher: as boxes of glazed doughnuts were revealed on a birthday and the kids lined up to partake, Sam, who played Bottom in our production, widened his eyes and quipped:

"What food these morsels be!"

Right on! Off the top of his little head, the boy captured the wit and spirit of William Shakespeare.

I take back the old porridge: Tootsie Pops for everyone!

I ran into Tandi's mother the other day and she also had a story to tell. Tandi, a third-grader who was in Plot People, showed her mom a picture of two cherries hanging from a stem.

Tandi told her mom the sad story of BFFs Helena and Hermia and Shakespeare's comparison of their friendship to a pair of cherries:
So we grew together,
Like to a double cherry—seeming parted
But yet an union in partition—
Two lovely berries molded on one stem....
A Midsummer Night's Dream Act III, Scene II

"I have to show this to Ms. Ryane!" Tandi said.

Indeed, and I best have a bowl of cherries on hand to celebrate.

Peter, who played Francis Flute, fired off the story of "Macbeth" one day to his mom. When she asked how he knew the story, complete with details she'd forgotten from her student days, Peter answered, "Ms. Ryane told us the story and it just stuck with me."

They heard. They remembered. It stuck.

Ice cream all round!

Dear Lysander,

Have a happy Valintines day. I hope that you can attend my party I hope you could come. If you do come please help me decorate my house and help me make cookies for thou guests, I you can't come I will understand. Thank you.

—Bridget, 3rd grade

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Saying Something and Stepping Up

This adage was a favorite of my mother's:

If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.

As golden rules go, it's a good one. Like most of us, she failed on a regular basis, but that's another story.

This story started in our schoolyard as I was about to lead a warm-up. While I corralled the kids into a line to begin humming and sun salutatations, I noticed Bridget off to the side. She beckoned me with a panicked hand gesture.

"Bridget, what is it?" I noticed tears streaming down her cheeks.

She couldn't speak right away so I put my arm on her shoulder and led her away.

"Rachel, can you take over?" Rachel stepped up right away with the rest of the kids.

"Okay, Bridget," I leaned down to meet her eight-year-old eyes, "what happened?"

"Darren called me a lesbian." And her tears escalated.

I didn't know who Darren was. There were lots of boys gathered around the tables. "Which one is he?"

"Him," Bridget stabbed her finger. After a few more queries, I narrowed it down to a fellow in a navy hoodie.

There are lots of recommendations on how to handle bullies. Some parents tell their kids, "Stand up for yourself!" Or "Walk away, take the high road." Or "Knock him down!"

In that moment with Bridget, an actor who had to quickly get it together and face an audience, I just wanted to clock the kid myself.

I marched over to the little criminal, gave him a hard look and motioned him over. He followed me a few steps away from his buddies. As I towered over him, I had to remind myself he was only eight and not yet on the FBI's most-wanted list.

The more complicated problem was that "lesbian" isn't and shouldn't be an insult. But in this case, it was used as such and here I was in a time crunch with lessons that needed to be taught all over the place.

"Hello, my name is Ms. Ryane and I run Shakespeare Club. Who are you?"

"Darren," he whispered, squinting up at me for one second before looking at his shoes.

"Well, Darren, my friend, you have upset one of my actors and that's a real problem for me because she has a job to do onstage. What did you say to Bridget?"

"Well...I don't know...I just...."

"Okay, here's the deal. I already know the whole story and don't have the time to listen to you mumble or make stuff up. So this is like taking a Band-Aid off really fast....You're going to do way better if you just get it out."

"Well...I...said she likes girls, I guess."

"Well, you said more than that, right?"

"Yeah...I said...she's a lesbian."

"Right. Look, you don't even know Bridget. You might think you know her but you don't. Calling someone a lesbian is dumb if you don't know the person but what's worse is that you were trying to hurt Bridget's feelings. That tells me that you are a mean person. Are you a mean person, Darren?"

Maybe the shoes had the answer to that one.

"Here we go, Darren. We're going to go walk over to Bridget now."

Bridget was sucking up her runny nose and watching me with Darren. We arrived in front of her.

"Okay, Darren, you're going to apologize to Bridget for hurting her. Bridget, you and I will hear Darren's apology — but if either of us does not for one second believe he means it, we'll say try again. Got it?" Bridget nodded. "Got it, Darren?" Darren nodded.

"Darren, go."

"I'm sorry, Bridget."

I looked at her. She looked at me. I shrugged: iffy at best. Bridget nodded.

"We didn't really buy that, Darren."

"I'm really sorry, Bridget...."

Bridget was taking her cues from me and I shook my head with a disappointed look. As I returned my gaze to Darren, he burst out with:

"Can you forgive me, Bridget?"

And I fell in love a little with Darren. He was brave in the hot seat. He claimed his guilt and came up with his own phrase for redemption. Darren should be addressing professional athletes and comedians. Darren should be addressing all sorts of adult haters.

"Bridget, does that sound real to you?"


"Good. Thank you, Darren for stepping up. Bridget, time to warm up."

CHILDREN'S WRITES: Journal Entries
Dear Demetrius,

Love is as rich as a pot of gold
My dear sweet hart has bin sold
To you the great love of my life
Love is as soft as a blanket
Love is as hot as an oven

—Bailey, 4th grade

Dear sweet Helena,

How I love thee, how I dote upon thee, I love thee so Helena.
—Sam, 4th grade

Dear Oberon,

Oh, how I love you! You are the treasure of my heart and the light of my life! I will give you anything you like!

—Audrey, 3rd grade

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Summer Day

I recently invited Audrey and Rebecca to spend an afternoon with me at the J. Paul Getty Museum high atop the Santa Monica Mountains.

I had an idea that strolling walkways of Italian travertine stone and popping in and out of art-filled rooms would allow me a different teaching moment for these two Shakespeare Club thespians.

Our first stop was to the gift shop, where I purchased each a small notebook.

"Okay girls, here's my plan: each of you choose a favorite character from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' Write that character's name at the top of a page along with today's date."

They each did as I suggested, then off we journeyed into mid-eighteenth century Paris with paintings, dresses and furniture to dazzle our imaginations. Later we landed in a whirlwind of Impressionist artwork, where we studied cool glades and ladies' hats, and noticed that lots of people in these paintings had dogs and cats.

"I'm going to teach you how to be actor-detectives. Think about what color your Queen Hippolyta might be and make a note. Consider what kind of shoe your Hermia would be or what flavor of ice cream. What music would your Queen Hipployta be, I wonder? Not what she would listen to, but what would she be?"

Rebecca chose faces and dresses and musical instruments for her Hippolyta and scribbled away. She saw her queen as vanilla ice cream, elegant and classy.

Audrey studied the art but didn't write. I could see her brain ticking away but nothing showed up on the page until I mentioned, "Or you could draw...."

And there was no stopping her. Rebecca and I had to frequently stop to wait for Audrey, who in mid-sketch could not lift her pencil from the page. She drew our lunch and sketched a downhill gallop.

"Now, put your own name on another page and make lists or drawings of what music you might be...or ice cream...or color. Then check out the differences or similarities."

We threw copper-pennied wishes into the Getty fountains. I held shoes while the girls raced each other down Getty garden hillsides. We drank fresh lemon-water and shared salads and hot dogs over lunch.

"Audrey, you can see now how your Hermia might sit or walk depending on what kind of shoe she is. Rebecca, you can imagine how your Queen Hippolyta might enter a room depending on what ice cream flavor she is or what sort of hat she might be."

This day was big-girl, big-actor kind of stuff for these two nine-year-olds.

Before we headed back down the hill, we gazed over our city far below to the east and the ocean in the western distance.

This day was a pearl on my necklace of life. A pearl I call a summer day.

Dear sweet sweet Bottom,

I miss you so much. I am wondering why such a handsom guy like you met me. This is the best present to me. I will tell you a secret but do not tell Oberon. Do you want to be married, if so send me a letter. Happy Valentines Bottom

Sincerly, Titania.
—Phoebe, 5th grade

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Hardest Thing

"Imagine that you're an actor on Broadway and you're in a hit show like, say, 'Cats' or 'Wicked.' "

Wicked. Bailey whispers the title and squirms in her seat because she saw "Wicked" on Broadway.

Bailey is one of the few in our school or in our club who has seen a show on Broadway. Bailey is one of the few in our school or in our club who has seen a show anywhere.

These kids can do Shakespeare but, for the majority of them, their experience of watching professional actors at work has been on television or in movies. So, they're not really going to get what I'm about to tell them; some professional actors can't accept it either, and there you have it. I forge ahead.

"Let's say that hit Broadway show you're in is such a gigantic success that it runs for a year. Or two years. Or ten years."

Broadway. Yeah, that would be Bailey again, whispering her dreams for anyone who would like to hear.

"This is the toughest challenge for a theatre actor: keeping it fresh."

I let that sit with them. They're quiet. They're trying hard to understand what I mean and I appreciate their effort.

"How do you as an actor...oh, let's say Bailey, for do you, Bailey, hear for the first time — every time — the news that you could die if you don't obey your father?"

Bailey squints.

"How do all you mechanicals see Bottom as a donkey for the first time, every time, with the same shock?"

Peter tilts his head.

"You will be performing this play four times on one single day, and you will get tired. You may even get bored, but every time you do this play, out there in the audience will be at least one person seeing a play for the first time. It's your job to keep it fresh and brand new for that person or they may never, ever come back to the theatre again."

Oliver nods.

"That's it. That's the hardest job an actor has and we'll see if you're up for it. What d'ya think?"

We can do it, claims Dominick.

"I believe you can."

If I was a groundling at a play and tought it was bad I would throw roten fruit and rocks at the actors and say Boo and leave.

If I was King I would eat KFC, stake and vegtables and potatoes for diner. My name would be onoying Orange the 8th. I would have a super bounce tramplean. My rules are have fun or you would go to jail. If you shot a gun at someone you would be arested.
—Peter, 3rd grade

Friday, July 15, 2011

How Do Flowers Blossom?

I can tell you with absolute confidence how they don't blossom, and that's by standing over them and screaming the living daylights out of their little heads.

No one could accuse me of having a green thumb. I regularly kill plants with too much water, not enough food, or who knows how much light....A rose takes one look at me and folds its petals inward. I don't have a gardening talent, but at least I know I'm not malicious.

Ask any actor who has made a career in the theatre if they've found themselves directed by a neurotic, bellowing sicko and you're going to have to pull up a chair, pour a hot toddy and settle in...'cause you're gonna hear the tales.

Vicious lunatics with power can be located in many professions. No doubt doctors in residency can cite their examples. Novice engineers may have similar experiences. Much drama has been recounted in the stories of law students sunk deep in the cruelty of their professors.

I know showbiz and I can tell you firsthand that crazed wingnuts are a dime a dozen, and that I've never, ever understood their logic (or lack thereof).

It is an actor's job to walk into a rehearsal hall prepared to dig, unearth, and jump stage left to stage right, and to do this all with her heart on her sleeve and a readiness to spill her guts on command.

You have to really, really need to do this in order to walk into said rehearsal hall vulnerable and willing to over and over again strip down in front of strangers.

If someone could explain to me how, in the face of such courage, that flower of an actor is supposed to open petal by petal while being humiliated, I would love to hear the reasoning.

A human being gutted of dignity will fold inward.

How does an actor get up the next day and return to work?

It happens. They do show up and again they try to please because they are courageous and need to do their work as most people need to breathe.

I've been in rehearsal when a director asked an actor, "Show me your Equity card. I want to see it. Show it to me because frankly, I don't believe you're a professional."

I've heard a director shriek, "Get off this stage! Go, go...get out of my sight and don't come back until you have something, anything interesting for me to see!"

The worst is a sly chuckle, shared with sycophants, followed by eye-rolling and the bitter sarcasm of, "What are you supposed to be? Is that your idea of good work? Is that how you interpret character?"

Maybe this is why Shakespeare armed so many of his actors with swords and daggers.

Who could blossom under such a light? Who should?

Dear Anne,

My threater is ruined they shot a cannon and it blew up on the hay. Tell the kids I'm coming soon.
—Mark, 5th grade

flower photo from Nicu's Photoblog

Tuesday, July 12, 2011



I wrote this on the chalkboard.

"Okay, for today's run-through, this is your mission...should you choose to accept it."

Honestly, I got twenty-four sets of blank stares on that one. I like to throw stuff at them that they have zero connection to because it amuses me. An ancient "Mission: Impossible" expression means nothing to them except: Ms. Ryane, you talk kinda weird.

"Here's why not everyone can be an actor. It's really difficult to take words written on a page and make them sound like you just thought them up, right now."

This is the big trick. How to act and not sound like an actor acting?

"In the theatre we call this 'owning it.' "

Ms. Ryane, do you mean like if I do something bad and then I have to say sorry and stuff and I have to own it?

"That's an appropriate kind of owning it, but not really the same thing. That's when you take responsibility for your behavior. In the acting sense, Henry, I mean when you say, 'The course of true love never did run smooth,' you are cheering up your girlfriend and coming up with that sentence right on the spot, right in the moment, and not just saying what William Shakespeare wrote because your part is Lysander."

Over some heads. Tickling the brains of others. Wonder what the snack is today?

When I was a young actress hired by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, I found myself onstage with actors of the highest order. One of whom, Brian Bedford, astonished me every single time he opened his mouth and iambic verse floated out as if he were forming thoughts and voicing them on the spot. Genius.

It is tricky enough to do this with modern language on, say, a television sitcom (which is why actors often insist on changing those lines), but imagine owning Elizabethan verse.

When Brian Bedford limped to center stage, gazed over two thousand audience members, squinted dark eyes, shifted his weight onto one good foot with his hunchback tilting the other way, opened his mouth and dripped the bitter juice of...

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York

...his Richard the Third was an alive and seething human being. We eagerly followed him on his vengeful ride.

Brian Bedford received a Tony nomination this year for his rendition of Lady Bracknell in the Broadway production of "The Importance of Being Earnest." Again, he owned it. Every word, every sentence, every penetrating look. Genius.

I don't think I was asking too much of these kids.

"Impress me, guys. Own it. Ready?"

Oh yeah, we're ready. They snacked on verse and forgot all about real food, for a little while.

If I were a queen I would make sure my servants feel home. I won't make them do too much work. I would do some of the cooking. I would take care of the servants as if they were my daughters and sons. I would have very few servants. If my husband doesn't agree I would divorce. My rule would be if you do what you shouldn't do. My house has to be out of candy because the kids would come by and eat candy. Once the house falls I would make another one, I also want a house out of T.V.
—Celia, 5th grade

Friday, July 8, 2011


"I promise I will not let you go onstage unready or looking like an idiot."

I hold up my hand as if in a courtroom and face twenty sets of skeptical eyes.

"Do you believe me?"

Clearly not, since no one answers.

"Okay, you all give my promise some thought and we'll rehearse as if what I'm saying is true."

Ms. Ryane?

"Yes, Ellie?"

Ellie has had a growth spurt in the last year that makes me think of time-lapse photography. Her blonde hair tumbles over her shoulders, her legs are long and she's picked up a sassy teenage shoulder shrug from, I suppose, her older sister. Alice, who was in Shakespeare Club for three years, is now in middle school but appears ready for a life on the Riviera.

What happens if an actor doesn't show up on the day we do the play?

"You know, Ellie, that's never, ever happened and I don't think it will this year either."

Ms. Ryane?

"Yes, Ellie?"

What happens if an actor forgets their lines?

"Well, we have Bridget here as our narrator and prompter, so no worries there."

What if the audience doesn't laugh?

"They'll laugh, I'm certain of that. But if they don't, we just keep going because it's a good story, right?"


"Okay, let's take a look at Hermia and Lysander's first scene. Henry and Bailey, up on your feet."

And all of a sudden these kids, who think they're as sophisticated as college students, show their true colors. Henry and Bailey turn toward each other and play the scene with scripts held high, covering their faces. All we can see are skinny arms and legs springing out of lean torsos.

How now, my love! Why is your cheek so pale?
How chance the roses there do fade so fast?

Belike for want of rain, which I could well
Beteem them from the tempest of my eyes.

The course of true love never did run smooth.
I have a widow aunt, a dowager
And she respects me as her only son.
From Athens is her house remote seven leagues,
There gentle Hermia, may I marry thee.
Steal forth tomorrow night and in the wood
Will I stay for thee.

My good Lysander!

Masked by their scripts, the scene was unintentionally funny and I had to bite my tongue both to hide my amusement and to keep from nagging these two to drop the scripts and play the scene to each other.

It was a question of trust. I was asking them to trust me and I had to trust the process. I had to believe at some point in our journey their actor selves would replace their shy, creeped-out boy/girl selves and do the right thing.

Because the course of elementary school never did run smooth.

The reason why I auditioned again this year is because I love acting. When I'm older I want to be a actor or director.

Dear Anne,

I think you are a beautiful young woman. You are prettyer than the moon, with eyes that shin like stars.

William Shakespeare
—Dominick, 5th grade

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


"Holy mackerel, what happened to you guys?"

All ten fifth-graders shuffled into Shakespeare Club a full twenty-five minutes late. The third- and fourth-graders, already seated, joined me in watching their fellow club members file in. Backpacks dripped off bony shoulders to the floor and the kids slipped into their seats looking ready to sleep...perchance to dream....

Dominick promptly dropped off, with his chin tipped to his chest. Rebecca, seated next to the boy, flagged me with a worried look and pointed at him.

"It's okay, Rebecca. He'll come back to us," I assured her.

Our auditorium appeared to drain of all color. As if a giant hand had turned a dial and we were transported into a 1940s black-and-white movie. As if we were in the Soviet Union and the gates of a Gulag had creaked open to release its prisoners.

No one answered my query. No one could find the words or energy to put those many lost words into a sentence.

"Was it Mr. D.?" I asked. "Did he get mad at you? Did he yell?"

To this question I received exhausted nods.

Let me be clear that I hold no opinions on the teaching abilities of the educators at our school. I have not spent any time in the classrooms. We could have the best teachers, or the worst, or a mix; I really do not know.

Maybe on this day, Mr. D. had just cause. Maybe on this day, it was considered necessary. Maybe on this day, someone had a bad day and others bore the brunt. I do not know and will never know.

"Okay, what do we do with this?"


The foot of a chair squeaked. The sound ricocheted off the walls.

"In real life we are not allowed to sass back at grown-ups, right?"

A few heads were raised.

"In real life we can't shout at our moms or dads. We can't stomp our feet and have a tizzy-fit at another kid and we can't call people names, right?"


"But in the theatre, folks pay big bucks to see that stuff. In the theatre, it is our job sometimes to cry and scream and lose it. In the theatre, it is expected. Check out the scene that Hamlet has with his mom after she marries his creepy Uncle Claudius."

Mother, what's the matter? Why did you send for me?

Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.

Mother, you have my father much offended.

Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue!

Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue!

Have you forgotten who I am? And your proper place?

The Queen, wife of your husband's brother,
And, would it were not so, you are my mother.

"A few years ago we did this play in Shakespeare Club, and I know for a fact the boy playing Hamlet was a little annoyed in real life with his real mom — but he couldn't do much about that...until he got to this scene. Then he had a blast."

Smiles cracked lackluster cheeks and broke through the clouds as little minds pondered this idea. Color seeped back into our auditorium and spines straightened.

"Who here is ready to act?"

If I was Anne Hathway I could be very upset if my husband left. I could be kind of happy so I can spend time with my children. If I was the queen I would be very greedy. I would make him do 3 plays every month, but I would not care if he did the same plays over and over. Sometimes I would just invite him to have around. I would make him bring a pen and paper. I would make him write poems.
—Phoebe, 5th grade

Friday, July 1, 2011

Fighting It Out

"People pay good money to see people fight."

Whoa, hold on a minute....Did I just hear what I thought I heard Ms. Ryane say?

"It's true. When you turn on your TV or walk into a movie or go see a play, you don't want to spend your allowance to watch people sitting around eating breakfast or having a dull conversation, right?"

Yeah, that'd be boring.

"Okay, so every comedy and every tragedy has something in common. What is that?"


"Okay, what else?"


"Maybe, but what am I really getting at?"

They argue?

"Right. Conflict. Everything has conflict, characters fighting to get what they want. Let's take a look at our first scene. I need a Hermia, a Duke, a Lysander, a Demetrius, and an Egeus, Hermia's dad. Up you go, center stage."

The actors hop up and get themselves into place.

"Right off the bat we have trouble, correct? Egeus wants one boy to marry his daughter but she wants someone else. What does the Hermia ask the Duke? Go ahead, Bailey."

Bailey drops into a small curtsey before Mark, playing Duke Theseus.

But I beseech your Grace that I may know
The worst that may befall me in this case,
If I refuse to wed Demetrius.

Mark holds his arm out in an authoritative gesture.
Either to die the death, or to abjure
Forever the society of men.

"All right, everyone, what is Hermia's decision?"


"Hermia, you got some issues!" Mark offered.

"Yup, Mark, everyone's got some issues and that's exactly what makes good theatre. Who else fights in this play?

Titania and Oberon!

Peter Quince and Nick Bottom!

Lysander and Demetrius!

Hermia and Helena!

"The list is long, isn't it? Fighting is tragic and fighting is funny. Journals, please. Let's write about some conflicts we've had."

CHILDREN'S WRITES: Journal Entries
Once in my life when I wanted revenge is when my sister made fun of me so I pulled a prank. I sprad foam on the toled seat so when she sat on it her hiness would get foamed, but my mom sat on the toilet and got fomed so I got in trouble.
—Bailey, 4th grade

Today I was wanting revenge was because Sabrina was trying to make me, Sandra, Bailey, and Trina jealous. The Page and her are having a sleepover on Friday (which isn't working). So I asked Sandra if she wanted a sleepover at my house on Friday, then we also asked Bailey and Trina to and we were trying to show off and make Sabrina and Page jealous, so were laughing about what fun things we were going to do and how much fun it's going to be (all the stuff probally aren't going to happen).
—Mariah, 4th grade