Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tandi: Bolts in Place

Apprenticeship in the theatre sometimes meant being surrounded by actors who seemed to think being a great performer required being a great drug addict or a great connoisseur of alcohol. There are far too many examples of bad behavior leading to stratospheric success.

Fortunately, a few good acting teachers taught us one doesn't have to be a drug addict to play one. That good health is necessary to play Hamlet nine times a week.

This brings me to one little girl: Tandi.

Tandi was a member of the Plot People this year. She's nine years old and will enter fourth grade in September. Tandi has her head screwed on right but is neither dull nor humorless nor lacking in creativity.

Tandi is the kind of person who takes it all in. She observes. She comments when she has something to say. She is not shy but neither does she grapple for attention.

It was Tandi who used her Goldfish crackers to spell out the travails of the lovers in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It was Tandi who shared the terrible loss of her hamster when he died. And it was Tandi who purposefully read the male roles when we studied the play.

Sometimes I would worry Tandi might be bored, restless or confused by our work. When she twisted this way or that in her seat. When she rested her face in the palm of her hand.

"You okay, Tandi?" I'd ask.

Yup, she'd nod and I believed her. She was taking it in.

"Like another orange, Tandi?"

Yes, please.

This is Tandi. Ask her a direct question and she'll give you a direct answer.

Does one have to be dramatic to hold a career that demands drama? I think not.

Is it a requirement to hog attention in order to have attention? I doubt it.

Tandi's the kind of girl who will make someone a very good best friend. Tandi will be the kind of woman others look to for answers. Tandi is accountable...and I think that's a rare gem.

How I would take care of myself in the forest is that I would pack up some snacks and some supplies I need to live in the forest. I would bring some covers to sleep on the floor. I would bring alot of water. I would bring everything I have.
—Calvin, 5th grade

Friday, August 26, 2011

Recess: Who's Reading This Stuff?

We just never know who might partake of the Bard.

My husband graduated from an east-coast liberal arts college with a degree in English. It's a mystery to me how he didn't retain the Shakespeare he was supposed to have read.

Meanwhile, University of Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley cited the perils of Richard III (whom he introduces as "Little Richard") to illustrate the importance of details on the playing field.

Go for it, Coach Dooley. That looks like a touchdown to me.

Derek Dooley channels Shakespeare during scrimmage review (GoVolsExtra)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Shirley You Must Be Kidding

In Elizabethan England, women were not allowed to be actors. Pre-teen boys were apprenticed in theatres and trained into women's roles.

So be it. Though the canon holds few roles for women, those written are delicious.

And now, on television, there is a renaissance of women characters for actresses to get their teeth into. I'm thinking of Glenn Close in "Damages," Edie Falco in "Nurse Jackie," Khandi Alexander in "Treme" and Elizabeth Moss in "Mad Men."

I'm particularly fond of "Mad Men" because it opened the discussion of women during a time far too many folks like to call the good old days.

I'm a woman, and you couldn't pay me to return to those days. They may be old, but there were not good.

"Mad Men" begins in the early sixties and leaps forward smack-dab into the women's movement. From the onset, the viewer is delivered stomach-turning realities of how women were regarded in both home and workplace.

As a woman watching the show, my rage builds as Elizabeth Moss' character, Peggy, begins her slow burn.

"Mad Men" is a hit. Such a hit that Banana Republic has launched a "Mad Men"-inspired clothing line. Such a hit that other networks are unveiling their own 1960s series.

It's the good old days all over again and my wrath is starting to bubble.

I have not seen "Pan Am" or "The Playboy Club," but I will blow my top if these series are overflowing with romantic notions of the "Coffee, Tea or Me?" days of yore.

Women, get ready. We're entering a world of pointy bras, empty laps and spilled martinis all over again. And it ain't going to be pretty.

I wanted to be in the Shakespeare club because I really like to act and I want to be an actor when I grow up. I also want to be in Shakespeare is because this is my chance to learn about things that happened along time ago.
—Kamili, 5th grade

Friday, August 19, 2011

Start Spreadin' the News

Over the weeks I was rehearsing with the cast of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," I also was meeting with a group of girls called The Plot People.

In Plot People, we read the narrative of the play then read the play aloud. The girls drew pictures of the characters and wrote in journals on the play's themes.

We shared cookies and oranges in our weekly library gatherings, and after five months they were pretty well versed on the plot.

It was one mom's idea that this little troupe should go classroom to classroom with their knowledge as a prep for those students about to see the show.

Great plan, I enthused, but there was simply no way I could arrange that. I was, as usual, getting freaked out with sound and lighting needs as much as I was with corralling actors.

So I gave the mom Shakespeare Club T-shirts for the Plot People. I rehearsed the girls with a pop quiz before their venture and off they went. Knock knock knock.

Their goal was to spend time with the youngest students in the school. The girls visited the kindergarten and first-grade classrooms, where some teachers had embraced the play by making puppets of the characters. Super-cool, I thought.

I had created teacher's prep kits with a quick rundown of the story along with projects students could do to acquaint themselves with the play.

Honestly, I would say maybe half of the teachers took the time to use these kits, so I was thrilled to hear of the Plot People coming across puppets and drawings to accompany their telling of the story.

What I do know is the pride those girls had upon entering each room was worth the effort.

There is a lot of chitchat on the subject of children and self-esteem. Doing something scary like standing up in front of other kids goes a long way toward building confidence.

I felt lonely when I was at home and all my sisters went somewhere but I had to stay home. None of them came home saying I wish you came.

Another time was when I was with my friends and they kept telling secrets and they asked me not to here the secret.
—Phoebe, 5th grade

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

In a Closet

The morning of our performance day whirled in a chaos of green-T-shirted children bubbling with excitement and jitters. Rachel gathered the group for a concentration game involving numbers and memory while I did my own tally.

Every time I started a count of all our kids, up popped a question, or a last minute prop problem...or something. One, two, three...where's Calvin?


Four, five, six...Lizzie?

Water fountain!

Seven, eight...where's Oliver?

We don't know!

I checked outside and scouted the schoolyard...nope.

Oliver successfully portrayed Macbeth for the club last year and many folks were looking forward to his Demetrius this year. But Oliver had been having a tough time in fifth grade. I think pre-teen hormones had his motherboard on the fritz.

The boy seemed dismayed by the simplest of schoolroom tasks, like keeping his desk neat. Then he'd break out in a physical mania that perplexed adults, who observed him as one might study a crazy person. Oliver would fling himself to the floor and spin on his butt or fall over in boisterous laughter for no apparent reason.

He told me before spring break that he would be away for two additional weeks because his dad was taking him on a cross-country trip.

"What, Oliver? You mean you're going to miss Shakespeare Club for two weeks?"

Yeah, I guess.

I called his mother to confirm. Oliver's parents are divorced and as she explained it, his dad was going to take Oliver and his sister to Tennessee and Michigan to meet aunts and uncles for the first time.

I didn't want to put the kibosh on family time, but....

I reminded her that she had agreed Oliver wouldn't miss any meetings. That we only had a couple of rehearsals left, and that he seriously needed the time because he was having trouble remembering his lunch, let alone Shakespearean text....

In the end, the trip was postponed only because the airlines suddenly raised their rates.

Oliver used our final rehearsals well and I could finally see his Demetrius as a full-blown character. Today was the day for Oliver, but he was AWOL.

In a desperate move, I opened the walk-in closet next to the stage, where I'd asked the kids to throw their backpacks.

Oliver. There he was, wading amidst a pile of colorful bags. He was on a cell phone.

I just need the belief, Dad....I just need some of that. I need the faith.

I watched Oliver. He didn't notice me. He was intent on his conversation.

Oliver. My name is Oliver. Oliver. My name is Oliver.

He pressed the phone hard to his ear. His face was serious.

Thanks, Dad. Thanks for the belief.

He turned the phone off and looked at me.

"Ready?" I asked.

He nodded.

"Come here, my friend."

I put my arms around him and whispered.

"You're going to be great. You know what to do out there. You're going to have the best day."

And we walked out of the closet to join mad mechanicals, lovers and fairies.

I learned that I can overcome my fear and act silly and funny. I loved these years in Shakespeare Club it has been great. I will miss everyone here and you too, Bottom. I have reached my goal for now! I'm on way to my big goal to New York theaters. My experience will live on in Shakespeare Club.
—Dominick, 5th grade

Friday, August 12, 2011

'What If They Hate Us?'

"Well, only idiots would hate you and this production. That's all I have to say about that."

Certainly idiots have been known to attend plays, and no doubt idiots have graced our campus...but not on my watch, not today. I'd take one of our plastic swords and run them through if it came to that.

"Bridget, take your place and everyone will fall in behind you."

Bridget took her place and no one else moved.

"Okay, this is where you line up behind Bridget, remember? This is the first thing that will blow your parents' minds...when they see you enter the auditorium in a perfect row, climb to the stage and take your places like professional actors. You get this part right and there will be no hating going on. They'll be too afraid of you."

Twenty kids jostled into a line. The boys were particularly nutty. As soon as I turned away to make sure the crew was set, the boy actors rolled on the floor, spinning on their behinds like hip-hop artists.

"Hey guys...come on, this is not the cool crowd I'm looking for....A straight, professional line...let's go...your audience is a-comin'."

We ran through the curtain call before a quick briefing on cheesy versus non-cheesy.

"When your friends, teachers or family members arrive, you will remain clear as glass, still and prepared. You don't jump up and down or wriggle around shouting, 'Hey Auntie Gladys...here I am!' Should we practice cheesy and get it out of our systems?"

Oh yeah. They love getting cheesy out. I call names and wave and they shine me on as if I were a nobody.

"Good, that's terrific. I think you've got it. Do you have it, Laci? Do you understand?"

Yes, Ms. Ryane...I really do understand.

Of course, Laci was the first one waving her arm off at audience members...during the performance.

Oh well...blue isn't a bad color for my face.

Dear Lysander

I love you so much that I miss you so much.

Roses are red and vilouts are blue I wan't wait to see you. Love your girlfriend because I love you Lysander.

—Wendy, 4th grade

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

First Things First

I awoke on our performance day with a rush in my heart and the smell of fresh-brewed java wafting in from the kitchen. I'd set the coffeemaker timer for six-thirty and the alarm clock for six forty-five. I needed neither since my heart bounced my system into action at five-thirty.

This was the day. The day of days after months of hard, often frustrating, effort. The culmination of exploration and hilarity, misgivings and cajoling.

This was not my day, or any adult's day. This was to be their day, first and foremost, for good or bad. It was to be their day.

Over the five months I meet with Shakespeare Club, I have thirty-six hours to get their bodies, minds and hearts ready for this day. Thirty-six measly hours to teach focus, yoga, iambic verse, Elizabethan history, vocal clarity, character, plot, dance, swordplay...and then I have to direct them in a production.

Today would be nothing less than a miracle to pull off, and yet here I was, sipping eye-popping caffeine and reminding myself that it's about the learning.

Knowledge comes out of mishap and stumble. Confidence is birthed in the acts of falling down and getting back up. Whatever happened today, as this cast and crew attempted four performances of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," it was finally their opportunity for education and self-assuredness.

This day was not about my pride, my success, or my glory in their accomplishments. With that reminder I poured another cup, gulped, showered and revved up the car.

First up: counting out our green Shakespeare Club T-shirts and match sizes to appropriate kids. Two by two they would be sent to the restrooms to change into said T-shirts. Second up: settling their jangled nerves with a short meditation and sun salutation. Third up: having them repeat:

My mind is calm
My body is ready
I know what to do
Everything's fine...

Because it would be, it will be....Today's the day we have waited for.

I wanted to be in Shakespeare club because I really like to act. And I want to learn about Shakespeare because I think he is really interesting.

Today I learned that Shakespeare was married on 1582, and he was born April-23-1564 and he died on April-23-1616 and so he died on his date of birth.
—Carina, 3rd grade

Friday, August 5, 2011

Born to the Throne

It's in the carriage (not the one drawn by four white horses), it's in the voice, and it's in the tilt of the regal head on the long neck. It is deportment.

In the olden days, young girls born into a certain stratum of society attended academies dedicated to teaching etiquette, grooming, fork usage and the proper way to walk.

(When I say "olden days," I mean the eleventh century and before. Dating a knight in shining armor was not to be taken lightly. A light caress of the metal was fine, but anything more might endanger a young woman's reputation.)

Then there are those who just have it. Those who do not need a single class or tutoring of any kind. We refer to this as to the manner born.

Phoebe is one such girl. In her two years of Shakespeare Club, she has played two queens: Lady Macbeth and now Queen Titania. There is simply no other way to cast her.

When she is not onstage, Phoebe awaits her turn with the patient elegance of a royal. Phoebe never whines or displays the bored butt-swivel others do. Phoebe breathes and observes.

When her cue arrives, Phoebe wends her way forward as if maneuvering with a long velvet train. She's dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, but I can almost see her wearing a gown. The crown on her head is made of cardboard, yet she carries it as if it is weighted with real gold and jewels.

Phoebe came to her family, to Shakespeare Club and indeed, to the world, with a lineage that will remain a mystery. A circuitous route brought her from her birth country of Haiti to her current home of Los Angeles. She came to us already a queen and I cannot explain it; I can only marvel.

When Queen Titania is fed up with Oberon and his pushy, manly ways, she bristles and spits words designed to humiliate the King and put him in his place.

Phoebe's Titania snapped her head in Dominick's direction and rattled off her verse with a crisp pleasure, all the while rocking the little changeling baby in her arms. When she'd had enough of his boastful baloney, Titania planted her feet and simply turned her face away, icing Oberon out of her sphere.

Class act. Classy acting. It sizzled every time.

Phoebe is off to middle school next year. At night I lay awake and think about what she could have done with Queen Elizabeth in "Richard III"....Oh, I wish. Alas, the Queen Gertrude she could have given us. I toss and turn imagining her Cleopatra.

Phoebe is born to play these roles and I hope she gets more of them. I pray the world opens its arms and leads our queen to all the center stages she is meant to grace.

I live in a castle but my room is in a hut. My room is the size of a small house. I gave my husband a room that is only ten feet of space. He gets very jealous. I love to go on adventure walks with my fairy. I would always cook. I cooked rice, chicken, corn, vegitables, cookies and fruit. I have many friends but Oberon only has one. He gets jealous I have more than he does in everything. If I got in a fight with him I would make my fairies with him. I would make my faires lock him up in jail for a week. For activity I would play games with my fairys like pass the leave, or opsticle courses.
—Phoebe, 5th grade

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Passing It Forward

leg•a•cy [leg-uh-see]: anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor: the legacy of ancient Rome

Ms. Ryane?

"Yes, Krystal?"

My little sister wants to be in Shakespeare Club...'cause she saw us in 'Macbeth' and now she wants to do it.

"Wow, how old is your sister?"

She's four.

Meaning Krystal's sister was three when she saw The Shakespeare Club perform "Macbeth."

When I started this program, the kids were terrified of other kids! seeing them perform. They made me promise they wouldn't have to do it in front of their peers.

No, no, Ms. Ryane! My cousin wants to come and you have to say no!

That sentiment lasted until they'd discovered their greatness by the end of a ragged rendition of a play. Those first kids became the first stars because their principal told them so, their parents beamed, and the kids were lit up by their empowerment.

By Year Two, a few kids were permitted to come and by Year Three, the whole school came, and it has continued year after year. The audition list grew longer as more and more children wanted to drink from that fountain of power.

It is the legacy itself that made new kids arrive each year ready, trusting and focused. It was no accident that performances became riskier and more courageous as each cast discovered that, far from being mocked by fellow students, they were admired.

Little kids reached their small palms to touch the third-, fourth- and fifth-grade actors who strutted across a public school campus.

This is legacy. This is money in the bank and it only comes after patient prodding. Legacy, by definition, takes time, but once it shows up, it grows wild like mint in a garden.

Dear Lysander,

I shall thy love you. You are my great man with an awsome voice. You thy shall be a king of me soon. I love you, so I shall I follow you while you lick this candy stick. You will be my boyfriend for a lifetime.

with your life,

P.S. I also brang you Skittles.
—Vincent, 5th grade