Friday, September 30, 2011

The Artist's Way

If a child says to you, I want to be [an actor/a dancer/a writer/a painter/a musician/etc.], you take a small breath and in a calm, even voice reply, "That's a terrible idea....Don't do it."

Because here's the truth of it: the mountains are high and the droughts are frequent.

And here's the further truth of it: if that child has a voracious appetite for a career in the arts, it won't matter a lick what you have to say about it. If their hunger is insatiable, they will seek out teachers and learn their craft.

And then if Lady Luck shines down, you will give a hug and say, "I am so proud of you."

In the meantime, as you toss and turn about your child's future, pick up a copy of Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way." It's a workbook. Do it.

Everyone needs creativity in their life. As we need air, food, and multivitamins, we need to be creative. That can be onstage, in a gallery, in a garden, or in a kitchen.

Or in the classroom.

Because, as it turns out, for all of us: the mountains are high and the droughts are frequent. Creativity is the balm; art gives our lives reason and meaning. The frame.

I wanted to be in Shakespeare because this is my last year in ________________. I also want to make good.

I would want to be prodigy basketball player so I can make a lot of money.
—Mark, 5th grade

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Kickin' It

The Shakespeare Club performed "A Midsummer Night's Dream" four times on May 26, 2011.

Each performance ran about thirty minutes, including Bollywood-style dances. It was a challenging and exhausting experience, but no one would have traded a minute of it for a nap.

Dominick, a fifth-grader in his last year at our school, played Oberon, King of the Fairies. After a year of myriad classroom struggles, fear of failing as an actor and wrestling with an upcoming family move to another city, Dominick managed to pull a bunny out of a bonnet and rally with terrific performances...until three o'clock.

Throughout the day, the kids were permitted to help themselves to snacks I'd laid out on a table. Fruits, water and protein-type bars. I say type because who the hell knows what's really in those things. I can pretty much guarantee sugar is the glue.

Dominick cannot have sugar. He knows that. I know that. His classroom attendant knows that...and yet....

He stuffed his pockets with those bars and then wolfed them any chance he could get.

For our third performance, I sat out front with my notepad. I started to scribble notes, then my pen froze as I watched Dominick dive into freefall. He lost his lines. This had never happened in his two years of Shakespeare Club.

"Line!" Dominick called. "Line, line...LINE!"

Poor Bridget, our eight-year-old narrator who also (in rehearsals) acted as prompter, jumped up, ran her eyes up and down her script and searched for where Dominick's line was....

I sucked in air. My private rule had to stick: Never go up there. Never get them out of a pickle. This is learning in action.

Oh, but I wanted to help the much....

Bridget found the cue and called it out to Dominick. He spat those words out, flailed his arms, swung around and kicked the fairy fabric on the floor. Kicked at it, swore at it and then collapsed in his chair upstage.

He got it together for his next entrance and finished the show well.

Afterward I sent the other kids off to wash their hands for dinner and grabbed a moment with Dominick.

"So, here's the good news: You came back, you didn't give up. This happens to all actors and you learned a good lesson today. Do you know why that happened to you?"

"No, Ms. Ryane." He studied his shoes and shook his head.

"Sure you do. What's the one thing you absolutely cannot eat, especially before you go onstage? The one thing you want so much but cannot have?"

"Oh yeah."

"So, now you really know and you'll never forget. I'm proud of you, Dominick, but don't ever kick the props again 'cause it throws the other actors off and it lets the audience know you're in trouble. They didn't really know until that point."

" 'Kay."


" 'Kay."

"Now go join the others. You'll have a great last show if you eat the delicious food and the yummy fruit but not the poison....Never the poison, Dominick."

"Yeah. Thanks, Ms. Ryane."

My goal for shakespeer club was to meat new people. I leared that people are really nice once you get to meat them. I have to say I was a little embarrest of my part at first but I felt much more comfortible when I got to know people more. I am sad to see the 5th graders go. I am sad sad sad that I can't do shakespeer club next year! bye Ms. Ryane...!
—Dominick, 5th Grade

Friday, September 23, 2011

Pizza and Shakespeare

A group of seven children recently gathered at my house for two days to read "Romeo and Juliet," write about it, have lunch, and to view Franco Zeffirelli's film version as well as "West Side Story."

Day two of our reading dawned sunny and warm. We were now deep into the complexities of the characters and their terrible tempers clashing with their gigantic passions.

By this point in our reading, the kids had their favorite characters. In an unusual turn, Peter begged to read Juliet and Sabrina wanted Romeo. Sure, go for it.

"Look, I don't want to influence you one way or the other, but I really think Juliet's head is screwed on a teensy bit tighter than Romeo's."

What do you mean, Ms. Ryane? piped up Nathan, who had just spent part of his summer at Shakespeare Camp...where he was cast as Romeo. Understandably, he might want to defend the impetuous lad.

"First off, when they meet...Romeo's all into let's kiss right off the bat and Juliet says whoa, hold on there, pal...I don't even know you....We'll just touch palms for starters."

Yeah right, hands should do what lips do! shouts Peter, proud that he got Shakespeare's sexy joke. Peter's eight and I wonder...are we going too far? Nah.

"Then Romeo keeps letting his emotions get the better of him. He insists the nightingale is singing when Juliet knows perfectly well it's the lark, and he better get the heck out of her house."

Or he'll get killed, right, Ms. Ryane? Millie offers.

"Right. Then he hauls off and kills Tybalt and then he falls all over the Friar's floor weeping and not listening to the plan."

And then he drinks the poison, don't forget that part! Sabrina chimes in.

The group got busy writing in their journals, after which they shared what they'd written. We moved to the dining room for lunch, and as I cleaned up they followed Nathan into the yard where he taught them stage-fighting techniques he'd learned at camp.

I called them inside to finish our viewings of "Romeo and Juliet" and "West Side Story."

Peter gave his review: "I loved 'Romeo and Juliet' and I would love 'West Side Story' if it didn't have all that music."

I love that they know this story at an elementary level. Their high-school English teachers will be amazed.

Of course, here's what they all remembered, and repeated over and over:

Gee, Officer Krupke, krup you!

I remember when my brother got into a food fight with me. I had food all over my face.

How I would tell them to stop fighting: 1.) There really is no point of war 2.) Banish them
—Millie, 5th grade

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Value

When I started The Shakespeare Club in 2005, Yuri Hayashi-Smith was our school's principal. For three years, Yuri mentored me in my fledgling attempt to corral children into an Elizabethan world.

After Yuri retired, she returned to see our productions every year.

I recently asked Yuri to comment on the value of The Shakespeare Club. I hoped she would give me one or two sentences. Here is her reply:

A Partial List of Reasons Why Shakespeare Club Should Be in Every School

Shakespeare Club empowers students to believe in themselves.

Shakespeare Club makes students role models for other students.

Shakespeare Club helps to develop responsibility, honesty, integrity, empathy, kindness and compassion.

Life Lessons are taught in Shakespeare's plays.

Shakespeare Club helps students understand how teamwork can create something more powerful than just one individual.

Shakespeare Club makes teachers and parents believe in their students again.

Shakespeare Club made me believe again that seemingly impossible things are possible with work and lots of love. This is a powerful program which should be in every elementary school.

Shakespeare Club motivates students to understand historical influences.

Shakespeare Club showcases the best in student achievement.

Shakespeare Club encourages student writing, makes students better writers in the different genres, and helps increase student achievement overall.

Shakespeare Club helps students to explore feelings and emotions and present characterizations which exemplify them.

Shakespeare Club amazed me, each and every year, with quality productions including: A Midsummers Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Twelfth Night.

All performed by elementary students in Old English. These performances would make William Shakespeare proud!

Shakespeare Club won over skeptics and cynics with the students' depth of performance and understanding of Shakespearean characters.

Shakespeare Club is a source of school and community pride.

Shakespeare Club embraces students of all backgrounds...neighborhood, disadvantaged, limited-English speaking, special needs, and all ethnicities and races.

If only the world could emulate this model, it would be a better place to live in.

Thank you, Yuri, for getting it!

Dear William,

I would like you to come to Whitehall as soon as possible to perform your new play.

King James

P. S. I loved your play Hamlet.

If I were King I would wear only red T-shirts and purple shorts every day and would only eat meat, veggies, dairy and, Lets BE Frank, hot dogs. My name will be Marvin 'O' Gravel Balloonface the 64th and I would rule the land of the silly.
—Sam, 4th grade

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Scary Truth

I love working with third-, fourth- and fifth-graders because they tend to be untarnished.

The grade-school experience is homogenous in its warfare. Everyone gets hurt. Everyone wants attention. Everyone suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

And then we think we grow up. We think we find our way. We think there should be payback.

I recently came upon a letter written to me in the late nineties. It was from an artistic director I had worked with, and he wrote:

"I don't remember all the details, Mel of that time...but I do remember your being difficult."

His letter was in answer to one I had sent with a long-overdue apology for my "being difficult."

I was a good actor. I had gifts. I had craft. And I had a corrupted ego.

The ego reminds me of Audrey II, that monster plant in "Little Shop of Horrors." It has an appetite as insatiable and dangerous. A little bit of fertilizer and the damn thing wants blood and more of it and all of it and soon....It is a beast.

At that time, I had been given wonderful roles, knew my stuff and had come to believe that I was better...than my directors and fellow actors. I railed at the wig department and the costume department. I made the stage manager's life miserable.

I was an ***hole because I decided no one wanted to work as hard as I did. That no one else cared as much as I did. That no one knew as much as I did.

My acting career was murdered — and my fingerprints were all over the smoking gun.

Show business is not a democracy. There is no fair play, because there are stars and status. That is the truth and it must be accepted. This is also true in the worlds of law, medicine and academia, among others.

However, if you think you're at the top of the heap, or should be at the top of the heap, it's going to go one of three ways:

    1. You'll be a star, continue working and be admired because you have monitored your ego.

    2. You'll be a star, continue working and be hated because...well, you know.

    3. You'll be a has-been with a dead career.

My ego and I took a long walk into a fire called humility. After a good crisping, we were doused in gratefulness. And I consider myself lucky.

Here's what I know: No matter how great you might be, you are never better than.

At eight, nine and ten years old, the kids don't know this yet. But we do. We can help, we can remind, and we can lead.

If I was a Queen I would make shure everyone would get fresh food and good stuff. I would not like to a meany queen or a pickey queen. I would like to be nice queen, I would like to live in Parris. I want a nice little village. I would excersise every day. I would like a five story castle.
—Sabrina, 4th grade

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hot Dogs and Shakespeare

I didn't mention video games, or a trip to Universal Studios or Disneyland.

My message was simple: Please come to my house to read "Romeo and Juliet."

Parents replied: He's stoked! She's screaming from the back seat! He's beyond excited!

To read "Romeo and Juliet" at Ms. Ryane's house.

I invited seven kids from Shakespeare Club to spend two days in August with me. Seven kids who were not at camp or enjoying other summer plans were dropped on my doorstep.

Peter appeared as if he'd spent some serious time choosing a wardrobe. He wore his Shakespeare Club T-shirt under a sportscoat. Bright red trousers and green sneakers completed the outfit.

"Hey, Ms. Ryane," he dropped his voice low and acted super-casual, as if we did this every week. I was touched by his attempt to squelch excitement.

Sabrina and Millie.

We gathered in the backyard with a bowl of oranges to snack on as they read aloud. Every few pages we'd stop to discuss the action of the play.

"What the heck are these two families fighting about?" I asked. "Shakespeare doesn't tell us how this all started, does he? Maybe someone didn't return a lawnmower or someone said someone else's Auntie Dorothy ate kitty litter....I mean who knows, but this play was written over four hundred years ago and we're still doing this stuff. Does this feud remind you of anything?"

Yes, piped up Sabrina, it reminds me of our family reunions....I mean, no one stabs anyone with a sword or anything but...well, you can kinda tell people are mad at each other.

"It reminds me of the gang warfare that shows up in our city," I offered. "And what color are gangs anyway?"






"Exactly, all colors. And all religions seem to have some gang behavior...except maybe Buddhism. I don't ever remember hearing about a Buddhist religious war."

We read some more, peeled and ate the oranges, then I invited them into the dining room, where I'd set a table for a civilized lunch of hot dogs and potato chips. Eleven-year-old Nathan had baked sugar cookies to share with the group.


For the last hour and a half of our time, we moved to the living room and watched clips from Franco Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet" and from "West Side Story."

Peter's mother later reported to me that he told her It was the best day of my whole life!

CHILDREN'S WRITES: Journal Entries
I think to stop a fued from Romeo + Juliet's family is to make them shake hands and make up. Or slap some senes out of the person who started it and scream, stop fighting.
—Lizzie, 6th grade

I remember when my brother got into a food fight with me. I had food all over my face.

How I would tell them to stop fighting: 1.) There really is no point of war 2.) Banish them
—Millie, 5th grade

Friday, September 9, 2011


Have you ever sat across from someone at dinner and offered a compliment like:

"That's a lovely dress...a beautiful color on you."

And received something like:

"Oh, this old thing. I've had it for years."

Have you ever gone backstage after a performance and said something like:

"You were wonderful. I loved the show and your work moved me to tears."

And been slapped back with something like:

"Are you kidding me? We were so off tonight....Damn, you should have been here last night....I can't believe you saw this show. I could just kill myself! I was horrible."

The height if rudeness, if you ask me, and my plan was to put an end to such ungratefulness at the get-go.

"Okay, kids, we're going to practice the Gracious Thank You."

The what-what, Ms. Ryane?

"It goes like this."

I walk over to Phoebe and offer my hand. She gives it a look of mistrust, then meets my eyes. Other kids gather around to watch, as if my hand might bite Phoebe on the neck. She finally accepts my offer.

"Phoebe, I thought your Titania was lovely. So clear and so strong. Congratulations."

I pump our joined hands up and down as she leaks a tiny smile.

"And, Phoebe you say...?"

Wait for it.

Um, thank you, Ms. Ryane?

"Exactly — only you don't look at our hands, or the floor, or other kids. You look right into my face and say something like Thank you so much or I appreciate you telling me that or whatever gracious reply comes to mind. Make sense?"

Try me, Ms. Ryane! Me, try me!

"Mark, what a wonderful job you did as Duke Theseus. So commanding and what a good voice you have."

Mark giggles at his buddies and holds only my fingertips as he shuffles from one foot to the other.

" way. Try that again, mister, and mean it. You need to start with a good handshake, not a dead fishy thing. And look me right in the eye."

He gives it another go. Mark stands taller, looks at me directly and gives me a good grip with his ten-year-old hand.

Thank you very much, Ms. Ryane!

In the week prior to our performances, I would surprise each of them at lunch or recess, at play or at rest, with an impromptu compliment. And we'd practice.

If I've taught them nothing else, I can sleep well knowing that I've planted the seed of graciousness.

Once I was comeing out for resess and I saw 3 of my firends walking together. I wanted to be with them so I walked over and they "We want some time together." I felt so left out.
—Rebecca, 3rd grade

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

At Summer's End

For all of you who teach and for all of you who parent and for all of you who learn, I wish you energy as you end your summer and bear the backpacks and walk the halls. I hope you can tend your inner fire until your first break, when you will lie down, eat junk, sleep late, and renew starts again.


I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for

may for once spring clear
without my contriving.

If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.

Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,

streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.

—Rainer Maria Rilke

Friday, September 2, 2011

Holding On

Every year, as Performance Day nears, I give the kids a reminder.

"When you're onstage, you have all the power. Grown-ups will have to sit up, be quiet and listen to you. Your teachers, aunts, uncles, cousins and fellow students will not be texting. They will be watching and listening. To you."

It's worth it every year to see their faces as I deliver this news. Eyes widen and a surge of giddiness bubbles up.

"Most people coming will not know this story or these characters. It's up to each of you to make that clear."

And the fear arrives. Squiggly lines form on their brows as a trace of worry sets in.

"Many people will be seeing theatre for the very first time in their whole lives. What will they think, I wonder?"

That we're awesome! Dominick calls out, full of juice.

"Well, I certainly hope so. Because if they don't, they may never see another play ever and that would be sad, right?"

Right, sad. A few heads nod up and down as they ponder that.

On Performance Day, after we'd done warm-ups and as they stood in line ready to enter the auditorium, I walked by each child and stopped.

"Would you like a handful of power?" I asked.

Every single kid nodded and held a palm out.

And I placed a bunch of power into each hand. They closed their fingers tight and we connected, eye to eye, to seal the deal.

Oliver held out both hands to me.

"You need a double dose?" I asked.

Yes, he whispered and got two fists full.


Dear William Shakespear it is I queen Alisabeth. Thank you for all the plays you wrote me. Thou that I loved that thou worked so hard bringing up these plays on your own I am proud of you.

The sky is blue wene you are here!

The ground is gray now, heres my love for you William!

Happy Valintines!
—Lizzie, 5th grade