Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Free to Leave

Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action....
Hamlet Act III, Scene II

2012 marks the seventh season of The Shakespeare Club and the first year of the club without me.

I watched from the sidelines as Rachel, who had assisted the club for three years, took the reins and hit the trail. I helped where I could from my new position in the background. I gave Rachel a weekly curriculum with the admonition that she should tweak and toss as she saw fit. I gave her templates for letters to parents, teachers and the principal. But mostly I gave Rachel encouragement to venture forth into the role of director because I knew she would succeed.

On May 24, 2012, I attended two of the Shakespeare Club's performances of "Much Ado About Nothing."

It was, I promise you, much ado about something. My eyes teared up to see little actors wrestling with big text. My heart leapt as they discovered power. And I sighed with the surety that the club can and will go on.

The Shakespeare Club was an idea formed in 2005. A thought, a musing and an experiment...but it was never mine to keep. It was a seed meant to grow.

And it has. This was a relief. It can blossom anywhere, under different auspices and different leadership. This is most heartening.

At the end of last year I told the children I was leaving to travel and write. I have spent 2012 doing exactly that.

To sit in the audience and bear witness to the club flourishing was pure satisfaction. The kernel of an idea that popped into my head in the middle of the night seven years ago was worth pursuing, nurturing and passing forward.

When Rachel ran onstage after the final performance to embrace her cast and crew, I recognized the enormity of their pride. Olympians, all of them.

Here's what it took:

  • 1. Community support.
  • 2. An adapted script.
  • 3. Will.

That's all: Teaching Will.

You can do this.

Yes, I fifilled my goal because even though I didn't get the part I wanted to, the part I got I made him into a real person. I learned that Shakespeare was a grat person that wrote plays and was married and that he had kids. I also learned that Henry the 8 had 6 wives and remember all 6 I did, Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.
—Kamili, 5th grade

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

An Open Book

O, cut my lace in sunder, that my pent heart
May have some scope to beat....
Richard III Act IV, Scene I

In addition to gathering critical acclaim, the AMC series "Mad Men" is introducing a new generation of women, many of whom loathe the moniker feminist, to the lives of women in another time.

And as "Mad Men" is to advertising, so Janice "Jenny" Van Horne's memoir, "A Complicated Marriage" (Counterpoint Books), is to the mid-century era of modern American art.

I am crazy about this book. What young person leaping into adulthood doesn't wonder Who am I? and What's going to happen to me? Jenny Van Horne took me on a adventure that recalled my own questions and my own search. I was with her all the way through both the pain and exuberance of life in the city, in the country and coast to coast.

In compelling fashion, Van Horne takes her readers by the hand and, beginning in 1955, leads them decade through decade on a fascinating odyssey of time, place, culture and a marriage as modern as the art on the walls.

Jenny arrives in Manhattan as a Bennington graduate and at a cocktail party meets Clement Greenberg, the man who would become her partner and husband — and pariah to her anti-Semitic family.

Greenberg, an art critic many considered the best of his generation and perhaps of all time, was the man behind the artists who drove American modern art on to the world stage. These artists exploded like rockets into the stratosphere, and holding tight to their tails were their wives.

Quiet women at the ready to prop up their geniuses as the Scotch and vodka flowed and self-importance rattled forth. One of these wives took to humming as the men jabbered. Was she quelling her own madness?

In an ironic turn, many of these artists' wives have found their power as artists' widows. They are now the guards at the gate and the curators of the work. Now they can be heard. Now they can be respected.

Jackson Pollock

Van Horne quietly slips into the milieus of Greenwich Village, East Hampton and Provincetown. Jammed into the smoky atmosphere of Pollock, de Kooning and Kline, she paints delicious verbal pictures for us. We join her in tasting, hearing and feeling the silent desperation of a woman in search of purpose.

Once engaged, Clem informs her they'll marry "as long as nothing changes" and announces they'll enjoy an "open marriage." Of course, everything changes, and the concept of an open marriage is as foreign to this young wife as are the dazzling paint splashes of Jackson Pollock. Small wonder that "Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes..." became their song.

At acting classes at the HB Studio, then under the prickly scrutiny of Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, Jenny Van Horne finds her voice. As ensemble theatre takes hold, with actors and audience grappling in drug-induced protest against the war in Vietnam, she finds place. Change happens. Clem introduces the freedom of that open marriage and Jenny follows with her own experiences and unearths self.

Morris Louis

Jenny Van Horne's roles as wife, mother, actor, singer, writer, editor and witness transport us from the fifties through the nineties and into a new millennium, where introspection and forgiveness are offered.

Van Horne and Greenberg marry, divorce and marry again. Whatever drew them together in 1955 anchors the twosome to the end. It can be a tricky business to grow as an individual within the institution of marriage and I can't say this book convinced me that an open marriage is the ticket. However, I was left with the sense that Jenny and Clem knew themselves, respected and accepted each other and nurtured a deep affection...over a very long time.

On completion of this vivid read I wondered, "What now, Jenny Van Horne?" because I wanted more. More words, more pages, more people....What now, Jenny Van Horne?

She may well whisper, "Live your own life." And this too is the signature of a good book.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Fear Not

Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
Macbeth Act I, Scene III

A couple of years ago in the Shakespeare Club, I staged "Macbeth" with ten-year-olds playing the royally ambitious Him and Her.

Even younger kids played other heroic roles and all of them digested the plot as we discussed the moral choices of Shakespeare's characters.

Let me emphasize these were elementary public school children reading, journaling and acting out this bloody drama.

Leaders in Thailand have decided their adult population cannot handle "Macbeth" and have banned a film about a theatrical company performing the play.

The film's director, Ing Kanjanavanit, is as dismayed — as any in the free world might be — to have learned that higher-ups are afeared her updated, relevant telling might incite "divisiveness among the people of the nation."

Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire?
Macbeth Act I, Scene VII

Thailand bans "Macbeth" adaptation as too divisive (AP/CBS News)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Say Amen to Theatre

A line of a hundred and five students filed by, pausing to make quick knee dips. For an instant I had an impulse to bow in return, but of course they weren't genuflecting to me. They were honoring the man of the house as they'd been trained to do.

I'd been invited to teach two hour-long Shakespeare workshops at a local Catholic School. A last-minute venue change had to be made as the result of a water main breakage flooding their auditorium. Would I mind using the church?

Mind? With those acoustics? It's the next best place to a theatre. So, in they came, the first group consisting of third-, fourth- and fifth graders — an age group I was familiar with after six years of Shakespeare Club.

I'd designed an interactive curriculum of Calm, Curious and Courageous, three items found in an actor's toolbox. We started with meditation, followed with writing and finished up with sharing their words and reading a scene aloud.

For this first group I covered the Bard's life, the lives of Elizabethans, the plague and some of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Boys in the audience groaned at the idea of Elizabethan-era boys wearing dresses, and girls found it unfair girls back then couldn't be actors.

If I was an Elizabethan girl, I would like it that I didn't have to go to school, one child wrote. I would like to be at home to cook and sew.

I gave them the prompt OBEY, as Hermia was being asked to do. "When did you have to obey? What happened when you obeyed?"

"I wrote about Hermia," a small girl said by my side up at the altar. If I was Hermia I wouldn't obey. I would run away with Lysander.

"Wait a second, have you read this play?"


"That's exactly what Hermia does. You should play Hermia."

The older kids — sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders — filed in for the second session. I was now into fresh territory. The atmosphere rang, Cool, so cool, way too cool for this stuff.

"I want to tell you about this kid...he's a teenager with a wrecked hand and a lousy foot, and if that weren't bad enough he's got a crummy hump on his back. It's not his fault, he was just born this way. Imagine this teenager, Richard, stumbling around the cafeteria looking for a place to eat while other kids call him a 'bottled spider' and 'bunch-backed toad.' Anyone here ever feel like they didn't fit in, or weren't cool enough, or that other people were calling them names?"

A couple of hands went up.

"To all of you with your hands up I say, You may well be a writer, an actor, a director, a painter or musician — because artists have to understand what hurts."

More hands flew up.

With this group I covered themes of Power, Revenge and Love. They wrote but were less than eager to share. The first time I asked only one boy stepped forward.

I would like to have power to make my own decisions about things. I would like to make my own choices but I would probably make terrible decisions, David read aloud.

"I think we can all identify with what David has written. Who wouldn't like to decide whether or not to attend school, or to sleep in, or what to eat? But David, I don't agree with the last part of what you wrote. Look out here. See all these kids, your classmates?"


"You're the only one, of all these hundred kids, brave enough to come up here and share. You've already made a brilliant decision."

And so it went with Hamlet's need for revenge, Viola and Sebastian's search for love and Macbeth's lust for power. Jaws hung open as tales of murder and bloody gloves shared a space usually reserved for God's word.

More kids wanted to share their writing. More hands flew up to read aloud a scene with Hamlet and Gertrude or Viola and Olivia.

A young fellow bravely read to us of love for those in his life who had passed on.

It doesn't seem fair a thirteen-year-old should have to write of death. There's something wrong with a child losing loved ones and yet, if anyone would have understood, it would be William Shakespeare.

What I could offer these kids was power. The power to be understood, to be heard and to be acknowledged. Anywhere, anytime...who doesn't want that?

Friday, January 13, 2012

An Interview: Carina

carina: Um, my name is Carina and I'm in third grade and I played Tom Snout and in the play within the play I played the Wall.

mel: Why did you audition for Shakespeare Club, Carina?

I auditioned because I like to act and perform in front of audiences.

What surprised you about Shakespeare Club?


You didn't think we would do that?

Yeah...'cause I knew that yoga would help sometimes when you perform onstage but I never thought that you would do it.

Do you think it's important....Do you think we should do it at all?

Um...yeah, I think we should do it because it helps you be calm before we act onstage...it helps me learn my lines...it helps me think of them in my head when I do yoga.

What do you think about the meditation part we start with?

I like it because, um, it warms up my mouth and it helps me enunciate.

What do you think about our rules and mottos?

I like them...I think they're right because a lot of actors whine and they don't have the courage to be silly.

What did you learn about you this year?

I learned that I'm one of the kids who actually can do Shakespeare because some people think that kids can't do Shakespeare.

Did that surprise you about yourself?

Yes, very much.

What did you think about Performance Day?

Cool...and I thought it came out pretty well.

What was your favorite performance?

Um...probably the last one because that one you gave us all the notes and we remembered them and then we didn't need any other notes because it was the last one.

Were you nervous performing in front of the other kids in the school?

Um...no. Because I act a lot and I usually don't really get nervous.

What do you like about acting?

I like that I can be other characters...not just me...like I can be Tom Snout.

What were you proud of with this play?

I'm proud that I actually learned about Shakespeare because I didn't know who Shakespeare was before I came here.

Do you have any tips to make Shakespeare Club better?

Well, sometimes some actors were saying other actors' lines and they shouldn't really do that.

You mean while they were onstage?


Do you know what that's a sign of? Because sometimes adult actors do that too.


It means they're not really listening to the other actor.


What do you think Tom Snout's goal was in the play? What did he want?

He wanted to, um...make the King and Queen happy when they saw the play.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

An actor...no an actress...an actor...no an actress, yeah.

I think they're the same thing. If you wanted to be a doctor no one would say, "Oh, Carina wants to be a doctress."

[Carina laughs]

What kind of acting would you like to do?

I'd like doing things that show up on TV.

What do you think an actor's job is?

To stay focused and perform for the audience.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Word from the Wise

I was in emotional turmoil leaving The Shakespeare Club. The jumble of rage and sadness made for sleepless nights and bewilderment...until I heard from a sage.

My friend and writing teacher, Eunice Scarfe, called me for a chit-chat and I poured out the details of my hurly-burly. How unjust the world could be...how crummy...and sniff, sniff...just a sec...blow...and also this and that and...for God's sake!...and did you ever?...and can you imagine? And—

"Mel?" Eunice cut me off in a gentle voice.


"It was inevitable."

"What? What the...what?!"

"Look, you're neither a parent at the school nor a district-endorsed teacher. You never had to adhere to state testing. You didn't have to go in every single day to an overcrowded classroom. You were able to teach whatever you wanted, in whatever creative fashion you wished and, for whatever reason, you were able to afford to do it for free. And then it was a success. We are people. Just people with human feelings. The reaction you received from a small minority was inevitable."

Eunice's words were sound. They rained over me like balm on my burns. Most especially that word of wisdom: inevitable.

I wished I'd had the common sense to have figured that out earlier and held my stormy experience at bay, but I didn't. I was too caught up. I was self-righteous in my indignation and caused myself more angst than was necessary. But there you have it.

The truth is after six years it was time for me to change things up. I have travel and writing I want to do. I have been invited to teach a day of Shakespeare workshops at another school in February. And this week The Shakespeare Club will start a new season under the leadership of Rachel, and it will be a sensation.

I created and was given a peerless opportunity. I was able to encourage, inspire and love so many. It was my privilege and I am grateful. That is my takeaway.

My goal for Shakespear Club. My goal was to have the best time of my life. I accomplished my goal. I love being on stage. My fun jorny through education and acting has come to a stop (with Ms. Ryan). I will stay on the Shakespear but Ms. Ryan won't wich makes me sad but we still have Ms. Rachel. Farewell friends of 5th grade. Future 5th graders keep your memerys strong.
Bailey, 4th grade

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Volunteering Thing

It's well documented many prison inmates came from tragic, skewed and messed-up homes.

A wrecked childhood can certainly lead to a wrecked adulthood, where anger supersedes all else.

On the other hand, it's worth noting how many adults, every single day in every single city, make children's lives better despite their own shattered experiences.

I don't know how this happens. How can two people with similar circumstances arrive at opposing lifestyles?

A teacher, a coach, a parent...a citizen with little reason to see the upside ventures forth anyway to make some kid's life a better one.

It can take so little to offer hope. A smile, a word, an acknowledgment...things will get better because you have worth.

It is both bewildering and uplifting to read of these children passing it forward one sandwich at a time. Where did they get this goodness?

As we launch into a new year with so much to fear and enrage us...maybe there's time to deliver the gold.

Two fourth-graders find a way to share school's food (LA Times)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

An Interview: Bailey

bailey: Hi, I'm Bailey, I'm ten years old and I played the part of Hermia in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

mel: Why did you audition for Shakespeare Club?

Because I wanted to learn a lot about William Shakespeare and also I love acting so I thought it would be pretty cool to be in the school play.

So did anything surprise you about the work we did together?

Yes, it surprised me what part I got because I didn't really...it was my first time in Shakespeare Club and I got a really big part and I thought I would get something like Robin Starveling or maybe Snout or Snug....I really didn't think I'd get that big of a part.

Now, what did you learn about yourself doing Shakespeare Club?

That if you really relate to the character you can maybe add a piece of the character to yourself and now I kind of feel like Hermia and I can think about what Hermia can think because I played that role.

What do you like about Hermia that you'd want to hold on to?

I liked how she was demanding, like if she wanted something and it affected her life...she wouldn't give up and she would keep on trying until she got what she wanted.

What was your favorite performance on Performance Day?

Yes, I think that the last one could have been my favorite because I tried my very best because that would be the last "Midsummer Night's Dream" I would do that year and um...and so I tried all my hardest and I think everyone did and so it really made me happy that we did such a good job.

Was there anything boring for you in Shakespeare Club?

I didn't think it was boring but I thought doing those warm-ups was harder than I thought it would be but it still helped me loosen up and it helped me with my acting.

Any tips to make Shakespeare Club better?

Um....well...not really. I think it's a really great club and I think it's good enough as it is today.

What advice would you give another kid about auditioning for Shakespeare Club.

Well, if you're scared about Shakespeare Club performance and you have stage fright just picture the audience in their underwear.

Is that your trick?

Yes, and it works.

What do you want to be when you grow up, Bailey?

I want to be an actress on Broadway.

Why Broadway specifically? Have you seen shows on Broadway?

Yes, "Chicago" and "Wicked" and those are my two favorite plays and now I think "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is my third favorite play.