Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Finding the Light

'Twas a rough night.
Macbeth Act II, Scene III

An acquaintance recently told me she and her family were off to Ohio for the holidays. They hadn't been home for Christmas in nine years. This is in keeping with recent surveys telling us that holiday travel is up this year. Trains, planes and automobiles are gassed and ready to go.

I wonder why. The economy hasn't improved that much, and yes, oil prices have dropped, but airline tickets haven't. What gives?

This is only speculation, but I suspect it's because 2014 was a pretty crap year. You were there, you saw the headlines and the heartbreak. Much of our world mayhem was human-made but, of course, Mother Nature kept up her share of the calamity. It got to the point that opening my laptop, unrolling the newspaper or clicking on the TV would cause my stomach to clutch. Every day I brace for more horrible news of devastating illness, missing planes, acts of terrorism, more guns fired, bone-chilling cyber wars, or all those hurt children. As a global community we are walking around in a near constant state of dismay.

Maybe this is why we want to gather and return to the familiar. To hug a little closer and laugh a little louder. Maybe we need to share delicious food across tables with those we know and recall sweeter times.

I can't wait to say "So long!" to 2014.

So what to do? How can we hope for better in 2015? We seem to be in a battle of mythic proportions between light and dark — and dark is taking the lead. This is the base camp of our deepest fear, that the light will lose to the dark.

Let us gather and celebrate our Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year's Eve with the familiar. Let us find strength and fortitude, then let us branch out. Perhaps if we move into the unfamiliar and challenge ourselves, we can fan the light.

I was recently told this: Neuroscientists say one of the best things you can do for your brain is step out of your comfort zone, generating new brain circuitry and nourishing healthy neuro-plasticity.

It can start small. Read a book to a kid you don't know, praise a stranger, carry a grocery bag to somebody's waiting trunk, I don't know, I'm spitballing here — but I do know this, there is a fountain of youth and well-being in the act of reaching out. I can tell you firsthand that the more difficult the undertaking, the greater the reward. It should be a little uncomfortable to climb a new mountain.

I wonder if more of us did more good for more strangers that we could whip up the embers of light and win.

I wish you a tender-hearted holiday season and a new year of health, adventure and giving.

It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. 
It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.
—Anne Frank, July 15, 1944

last photo from Gulfport Sunrise

Thursday, November 6, 2014

An Age-Old Story

Stop me if you've heard this:

An elderly parent, quite possibly losing his faculties, engages in domestic discord with his offspring. The adult children quibble with the parent and each other as property is divvied up and brain marbles plop out and roll across the shiny floors of a manse.

It's almost impossible these days to avoid news articles on Alzheimer's, dementia, living wills and how to have "that talk" with an aging parent. As it turns out, the Elizabethans dealt with similar issues and our old pal, William Shakespeare, wrote it down in King Lear.

Of course, the Bard being the Bard, he escalates the plot to dizzying heights. Sisters fight over a lover, spike drinks with poison, send old friends into the stocks and yank out eyeballs. As with all of Shakespeare's tragedies, the audience is left to count up the bodies.

It's great fun to watch other families handle their business so errantly.

I had the pleasure of attending opening night of the Globe Theatre's production of King Lear at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. In keeping with the original style of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre — which, by the way, burned down because real cannon fire was used in the war scenes — this production is set on a rustic stage without lighting changes. The actors and the audience are lit as if they are all gathered on a sunny day in London circa 1607.

This production of King Lear was directed by Bill Buckurst, with only eight actors playing all the parts. I applaud the sheer energy and imaginative approach of this production. Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia, is all one hopes the character to be in the hands of Bethan Cuillinane. Astonishingly, this same actor takes on the task of playing the Fool. With vocal and physical changes she clambers all over the King, teasing and pulling off some very tricky Shakespearean jokes.

Her duplicitous sisters, Goneril (Gwendolen Chatfield) and Regan (Shanaya Rafaat) gambol about the stage singing, playing musical instruments, and additionally taking on many male roles.

Bill Nash, as the loyal Kent, is committed to giving his all, as is Daniel Pirrie, having a whale of a time as the evil Edmund. These actors also play multiple roles, with the slipping on of a hat, cloak and dialect adjustment. They are matched equally in skill and with a brazen attack on the text by Alex Mugnaioni as Edgar and John Stahl as the tragic and blinded Gloucester.

Topping off this adept and gifted cast is Joseph Marcell as the lord himself, King Lear. Marcell embraces the madness of a man losing his mind, his family and his royal status. His constant swerving and surprising choices had me agape and transfixed. Where would he go next? What would he do now?

No acting decision Marcell makes is expected, right down to his skewed and oh-so-human entrance carrying (spoiler alert!) the dead Cordelia. She is splayed in his arms as if he'd seized her off the floor in a moment of emotional reckoning.

A signature scene of King Lear is the storm sequence, and we're used to seeing this with all the high-tech bells and whistles modern theatre can provide. Not here. Not for the Globe Theatre, no siree. Every actor participates in creating the sounds of rain, thunder and swishing gales — yet I'm pretty certain I saw soaking-wet, windblown characters. Magnificent.

This acting ensemble provides universally strong performances, which is no mean feat because they are asked to do so much. Opening and closing the show, the actors joined together in a rousing, foot-stomping song that had me feeling transported through time as a likely groundling cheering for more blood, guts and family wrath.

The production runs until November 16th. The Broad Stage offers a 20% discount for weekday tickets: code LEAR.

photos by Ellie Kurttz

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Everybody Has a Story

I have a confession:

As autumn and winter settle in and early darkness descends, I enjoy evening neighborhood strolls because I spy. Yes, with my little eye, I spy.

Sometimes a family shouting over each other as they gather for dinner, or a lone fellow plucking strings on a guitar, or a couple in their armchairs watching a widescreen TV spilling images of the day's news. And I wonder about these people. I wonder if their dreams are fulfilled and if their disappointments are bearable because I know they each have a compelling story.

Recently, I guest taught a Shakespeare workshop to eleven-year-olds at an elementary school. Two sixth-grade classes gathered in a single classroom to participate. There was one teacher present. I began by storytelling Hamlet and his need for revenge. Once I'd completed my synopsis I said, "Pencils up! Five minutes, write about a time when you wanted revenge....Now, go!"

And they did, fast and furious, scribbling away as the minutes ticked by. Then I extended an invitation for them to share their writing aloud. You can imagine there were lots of BFF betrayals, and many sibling grievances, and terrible parental misunderstandings, all wholly unfair and deserving of revenge.

Then there was Alisha. A dark-haired girl in a yellow T-shirt with her tentative arm raised.

"Would you like to read what you've written?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, looking down at the paper clutched in her fingertips. "But I might cry."

"Okay," I held up a tissue box. "I'm ready, if you are. Go for it."

Alisha's sister had died. And Alisha wanted revenge on the drunk driver who killed her sister.

The tears came. The kids stared. The teacher was frozen in place because this wasn't her student, she did't know this girl and hadn't heard this story.

I moved toward Alisha with a handful of tissues and an arm ready to pull her close.

Are teachers trained for these moments? Are there practice sessions for such unexpected, shocking tales? I was thrust into a scenario of "Think fast and don't mess up!"

With my arm around Alisha's shoulders, I addressed the class because, above all, a teaching moment had presented itself. The kids' eyes were wide; they weren't sure what to do with this very real-life story.

"Alisha has demonstrated huge courage and we understand why she would want revenge."

What I witnessed next was a wave of empathy rising, en masse, from Alisha's peers.

"And here's the thing about art, " I continued. "Every dancer, singer, painter, musician, writer or actor has to have courage because their work carries their personal story. We don't just play Hamlet like he's some other guy. We play him as if he is us. We have to identify with his pain, his anger and his desire for revenge. Not everyone can do this. That's what makes the artist unique. The courage."

The tears were wiped, the nose was blown and a friend of Alisha's took her to the bathroom. Other children read their revenge stories and my hour with them came to a close. As I was bidding farewell, Alisha and her friend returned from the bathroom.

I took Alisha's face in my hands and said, "I wonder if you noticed that when you shared your writing, how much power you had? I wonder if you noticed that everyone listened and everyone cared? Your courage and your power will always stand by you, Alisha."

Yup, everybody has a story.

Shakespeare just wrote them down. Really, really well.


My characters name is Lord Capulet and he lives in Verona. He wants his daughter Juliet to mary a man named cout Paris. In the end the gangs learn a lesson. They learn the violence is rong.

This is my second year in the Shakespeare club. I'm not as nervous about the performance as I was last year because I am experienced and that will help me with this performance.

Many people have heard of the story "Romeo and Juliet" but most people don't know what the story is about. And it's mostly kids that don’t know. So the Shakespeare Club gives the kids a chance to perform real plays written by William Shakespeare.

—Cole, 5th grade

1: Recentering El Pueblo; 2: JoelMontes (Creative Commons BY-SA)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Book Is Born

In 2006, I wrote a memoir about my first year creating and running the Shakespeare Club at a Los Angeles public school.

In 2007, I met a literary agent who read my manuscript, called me to say it was "fresh, solid, original and delicious" — who the heck doesn't want to hear that? — and said she wanted to represent the book to publishers.

In 2008, the Great Recession hit and the book was not picked up by any editors.

In 2009, my agent suggested I start a blog — this very site — and I did, publishing posts about my fourth, fifth, and sixth years of running Shakespeare Club.

In 2013 — wonder of wonders — a publishing house wanted Teaching Will: What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me That Hollywood Couldn’t.

In 2014 — on August 12 — that book is born.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Julius Caesar Act I, Scene II

I'm not claiming to be remotely close to the genius of Shakespeare, but we have at least one thing in common: He had to bide his time, and I identify. He started as a water boy in the theatre. He had to run around doing errands for the higher-ups, all the while watching and listening to the works of others.

Then the Black Plague hit, theatres were closed and he holed up in a turret, writing poems for cash. William Shakespeare kept writing while he was forced to be patient. He honed his craft and we reap the benefits. I wonder...I wonder if he knows that over 400 years later, how many of his plays are on stages all over the world, every single minute of every single day?

I hope he does.

Shakespeare is fun. I like it because Shakespears words are so so pretty. I also like the plays romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Misdummers Night dream. Shakespeares words are so butiful and pretty did I mention that already. I joined the Shakespeare Club for two years because the shakespeare club sonded very fun.
—Emilia, 4th grade

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Juliet of the Subway

It happened this week.

It happened this way.

So I'm told by my friend, the writer Heather Summerhayes Cariou ("Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister's Memoir").

Heather was on a NYC subway train, seated near two middle-school girls. The teens were huddled together and poring over a book. One girl read aloud to the other. This alone was a sweet picture, but what were they reading with such intensity?

Heather leaned forward, hoping to glimpse the book's cover. Writers do this. We live, in hope, that our book may be the one in hand. We live, in hope, that any book will be in hand. As more and more commuters read Tolstoy on their smartphones, it becomes more difficult to gauge what the public is eating up word-wise.

Heather was delighted to see the girls gobbling up a modern adaptation of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Their interest made sense since Juliet is close in age to these teens, and Juliet is crazy in love with a teenage boy, and Juliet's parents would flip right out if they knew of her crush. Yup, there's a lot going on there for a couple of New York City teens to grasp.

Maybe Heather sat back and recalled her own discovery of Juliet. Heather might have been remembering her days in theatre school working on the role of Juliet. She may have smiled to think of how easy it was to identify with Juliet's passion for the boy Romeo since Heather herself had gone a little cuckoo for a certain tall young man.

In the confluence of a heart's memory on a city train and a young girl spouting the story to her friend, Heather slightly lost her mind. As the train neared her stop she stood, faced the girls, and said:

Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Heather told me this story and described the middle-school girls' dropped jaws at this middle-aged American woman briefly transforming into a teenage Italian girl in love. With perfect timing, Heather finished the speech and stepped onto the platform as the subway doors shooshed and closed behind her.

"It was like you were with me, Mel," Heather told me.

"And now you know the feeling," I answered. "Oh yes, kids get Shakespeare, all right."

After Heather told me her story I imagined those two girls rocking on the subway train, wondering if their Romeos would ever show up. And I imagined my friend wending her way home with thoughts of how many Romeos it took to find her one true Romeo.

Oh, William Shakespeare, here's to you at 450 years of age, continuing to entrance and inspire everywhere, all the time.

What I learned today is that Romeo didn't want the name Romeo Montague because he liked Juliet Capulet and the Montagues and Capulets had war.

The prince said "We must stop this fighting".

The Capulets and the Montagues fighting remines me of my mom and dad.

William Shakespere was telling us about themes because people just can fight and fight until their son or daughter dies.

My character is Juilet. She lives in a castle.

—Belinda, 3rd grade

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

I Get It

A few years ago I strolled past a fourth-grade classroom where a word had been tacked up:


with little kid essays hanging below.

I stopped cold because I hadn't learned the value of this word when I was nine. Oh no, I didn't learn the value of this word until I was well...well into adulthood and my therapist pointed out I was lacking in empathy.

"But my yoga handstand is improving..." I argued.

She delivered the steady gaze all psychotherapists must practice in therapy school.

In the lower-middle-class suburban home where I was raised, empathy was not on display. Instead, we lived with these behaviors:





Sympathy showed up in our household in chats about the circumstances of a neighboring family struggling more than we were. We felt sorry for those people. We grimaced at their lot. And we stayed distant as if touching would be contagious.

This is not empathy. It's not even good sympathy.

Empathy evokes compassion. Empathy is putting ourselves into someone else's shoes. Empathy is the kind ear of identification.

Maybe these words are a road map to empathic behavior:




Here's what that fourth-grade teacher knew:

We are never too young to reach beyond ourselves in empathy.

Here's what I know:

We are never too old to reach beyond ourselves in empathy.

Here's what we both know:

Empathy can and should be taught at every age.

I feel lonely at home then I read a book then I feel more lonely.

The meaning of lonely is being somewere without people talking to you, not being with you, and most of the time when you are lonely you are sad.

—Kate, 4th grade

Saturday, January 25, 2014

And a Child Shall Lead Them

I've been to my share of school meetings led by union presidents, school supervisors, politicians, principals, teachers and parent leaders of booster clubs.

I've heard my share of the rally cries, and those cries are more often than not:

"It's all about the kids! We must keep our focus on the children!"

Yippee, right on, you bet, and down with the sourpuss who doesn't agree with and espouse this credo, this battle cry for change and advancement in all aspects of educating the next generation.


That's me clearing my throat.


That's me shaking my head.


That's me with a sneeze and a thought.

For many years, when I ran The Shakespeare Club, filled with eager-beaver kids willing to leap the high bars of the Bard, our club was bullied by a teacher who, for whatever reasons, devalued our work.

This teacher did lots of things to stand in the way of our efforts and I'm not going to whine on and on to promote sympathy because that's not the gist of this story.

I will tell you one of this fellow's habits: his practice of delaying students for 30 to 40 minutes after class. He specifically liked to hold back the ten Shakespeare Club members on our meeting days.

Now, I only had 18 weeks of Shakespeare Club meetings per year and each meeting only lasted two hours, so if you added it up I was losing a lot of time with these children, they were losing a lot of their rehearsal time, and other members were losing their acting partners.

Of course, I tried with Mr. Teacher. I flattered, I made deals, I begged, I stood at the class door while he (with his feet crossed on his desktop) shrugged, smirked and said, "They like me!"

I pled with parents, the principal and the booster club for help. I suggested they form an army and stand outside the fifth-grade classroom at 2 p.m. every Wednesday and usher the students out.

"Because," I argued, "isn't it all about the kids? Isn't everything we're doing here about advancing education, encouraging maturity, awakening awareness? Shouldn't we teach the importance of commitment to the team?"

The kids...isn't it all about them?

Here's the irony.

During my last year with this school, as the club neared Performance Day and a huge chunk of the fifth-graders' practice had been eaten up by this teacher, I looked up one Wednesday at 2 p.m. to find all the fifth-graders walking into Shakespeare Club on time.

"Whoa...hey...great to see you guys," I said. "What happened?"

"Well, Ms. Ryane," said Ellie, who looked to have grown an inch or two that week, "we just said, 'We have to go now.' We just said, 'It's Shakespeare Club, Mr. Davis, and we have to leave.'"

"Then what happened?"

"Nothing. We're here is all."


Shakespeare is fun. I like it because Shakespears words are so so pretty. I also like the plays romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Misdummers Night dream. Shakespeares words are so butiful and pretty did I mention that already. I joined the Shakespeare Club for two years because the shakespeare club sonded very fun.
—Emilia, 4th grade

1st photo from Seeds and Fruit