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Go see Twelfth Night

My family has gone to Shakespeare & Co. productions every summer for almost 30 years. We have taken the kids since they were nursing. Over the years, I’ve blogged about various plays we’ve seen, usually very positively. Shakespeare & Co. do lively stagings, with clear diction and no desire to have us sit still while watching A Classic. They are always entertaining and frequently moving.

We saw Twelfth Night this afternoon. It is the funniest production I think I’ve seen them do. If you are in or near western Massachusetts, I urge you to go. You will LYAO.

It was directed by Jonathan Croy, who we’ve enjoyed as an actor since seeing him as Bottom in A Midsummer’s Night Dream a few decades ago. He had us crying with laughter in the Pyramus and Thisbe play within a play, and we’ve seen him in just about everything he’s been in since. His direction of Twelfth Night is brilliant. Mainly it’s hilarious. But it was also at times quite moving. He finds every laugh, many bawdy, some hammy, and some perhaps not in the original — but Shakespeare would have approved, for, as always with Shakespeare & Co., this is not the broccoli Shakespeare you’re required to eat for your own good. This is delicious, hearty, deeply satisfying Shakespeare you can’t wait to get another helping of. This is Shakespeare after Shakespeare’s own heart.

Afterward, we went to a free lecture by Kevin Coleman, who heads the company’s educational program. His talk was informal, full of anecdotes. But by the end of the hour, he had made his point: Stop teaching Shakespeare in the schools. Instead, we should have students play Shakespeare. But not just put on performances after memorizing the lines.

He demonstrated one technique he uses. Students in pairs run up to a basketball hoop (he thinks Shakespeare should be taught on a playground, to convey the sense of play) dribbling an imaginary ball; one kid passes the ball and the other shoots a nothing-but-net shot, and then they high-five or otherwise exult. Next, he gives one kid in each pair a single line from a random Shakespeare play. They run up to the hoop. The one with the line speaks it loudly but flatly — “passing” it — and the other kid delivers the line to the audience. The combination of bodily movement and the fact that the line doesn’t have to be memorized gets the kids to find the heart of the line. This is way better than having kids read a play at home and then call on them to read a line from a page.

Kevin says that he then has them do entire scenes, each player being fed all the lines by a partner, without having read the play first. The players therefore can look at each other as they say the lines, rather than look at the script. They find the rhythm, the meaning, and the feeling. At Kevin’s lecture, we did the one line version, and the results were impressive. I could see it working for an entire play.

Kevin also argued against the “translation” process most teachers and Shakespeare books use, by which we ask students to re-express Shakespeare’s words in their own language. This seems like a way for students to appropriate the text, but it also strips out the beauty and resonance of the language. His example was the line when Romeo first sees Juliet: “What lady is that, which doth enrich the hand of yonder knight?” When, with good intentions, teachers ask students to re-express that line, it comes out something like “Who’s the girl?” or “What’s the name of the fox?” Sure, that’s what Romeo is asking, but the translation loses everything. Shakespeare’s language gets turned into “French fries,” Kevin says.

Anyway, go see Twelfth Night.

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