The plays of William Shakespeare weren’t meant to be read sitting down.
Somber tragedies like “Hamlet,” dense histories like “Henry V” and heartfelt romances like “Romeo and Juliet” debuted in front of a standing crowd, and a raucous one at that. When the Shakespeare and his theater troupe premiered new works at London’s Globe Theatre in the 16th century, their teeming audience comprised a rowdy mix of the wealthy, the working class and the poor. These theatergoers expected movement, action and emotion, especially in the days before stage lights, sound effects and other modern touches.
Cindy Poinsett says that same approach should play a key role in how American students learn about the Bard of Avon in 2014. It’s a key part of making dialogue from Elizabethan England seem vibrant and immediate to modern teenagers, she said.
“I always knew that you don’t sit down at a desk to teach this material,” said Poinsett, a drama teacher at Cherokee Trail High School who trained as an actor. “It’s getting kids on their feet to learn this heightened text.”
Poinsett’s recent trip to London to study at the rebuilt Globe Theatre only reiterated those lessons first gleaned on the stage. Poinsett and Overland High School English teacher Tim Reyes made the trip to England in July as part of a fellowship offered through the English Speaking Union of the United States. Both of the Cherry Creek School District teachers beat out others from across the country to make the three-week journey to London.
The pair joined an international group of peers to take firsthand lessons in teaching Shakespeare from British actors, many of whom have appeared in high-profile films and television series. Through intensive workshops, acting exercises and even a staged production of “Julius Caesar,” the teachers picked up important insights about conveying the true spirit of one of the Western world’s greatest poets and playwrights.
“I learned different ways of getting into the text,” Poinsett said. “They’re all about not teaching Shakespeare from a desk but teaching it while students are on their feet.”
Nowhere is that lesson better imparted than Shakespeare’s Globe, a recreation of the theater where some of history’s most enduring plays debuted. Like the original Globe, the reconstructed theater incorporates the audience into each performance. Actors have a direct view of crowd members, many of whom stand directly at the edge of the stage. Instead of spotlights and high-tech effects, the Globe productions feature only floodlights. Daytime performances shrink the distance from the crowd even further – the entire audience is visible to the cast, just as the cast is visible to the audience.
Poinsett and Reyes took away important lessons from that dynamic. Visiting Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown, also offered valuable insights.
“There shouldn’t be a separation between the actors and the audience. You should treat the audience as another actor,” she said. “It’s especially important when you’re working with Shakespeare and heightened text. That way, they know they’re part of what you’re doing. They’re not going to check out mentally, they’re going to stay with you even if they don’t understand everything that you’re doing.”
Such lessons, she added, are even more important in a classroom setting. Whether it’s in a replica of the 16th-century Globe Theatre or a modern Cherry Creek classroom, engagement is a key to making Shakespeare’s work come to life.
-- Posted Sept. 15, 2014