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Shakespeare From the Page to the Stage

It’s been said that the key to understanding and appreciating Shakespeare is great teaching. Lucky for BFS students then, whose English and theater teachers not only love what they do – they were recently trained by acting professionals to bring the Bard from page to stage.

by Elizabeth Heck, BFS English Department

Teachers love teaching; it’s why we do what we do, and English teachers, so the stereotype goes, love Shakespeare. This proved true during the English Department’s professional development with The Acting Company on Wednesday, October 8. English department chair, Rachel Mazor, eagerly accepted The Acting Company’s free invitation to provide an interactive workshop for teaching Shakespeare’s plays to middle and upper school students.

The Acting Company extended this invitation after we began our relationship with them last year by attending performances of their production of Hamlet at The Pearl Theater with our 11th and 12th graders. Rachel gathered the 7th-12th grade English and Theater teachers and we spent the day happily camped out in the third floor conference room sharing teaching strategies for engaging students with the language and characters of Shakespeare. (Photo below, l to r, English teachers Erin Mansur and Kathleen Clinchy).

It was an amazing opportunity to spend quality time with each other discussing what we love about our craft and subject; too often our regular meetings can get eaten up by important logistical conversations, and this was time dedicated solely to improving our understanding of Shakespeare, as well as our teaching of it. Actively learning from each other, as well as from the two excellent facilitators from The Acting Company, teacher Paul Fontana and actor/teaching artist Christian Conn, the workshop examined the myriad ways to make Shakespeare accessible and appropriately challenging for students of various ages. We had a truly great time sharing lesson plans, theories about theme and character within the plays, and activities that get students (and us!) up and acting out the language and stories.

For some of us, this was an effective deepening of an already long history of teaching Shakespeare. For others of us, this was the perfect introduction to a new topic; Kathleen Clinchy (5th and 8th grade English teacher)reflected, “The Shakespeare PD was really enlightening and exciting to me since I don’t have a huge amount of experience teaching Shakespeare. I am really enthused about introducing the drama with the games we played at the start of the PD-I think it will help students feel that Shakespeare is not an overwhelming read, that much of what is written is up for your personal interpretation, and will allow 8th graders to feel more confidence in reading and analyzing drama! I also can’t wait to do close readings of small excerpts-word by word analysis; there’s not much better.”

After this energizing day of professional development, Sidney Bridges, Megan Schumacher, Vanessa Ehler (Upper School Spanish teacher), and I were able to extend our Shakespeare immersion as we had serendipitously (as often happens in Shakespearean comedies!) planned to take the entire 9th grade to The Queens Theater in Corona Park to see The Titan Theater Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Thursday, October 9.

This company has mounted a lively, innovative, and intimate version of this classic; the students were delighted by the performance, and captivated by the talk-back with the actors and director following the show. Our students engaged with the Titan Theater Company members in conversation about how various choices in presenting characters and staging scenes are made to convey a particular interpretation and vision of a given play.

It also happened to be a beautiful day and the 9th graders chatted, skipped, and laughed as we walked through the park to the theater, and enjoyed lunch in the park after the show. As this fantastic class of bright and creative young adults get to know each other, they are sharing not just who they are with each other, but how they learn and see the world as well. And the English Department has, once again, experienced that bringing the resources of New York City to us, as well as venturing with our students out into all corners of the boroughs, deepens our study of literature, as well as heightening our joy in that study.