Shakespeare In Shanghai!
Taking the show on the road, theater arts instructor Winnie Wood traveled to Shanghai, China this week with two of her drama students, Grayson Juhlin (’16) and Leigh Rogers (’16) to direct Chinese students in performing Shakespeare. Ms. Wood and her students practiced at Shanghai Guanghua College, a school partnered with Wasatch Academy, for the better part of a week, concluding with a formal performance at the Shanghai Shakespeare Festival. The account of their remarkable journey has been covered here in English and simultaneously in Mandarin by the Shanghai Guanghua College on their own webpage.
Coaching Chinese students in performing Shakespeare using the original English scripts is no small feat, but Ms. Wood and her students accomplished this ambitious objective with relative ease. In the belief that language is no barrier to the communication of timeless truths (“What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”) Ms. Wood introduced Chinese students to the Romeo and Juliet Project that she herself designed to assist English language learners in speaking English eloquently. While Ms. Wood ran the Shakespearean compenent of these classes, her teaching assistants, Grayson Juhlin and Leigh Rogers, concurrently ran workshops in improvisation to enhance communication and performance skills. For Chinese students encountering improvisation for the first time, they found the whole experience very exciting and they loved it! Grayson and Leigh did a spectacular job, taking it upon themselves to conduct the warm up acting exercises and improv classes. All in all, Ms.Wood and her drama students brought a new perspective and energy both to language learning and to the drama program in Shanghai!
The Romeo and Juliet Project at Wasatch Academy is a means of involving students in the performative dimension of the Shakespeare text while encouraging and emphasizing English language learning skills. Ms. Wood originally taught the Romeo and Juliet Project as a unit to elementary and middle school students, native speakers between 6-10 years old, and modified the material to suit high school students at Wasatch Academy, young men and women, especially English language learners.
Ms. Wood then brought the project to China to teach Chinese students acting in Shakespearean English. She and her students visited the Shanghai Guanghua College, the Wasatch Academy sister school in Shanghai, where for one week they brought the benefits of state of the art teaching methodologies to English language learners keen to rise to the challenge of performing scenes onstage.
The rationale of this whole process of language acquisition is straightforward. Her approach is simple, keep it fun and entertaining! Her idea is teaching not theatre, but teaching language, having students say the Shakespeare, so that through roleplaying, they are play-acting in English. She sees the Shakespeare plays as a force for good, helping English language learners become eloquent in English.
In the Romeo and Juliet Project, Ms. Wood has students start by analysing the prologue to the play, which tells the whole story in advance. The students learn right away that this is a story of two “star-crossed lovers” whose fate is foreordained, the audience knowing their end beforehand and watching it unfold on stage for the space of an hour. This fore-knowledge of their impending doom sets up a delicious sense of irony, of predestination vs. free will. It is a tragedy and, however hard they try, the lovers cannot avoid hurtling to their deaths, while we as audience, though aware of their fates, are nonetheless powerless to stop them. Chance seems to play a part as well, although the timeline (of the plot) is clear in the minds of all the students and they all know full well what is in store in the end for the two lovers.
She begins by drawing a long timeline of the plot on a giant scroll of paper, wrapping around the whole length of the classroom, which presents in a graphic form that is easy to see and appreciate the entire play, scene by scene. She leads them through the story, asks students questions about the plot, encouraging them to see the Shakespearean characters as “round” or “3D,” that is, as characters with depth and purpose to their lives, even if they are fictional. Asking searching questions, drawing out from her students an interpretation of the characters, probing motives, she asks “What if this…what if that?” sketching out otherwise grey areas in the delineation of the drama as a whole, she encourages them to look deeper into why Shakespeare constructed the scenes as he has. Once her class has understood the entire arc of the storyline, the last step of the whole process is for each student to choose a scene and learn it by heart.
Ms. Wood encourages a very systematic and in-depth analysis of a scene, a close reading – even a micro-reading – till every word is understood. She considers that the general downfall of learning Shakespeare is because of the rote drilling of lines without the love for the language. It is possible to awaken this love for the language, even with children who are second language learners, and she has gone to the ends of the earth to prove her point. She has had astonishing success with English language learners at Wasatch Academy and now with native Chinese speakers at the partner school in Shanghai. The key is that the challenge presented is hard, but not too hard. It is this very difficulty she says that inspires students to try even more to master theirlines and the scene.
Her method is difficult, but not impossible, so even a child can master the material; they will work through it, will keep with it, using the story (and the character) to access the language. “Shakespeare is still considered the gold standard for the English language” says Ms. Wood and it is exciting for her to see students move outside their comfort zones, rise to the challenge, and then master new modalities of self-expression. Her emphasis is upon the story and the language, but most of all, her stress is upon oral interpretation. The story is told and the language is understood. Her concern being that students engage with the language, knowing exactly how the language operates at the level of the line.
Students should expect just to play a scene, one single scene in minature and then seek to understand it precisely. They should not expect to be assigned a whole role and learn the entire play, but rather to focus on the dynamics of a single scene. This process is endlessly productive, and leads to all sorts of products: puppets, storyboarding, cinema, graphic novels, etc. etc. Shakespeare himself was endlessly creative and he himself drew from sources for his own inspiration, just as her students draw inspiration from the Romeo and Juliet Project. “Shakespeare wrote the words, but not the story” she maintains, “but actors put it all together.” Eloquence in English is the real goal for her English language learners. This project is a means of learning and appreciating language through theater – it is the Romeo and Juliet Project NOT Romeo and Juliet! There are many players, many roles, and many new possibilities as students explore language learning through Shakespearean theater! To conclude the purpose of her trip, Ms. Wood exchanged fresh, new ideas about project-based learning and language learning activities with all the teachers there, sharing many progressive approaches to pedagogy that currently are being implemented at Wasatch Academy.