The American Shakespeare Center has a unique Educational Residency program that brings our education artists and workshops to high school and college campuses. In the last two years, we have completed weeklong residencies at high schools in Kansas and Ohio. Last week, we were at Roanoke College in Salem, VA for our first-ever college residency.
After a whirlwind summer of directing the 2013 sessions of the ASC Theatre Camp, I was curious about what it would be like to spend a week working with older, college-aged students, guiding them through nearly half a semester’s worth of workshop materials. Daniel Kennedy and Andrew Goldwasser, two ASC actors, made up the rest of our residency team. Daniel is a long-time ASC actor and is a former director for the ASC Theatre Camp. Andrew is a veteran of our touring troupe, and he will return to the Blackfriars Playhouse for our upcoming holiday season.
In the weeks leading up to the residency, I worked with our contact at the college to arrange our trip; we distributed fliers to promote the residency during the touring troupe’s production of Othello at Roanoke College, and our campus coordinator scheduled us to visit 3 classes throughout the week. In total, I planned 13 workshops, and Sarah and Cass taught 6 additional workshops for a weekend teacher seminar. In addition to the workshops, we scheduled multiple rehearsals for the students to have individual coaching on selected scenes and monologues from Shakespeare’s plays.
We arrived in Salem just past noon on Monday, in time to take a brief tour of the performing arts building and other campus facilities. The campus reminded me of Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, but without the hills. Roanoke College is small, with only 2,000 undergraduate students. 10 students are enrolled as theatre majors, but several students from other departments take acting classes to fulfill their elective requirements. We visited the acting class first, and I led an introductory workshop on the basic building blocks of Shakespeare’s text: iambic pentameter, scansion, verse, and prose. None of the students in the acting class that we visited had ever performed in a Shakespeare play, and the material was completely new to them.
As the week passed, I noticed our students engaging with their texts in the cafeteria before workshops, diligently and carefully marking the stressed and unstressed beats in their scripts. One student that I worked with found paraphrasing in the ASC style to be especially helpful as she prepared to play Imogen, a character in Cymbeline.
Daniel and Andrew led workshops in rhetoric, clowning, stage combat, music, and acting choices. During one of the acting classes, the students had the opportunity to direct us as we played the first scene of Richard III . Using their newly-learned skills for identifying embedded stage directions, character and relationship clues, and the various forms of asides, the students directed us through the opening scene. Twice during the week, we met with an English class and explored embedded stage directions in the party scene (1.5) of Romeo and Juliet, and I led them in a discussion about the textual variants in the play and their effect on character development, staging, and other production choices.
On the final Friday in-class performance, there was excitement in the air. The students were nervous, even in our informal setting; we spent the week in a small black-box studio with warm honey-toned wood floors, soft lighting, and mix-matched chairs and small sofas collected through the years and re-purposed from old set pieces. We created a makeshift Elizabethan stage with the chairs surrounding the playing space on three sides.
Their performances began. We saw the brash and rude struggle between Katherina and Bianca in the Taming of the Shrew, followed by the frightful and foreshadowing scene between Casca and Cassius on the stormy evening before Caesar’s murder; Imogen scorned Iachimo after his vile attempt to plant seeds of jealousy in her heart; Ophelia’s haunting songs gave way to the street brawl between Mercutio and Tybalt; Antony mourned over Caesar’s body; Viola evaded pursuit by Olivia in the garden while attempting to maintain her composure, even as Olivia exposed her heart to a servant who could never requite her love. The students’ scene showcase was a testament to the work that can be accomplished with only a few hours’ rehearsal and a careful analysis of the performance clues that Shakespeare provides in the text of his plays.
In our final wrap-up session following their scene showcase, I asked the students for their feedback and to help us brainstorm ways of making the residency program better. If we came back to Roanoke College, what would they like to do differently or the same? The program technical director suggested that we come back for several weeks or even a whole semester to direct a play rehearsal process from start to finish. The students enthusiastically agreed. I noted that this model was certainly something we could consider doing for them in the future. Our residency program is flexible, and currently our longest program offering is three weeks. Other students said that they would love to plan a trip to the Blackfriars Playhouse, and they all arrived at the consensus that they would commit to participating in another residency if given the opportunity. I was touched and warmed by their responses. Just as much as we would love to go back to Roanoke, we also wanted to provide advice to help them beyond the classroom. We encouraged the students to keep in touch with us throughout the year, and I encouraged several of them to inquire about our year-round internship opportunities.
Neither we nor our campus host and coordinator anticipated just how enthusiastically the students would respond to our presence and to the work we accomplished together in just a few days. The students were eager to absorb all they could from our workshops, and many of them stayed for several hours late into the evenings to work with us individually. Students re-arranged other commitments to attend our classes, and others came even when they probably needed that free time to study for other exams and tests; but Shakespeare is fun, and Shakespeare brings people together.
I’ve been fortunate to see other young students bond and create lasting friendships through collaboration and their collective pursuit to learn more about Shakespeare and the theatre of his time. This experience showed me that even in a small theatre program struggling with low enrollment, Shakespeare empowers students by giving them all the tools they need to create theatre that is engaging, inspiring, and community-building. I look forward to sharing similar experiences at other schools and campuses.
Director of College Prep Programs