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Why Teach and Perform Shakespeare?
Learning from the Bard

Philip Levien , San Marcos High School
Santa Barbara, CA

Building Community Learning and Performing Gatekeeper Texts Serving Diverse Learners

Where do I teach?

What are my students learning?

Teaching Practice
What's my approach?

Student Work





Student Interviews
December 7: Student interviews
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Building Community

I focus on building a sense of community in the room, so everyone feels safe and you can work.  You’re going to ask kids who’ve never acted before to do some pretty big things:  get angry, pretend they’re crying, kiss a girl, whatever.  So everyone has to feel safe.  Some of that is the sharing, the personal object, some of that is the theater games, getting everyone to laugh together.  I think laughter’s probably the most important thing in the room.   I think it’s why I like to do this every year even though it’s such a difficult task, but I love that there’s so much laughter in the room, much more so than a traditional class.

I keep trying to find ways in my traditional English classes to get the sense of community, laughter, to have  kids to have ownership over their work.   You get that in a theater class. The playwriting class is the same thing.  In that class, I had the kids, after I modeled for them, I had them teach the major works, they directed each others’ work, and it was a question of just providing a structure in which they could then have ownership. But it’s one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had.  A lot of kids say it’s the best class they’ve ever had. And I think it’s because they got a chance to control what they did.

Theater Games: Getting to know the students

I was trying to cast Prospero in the Tempest a couple of years ago, and you just need your best actor to play that.  A girl joined us a couple of weeks into the class– I just heard her, she had this lovely Spanish lilting tone, and it was clear how bright she was.  I had to make sure she could do it—first of all, Prospero’s a man, and I wanted to make sure what she would do with that.  That she had the will to see through this huge project. 

There was a theater game called “Make ‘em Laugh” where everybody lines up against the wall and one person tries to make them laugh. Another is a group yawn, a group laugh—helps me to see who’s loose.  So this girl was getting people out and making people laugh, and at one point she drew herself up and jumped up in the air and just plopped down—it was just outrageous!  And she got everybody else “out”.  There was just something so daring about it, and irreverent, that I thought—this is somebody who would understand the complexity of Prospero, and who’d have the guts and courage to see it through to the end. 

It’s a large role—I’d even thought about dividing it up and having several students each perform a scene, and share a large magician’s cloak.  You’re always thinking, “What if? What can I do theatrically to make this work?” But she was able to do the whole role, which was obviously much more effective. 

By design, we’re hoping to grapple with some of the issues of diversity and community through drama, so it has the potential to be really exciting.  In past years, two kids wrote plays about coming out, and everyone respected that.  We team-taught, I took my kids and put them together with an acting class taught by my colleague. His actors were able to buy into the play, and then we showed them to the school, and the kids in the lesbian play were applauded, and then the leading actress, when she came on in another play, she got applauded at her entrance .  Talk about taking a risk to share your voice, and being supported by people in the audience!  The kids had a lot of freedom and it was very exciting. When kids from different backgrounds are mixed in the same class, I think that writing has to come right out of the tension in the room, rather than isolated personal lives.


The work on this website includes ethnographic video documentation recorded by Richard Nardi and ChunXia Wang, and was supported in part by the Center for Teaching for Social Justice at U.C. Santa Barbara.

Site last updated February 21, 2006