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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





Teaching Practice

We work on one Shakespearean text from day one until we close the show– we run for one weekend (with a lot of previews) the second weekend in December.  We have a week before break, and then three weeks after  break, and then the semester ends and the class ends.  They move onto something else. When the show ends,  for those 4-5 weeks we write one-acts, scenes, monologues, some based on the show, some of their own choosing.  So how do we get from day one to closing night? 

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. 

Typically in a theater class, you’d have auditions day one and by day 3-4 you're cast, and then the kids who don’t get cast find another class.  But the kids who are in my class are in my class from day one to the end.  They’re all guaranteed something in the show. I’ve got to find something for them to do, performance-wise, in addition to production chores.  But you can’t cast the show because most of them can’t read English.  So we start off the show with  Lamb’s fairy tale version of the play, which is not easy, because it’s 19th century prose.  But I’d rather have them struggle with that, get to know the text that way, than struggle with the text they’re going to be performing– I don’t want the text they’re performing to have that negative baggage attached to it. 

While they’re getting to know the story, they’re reading aloud, they’re working, I have them storyboard it, do an art project where they do six plot points that they draw out.  We're doing things to get them to visualize what the story is about.  Meanwhile, I'm observing how they work in groups, their attitude, their attendance,  their punctuality, how they read; I'm also getting to know them as people. Sometimes, someone reads really poorly, but I just know  that they’re perfect for a certain role. 

Casting as a Means of Assessment

If you screw up in casting, you’ve really made it hard for yourself and all your students, so it’s really important to be

Reviewing the Text
September 27: reviewing the text
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sure.  Last year, we had a boy who played Ferdinand in the Tempest—the kind of kid who when he came out on stage, all the girls in the audience would go “Awwwwwwwwww! He’s so sweet!”  He was a senior this past year, and the counselor had him come be in the show again, and normally I don’t get too many returnees, because they have so many classes they have to get in. But we were lucky enough to get him , and I thought, we’ll have him to do the lead, Claudio.  So they’re auditioning, and I had him do the scene with Beatrice, and – it was okay, but I said, “Gustavo, can you do this again? I think he’s really angry here.”  Because Claudio becomes uncorked when he’s been betrayed, that’s why you need the anger. But because he’s such a sweet kid, I’d never seen him be angry in his life. “Could you be a little more angry here?” and he said, “I don’t get angry.” And then I kind of thought about his life, I know from his writing, his family difficulties.  So I know how to get anger from him, but there’s probably a reason why he doesn’t get angry, and it’s not good to meddle. 

Sometimes, you do want to push somebody out of their comfort zone, but I just had a sense that he had figured out a way to get through a very difficult time in his life, and he’s not ready to give that up. I don’t want to push him.  So I said, “Why don’t you read Don Pedro—this is great, because last year you played the lover, and this year you’re going to be the man among men, the big friend, the one everyone looks up to.”  And really, he had been through this before, he was the one that everyone looked up to.  And so that was fun. I still needed to find a Claudio

., and there was a kid that I thought—he was a new  kid, who was all “guy”—which is hard to find sometimes in high school, and I knew he could get angry, and he was wonderful and very inventive.  Super inventive.  And even though he was a sophomore, the age difference—sometimes a sophomore will be so deferential to the seniors, but I just knew that he would be fine, and he was.  He was way better than I even hoped.  So you have to assess not just their skills,  but who they are.

Writing For My Students

Last year, I got this idea that I should start writing prologues, epilogues, something to give kids more opportunities onstage. Because if you look at these adapted texts I’m using, there might be 16 roles, and yet I have 25 kids, or 30.  Last year I had over 40 kids, but by the time we opened, I only had 32.  Two kids got expelled, but I’d cast them as villains, so, it was a good casting decision. (laughs).   So I wrote a prologue—the other thing that does is kind of includes the audience.  A lot of these folks don’t speak English. I write a scenario for a prologue, and last year I had a student flesh it out, and I would direct it, she was the second director.  We really had fun, said, “Let’s throw in some Spanish, make sure the pace is picked up, there’s no dead air.”  So I used my writing—I’m not a professional writer, but I’d written a couple of plays, something I was interested in so I did it—so I used that to give roles, and do some other things. It’s funny, because part of me, when I’d write, and I thought about it as having a broader audience.  When I usually write, I write poems and stick them in a book, maybe someday when my kids are 40 they’ll read them.  So I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my writing, but now, I have a pressing need to get a scene going.  You don’t think about whether it’s great or not, it serves a need.  For me, that was interesting. It’s hard for me to feel great about writing for any extended period of time, because I’m not a pro, what could I possibly have to say? 


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