How many of you remember the part you played in a summer camp play?
I was “The Wall” in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and can still recite the lines.
In this same interlude it doth befall
That I, one Snout by name, present a wall;
And such a wall, as I would have you think,
That had in it a crannied hole or chink,
Through which the lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe,
Did whisper often very secretly.
This loam, this rough-cast and this stone doth show
That I am that same wall; the truth is so:
And this the cranny is, right and sinister,
Through which the fearful lovers are to whisper. ( 5,1, 154-163)
That experience, along with my mother taking us to see his plays in Stratford, CT, and then living in London and seeing everything produced by Royal Shakespeare Company for four years cemented in me a love of Shakespeare.
When I taught 8th grade Language Arts, a supervisor dropped off a carton of battered “Midsummers”; the high school decided they weren’t going to teach it.
These decrepit copies were replaced the next year with the Oxford School editions, complete text with annotations and history.
I attended workshops and learned techniques on how to make this difficult text user-friendly and hands-on for 13 year olds. Students loved hurling insults and showering compliments, learning about subtext and the many words (nearly 2,000) and phrases coined by Shakespeare. (clothes make the man, green- eyed monster, the course of true love never did run smooth… ) They loved marching around the room, learning iambic pentameter by stomping their feet to the beat of “I do not like green eggs and ham; I will not eat them Sam-I-am.”
And they loved performing. Students created their own acting companies and selected a small scene which we’d edit- cutting lines and changing a few words that self-conscious 8th graders didn’t want to say: breast to chest, for example.
Before introducing the play, I’d ask students to write about a conflict with their parents. Responses ranged from use of cell phones, texting bills, going out, shopping, to “when I begged and argued with my father not to leave but he did anyway. “ It helped them understand the opening scene when Egeus wants his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius instead of Lysander who she loves.
Telling them that every actor they’ve ever seen in movies or television had studied and performed Shakespeare at some point also helped them accept that this 400-year-old dead white guy might have something to offer them.
I attended as many performances of “Midsummer” as I could find, bringing staging ideas back to the classroom. I saw an all –male production, one set to music of the 1950’s, and one at the restored Globe in London, which played upon the “dream” theme- costumes were pajamas, robes, and slippers; props were toothbrushes, teddy bears and pillows.
And this week, I attended the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s Outdoor Stage production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Sitting in the Greek amphitheater, wondering if the sky would fall open any second, I enjoyed hearing the familiar lines I’ve come to memorize. (Lord what fools these mortals be!) I remembered many of the student and professional performances. It’s still my favorite.