The word “in-service” is enough to strike despair into the heart of the hardiest teacher. We all know how dreadful some of these sessions can be.
So in this, our perfect inservice, you are not trapped in a cafeteria, or a library, watching the clock under the glare of fluorescent lights. You are not looking up at a Power Point presentation on a big glowing screen. You’re not sitting in the back of a big room, glancing at the clock, secretly grading classwork or sneaking a peek at the newspaper.
Actually, you’re not even sitting.
“Thus with imagined wing our swift scene flies…”
Whoosh. You are now standing with 15 or so other teachers in an open-sided barn out in the country, at a tiny spot on the Texas map called Winedale, 80 miles east of Austin. Sunlight is streaming in, and through the open sides you see grassy meadows and shady pecan trees. The morning air is fresh; a mockingbird sings, the breeze rustles through the tall pines. (First assignment: Put down that notepad and take a nice deep breath…)
You look up to see thick golden cedar beams of the barn, hand-hewn long ago by the descendants of German immigrants out here in the farmland of Fayette County. At one end of the bricked floor is a wooden thrust stage; staircases and small platforms lead up to the upper level, the old hay.
This is where the University of Texas Shakespeare at Winedale classes study Shakespeare through performance, and where audiences come each spring and summer to share the students’ discoveries. They have been coming out here, halfway between Austin and Houston, for 35 years – ever since Dr. James Ayres wandered in the barn one afternoon in 1970 at the suggestion of the legendary Miss Ima Hogg, Houston philanthropist and daughter of Texas governor James Hogg. Miss Ima restored the Winedale properties in the 1960s and gave them to the University of Texas, and upon meeting “Doc” Ayres at a Winedale reception, she told him, “You should do Shakespeare in that barn!” And so he did.
It’s quiet here, peaceful. You can think. Out on a dirt road you can shout out a speech to the woods, and only the woods will answer.
To play’s the work
So, in our perfect in-service, we first invite all of you to step up onto the Theater Barn stage and explore. Be a kid again. Climb the ladders. Find the secret back entrances. Stand on the balcony and imagine yourself as Juliet. Pop your head through the windows of the Elizabethan “half-timbered” house on the upper level.
Next: Warm-ups! Songs! We must loosen up our bodies and voices, shake out the stiffness, prepare to work in a new way.
Then: Improvisations. Thinking on our feet. We create absurd situations, and perform our way out of them. We listen and respond to each other. We play together. Important, because – as Doc Ayres discovered out here with his first classes – we must be able to play
freely in order to uncover the true impulses behind the language in a… play
. (Don’t worry about writing that one down, you’ll remember it!) We laugh a lot, get to know each other a bit, begin the essential building of a bond of trust.
And onto: the language of Shakespeare. We take a speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
and take it apart, like a mechanic taking apart an engine. He’s got parts all over his driveway, and we’ve got words bouncing all around the Barn, being sung, crooned, howled, whispered, even danced. Then, together, as an ensemble, we speak the speech – a tapestry of voices, each unique, each essential, all bringing one timeless 400-year-old character back to life.
Finally: The scenes! We break into groups, each exploring a short section of a scene from “Midsummer.” Some of us are fairies, some craftsmen, some well-to-do Athenian citizens. One of us falls in love with the wrong person, one of us has our head transformed into a donkey’s “nole.” We share ideas, invent solutions, work as a team, laugh some more, try new things, and learn on our feet about how to share all our great work with an audience – our fellow teachers. After half an hour or so, we grab a few props and simple Elizabethan costume pieces and make ourselves ready.
(By the way, did you notice you’ve stopped looking at your watch to see how soon you can leave for lunch? A good sign…
And at last: The performances! You are astonished at what your colleagues have come up with. Some of them have already memorized their lines. They’re performing with spirit, joy, a sense of fun. It’s a treat to hear and see. And you find yourself energized, connected to the language in a whole new way. The words are no longer flat on the page – they have sprung into three-dimensional life.
We were going to give you an hour, but everyone’s having so much fun they want to come back sooner. Is that okay?
(Another good sign…
On the way to lunch, you’re amazed at how much you accomplished in just a few hours.
Afternoon: Reflection and discussion
In the discussion and writing period that follows, we reflect on the process we went through together. What did we learn about the language of the play? About how Shakespeare uses words to create meaning, to create plot, emotion, surprise? How did the verse, the iambic pentameter, work differently than the prose? Was it a bit scary at first performing for the others? How did groups develop their ideas, and build on each other’s suggestions? Can we think of completely different ways of approaching these same scenes? How do we see the play differently now, having explored it from the inside out? Will you “read” the words in new way? Is it easier to summarize the story now that you’ve physically performed it yourself?
More: What is the difference between work and play? When is work play, and play work? When are they the same thing?
And, the big question: How might we see what we did today working with our students in our own classrooms?
As our last activity together, we stand in circle on the stage and sing the “Winedale Anthem” – “Lover and His Lass,” a delightful song from the rural comedy “As You Like It.”
It was a lover
And his lass
With a heigh and ho and a hey nonny-no
That oe’r the green cornfield did pass
In the springtime
In the pretty ring time
When birds do sing, Hey ding-a-ding-ding
Sweet lovers love the spring
When birds do sing, Hey ding-a-ding-ding
Sweet lovers love the spring…
As you drive back home through the rolling farmland, your packet of lesson ideas and edited “Midsummer” texts in the back seat, ideas begin to come.
You think of your students and imagine them sounding out these strange and funny new words. You can hear the tapestry of their voices, creating a choral speech. You can imagine them wanting to know more about Shakespeare, about the play, about the Globe Theater; you see them feeling pride at studying the same subject as their older siblings in high school.
You imagine writing connections, vocabulary connections, perhaps even ways to integrate social studies. You might even entertain a vision of your class journeying out to Winedale for the spring Outreach Festival of Play; you can see them giving a beautiful performance, along with all the other school groups –a learning experience they will never forget. A “most rare vision” indeed.
Perhaps, you think, this is something I want to try with my students.