Now You’re Really Speaking My Language | Victoria Row-Traster

After a year off to take care of my new baby daughter (thank you United Kingdom and your awesome maternity policies!) and I was excited to get back into the classroom.

Before I could start the in-school residency, however, there was a one-week training program where myself and other teaching artists from the National worked in partnership with the performers, directors and production to develop a six-week residency package to teach pre and post show workshops.  We designed the workshops to support the production of “Romeo and Juliet,” which would be touring into partner schools throughout the Spring Term. I was happy to be back doing what I love: teaching and collaborating with the fellow artists.  At the end, I felt we had created exciting, fast paced and creative lesson plans that would enhance students’ experience of the play, its characters, and the language of William Shakespeare.

On my first morning back in the classroom I was introduced to each group of ten and eleven year olds, and, sadly but not surprisingly, was asked by several of the students (who incidentally were exhausted by weeks of national mandatory testing of which this was final project before leaving for high school) “why Shakespeare?” This was the first time many of them had been introduced to Shakespeare’s work and not one of the students were familiar with the plot of Romeo and Juliet – not even the ending!  After hearing them describe Shakespeare’s language as boring, weird and old I asked them to trust me on this journey and implored them to wait and see before making their minds up.

Fast forward to the second week and we had been working intensely on the balcony scene, breaking down the text and having comical discussions about the phenomenon that is love at first sight (they didn’t buy it!). I felt that they were now prepared and ready to see the play.

After a break, the production truck had moved in and set up the stage in their main school hall. In a mere two hours the space had been transformed into a magical expanse in the round. Using poles, netting and lighting, the hall was unrecognizable and I watched the student’s faces fill with amazement and wonder as they entered this once familiar space. There is no better reminder of why I do my job than when I see first-hand how live theatre can transcend a young audience member.

As the actors began, my eyes were firmly on the audience, children on the brink of becoming young adults, where every day they are consumed with trying to figure out who they are, what they like or dislike, where their place is in every single room they enter. Despite all of that, I knew in an instant they would be lost in the words, rhythms and gestures of Juliet and her Romeo.

At the risk of sounding cheesy, I live for those moments. The instances when I can physically see the change in their demeanor, even the way they hold themselves – they are being transported. It is done. And then something strange and unexpected happened…

I had seen this production many times during its development and was busy making notes about how I would shape the next lesson plan depending on what they responded to and what excited them during the show. It was during the balcony scene when, spontaneously, the audience began speaking the lines out loud with the actors! It began with one student, who was literally so engrossed with what he was watching, began to speak, and then others joined in. By the time Romeo uttered the line:  “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks…” almost every one of my students was speaking the words with him in unison! I was absolutely speechless! Obviously my first thought was “wow – they really feel ownership over this scene (and I silently gave myself a pat on the back) but then I had a thought – the actors may not be as happy as I am about this as I am… Whoops!

After the play had come to an end and the actors had taken their final bow, I approached Romeo and congratulated him on his performance. I also gingerly remarked on the students’ enthusiasm, especially during the balcony scene, and a huge smile beamed across his face. He said that he had felt the “electricity” from the audience right from his first line and then Tybalt joined us exclaiming her excitement (in this production Tybalt was a female). She had also heard one or two audience members speak her lines during some of her speeches. They both were noticeably moved by the experience.

This was an incredible teaching moment and one that I will not forget. In my next article, I will talk about the work and challenges that followed during the post-show workshops.

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