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Shakespearean Homework

Syd and T.R. are spending five weeks of the summer at Cal Shakes day camp. I can’t really say enough good things about what they get out of it. I wish I could have gone when I was a kid. They play theater games, do yoga, practice stage combat, study Shakespeare’s time and language, and put on an abridged production of one of his plays. How cool is that?

And they get homework. Syd’s homework yesterday was so wacky that I need to write about it. His group is doing Romeo and Juliet, which Syd just finished reading in school. This caused him to invent the concept of Dothing Morons: they pronounce the word doth as if it rhymed with quoth. It is safe to say that there are no Dothing Morons at camp, so the experience should be much better. But, on to the assignment:

“Please bring in a minimum of 5 (a maximum of however many you want) objects that reflect the world of the play for you. There should be at least 1 object for each act of the play. They can be anything[,] but the objects MUST lend themselves to a tactile/sensory experience: i.e., to feel them and/or smell them and/or hear them (or even to taste them!), is to be brought into this world. PLEASE NOTE: THESE OBJECTS WILL NOT BE SEEN. […] What are the objects that we can feel, smell, taste, and hear that cover an intense passionate love being born and being murdered in a lightening quick 5 days? How do we use sound, smell, taste, texture, and sensation of all kinds to allow an audience to experience the hate, the love, the sex, the death and the inexorable drive of fate and time? How do we cover time and space in tactile objects?” (I left out the examples and a few final comments.)

My first reaction when Syd told me about this (before I read the paper myself) was, “Wow! Now that’s some weird hippy stuff!” It seemed like a waste of time, like an assignment created by someone without enough sleep who had to do something to wake up the kids. So I looked more closely.

I have issues with waste. When I was writing my novel, one of the hardest decisions I made was to cut out the first three sections. I felt like I had wasted my time writing them, like the work was going to waste. It wasn’t. Those pages informed the characters I created, provided background and back story. That they weren’t essential to the story as I ended up telling it doesn’t mean that the work was wasted. It was just used in a different way.

And while it is a little counterintuitive to think about smells that invoke the various acts of Romeo and Juliet since theater is a visual medium, the exercise can deepen the access actors get to the characters. Remembering the feel of my skin when that boy in the eighth grade looked at me in just that one particular way would be useful if I were, by some horrible twist of fate, to end up a Juliet. The smell of baby shampoo would remind me of those tender days with my small ones, a feeling Juliet’s nurse carries closely with her.

Also, thinking like a poet, which is what all that sensory stuff is, brings a person closer to the mind of Shakespeare. I like that.

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