Playing Shakespeare: the legacy of honors drama

 

Written by Eric Schroeder

 

“OK, Jesse, you say here that you can juggle. Could you step up on stage and juggle for us?”

Jesse didn’t expect this and looks back at me blankly. “I don’t have anything to juggle.”

“Can someone help him out?”

My tutors rummaged around in their backpacks. One tossed him an orange. Another an apple. A third a can of soda. It turned out Jesse was a good juggler.

“Can you juggle chain saws?” I ask him.

He looks dumbfounded and shakes his head no.

“That’s OK,” I say, “Nobody else who has ever taken this class could either. But if anybody ever can, that will be in the show. In the meantime we’ll find a use for your juggling skills in the current one.”

 

This was the first class meeting of “Playing Shakespeare,” an Integrated Studies class in which students spent the first three weeks of the quarter doing a close reading of a Shakespeare play, the next week auditioning for parts, and the rest of the quarter rehearsing the play for a full-scale production in Wyatt Theater. The idea for the class first occurred to me when I was teaching a different class for Integrated Studies. It was a three-hour seminar, so halfway through the class I would give the students a break and get to know them better. I was struck at the time at how many of them were musical; almost half of the students in that class had played music in some formal way in high school—band, orchestra, jazz ensemble, acapella group. I was also struck at how many of them had had some kind of leadership role in high school.

Over the next few months I thought about this and wondered if there was a way to use their backgrounds in a class. A large piece of my graduate work had been focused on Shakespeare, particularly the production of his plays. I wondered if these kids could pull off a play. When it came time to list my class for the following year, I told IS director Nora McGuinness that I wanted to do something different. After I explained it to her, she just looked at me and said, “You’re crazy. But it sounds great. What quarter do you want?” I explained that I thought it should be scheduled for the spring since it was going to take a large measure of trust in their fellow classmates for the students to be able to pull this off. I figured that after living together in the same dorm for six months, that trust just might be there.

The next spring quarter began with the ritual that became the first-day talent show. I was not disappointed—several of the students claimed to be singers, and sing they could. Another half dozen claimed to be musicians. Obviously, none of them were carrying instruments that day, so they got rainchecks and were asked to bring them to the following class. All of them could play. Some very well indeed.

UC Davis Integrated Studies Signed Taming of the Shrew T-shirt

In the spring of 2004 I was part of the IST class that put together a production of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” It was an incredible experience where students from a variety of majors and with no theatre experience came together to successfully produce a play. In addition to being the set designer, I also designed promotional flyers and screen-printed t-shirts. At the end of the quarter, everyone from the crew signed on of the T-shirts as a momento for ISHP.”

– Ivan Lam, Integrated Studies Honors Program student 2003-2004

That first play was Twelfth Night. I had picked it because it’s Shakespeare’s most musical play—lots of songs—and lots of opportunities for other music too (we ended up having an entire brass section that in one scene were a bit like strolling mariachis.) It become clear about midway through rehearsals that the music would be good. But what about the acting? That was a bit dicey. And to make matters even more complicated, that first year we had 32 students enroll in Playing Shakespeare—and, of course, being IS students, all of them wanted to play the lead. Luckily, there are eight juicy roles in Twelfth Night and another eight named roles (and a few more unnamed roles). That definitely helped. But not completely.

I decided to do something drastic—I double-cast all of the main roles except one. This was partly motivated by the fact that more students wanted big roles than there were roles available, but also by the fact that I had two sisters in class who were identical twins—and two of the main characters in Twelfth Night are twins, Viola and her brother Sebastian who have been separated when their ship is wrecked (and Viola subsequently disguises herself as a boy so that when the two show up in the same town, there are many occasions of confused identity). These two students weren’t strong actors but I figured that the moment both of them were on stage together at the end of the play (the only time the two appear together) would be very powerful with the two twins in those roles.

Both of the casts did what was to become a recurring pattern for the course—they struggled in rehearsals right up to the dress rehearsal—and then they pulled off a great show. That first year was particularly tough on my heart since I had to go through opening night twice. But that class set the stage (as it were) for what followed—another twelve plays in subsequent years. When I ran out of comedies, I started doing the romances (I told myself at the outset I would never do Hamlet—or any other tragedies for that matter.)

 

The first day talent show often turned up serendipitous moments that found their ways into the productions—wrestlers, unicycle riders, students able to leap from tall buildings. What was perhaps my favorite piece of stage business ever done in Wyatt Pavillion was a result of something that came from the talent show. The year we did Much Ado about Nothing one of the guys claimed to have contemplated trying out for the U.S. Olympic Archery team. Misca hadn’t brought his bow and arrows to the first class, so of course he was asked to bring them to the second one. Not only did he bring them, he put on a fine demonstration of his abilities. There’s a scene where the three men who are recently back from the wars are strolling around together, discussing the local women as they do so. It’s a long scene and I explained to the actor that there would be two places where he’d shoot an arrow in the scene. “Why two?” he asked. “Because no one’s going to believe that you actually shot a real arrow in the theater,” I replied.

That scene is a long one. When we performed the show, Misca let fly with the first arrow about 50 lines in. There was a gasp and some nervous laughter. Audience members looked at one another as if to say “Did he really do that?" Throughout the rest of the scene, every 40-50 lines he would take out another arrow, fit it to the bow, then get distracted by the conversation and put the arrow back in the quiver. Finally, at the very end of the scene, he slowly took out another arrow, fitted it to the string, slowly turned and shot the arrow about twenty yards, nearly hitting the first one—which was a bull’s eye. There was a huge exhalation from the audience.

What the talent show mostly turned up was musicians and singers. A couple of shows in we gained the services of Joe Rodriguez as our videographer—he ended up filming eleven of the plays and additionally he made a full-length documentary film about the class itself. But he is best remembered by alums of the class for his musical direction—he himself was a talented musician and he loved working with the student musicians. About halfway through the run of plays, music began to be a bit scarcer in the texts of the plays (I had deliberately chosen plays early on for how much music they featured), so we simply began adding our own, including contemporary popular music (think Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” for the prison scene in Measure for Measure). 

 

The other wonderful piece, that evolved over the first few productions, was the tutors. Increasingly each year there were students who couldn’t quite let the play go (remember, this was before anyone had imagined IS as anything other than simply a first-year honors program.) I started using these students in their second year as tutors for the new students. They were merciless at the talent shows, but otherwise generous with their time, energy, talent, and praise. Some of these students after starring in their own productions ended up tutoring for another three years. And a few become wonderful friends of mine.

In my thirty-year career at UC Davis, the single saddest moment remains the day that Integrated Studies let me go. There was a push during that time to get more professors into the program and to get the lecturers out. Very sad indeed. My memories of Playing Shakespeare are among the best I have from my teaching career. It was astonishing how bad those students could be in rehearsals during week nine and how wonderful they were on opening night. Magic. That’s what the theater is all about.
 

 

 

Check out the full collection of the Integrated Studies Playing Shakespeare videos:

Postscript from UHP Director Dave Furlow: While the current UHP places an emphasis on ladder rank faculty as instructors and mentors, we welcome exceptional teaching talent across the board, including our excellent UC Davis lecturers. In fact, last year Dr. William Tavernetti, Lecturer in Mathematics, won the UHP teaching award given annually to the most outstanding instructor in the program (read more). Dr. Tavernetti continues the legacy of excellent and original instruction in IS, ISHP, DHC and UHP, including the wonderful example provided here by Dr. Schroeder.  We thank Dr. Schroeder for his dedication to the Integrated Studies program, delivering the magic of Playing Shakespeare among his many valued contributions.

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