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New Victory Blog

The New Victory Blog is a place to learn more about New York's theater for families and the shows we produce. Find out what we do and what we're passionate about—exploring the arts as a family.
 
A look at A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Bottom from Isango Ensemble's adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream (New Vic 2015). Photo credit Ruphin Coudyzer.

This article was originally seen as a 2013 New Vic blogpost.

Over my ten years of teaching Shakespeare at New York University's Steinhardt School, I have made it a practice to ensure that young people join my graduate students for our exploration of Shakespeare's plays. 

Occasionally, I've had students ask why young people should study and perform Shakespeare's plays given that they were written four hundred years ago and come from a very specific Western tradition. I find that the perceived resistance of young people to Shakespeare often comes from their teachers' own fear of and discomfort with Shakespeare's plays. The "inaccessible" language; the complex and sprawling storylines; and the density of the scripts make for a daunting task in any unit of classroom study. I overcome these hurdles by engaging young people in a problem solving, mystery-cracking approach to the scripts, rather than a bookish quest to understand the meaning and interpretation of every word or phrase on the page. Tackling a Shakespeare play in an active way builds confidence, and that confidence translates to other academic and artistic tasks. 


To assist my students with their understanding of Shakespeare's work, regardless of age or experience, I ask them to consider five basic ideas about the cultural context of Shakespeare's plays and their dramaturgy. Those five ideas are as follows:

1. Shakespeare wrote his plays for a wide, popular audience.

Shakespeare's plays appealed to people from all walks of life and across class divides: kings, queens, nobles, workers and the poor. His plays were considered popular entertainment in his day, much like the blockbuster movies and television shows of today. If Shakespeare were writing now, I'd venture to say that he'd write for film and prime time television. He understood how to reach audiences of all ages and experiences, and when young people understand that, they gain confidence that their interpretation of a play could actually be valid and "correct." If we empower young people to find their own relationships to a play, suddenly that play becomes legible and relatable.

2. Reading, watching, and playing Shakespeare can be like working in a second language.

Even though Shakespeare wrote his plays in English, his style of writing is heightened and his vocabulary is vast. As English speakers in the 21st century, our relationship to language is very different from Shakespeare's and his audience's. When we work with Shakespeare, there may be words or whole sentences that are unclear. When watching Shakespeare in performance, encourage young people to look for other ways to understand what is happening: stage pictures, the tone of an actor's voice, lighting, etc. These elements can provide clues that clarify the difficult parts of Shakespeare's language. When reading a play in class, remind students that the English language has three end punctuation marks: periods, question marks and exclamation points. The arrangement of the verse and prose on the page can look confusing, but when I locate the end punctuation marks, I'm suddenly reminded that this is a language I understand—it's just arranged on the page a bit differently. Ask students to mark the sentences with brackets when they encounter a particularly difficult passage; isolating sentences leads to identifying a character's thoughts and ideas. 
 

A look at Measure for Measure.
A scene from Fiasco Theater's production of Measure for Measure (New Vic 2014). Photo credit Joan Marcus.
3. Shakespeare provides all the information we need in the writing on the page.

If we spend ample time reading one of Shakespeare's plays, we learn that all the clues we need to understand the play are there on the page in front of us. He gives us the setting of the action in the lines of the play, and has his characters tell us how they feel and why they behave a certain way. For example, we do not have to guess about Hamlet's state of mind when he discovers the truth about the death of this father, because he tells us that he will "put an antic disposition on." I like to work with young people on Shakespeare in performance because their often limited life experience does not detract from playing these characters. Since acting the play is not an exercise in emotion memory or sense memory (Shakespeare came before Stanislavski and his system of acting), young people can perform these plays effectively, simply by becoming adept storytellers. Of course, close connections to the experiences of the characters are certainly helpful, but by focusing on what the character says, an actor can discover what needs to be said and how it needs to be said in order for the story to unfold.

 

A look at Henry V.
The title character from The Acting Company and the Guthrie Theater's production of Henry V (New Vic 2009). Photo credit Michel Daniel.
4. Shakespeare wrote his plays for a simple stage.

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre did not have the capabilities of modern theaters. Theaters did not have helicopters flying in or sets that rotated by themselves. Therefore, Shakespeare had his characters tell the audience where they were, either in conversation with one another or in a speech directed to the audience. Oftentimes, the audience in Shakespeare's time had to imagine the setting of a play more than we do today. Given this expectation of simplicity, Shakespeare's plays can be staged in theatres, gymnasiums or classrooms. We don't need fancy lighting or scenic elements or even extravagant costumes—we just need an actor or audience that's willing to imagine what Shakespeare's characters describe.  If we encourage actors of all ages to see what they say as they say it, then young audiences will see the world of the play before them, as well.

5. Shakespeare's characters are often superhuman or extraordinary, so they feel and act that way.

Shakespeare wrote his plays before the existence of modern psychology. While it helps to think about why a character behaves a certain way, Shakespeare did not always concern himself with logical reasoning. In other words, our modern notions of what is realistic are very different from Shakespeare's. The characters in his plays may make choices that seem very foreign to us, but those choices make sense within the worlds of Shakespeare's plays. Given our diverse and ever-expanding society, this understanding of cultural context as it relates to Shakespeare can also help young people to recognize that their own points of reference are not the only way to experience the world. People behave differently in different contexts, and having an increased awareness of that helps us to teach young people about tolerance and understanding within our growing, globalized society.

So why Shakespeare? Because the complexity of his work has survived the last four hundred years and still offers us opportunities to ask big questions about ourselves and the world around us. Like all of us, young people want to make meaning of the world around them, and when a complex, parallel world opens up for them, our own cacaphonous, fast-moving world might just become a little bit easier to navigate.





Joe Salvatore is a playwright and director based in New York City. He has created and directed plays and performances in venues of all shapes and sizes, from traditional spaces like the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village and the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, to site-specific locations like 14th Street in Manhattan and a Revolutionary War battlefield in southern New Jersey. Read more about Joe here






 

Posted by Beth Henderson

Written by Aliza Greenberg, Arts Enrichment Coordinator for LearningSpring School

"Are we going to The New Victory Theater?"

 

The staff of Autism-Friendly Spaces poses with the cast of THE GRUFFALO
Aliza, bottom row and left of center, gives good Gruffalo face with her fellow AFS volunteers at an Autism-Friendly Performance of The Gruffalo.
After attending Handa's Surprise at The New Victory Theater, I get asked this question by my youngest students almost every day. Handa’s Surprise wasn't designed specifically for kids on the autism spectrum, nor was the production adapted to be autism-friendly; but the format of the show and the welcoming environment that The New Victory provides allowed my students on the autism spectrum to have a fun, positive, memorable day at the theater.
 
LearningSpring School, where I am the Arts Enrichment Coordinator, is a school for students on the autism spectrum. From my past experiences with The New Victory as a volunteer with Autism-Friendly Spaces, I knew the New Vic to be committed to providing a supportive and inclusive theatergoing environment for young people with autism. 

The New Victory partners with Autism-Friendly Spaces to train their staff and help plan and coordinate their autism-friendly performances. While volunteering, I've seen a staff passionate about making their theater an inclusive space, and I've had the chance to collaborate with the fantastic New Victory Usher Corps. Everyone I've worked with at the theater has been eager to learn more about autism and provide the most comfortable theatergoing environment possible for this population, so I knew that even if the performance wasn’t specifically autism-friendly, it would still be a welcoming environment for my students. 

 

A stop-motion animation of a star falling from the sky, and a man and a cat climbing the mountains to retrieve it.
Student animation made in preparation for The Star Keeper.

A drawing of purple avocados annotated with 'My favorite part was the avocados'
Fruit-filled post-show reflection from Handa's Surprise.

A drawing of a smiling figure on a bed over water annotated with 'Imagination bed of magic!'
The best bed ever, from a post-show reflection following The Star Keeper.
Through the Education Partnership Program, my students and I have had the pleasure of attending three productions this year, and we have a fourth coming up in May. Not every show is the right fit for every student, so the New Victory Education staff worked with me to identify the shows that would best engage students on the autism spectrum at different ages. We chose shows that had multi-sensory engagement (words, music, strong visuals) but were not overly stimulating to the senses. The Education staff also seated our group close to the exits in case any of my students needed a break.

For each show we see, we begin preparing a month—sometimes two months—in advance. One of the ways we prepare is by learning as much as possible about the productions beforehand, and by engaging students in the art forms they will experience. For Handa's Surprise, we explored the book, re-enacted the story with fruit made from clay and learned some of the show’s music—the fruit lullaby has even become a classroom calming ritual! 

The New Victory Teaching Artists who visited our school also provided interesting ways to engage with the shows’ art forms. All the Teaching Artists have been eager to work with us and learn more about how to best support students on the autism spectrum. We have been able learn side by side as educators and artists in this process. 

Of course, necessary preparations extend well beyond engagement with story and art forms. Individuals with autism often do not know the social conventions associated with going to the theater, and the theatergoing experience can present many challenges. It's dark and quiet, and sounds and visual effects that excite the senses often occur without warning. There’s also little opportunity to move around.

To help prepare my students, I create social stories explaining the events and social expectations of the day. I also create theater strategy cards for them to be able to easily identify their needs using pictures during the show. For The Gruffalo, inspired by to the New Victory School Tool®, we all made Bravery Backpacks and filled them with calming strategies that students could use during the performance: putting on noise-canceling headphones, handling a fidget, asking for help from a teacher, getting a drink of water or taking a break.
 
Strategy card with a grid of simple images labeled 'I will remember to use whole body listening: eyes watch, ears listen, quiet mouth, body calm'
Strategy card with a grid of simple images labeled 'In the theater, I can point to a strategy to tell my teacher what I need: break, headphones, fidget, water, bathroom'
Example in-theater strategy cards, along with our Bravery Backpack worksheet.

My students love the theater, and they deserve to experience the joy of theatergoing as much as any kid. I look forward to more theaters presenting productions that support and engage individuals with autism. And just as The New Victory has welcomed our students to the theater, even when the performance was not specifically autism-friendly, I hope more theaters will begin opening their doors to individuals with autism. But to my kids' question, "Are we going to The New Victory Theater?", my answer will always be, "Soon!"

 


 
Aliza Greenberg Aliza Greenberg is the Arts Enrichment Coordinator at LearningSpring School. No stranger to the autism community, Aliza served as the Autism and Education Specialist with Trusty Sidekick Theater Company during their development of Up and Away. She also volunteers with Autism-Friendly Spaces and the Theater Development Fund's Autism Theater Initiative and is a Project Leader for the Museum Access Consortium's Supporting Transitions project. Aliza's brother is on the autism spectrum and, thanks to increasing initiatives to make theater autism-friendly, she brought him to his first performance last year!
Posted by Zack Ramadan
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