- Performing to Learn: Rethinking Theater Techniques to Interpret, Explore, and Write about Shakespeare’s Plays
. . . I have heard That guilty creatures sitting at a play Have, by the very cunning of the scene, Been struck so to the soul that presently They have proclaimed their malefactions; For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak With most miraculous organ.—Hamlet, in Hamlet (2.2.618–23)
Performance is interpretation. For students to depict characters effectively in a scene, work collaboratively to determine staging in a live drama, and deliver lines with attention to context and language, they need to be able to generate an in-depth analysis of narrative elements, such as plot, structure, storyline, and theme. Yet, in comparison with traditional exams and written papers, performance is often regarded as less rigorous. Acting out a dramatic text is frequently considered within the scope of theater courses or reserved until after assessing students’ knowledge through more conventional methods—close reading, exams, and essays—that tend to privilege print over other mediums of communication, including the body and speech. However, using performance-based methods to teach dramatic texts offers students ways of exploring meaning through creative and intellectual processes that are more embodied than reading and writing alone. By focusing on the processes of discovery and interpretation rather than the product of a well-rehearsed theatrical performance, these methods support the work of helping students study language closely and rhetorically, and require the kinds of interpretive thinking students need to read and write critically about a text.
This article describes three structured classroom exercises: an introductory, non-verbal group exercise known as “silent switch”; the creation of Tableaux Vivants; and a collaborative scene performance. These exercises, which adapt principles and techniques from Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre and Dorothy Heathcote and Cecily O’Neill’s process drama, share a common objective: they ask students to perform Shakespeare during and for the purposes of discussing, interpreting, and analyzing his plays. Acting out a scene, or creating a visual representation of a key moment in a dramatic text, is a form of “close reading on one’s feet” and enhances, according [End Page 183] to Michael LoMonico, longtime Shakespeare scholar-teacher, students’ capacities to invent, think, and discover by tapping into less familiar, although highly complex, modes of expression (116). When students use their bodies and voices to convey meaning, they not only demonstrate their ability to interpret but also connect with Shakespeare’s work in ways that are memorable and authentic to their learning. As Hamlet reminds us, we are “struck so to the soul,” not by a quiz, test, or essay but “by the very cunning of the scene,” the power of a performance to lift the words from the page and affect us.
Why Performance as Process?
Performance-based methods of teaching foreground students’ learning experiences with and through text and involve critique and analysis as students enact scenes and lines of dialogue by making deliberate choices in body movement and speech. LoMonico contends that “the amount of analysis that goes into presenting a scene cannot be duplicated with lectures or study questions. Simply reading the play does not produce the same results” (24). Having students read from their seats or while standing in front of a class does not “produce the same results” either. While reading and writing engage a specific set of intellectual capacities important to literacy learning, these methods do not necessarily tap into more embodied ways of communicating, which scholars and educators have identified as valuable for generating and expressing knowledge. Howard Gardner’s work in multiple intelligences, for instance, has helped elevate the role of the body in providing students with alternate, non-verbal practices for constructing and investigating meaning, which are often de-emphasized when relying on print-based approaches alone (17). Having students watch a live theatrical performance or a film rendition of one of Shakespeare’s plays does not allow students to engage with the text from an embodied stance either. Though students may grasp how performance transforms a text by viewing it, they are not involved actively in the creative decision-making process. In other words, students observe...