Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bootleg Pericles: or, how the Blogger got a crazy idea that might get him fired

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

If you've never read Pericles, you are fine. I am not sure I would have enjoyed it as much, or would have wanted to read it as much, if I hadn't seen the production that Taffety Punk put on Monday night, July 14th, at the Folger Theatre. For those unfamiliar with Taffety Punk, some words of introduction are warranted.

Taffety Punk Theatre Company, found here, operates with the not-so-simple mission of making theatre more accessible and affordable. They do this in a variety of ways; the way I and others here at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute experienced that mission was through Bootleg Shakespeare. The company memorized their lines ahead of time, but did not rehearse until the day of the performance. This means they had 6 hours to build a performance of the entirety of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. It was incredible.

Back on the Friday prior to the performance, we sat around the Foulke Conference Room, receiving a direct challenge to us as both teachers and people from Dr. Ayanna Thompson, now of the George Washington University. I left this discussion out in previous entries because it deserves its own post; however, given the nature of what I experienced at the Pericles performance, now seemed to be a good time to bring it up. But first, a digression.

If you go to scorebig.com, you will see a claim that the site peddles sporting event tickets at a 60% discount. Let's all take a moment to blink at what used to be scalping and head to the heart of it. Even at a 60% discount, tickets for an Eagles home game cost approximately $40 to sit where the game would look like Tecmo Bowl. For those of you with math skills, the original price was $99 plus tax. I'm afraid the NFL is unaware of the gross percentage of the population un- or underemployed. Those people scraping by to feed themselves and their families do not have the ability to spend even $40 on a ticket to root for the home team. During the Great Depression, despite a decrease in attendance of 40%, baseball tickets only cost $.50 or $8.17 in 2014 money. In times of strife and uncertainty what is more uplifting than gathering with the community at the stadium and rooting for your team to crush the other team? Sports have long been a vicarious form of warfare and many still attend games to relieve the stresses of everyday life. Taking the metaphor back a few hundred years and we see groundlings gazing at an open expanse of wood, walking through the theater door wanting to believe in something.

I hold that this desire to believe is true today. In our discussion with Dr. Thompson, who specializes in, for lack of a more definitive term, equity and access in relation to Shakespeare. She observed, and rightly if my experience is anything to add to the data, that many audiences for Shakespeare are getting older, staying whiter, keeping the majority of society at arms length behind a manufactured sense of power. Shakespeare's groundlings were not MENSA members. So why is it that we have constructed a fantasy about who Shakespeare's work belongs to today? Why do those with less education feel disenfranchised from the world of Shakespeare's stories? As the talk sped on, fever-pitched past the resistance of subconscious biases, one thing became clear: sometimes the ways we teach Shakespeare set up these social constructs of how can and should access his works.

So, I tried to do some back of the envelope research as I sat in my seat waiting for Pericles to begin. I gave up about five minutes in; the crowd was miraculously antithetical to the discussion we'd had days before. I, of course, have a theory why.

Taffety Punk, in its desire to share the works of Shakespeare with the community for free, cracked the power seal placed over the Bard's works by privilege and class. No expense tickets. No reserved seats. Only free tickets on a first-come, first-served basis. And the energy of the theatre company that would offer Shakespeare to the general public for free ruled the day. The house was packed with a crowd, while admittedly still overwhelmingly white, was younger and more multicultural than any other I'd seen for  Shakespeare performance. And the infectious nature of the show, a nature that had the audience laughing hysterically and cheering for a little boy with theater in his veins, drew every last person into the world of the play. For three hours, we were with Pericles through it all.

So, that brings me to "my great idea." Wherever I end up, I am going to give this a try; however, feel free to do the same wherever you are. I only ask that you write in and let me know how it went.

Every school has lunch shifts. My idea is, during our Shakespeare unit, to have students work up one scene for performance. Once we have rehearsed and prepared to the best of our ability, we are going to run down to the cafeteria, unannounced, and perform the scene. Right in front of the gathered school. When we are finished, we will disappear whence we came. I have more specifics in my head, but until I see what facilities I end up with, it is still only the kernel of an idea. Let me know what other embellishments you might throw in.

Every student deserves Shakespeare. He teaches us so much about being human, it seems to me that being human is the only prerequisite for access to his masterful lines.

4 comments:

Mike LoMonico said...

I love the idea of Guerrilla Shakespeare. It truly democratizes Shakespeare in a very dramatic (sorry) way.

Teachers can start small by just doing the edited Balcony Scene in the cafeteria. Contact me if anyone needs a copy of the Folger edited version.

TomC said...

This is an excellent idea! The Shakespeare Studies teacher at my school, Colin O'Grady, sponsors an after-school troupe of students, who call themselves The Witty Fools, and "Surprise Shakespeare!" Is one of the many activities they engage in, which is a lot like what your describe.

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