May-June 2010 Selected Content
The Fairies' Midwife: Learning Shakespeare with a Homespun Mother - Denise A Evarts
Laurel in her role as Beatrice,
When we hear those first cries of our babies after birth, we become mothers and fathers in a moment. Yet the process of parenting is an ever evolving one, and we never know where the process and journey will take us. We nurture our children and they nurture our souls. We teach them a multitude of skills and outlooks on life, and they teach us new priorities about our lives. That was the surprisingly delightful part for me: as I re-prioritized my life, I was learning a great deal from my children--not just how to attachment parent, breastfeed, and nurture whole children--but about enjoying the act of learning. What a revelation to me that learning can be joyful!
from Much Ado About Nothing
Homeschooling was the natural next step in our family journey. I birthed at home, tended the home. I was all about the home. My interpretation of homeschooling, however, was a little different than sitting down at a table. When my children showed an interest in something, I followed. We dove in together, and I learned right along with them: child-led learning.
A child-led education encourages children to follow their passions and interests, instead of a curriculum which a "one-size-fits-all" system invented and decided was important. Everyone is made differently. Why do we impose on our children learning all the same things at the same chronological age? Some children aren't ready for multiplication at 8 years old and some aren't ready to read until they are 9 or 10.
Through our child-led learning approach, I was discovering that I had personally buried, during my school years, many of the real-me passions, like writing stories, creating cards, taking photographs, putting on plays with friends. Reading for pleasure was an epiphany, as was journal writing. Having those passions resurface in this mommy-evolving process was an unexpected gift to me.
My evolutionary mothering journey continued when my daughter discovered Shakespeare's plays. Shakespeare? His plays are so difficult to read and so boring, I thought. My schooling again had interfered in my learning and my concept of fabulous literature. My 7-year-old daughter knew what she was doing though. We found animated Shakespeare videos and picture books at the library. We started to seek out performances of Shakespeare's plays, and I started to understand, for the first time in my life, the attraction of literature.
The next step--my daughter wanted to experience acting first hand. I quickly discovered it was a challenge to find a theatre group that encouraged children to have a voice in the process of each week's rehearsal and the hands-on experience of helping to create a play, without the stress of perfection. So after wiping tears from my daughter's face, after coming home from a long and tedious rehearsal at a local children's theater group we had found, I took a deep breathe, and as child-led learning had taught me before, I jumped in, and started a homeschooling acting class, with a focus on Shakespeare. Within a few months, the class evolved into a little troupe of children who enjoy not just the acting part, but the beautiful language of the bard.
Surprisingly, as the troupe developed, Shakespearean language started to become a part of our family's daily vocabulary. We sang the fairies' song from A Midsummer Night's Dream as we walked along the streets of New York or on the subway headed uptown.
You spotted snakes, with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs be not seen;
Newts and blindworms do no wrong;
Come not near our fairy queen.
We named our second daughter, Miranda, after the wizard's daughter from The Tempest. At her placenta tree-planting ceremony, we recited Shakespeare's famous Miranda speech, "O brave new world that hath such people in't!" We chanted the witches' spell from Macbeth, "Double, double toil and trouble/Fire burn and cauldron bubble," while adding the ingredients into a bubbling-hot pot of raspberries, our first attempt at making jam after moving to the country. (Of course omitting "eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog".) And from Puck's A Midsummer Night's Dream line, (as he spies amateur actors rehearsing their play in the wood) we found our troupe's fitting name. "What hempen homespuns have we swaggering here?"
If we listen to our children, they teach us that life is more about the process and the journey and less about the product of perfection. Through my diary, I share with you a little window of my process with the troupe and how this homespun mother was, and still is, being made.
Diary of a Homespun Mother Facilitating a Shakespeare Troupe
October 12 Dress Rehearsal
"I think I should fall on the grass after Hamlet stabs me," Hope expressed her opinion to the group about her wicked character King Claudius.
"No, I think Claudius should fall over onto Queen Gertrude," Maddy interjected.
"How about Claudius stands up and lunges at Hamlet?" added Katie.
Melody, my 12-year-old assistant spoke up. "Or Claudius could stay seated on the throne, fall sideways, so his crown would fall off and roll over towards Hamlet. Hamlet would pick it up and put it on as he's dying, since he's supposed to be the true king of Denmark."
The ideas were flying at me at lightning speed.
"Hold on!" I raised my voice to be heard over the twenty or so Hempen Homespuns, our homeschooling Shakespeare troupe. As the facilitator, I directed my question to Hope.
"Claudius has the final say. He's Hope's character. Hope, what do you think?" She responded that she liked Melody's idea. We tried the new staging, everyone liked it, and we moved on. That was settled. I crossed my fingers that our performance would run smoothly tomorrow, despite the fact that rehearsals still felt slightly chaotic, and the two dads haven't rehearsed with the group much.
Second Performance of The Hempen Homespuns
Something happens when people get on stage. Miranda transformed into Titania, queen of the fairies. Trees became the love-sick donkey--not only with ears, but donning sunglasses. Zach's somber ghost of King Hamlet transported us to Elsinore Castle (and it didn't matter that I had to cue him most of his lines). The serious argument between Katie and Maddy as Hamlet and Gertrude kept us all holding our breaths. The dads came through and were great! (Of course, adding the humorous touch that only dads can, like moving when they're supposed to be dead.) Stephen decided in the end that he wanted to be in the show. He put on his sister's old, blue fairy costume and pranced about on stage whenever he felt like it. Four-year-olds can get away with that.
It's hard to believe that when I first started this Shakespeare class for the homeschooling community, many of the kids were shy and not overly interested in Shakespeare or acting. They simply desired to be together doing something fun. Many of them told me they wanted small roles or just wanted to be backstage, but with this, our second performance, they all asked for larger roles, and some practically fought over characters to portray, like Nick Bottom does in A Midsummer Night's Dream. I think the true spirit of Shakespeare has taken a hold of them.
Hope, on left, helping out with a
scene. Miranda, on right, as
Petruchio, and Mia, as Kate, in
rehearsal for The Taming of
After taking winter off, we started rehearsals for our third production of Shakespeare scenes. I think I've given everyone suitable roles for the scenes chosen, even though I ended up with a headache from figuring it out. Doing scenes instead of a whole play gives larger roles to more children, while not making them memorize hundreds of lines.
We began this season with a couple of ice-breaking acting games. One game was a 13-headed Petruchio from The Taming of the Shrew, an idea from Carl Martin's Shakespeare in a Box series. Each of the kids repeated their memorized line quickly one after another, bragging more than the next. They loved it! While the language is tricky and hard to hear outside in the back yard, the children grasp Elizabethan English very quickly. The more they speak their lines, the more they comprehend them. Next week I'll try a vocabulary guessing game to help them understand some of the unfamiliar words.
The oldest teens, Maddy and Katie, have decided, instead of Shakespeare, to perform a scene from The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde and will work on everything by themselves, or with Katie's mom's help, including making muffins each week (important props for their scene, they tell me.) This is key! They are motivated and passionate about the scene they chose, which is, I believe, at the heart of homeschooling and child-led learning. If I can help nurture that passion and encourage them to follow their ideas, they will be all the better for it as adults. My hope is as they grow up they will continue to do things they love to do.
While Miranda and Mia were waiting for rehearsal to begin I found them on the porch creating a Shakespeare Mad Lib of their favorite scene. I love the method they chose to process what they are learning. Writing, spelling, language arts, literature all rolled into one.
I'm not sure today that I have chosen wisely about my idea to do the Much Ado scene twice--done first by the girls and then again by the boys. I'm trying to demonstrate the point that in Shakespeare's time only men were allowed on stage and the younger men played the roles of the women. The girls will do the scene first, and then the boys will repeat it in their way. I explained to the kids that this is something historically to experience and not meant to poke fun at anyone. I don't know. The boys aren't into it.
These kids aren't afraid to interact with adults, and I can always count on them to tell me what's on their minds. Their creativity is never-ending. Debates about how a scene should be run, what props they should use, which way a character should enter the scene, who should sing first, can really take hold of a rehearsal. I take a breath, do my best to listen to what they all have to say, and then keep things moving along.
It was decided that 13- year-old Trees, who plays Nick Bottom again, and is turned into a donkey by the mischievous Puck, would feel more comfortable rapping his song versus singing the tune. I'm not crazy about rapping, but if I've learned nothing else from this class, it's that the kids' interpretations are surprisingly good.
More costumes were worn today. I tell the kids from the start that costumes and props are their responsibility. I have them dressing up early on in rehearsals to help them get a better idea of how to play their role and also to get through the last few rehearsals when scripts really need to be put down and lines memorized. My strengths are facilitating the group, choosing suitable scenes and assigning roles, definitely not costumes, props and scenery. This way, the children also get to wear a costume they created and like. Brendan will play his fiddle this show, and there will be singing throughout the performance. Mia and Miranda will start things off with their sweet voices.
There is always a point when the rehearsals take a turn and everything comes together, and we have magic. The magic happened today--with wigs. Someone brought wigs to the final dress rehearsal, and roars of laughter filled the wood as the wigs fell off the three boys doing the Much Ado all-female scene. The wigs rotated on their heads as they turned in action, or just plain fell off numerous times. They swung their floral dresses dramatically as they pushed up their humungous sagging bosoms. I smiled. That's how they came out on stage. (I wonder which child backstage thought of that effect?) If sagging bosoms weren't enough to convince us they were women, the boys decided that squeaking in high-pitched voices would be the final touch. Truthfully, the scene is more of a Three Stooges moment, and I wonder if anyone will understand the dialogue during the performance because the boys laugh a great deal. I think they're learning something. Hopefully, Shakespeare was sitting in a nearby tree watching and liked the rehearsal.
Seems like rain. Do I cancel the outdoor performance? The kids are ready. Why didn't I book an indoor alternative?
June 17 - Third Performance by The Hempen Homespuns
I tell the audience to take pictures. Use some bug spray. Move their lawn chairs to get a better view. Don't talk during the performance. Turn off cell phones, and of course, enjoy the show. There were lots of cameras clicking and no bugs, but what a day to lose my voice. I couldn't be heard above a whisper. I had to sit back and follow my own advice and just enjoy the show. My lost voice forced the kids to truly be in charge of themselves, their own entrances, and a more expansive thought, their own educations. By Jove, everything went smoothly!
The wood was the perfect spot on this warm spring evening. (Note: Need to work on better back stage covering than sheets.) The Oscar Wilde scene charmed us, tea set, muffins, and all. Colton's All the World's a Stage soliloquy, with the troupe parading onstage, was delightful and witty. The Much Ado scenes were great, and the boys' version was indeed a bit Three Stooges, but who cares? We did some Twelfth Night this time with lots of merrymaking, and children acting from up in a tree. The little ones did well with their short Midsummer fairy/Puck scene, and the fairies gently pushed Stephen on the tree swing. The kids became their characters, the audience was responsive, and the most I can ever hope for happened: child-led magic.
There's nothing like homeschooling. The kids and I are equals, and they've allowed me into their circle because I am willing learn with them. I know very little about Shakespeare, but it doesn't matter; we interpret and ask questions together. In my mothering journey I've learned that the old-age saying, "You never stop learning" happens to be true, and if I allow myself to be open to this gift, I'll forever be able to access the child-led learner within.