If you're like this theater fan, you are already looking forward to next spring's Stratford Festival offerings. And as if you needed another excuse to make the trek to Ontario, here’s one more – and it’s not even self-indulgent. The truth is, Stratford has a legacy of working with Michigan students and teachers to help them more fully engage with the works of William Shakespeare. Sure, our schools take trips to Stratford to see plays… and Stratford often reciprocates with talk-back sessions so students can learn even more. But Stratford also sends teams of their artists to Michigan. So you when go there, think of it as helping them come here. It all contributes to the common good.
In fact, Stratford Festival artists are once again visiting students as part of the eighth annual Michigan residency, and will be in the area until November 1. Their first week in Michigan focused on schools in the Detroit area, East Lansing, Grand Rapids and Port Huron, where artists conducted student workshops designed to explore a range of topics focused on the Shakespeare cannon. Saturday was dedicated to a teachers’ workshop in the Lansing area. And workshops were also held at All The World’s A Stage Acting Studio in Romeo. Then week two is being spent visiting Michigan State University, working with their theatre programs, as well as a program for select high school acting students, who were invited to participate in the Student Immersion Project at the Wharton Center.
We caught up with the Festival artists at the Detroit School of Arts (DSA), and it was hard to say who was more pumped up about the experience – the students, the teachers, or the Stratford actors. Everyone was amazingly effusive about the program, so much so, that we’re publishing this as a two-part story. This article focuses on the Stratford perspective, and we’ll follow up with impressions from the Detroit School of Arts students and teachers.
Led by Stratford Festival Resident Teaching Artist, director and actor Edward Daranyi, this year’s participating artists are: Graham Abbey; Skye Brandon; Michelle Giroux; Bruce Godfree; Carmen Grant; Alana Hawley; Brad Hodder; Jacob James; Ruby Joy; Tamara Kutcheran; Anthony Malarky; E.B. Smith; and Dorcas Sowumni.
Mr. Daranyi made it clear that his group is jazzed to be working with students and teachers, and chatted with us about how Stratford actors look forward to the fall program and actually seek him out to participate. "The ability for us to come into five or six different communities here in Michigan, to be able to not just gloss over work, but to sink deep into work with these students and their teachers is amazing."
Daranyi explained that it's fun to work with young people, but also artistically fulfilling for the professionals.“It’s always good for me as an artist, whether it’s the director in me or the actor in me, because you have to operate with exact clarity. And in order to do that, you have to examine your own process, to pass that information along.”
Daranyi emphasized the collaborative way the teaching artists perfect their efforts, meeting every evening to discuss what worked and what didn’t. “We learn from one another just as we did on stage, when we were young actors. We learned from our elders, because we were on stage working with them constantly, and we got to see them and the way their process worked, in order to develop our own process.”
Slipping into one of the DSA’s participating English classes, we watched as Festival actors Alana Hawley and E.B. Smith ran students through a variety of exercises designed to help them connect with Shakespeare’s language and word choices. With the students formed in a circle, Hawley had them hurl words at each other and invest them with intense meaning.
“Now, try to say ‘love’ full of hate,” she urged, enjoying the response. “Now say ‘hate’ full of hate. And ‘love’ full of love. Which is more satisfying?” And so, the students demonstrated to themselves how Shakespeare chose words for the precise quality they channel.
In another exercise, students were asked to think about the meaning of specific Shakespearean phrases. But instead of talking about it, they had to perform it. Hawley gave students the phrase “graves all gaping wide” (Midsummer Night’s Dream) and then had them physically arrange themselves, in groups, to show what it must look and feel like. Standing in the corner as an observer, it was impressive how quickly the students responded – silently internalizing the message – pouring themselves into living monuments suitable for any Halloween display.
E.B. Smith led an exercise to help students become more collaborative and more intuitively aware of their fellow actors. When they quickly showed improvement, Mr. Smith assured them that it’s only by working together, losing oneself in the ensemble, that their best work is possible. And when that intuition is mastered, he tells them, “you will soar.”
If this is what’s possible with English students, it made me long to attend the week-long immersion program for high school actors, which is conducted by Edward Daranyi while the other actors work with the MSU classes.
“We do all the work we’re doing in [this] class, but take it to the performance level. I provide them with a 50-minute cut version of a play and so what we do is work on the skills that the actor uses in order to portray a character… we just shift the focus, so that instead of looking at it from the English student point of view, now we’re looking at it from a performance standpoint. By Thursday we put it together, and Friday night we put it on for the public. We call it the Stratford Immersion Program.” You can catch this performance this Friday, November 1 at 7 p.m. at the Pasant Theatre at the Wharton Center for performing arts; tickets aren't required, and it's sure to be inspiring, so check it out.
Programs like these can give students a new appreciation for “required reading” material by exploring them with newly learned performing arts skills. More importantly, students are exposed to concepts that are frankly bigger than Shakespeare. Collaboration. Cooperation. Sensitivity. Listening. Understanding. Respect.Conveying meaning through spoken and unspoken words. Being part of the story. Bringing other people into the story. It's all part of the discovery process.
“The Michigan Residency is one of many educational and enrichment activities we offer to foster in young people a lifelong love and appreciation of theatre,” says Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino. “Our acting company and artisans create magical worlds on our stages every day. Thanks to the generosity of our Michigan members, we are delighted to bring some of that magic to the students and teachers in the Michigan area, as they work with our artists to explore the joy and inspiration that Shakespeare and classical theatre provide.”
(We’ll explore more from the student perspective in Part Two of this article – where you’ll hear from students and teachers of the Detroit School of Arts.)