A timely play, a week at UMSL and critical thinking in iambic pentameter
Who knew a few lines of Shakespeare could leave one so moved – or so out of breath?
That was the rhetorical question on many minds at the University of Missouri–St. Louis last week after time spent with the visiting Actors From The London Stage. Even for seasoned performing arts students, the presence of the professional troupe brought eye-opening and physically demanding lessons.
During one workshop with British actress Hannah Barrie, four UMSL students in Matthew Kerns’ Shakespeare and Verse Acting course clung to a classmate’s arms and legs as he attempted to walk forward, all while performing an emotional speech from “Richard III.”
Barrie then instructed another to perform the same monologue in the style of a Pentecostal preacher – and still another to bring Shakespeare’s text to life while the rest of the class pretended to be a very poorly behaved group of preschoolers.
By the time class ended, students were tired as well as amazed and impressed.
“All the seemingly silly things we were doing – there was a purpose underneath,” said music major Jayde Mitchell. “She was phenomenal.”
But it wasn’t only those in the School of Fine and Performing Arts who benefitted from the five actors’ instruction during their Oct. 24-29 stay at UMSL. The performers also worked with students across disciplines, spending time with Pierre Laclede Honors College freshmen, language majors, graduate students, literature majors and more.
“What I most enjoyed about the AFTLS class visit was the fact that it empowered my students,” said Associate Professor of English Kurt Schreyer, who spearheaded the group’s weeklong residency. “Shakespeare can be very intimidating for undergraduates on a number of levels, not the least because of the demands of the poetic verse.
“Paul O’Mahony provided them with various techniques to ‘drive the line,’ that is to drive the meaning of the character’s speech. We noted, for instance, where Shakespeare will often provide key words in a speech and how to both emphasize and draw upon them in order to reach a deeper and more subtle understanding of the character and of the scene.”
The play isn’t the only thing though, Schreyer added. AFTLS’s efforts in his and other UMSL classes last week will benefit students far beyond their study and enjoyment of the Bard.
“This will help them in whatever discipline they choose to pursue after graduation,” he said. “They will be better public speakers, more confident people of business and commerce, more critical readers – and more thoughtful and engaged citizens in our American democracy.”
For students, it was a treat as well as a challenge. Kerns’ class had prepared individual and group monologues specifically for the session with Barrie – including a famous speech of the Three Witches in “Macbeth.”
Several women in the class performed it for Barrie and their peers with much physical movement – evocative of brewing and conniving – as well as cackling. Barrie praised their execution and then suggested they try out another approach entirely.
“Take the emotion out of your faces and your voices, and see what that does,” she instructed them. “I’m thinking broken dolls.”
Theater major Jessica Debo said afterward that working with Barrie built nicely on the foundation they are already establishing in Kerns’ class this semester – including finding new ways to make Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter as accessible and immediate as possible.
“Matt always encourages us to go and look up the words and know what we’re talking about,” she added.
Along with visiting many UMSL classes over the course of the week, the Actors From The London Stage gave several performances of the timely masterpiece “Richard III” at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center, putting on an impressive show – which would typically require at least a couple dozen actors – with only a cast of five.
“Not only did they bring out the many subtleties of Shakespeare’s play, but their production successfully evoked a wide range of emotional responses, from shock and horror to sadness and pathos, and from thrilling anticipation to unforeseen outbursts of laughter,” Schreyer said. “It was an incredible show. And I must add that the Touhill’s Lee Theater was an ideal space. It provided an intimate setting for this powerful theatrical experience and showcased the incredible talent of this gifted group of artists.”
On top of that, they also interacted with and performed for scores of St. Louis-area high school students – something Schreyer found particularly gratifying as part of the residency, which was funded through a College of Arts and Sciences visiting scholar grant.
“I would love to host the Actors From The London Stage at UMSL again in the future,” he said. “I have certainly been reinvigorated as a Shakespeare scholar, and I want to continue to bring the level of energy that they had to the classroom. At the same time, I learned from them how important it is to step back and allow students to come up with answers on their own – that I can only facilitate, and not force, their encounter with Shakespeare.”
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