September 14, 2010
One evening last month I had a terrific time creating conversation on language, speaking and thinking with five young performers—members of an all-youth cast that recently performed Macbeth on one of the stages at the All Stars Project in NYC. I was blown away by the show. It was unlike what I envision as the typical wooden and stilted high school production, and equally unlike the youth versions of Shakespeare that make his plays contemporary and “relevant” (of which a very successful example is the American film Hamlet 2000 with Ethan Hawke). The young people I saw made the play—especially and importantly, the language—their own. They didn’t seem to be speaking memorized lines, but rather to be saying things they actually wanted to say. They talked the talk.
Since I’m fascinated by language and language-learning and have spent much of my adult life studying them, I wanted to talk with the young people about their experience learning this new language and performance of speaking. I came in with a few ideas but no expectations about where we might take the conversation. Here’s some highlights that I’m still pondering.
I began by sharing with them pretty much what I just wrote above. I asked if any of them remembered learning to speak when they were babies. No one did (me either), although they had family stories of their “first word.” We all thought it was interesting that none of us remembered…
I asked them what it was like to learn this new language (Shakespeare’s) and how they did it.
“I looked at first, how do I say this, then what it means, then different performances of it.”
“You have to get the language in your mouth. We didn’t get bogged down in meaning.”
“We drilled section by section. It was athletic.”
“It was easier for me to memorize than contemporary work. Maybe the rhythm…”
“The language sounds so nice but some of it is saying some really mean stuff.”
Fascinating! So much like our earliest language activities as babies—sounds, repetition, rhythm, and meaning comes later…speaking without knowing how to speak! Perform as a Shakespearian speaker and you become one! How Vygotskian!
They spoke about how language opportunities were very different at school and at the youth theatre. Most of them said there wasn’t much opportunity for them to speak in school, and when they did it was just rote, that in class you can’t put yourself in what you say. And for some, “If I say it out loud, I get it” but it’s a rare class where that happens. They went on to share stories of different classes and teachers and which ones they learned from. One of them said that teachers in teachers colleges should all have to study acting and improvisation. They all agreed.
I’ve had the fantasy off and on for years that teacher training should be done by the young people teachers are supposed to teach. My lovely conversation with these teen actors fueled my fantasy.