National Writing Project

The Path Toward Opening Night: One Road to Literacy

By: Ben Bates
Date: October 20, 2009

Summary: Ben Bates, co-director of the Oklahoma State Writing Project, explores the premise that directed script reading and play production provide roads to literacy for his students.

 

About twenty-five years ago, when I was trying my luck at acting and mostly collecting unemployment, I taught part-time in an enrichment program for tenth-graders sponsored by the University of Chicago. Inexperienced as a teacher, I knew enough to have my students read aloud. But I noticed that when they encountered an unfamiliar word, they would skip it and move on to the next. As an actor, I reflected that if these students had been working with a play script, preparing for opening night, they would not be able to dodge the text.

Since 1996, I have been pursuing this connection between dramatic production and reading comprehension at Langston University, a historically black institution founded in 1897 when educational opportunities for the children and grandchildren of slaves or ex-slaves were restricted by law. This was a time when Oklahoma's other universities denied admission to African American students—"separate but equal" was the rule. Today, although this era of legalized segregation is behind us, Langston continues to enroll students other schools will not admit, those deemed "not college material."

Though I first came to Langston as chair of the English department and as an instructor in basic English, I soon realized that the goal that motivated my work—helping these underserved students toward improved literacy—could be better realized if I were to join the theater arts department. Jeffrey Wilhelm captures my thinking when he writes of the need to "encourage and foster the creative attitudes and activities of engaged readers . . . instead of teaching sets of skills or teaching texts" (1997, 11).

Theater production, with its emphasis on working toward the shared goal of opening night, is one way I work with my students, many of whom have overcome daunting personal and social obstacles to pursue higher education. The communal effort of producing a play is an activity that recognizes these students' strengths, builds on talents not measured on standardized tests, and provides a meaningful context for language skill development.

Through dramatic renditions, students demonstrate their ability to consume and produce language—to articulate through acting their understanding of the written and spoken word. The theatre process transforms missteps and errors into the normal business of rehearsal. We shift from remedial concerns to the expectation that we have a show to do. Instead of correcting deficiencies we do plays. Now, rather than simply building toward a paper or test, my classes build to opening night.

Performance Is the Final Exam

If all this sounds a bit rosy, I do not want to underplay the disruptive, unpredictable, dramatic events that many of my students face in their lives, factors that make the road to a successful opening night a bumpy challenge. In fact, given the personal exigencies I know my students come up against, I've found it prudent to double-cast every role in every play: Double-casting opens the theatre experience to more students—and gives me a fighting chance to have a full cast on opening night.

The lead actor in a recent production, married with three small children, enrolls every other semester. He works during the interims to reduce his student loan burden. We are fortunate to have him with us for a production as he is disciplined and dedicated, but I know that the next semester he will be gone.

When students approach texts as actors, they grapple moment to moment, word for word.

Others, deemed "not college material" on their entrance to Langston, learn discipline and dedication "on the job." Not untypical is a young man who dropped out of high school in the ninth grade. He was admitted to Langston after completing his GED. Although he has skills as an actor, his attitude remains a challenge, even after his appearance in many productions. He feels no need to rehearse regularly, attending about one in four practices. When he does come, he bogs things down, stumbling through his blocking, missing his cues, and deflecting attention from his lack of preparation with adlib attempts at humor.

Maddening for me as this behavior is, it is also unsettling to his fellow actors. But unlike a traditional class where a student's disruptive behavior and lack of preparation are matters between the student and the teacher, when students are vested in achieving a successful opening night, this young man's behavior becomes a group concern, and the group has a pretty good chance of altering it for the better.

After all, in the theatre context, performance is the final exam, with greater stakes than any grade or score. When students miss rehearsal, when they fail to learn lines, when they withdraw from the cast, the consequences of these actions are clear and concrete not only to themselves but to everyone involved in the production. It's the team push that motivates the cast to press on, overcoming the adversity that befalls some and challenging the immature actions of others.

Students Explore Textual Puzzles Through Close Readings

The road to every performance, of course, begins with reading and rereading. And while, for my students, a careful reading of any play script can be challenging and productive, the works of William Shakespeare are in a class by themselves. They are guaranteed to put students in a problem-solving mode.

We read complete scripts. This can be an unpredictable, time-consuming process, complete with laughter, conflicts, surprises, stumbles, questions, misapprehensions, and moments of genuine insight. When we read Macbeth, we spent two 75-minute classes a week for about six weeks moving from the witches to the final bloodletting. I encourage students to stop the process anytime they have a question or comment. We discuss any word, phrase, passage, character, or textual feature that gives us pause.

Students are encouraged to focus on the imagery and figures of speech that distinguish Shakespeare's work. By a careful reading of these plays, students develop a sense of inference and an ability to see details beyond the lines of text. They work to decode unfamiliar words, struggle with pronunciation, puzzle over the implications of the text, and invest the words with personality to answer the question, How do I say this line? As an instructor, I get an immediate sense of a student's vocabulary and comprehension strategies.

Initially, I thought the readings moved too slowly, especially with challenging texts like Shakespeare, but I've come to enjoy our communal readings and appreciate the learning environment they provide. The class shares a textual puzzle, which calls for attention to brief passages and small details. Consider this exchange between Othello and Desdemona:

Othello: That handkerchief which I so lov'd and gave thee.
Thou gav'st to Cassio.

Desdemona: No, by my life and soul!
Send for the man, and ask him.

Othello: Sweet soul, take heed, take heed of perjury; thou
art on thy death-bed.

Desdemona: Ay, but not yet to die.

Othello: Yes, presently:
Therefore confess thee freely of thy sin;
For to deny each article with oath
Cannot remove nor choke the strong conception that I do
groan withal. Thou art to die.

Desdemona: O, Heaven, have mercy on me!

This exchange presents a range of opportunities for discussion, journaling, and critical thinking. Nothing on the page says "jealousy" or "betrayal" or "rage," but these abstractions become concrete when we take time to talk and write. I start by asking the class a basic actor's question: What does Othello want at this moment? Then: Is there anything Desdemona could say that would save her life? What is there in Othello's nature that makes him participate in his own deception? What does the handkerchief mean to him? What about Desdemona's intentions? Why does she not try to escape and save herself? What is "perjury"? Paraphrase Othello's speech that begins "Confess thee freely of thy sins . . ."

Now, rather than simply building toward a paper or test, my classes build to opening night.

When students approach texts as actors, they grapple moment to moment, word for word, and evaluate their comprehension based on how the lines sound. I use their understanding of conversation when I ask, "How would you deliver these lines?" I want them to understand the words in that moment, as well as the actions that led to it. These questions not only get at the meaning of the text, but also tap into students' disruptive and dramatic lives. The underlying, often unstated questions become: What do you want? What choices did you make that brought you to this moment? How do your decisions affect your script? During this phase, writing enables students to shift the focus from the script to their own feelings of jealousy, their moments of deception or rejection or rage.

We broaden the reading with research articles, such as Amanda Mabillard's "An Analysis of Shakespeare's Sources for Macbeth" (2000), which explores Macbeth's motivation for the murders. Through short quizzes after such readings, students are encouraged to focus on the imagery and figures of speech that distinguish Shakespeare's originals from translations. This often leads to a culminating essay, which is almost as good for demonstrating a careful, informed reading as performance.

However, the more time I spend in class, the more convinced I am that the best proof of comprehension, superior to any essay or test, is public performance. Most student essays make their way from the author's hand to the instructor's desk to the circular file. Performance, even on a small scale, makes the learning experience more powerful. I'm also more invested (as the director, in most cases) in the outcome on opening night than I could ever be in any individual student's essay.

The Final Act

In the theatre process, from reading to rehearsal to performance, the stage offers an environment where students practice and develop their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. During rehearsals and after our shows, when our collaboration is complete, students feel a rich sense of accomplishment.

Opening night becomes an experience shared by classmates, friends, relatives, other faculty and staff, the entire campus community. It lives in memory long after we close. Students report being recognized, receiving compliments from strangers, signing autographs. They enjoy the notoriety and rarely attribute it to their developing literacy.

At Langston University, performance provides an opportunity, even for students not considered "college material," to contribute to college life and to access their self-selected routes to literacy.

Works Cited

Mabillard, Amanda. 2000. "An Analysis of Shakespeare's Sources for Macbeth." Shakespeare Online. Accessed 5 October, 2009. www.shakespeare-online.com/sources/macbethsources.html.

Shakespeare, William. "Othello, the Moor of Venice." 10 February 2009 www.online-literature.com/shakespeare/othello/16/ .

Wilhelm, Jeffrey D. 1997 "You Gotta BE the Book": Teaching Engaged and Reflective Reading with Adolescents. New York: Teachers College Press.

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