Learning Drama, Writing Drama

img_20170227_124735In my second-level composition course, students have the option of doing extra credit, due the day we finish reading Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. The assignment is to write a script that answers the question: “Whatever happened to Christopher Sly?” The play-within-a-play begins with the drunkard Sly who is tricked into behaving like a lord. While the Induction gives us this contextual lens through which we read the play, we never find out what happens to Sly at the play’s conclusion. After four semesters of doing this, students have written all kinds of endings to Sly’s story that include sword fights, duels, multiple tricks and innuendos, expressions of homoerotic love, and humorous circular endings that bring us back to the beginning all over again. But this last time was the best class, pedagogically, that I’ve run.

You can do this assignment with any play (or story): ask students to write an alternate ending, and require that they write in the dramatic form complete with stage directions, character dialogue, asides, and even soliloquies. I give this task as an extra credit challenge and at least 4 or 5 students take it up because the rewards are: 10 points to 1st place, 7 points to 2nd, and 5 points to 3rd. Students submit scripts to me via email, I remove their names and post the scripts to DropBox, and then students vote on their top 2 picks for best script in a Google Form that I create.

I have a designated performance day (or days) where students are divided into acting troupes and perform the scripts. They then vote for favorite performance (7 points to 1st place, 5 points to 2nd, and 3 points to 3rd). This week we have 5 scripts, which is a lot for a small class of 13 students, so I divided it up: we had 3 performances today and we’ll do another 2 performances next class. When students are done performing we do a Q&A with the authors before turning to the assigned reading for the day.

In the Q&A with the authors, I ask students why they chose to write the scripts the way they did. We talk about what happened during the performance and performers jump in to talk about why they made the choices they did based on how they read the scripts. What choices did the actors make when casting roles in terms of gender, and how does this play on gender stereotypes today? How would this performance read with all male actors in early modern England? This leads to my final question: how does this script change the way we read The Taming of the Shrew? In other words, does this affect our reading of Kate’s final speech? Do we read Kate as Sly and Petruchio as the Lord, or the other way around?

It didn’t take up all of class time, either. Students had 20 minutes to cast, prepare, and go over lines. Performances lasted 10-15 minutes total. The critical conversation afterwards is what took up the most time. I think this assignment demonstrates that creative writing has a place in the English composition classroom, and in any literature course. It helps students better understand the genre (in this case, drama) and critically think about the choices authors (and directors) make. I think it also makes an icon like Shakespeare feel more accessible, and produces a sense of comfort with the methods of literary critique.

I encourage students to use a modern context in their scripts if they want to (and some props in the past have included cell phones) because it’s important to draw bridges to present day if we want to make reading and critiquing literature (no matter how “old” it may be) relevant. That’s the beauty of modern adaptations, and I hope it draws students to seek out theatre and continue to enjoy plays staged in their lifetimes.

We spent the rest of today’s class reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists, taking turns reading aloud, and talked about everyday sexism and racism. Next class we’ll talk about Susan Bordo’s The Male Body, a text I use to read Petruchio’s masculinity critically. If you’re interested in teaching The Taming of the Shrew, I recommend these two secondary sources as well as essays by George Hibbard and Shirley Garner in the back of the Norton Critical Edition of the play.

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