Reflection on Jonothan Neelands Workshop
“Here is your text. Make it as scary as you can. You can do anything you want. Go.” I have taught Shakespeare for many years but never has it occurred to me to deliver such liberating and succinct instructions to students as Jonothan Neelands did at the Ed Theatre Mini-Conference. Gleefully we plotted in our groups, auditioning varying unsettling ingredients. Was a sudden breath in one’s ear more fear-inducing than the scraping sound of a pen along the wall? Should we keen wildly or sing-song children’s lullabies creepily? How can we make a body feel most vulnerable? In just a few minutes each group had concocted their version of SCARY and inflicted it upon their willing subjects with the pleasure only theatre teachers can manifest. I think that in all of my future experiences with Hamlet, I will never encounter the Ghost’s monologue more deliciously terrifying than when I was led, eyes closed, with my hands on another’s shoulders, into a dark and cold hallway where echoing figures keened the lines and a sudden shrieking and crashing open of doors blinded us with light. Oh! It was that good. Theatre created in 10 minutes through the generous instructions of a really good teacher.
What Neelands offered to us was an opportunity to be students in a brilliant theatre class. His energy was infectious--what a wily sprite with a gleam in his eye! He gave minimal directions for excellent ideas. As one point he shared with us that for Shakespeare “words are actions, words are pictures!” This can aptly be used to describe Neelands’ teaching style as well in that no words were wasted, and everything he said served to inspire, shed clarity, or engage us further. As I begin to teach in more classrooms I have learned that the window of focused attention is narrowing with our texting-profile-updating-mile-a-minute student populations. If I start to go past 2 minutes or so of speaking I see their eyes begin to glaze over and I feel a slight panic begin to rise within me to get their attention back. Neelands’ work offers a cure for this glazing in that we were constantly moving and contributing. Whether we were turning into a statue of a young prince, quickly hugging a group of 5, being terrified soldiers, or a ghostly “whispering wall,” we were kept on our toes with the variety of surprising scenarios. As a result we were fully engaged and eager to try out whatever was next. More! More!
As teachers and grad students in this program, we are constant jugglers. We are learning and developing new approaches constantly and trying to keep student interest, standards, efficiency, clarity, all in the mix of creating and executing a good lesson. Neelands reminded me that in the juggling I need to be able to take a step back. I need to look at my endeavor and make sure its aim is incredible, enjoyable theatrical fun. And if it isn’t I need to think of how it could be. The hours with Neeland were the most fun I have ever had with Hamlet, hell it made me want to dive back into a play I had sworn off after one too many endless productions. Hamlet whiny? Why no in fact, it is heartbreak--the sorest, noblest kind--and because of Neelands I want to get back inside his head, and bring a room full of teenagers with me. I want to see what they find, what newness they bring to this old story.
Neelands showed us through example that the work of a teacher is to create the landscape of the play and to bring all aspects of it alive. We dove into characters and locations with a ferocity of placing ourselves in a 500 year old text and making it ours. Suddenly Hamlet had a favorite secret spot in the orchard, the ramparts were coated with oil from past battles, the rose garden was dying from neglect. These details were ours and made us more intimate with the play, it became ours as well. What could be a better goal for our work than creating an opportunity for this claim of intimacy with a character, with a text? This is how we can make theatre into a space that students will continue to seek out through their lives.
We have all made that choice in joining this program. Ed Theatre is such a wonderful program that allows us constantly to learn and to teach, to receive and to give, to fail and to try again. To stand in lots of circles! But that becomes the whole point, that we come together and engage. In the few hours our group worked together we did transform into the ensemble we are always attempting to teach. We took risks, made choices, and offered ideas. In his final reflection on the day Neelands remarked on how creating an ensemble “offers us a model of how we might live in the world.” All of us put our pencil to the page to capture this sentence, this affirmation of the work we are striving to do that. I will remember his words when I am struggling to get my students to stand in a circle and listen to each other, I will also remember to re-evaluate my approach in the simple terms of “is it fun?” I am grateful to Jonothan Neelands for enriching the field in which we work, and reminding us that it is truly play, the sorest, noblest, scariest, most necessary kind.