The Shakespeare Club was doomed from the first day it opened or so actress Mel Ryane thought. That day when Ryane stepped before an audience of 3rd graders to welcome them to her Shakespeare Club, she did as she had always done prior to going onstage: meditated and hummed to warm her voice and to prepare for her character. This time her character was real, and she was the teacher. She was giddily excited to meet and inspire her first kids. She just knew she’d dazzle them. NOT. They rattled her, poked fun at her, and flat out laugh at her.
“Every actor knows what it’s like to bomb onstage,” writes Ryane in her memoir, Teaching Will: What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me that Hollywood Couldn’t. “For the first time in my life, I can’t hold my audience. These kids are bored and fidgety. They don’t want to sit still and learn.”
Desperate, she pulls out the word poop. “Four hundred years ago, not only were there no video games, there were also no bathrooms in the houses. The Elizabethans used buckets and threw their poo and pee out their windows. This piece of information garners cries of “Eeeew!” and “Gross!”
Finally, she had the kids’ attention. Over and over she reused and reused that magical word: poop. Time finally started moving faster, the kids were listening, but by the end of the class, Ryane was exhausted and knew she couldn’t entrance children with the love of Shakespeare with just poop. For her it was over. Never would she come back to Arden Street Elementary.
That is until Stella sticks her head back in the door and smiles excitedly: “See you next week.” That smile trapped Ryane. She couldn’t shut down her newly formed Shakespeare Club, not just yet.The idea for her Shakespeare Club came in 2005. Ryane found a flyer on her doorstep asking for volunteers to help at the local elementary. “I went to plant flowers and help with reading.” During the same period, she read a Los Angeles Times news story that said 50% to 60% of students leave L.A. schools by 9th grade. “I thought maybe if I could get them young and empowered with Shakespeare maybe I could make a difference,” she said.
She needed a creative outlet after quitting her long-time acting career on stage, film and TV (Family of Strangers with Melissa Gilbert, A Christmas Romance, ER, Seinfeld, Dragnet, Doogie Howser and many others).
“I was getting the really great parts in the theater. That took a lot of traveling. I was good and had great discipline. But again and again I was coming up against glib theater artists. I started becoming a jerk because I was angry at the glibness. I was becoming bitter.” Her film and TV work became about getting the part and getting the check. “I was turning into someone I didn’t want to be.” Leaving acting was “excruciating for me. Acting was my identity. I had done this since I was a kid… It was all I knew how to do. All I wanted to do. I never saw myself leaving acting. It was hard to walk into a room and talk to people but walking on the stage with Shakespeare, Shaw or Neil Simon was the safest place to be.”
So something had to give. She couldn’t live entirely without acting. So Ryane went to the principal and offered to start the Shakespeare Club. “The principal asked how much. When you say free and volunteer doors fly open. I went in so naïve. It was so hard. What they don’t tell you about is the power struggle between kids and the teacher.”
“I learned that the boys needed to be on their feet. Give him a sword and he can do Macbeth. The boys learned faster when they had a physical outlet… Girls tended to try to be more pleasing, but they were also bossier.”
To gain control, she taught the kids the rules of theater, both onstage and behind the stage. “Theater is not a democracy. We had rules. For example, an actor is never permitted to tell another actor what to do.”
One of the keys to teaching the kids is to remember what it is like to be a kid. “Being a kid is hard,” says Ryane. “They know all about power and revenge. Bullying is real. They completely get Shakespeare.”
Once she started gaining control, she could concentrate on teaching Shakespeare, which requires getting inside of the character like an actor. First, she would tell Shakespeare’s stories—Hamlet, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet—in their terms.
“I want to tell you about this kid. He had a lame leg, a curled up hand. Richard III was in the cafeteria trying to find place to eat… Well there was this other guy, real popular guy named Edward. He was Richard’s brother…” She’d teach the kids to do the same thing: tell the stories and find the characters’ stories and backstories.
“I have video footage of a 9-year-old explaining that Banquo feels guilty cause didn’t stop his friend from killing the king,” she said. “They now know how to study human behavior. Why is Hamlet so upset? How does he feel about having a stepfather?”
After learning and exploring the characters and the play, the kids perform a shortened version of the play for an audience of their peers and parents with Ryane as the director and acting coach.
The school she chose for her program was a Title I school, which meant most of the students were below the poverty line. Many came from other countries and didn’t speak English. One year, she had a little girl from Haiti, who only spoke creole at age six. By age nine, she was playing Lady Macbeth. Another boy, who at age six only spoke Spanish, played Hamlet at age nine.
Once onstage and the audience arrived, the kids learned that “exhilaration of power” that comes with being onstage. It was instant addiction.” In real life “you are not allowed to sass back or mock, but in the theater they pay you to do that.” The students learn that rehearsal time is the only thing that saves you once you’re on stage… By the end of each year, the kids were not just cute kids doing Shakespeare. “They were Shakespearean actors.”
The reviews on her funny, heartwarming book have been stellar. Oscar winner Helen Hunt (Mad About You, As Good As It Gets, Twister, What Women Want) writes: “Teaching Will sings with honesty, adventure, humility and humor. Only someone who loves Shakespeare would dare to do what Ms. Ryane did and dare to write about it. The book is a joy.” And it is well worth a read.
Weekly Dose of Shakespeare:
Each week since Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, actors Liza de Weerd and Brian Weiss go on a pilgrimage of sorts to Shakespeare’s statue in New York’s Central Park. The Shakespearean actors film, using only an IPhone, a scene, monologue, sonnet to keep working and to honor the Bard. This Week in Shakespeare includes clips, approximately two-minutes in length, from Shakespeare’s characters Richard II, Angelo, Helena, and Titania; scenes with Portia and Bassanio and Benedick and Beatrice (is it spicy banter or is it foreplay).
This weekly column publishes each Monday and covers books, films, recordings, web content, videos, video games, radio, television, and all emerging mediums. Send all press releases and comments to the Associate Editor for Multimedia, Deborah Voorhees at firstname.lastname@example.org.