Monday, July 1, 2013

Peremptory and Proud-Minded: The Drama Days

Yesterday I got a sweet note from one of the kids I helped teach in a drama class--wait while I pause to do the math--oh, Lord--ten years ago.  Could it really be that long ago?  I'd gotten sort of sucked into the class.  I wanted to try my hand at adapting my novel Ruthie's Gift for the stage, but, before I could write anything, the middle school drama teacher asked if I could help throw something together for the first semester, first.  I suggested a few scenes from Shakespeare, along with modern translations.  She thought that sounded fun, so I spent a few hours picking out a couple of scenes from some plays, figuring I'd get the middle-schoolers to help write the modern translations.  At the time my own children were in second grade and kindergarten.  Middle-schoolers looked practically adult to me.  However, these middle-schoolers took one look at my Shakespeare pages and were horrified.  Absolutely gobsmacked.  "Don't worry," the regular drama teacher said, "Mrs. Bradley's going to help you."

So Mrs. Bradley stood in front of the class explaining what all the complicated old-fashioned words meant.  And then Mrs. Bradley helped craft the modern versions.  And then Mrs. Bradley helped cast the scenes.  I had a big advantage there--I didn't know one diddly thing about any of these students, except what they'd already revealed to me in class.  So that kid with the dark hair and the flashing eyes?  I thought intelligent instead of troublemaker.  I had no preconceptions.

The boy--man, now, he's a college graduate, headed to law school, but he was a boy then--who wrote me the note yesterday I cast as Petruchio from The Taming of the Shrew.  He shuffled up to me at the end of class, script in his hand, eyes on the floor.  "Mrs. Bradley," he whispered, "I can't do this."

I looked at the top of his head.  (He towers over me now.)  I didn't actually know whether he could do it or not.  I barely knew his name.  "Listen," I said, "I will make sure you understand what every word means.  I want you to try your hardest.  And if it turns out you really can't do it, I will change things until you can."

This was not the answer he hoped for.  He gulped and scuttled away, still looking at the ground.  And I, with a sigh, realized I'd just made a commitment to him.  To the class.  I was in.

Six weeks later the same boy jumped onto the wobbly stage we'd set up in the great room of the Presbyterian Church across the street from the school.  I can see him still in my mind's eye, as though it were yesterday, not a decade ago.  "Well, I'll tell you, father," he said, loud, clear, slow and bold, "I am as peremptory as she is proud-minded, and where two raging fires meet, they do consume the thing that feeds their fury.  So I am to her, and so she yields to me, for I am rough, and woo not like a babe."  And in the audience, I thought, "Yes!"

Sometimes it's better if you don't know what you are asking.  Speeches like:

“You lie, in faith; for you are call'd plain Kate,
And bonny Kate and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation."

really aren't that easy for a 12-year-old to pull off.    Let alone this exchange:
  • Katherina. Mov'd! in good time! Let him that mov'd you hither
    Remove you hence. I knew you at the first
    You were a moveable.
  • Petruchio. Thou hast hit it. Come, sit on me.
  • Katherina. Asses are made to bear, and so are you.
  • Petruchio. Women are made to bear, and so are you.
  • Katherina. No such jade as you, if me you mean.
  • Petruchio. Alas, good Kate, I will not burden thee!
    For, knowing thee to be but young and light-
  • Katherina. Too light for such a swain as you to catch;
    And yet as heavy as my weight should be.
  • Katherina. Well ta'en, and like a buzzard. 
  • Petruchio. O, slow-wing'd turtle, shall a buzzard take thee?
  • Katherina. Ay, for a turtle, as he takes a buzzard.
  • Petruchio. Come, come, you wasp; i' faith, you are too angry.
  • Katherina. If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
  • Petruchio. My remedy is then to pluck it out. 
  • Katherina. Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.
  • Petruchio. Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting?
    In his tail.
  • Katherina. Yours, if you talk of tales; and so farewell. 
But I was lucky: my Kate was as talented as my Petruchio. (The next year "Kate" would have the starring role in Ruthie's Gift.) Not only did they remember the words, they made sense of them.  The scene was funny, as it was meant to be.

After the performance, one of the middle-school teachers came up to me.  "Who are you, and what did you do to that child?" she asked.  "I didn't do it," I said.  "He did."