[This one is for my ‘English Theatre’ students]

I feel quite frustrated today because one of my students in the elective subject ‘English Theatre’ has walked out on me –even before classes begin. Actually, two have done so, one for job-related reasons and the one that worries me because (her claim) she’s very shy.

As the Syllabus explains, students get 30% of their final mark for class participation and this is a very high percentage because you’re expected to take part in dramatised readings of the plays selected. The shy student misunderstood this Syllabus, thinking she had a choice not to act and has left me rather than, um, embarrass herself. I’m therefore writing this, thinking that perhaps other students are in a similar panic about the subject, which makes no sense at all to me… This is all about enjoying ourselves together as we learn.

To begin with, most of our students choose eventually to become teachers, a profession for which being stage-shy is quite counterproductive. I am myself very shy in many social and personal situations but when I ‘perform’ in front of a class I just assume a different, bolder personality and that does the trick (I think –at least for me). I’m sure it’s like this for many, many teachers around the world.

Also, I believe that part of the training we give you in the degree consists of reinforcing your oral skills, including the ability to do public presentations. Playing a part in a scene is perhaps simpler, for you’re asked to assume a fake personality –what you say aren’t even your words!! So you can always relax and let the author bear the burden of what you’re saying (and perhaps doing).

What I’m asking students to do is not in any case to perform as if they were actors, in costume and with no text as a prop. I ask students to prepare, simply, readings. It’s absolutely their choice to decide whether to use costumes or to transform the classroom into an actual theatre. My experience of the other two editions of this very same subject is that students choose to have fun and offer a total show but it’s not compulsory to do so (well, having fun is…).

In the previous edition, two years ago, what I most enjoyed was that I never knew what the classroom would look like for each performance nor what students would be wearing. I’ll give you three memorable examples. In a scene from Brian Friel’s Translations (in the first edition of the subject) the student playing the English officer in charge of occupying a small Irish village chose to wear a black leather coat and a Nazi decoration –my God, did we understand the horror of occupation! People were awed… In Hysteria, a farce by Terry Johnson, the female protagonist is all the time naked on scene –logically, one cannot have naked students in class, and the girl who played the part decided to wear a sign around her neck announcing ‘I’m naked!’ Everyone loved that. Most memorable was the sight of the young man playing the alleged madman in Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange dressed entirely in orange and reading from the text against a background image of a blue orange (which I had found on the internet two minutes before class started!).

Some of the texts we’ll read together are hard and demanding in their presentation of violence and sex on stage –but, then, you can simply read them and comment on them. I had a very concerned German Erasmus student who came to me absolutely adamant, annoyed and worried, that she would NOT do what Sarah Kane had written in Blasted. Of course not!! Then she amazed us all by playing a victimised woman in one scene and a brutal soldier in the next one with the only interval of stepping onto the corridor for a quick costume change. Actually, the play that has me worried sick is Simon McBurney and Complicité’s very beautiful A Disappearing Number, as I see no way we can reproduce in class, not even remotely, its mad visual richness. (I’m thinking of leaving that to shy students…)

Since I thought last time that it was unfair to subject students to the ‘ordeal’ of having them act in class, I myself acted a part. I chose the monologue of the terrorist in Simon Stephens’s Pornography, which I accompanied with a PowerPoint presentation about the London outrages of 2007. This is someone (man or woman, who knows) travelling on the underground to plant a bomb and Stephens’s whole point is that s/he happens to be as ordinary as you and me. Those are twenty minutes of my life that I recall with all their intensity, dry mouth included, and I’m looking forward to taking that tube ride again this time. What a lesson about evil!

As a teacher, I must say it is impossible for me to imagine any other way of teaching theatre than doing theatre –whether it’s simply reading aloud or turning the classroom space upside down and yourselves. When re-reading the plays, I’ve been wondering all the time how we’re going to present this and that, and here’s the challenge –some solutions to this problem I’m already familiar with as I have learned from the students who read the scenes. Others I can’t wait to see!!

So, please, trust me –I know what I’m doing and I only hope to give you a very enjoyable time to play (I love it that in English texts for the stage are called ‘plays’ and that actors ‘play’ parts). And if you’re shy, remember that a) you choose how to present yourself on ‘stage’, b) some of the best actors are very shy for, as I say, they find in playing fake personalities an outlet for this shyness.

See you soon in class!!