During a recent senior class, I was reminded of the value of play. In lieu of viewing some films, I decided that student troupes would rehearse the opening of Hamlet. And I’m glad I did. The troupes traveled to nearby areas outside of the classroom, in order to prepare the initial fifty-one lines. This was the very first time we all held these books in our hands, and the players paid memorable tribute to the riches in the text. Plus they had fun. One group decided to go outside, using a patio’s walls as Elsinore’s battlements. When I went out to check on them, I saw three of the boys tilted back in their chairs with feet up on the table. As I approached, ready to reprimand, the ghost suddenly drifted into view from upstage right with someone’s blanket draped over her head. The boy actors fumbled in fear to escape the ghost. Then I realized that I wasn’t catching them goofing off, but was watching their rehearsal. On the way back to the classroom, when I explained my first thought and subsequent realization, one boy actor exclaimed, “That’s how good we are as actors.” Indeed. Another troupe made an artistic choice that stayed private until one of the players delivered their prologue. Given the appearance of a ghost, they set their scene in Charleston, South Carolina–known for its heavy ghost traffic. All the players spoke in dialects of the region, lending a special resonance to particular lines and to the scene as a whole. One girl player, after the performance, when I asked if she had grown up in Charleston, replied that her father had. From her first lines, her accent rang as true as any in the group. Each of those players had her or his own version of the regional dialect, which reminds me of Shakespeare’s many voices. Speaking of dialects, yet another troupe had a boy player who relished the chance to tour the English-speaking world with his performance. I don’t remember which character he played, but I clearly recall that across the span of his lines he guided us from London to Cork to Johannesburg and finally to Sydney. In other words, whether consciously or as an accidental linguistic tourist, he entertained us with his expressive exploration. In all, we had fun while playing. I was nervous, as I often am, when we hit day one of our study of this most majestic of plays. These seniors reminded me to trust the power of this text, and to trust them to have fun. It was the final day of Winterfest at school, and what better way to enjoy the day. Such moments convince me, if I needed convincing, that with a bit of guidance about theatrical tools like speech, movement and props or costumes, and with clear encouragement to have fun interpreting and inventing, students come away from the experience having learned these opening lines at a visceral, bodily, emotional level. They heard and responded to lines much more than if they had watched someone else, like Olivier or Jacobi, render those same lines.
Postscript: Play presumes fun. Play also exercises confidence at several levels. When students play together, they build things together–memorable things. This building looks like collaboration to me. Finally, I was recently part of a faculty discussion that touched on these subjects. For example, we were considering Physics students who face the idea that a given problem has multiple solutions. What to do? Can’t I have just one way to produce the answer? The recent Hamlet class suggests that something similar faced these student actors, and they enjoyed finding the solution–the interpretation–that worked best for their troupe. Fun, I contend, played a role. As did joy. They enjoyed the work of interpreting the lines. That joy took them deeply enough into their rehearsal that they came out and up onto the stage with more confidence, and confidence matters when students face a challenge, whether in the lab or on the stage.