Shaking It Up With Shakespeare

by Jessica Derr on February 27th

Fenced in by desks, a mass of bodies wander and weave among each other. Their heads are bent over slips of paper in hand, yet they never collide. Rather, they orbit each other in perfect harmony, their voices raised as one in a steady beat, chanting out the same verses over and over. Surely images of “marble and gilded monuments” and the “princes who will not outlive this rhyme” will play behind closed eyelids when trying to sleep. “Faster now!” the instructor in the front of the room says, answered promptly by a chorus of voices escalating in tempo and pitch. “Slow now! Just the vowels! Sing it!”

To a passing bystander, this might seem like a sort of cult meeting, an incantation to awaken some eldritch horror. But no, it’s just another day in GFS381: Shakespeare in Performance.

Global Field Study courses at Arcadia include a semester-long class that normally culminates into a 1- to 2-week venture overseas to experience the subject matter in a more tangible way. Because I’m a student-athlete here at Arcadia, I was wary of giving up an entire semester to have the traditional study-abroad experience. But the option of GFS allows me to still have the enriched cultural experiences of which Arcadia is known for with far less commitment and having to sacrifice my training.

I’ve generally been making a fool of myself— struggling through acting exercises, mangling meter, and slaughtering sonnets so badly that poor Willy S is probably rolling in his grave. Never before has a class thrust me so far outside of my comfort zone.

- Jess Derr

In particular, my course, as the name implies, looks closely at the works of Shakespeare. But as Shakespeare’s plays were written to be more than words on a page, the class focuses on how the pieces are performed— what traditional staging was like, what techniques are used by Shakespearean actors, the ins and outs of iambic pentameter, and so on. The course involves a spring break trip to the Blackfriars Theatre in Virginia and concludes with a 2-week venture to London, where I will be touring Shakespeare’s birthplace and watching various Shakespeare productions, some of which will be performed at the famous Globe Theatre.

I have always been an avid fan of theatre and have an overwhelming admiration for those who partake. However, I’ve always tended to be better suited for the stands as opposed to the stage. My own theatrical experiences don’t stray beyond a riveting portrayal of Mad Cat in my fifth-grade production of The Aristocats and a few casual skits for my Latin classes in high school. As that fifth-grade student, I was far more extroverted and demanded to be the center of attention. Performing was something I relished. I had no qualms about trying out for a solo in chorus class or doing a silly dance in cat ears in front of an auditorium full of people.  But I chose to pursue athletics and my writing rather than acting. In this transition, I found myself becoming more and more reserved. Whereas once I delighted in doing speeches and presentations, now I’m lucky if I can get through them without stress sweating through my clothes.

So you can probably guess how I reacted when I found that not only would my class involve studying Shakespeare performance, but it would require me to perform Shakespeare myself with major grades for memorization and presentation of a sonnet, soliloquy, and scene with other classmates. Suffice to say, it’s about every archetypal, introverted English major’s nightmare.

So far, I’ve generally been making a fool of myself— struggling through acting exercises, mangling meter, and slaughtering sonnets so badly that poor Willy S is probably rolling in his grave. Never before has a class thrust me so far outside of my comfort zone. I have an even greater appreciation for actors. There are so many intricacies that go into what they do and they manage to pull it off as naturally as breathing, leaving audiences none the wiser to everything working under the surface. Obviously, I have yet to master such technique.

But I find that I have to step back and think in the greater scheme of things. We study abroad to expand our horizons, to try and see new things. The more we are exposed to, the closer we are to reaching the best version of ourselves. We don’t necessarily have to board a plane and cross an ocean to do so. Everyday, we can search for things that make us a little uncomfortable, that challenge us, and we can challenge ourselves to figure out ways to conquer them.

Even with vigorous practice, even if I read of one of our primary course texts, Speaking Shakespeare by Patsy Rodenburg, until my eyes bleed, I doubt The Globe will ever be tearing down my door to get me to star as Lady Macbeth. Still, as much as I’d rather be doing a close reading or quietly cultivating a critical essay as opposed to repeating Sonnet 55 until the words seem to lose meaning, I owe it to the unapologetic fifth-grade alley cat to give it my best effort, as that is all that can be asked.