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May 2014

Green Eggs & Hamlet: A Conversation With David Ley

By | Acting, Education, Shakespeare | No Comments

University of Alberta professor, David Ley’s, shares his exciting way into teaching and speaking Shakespeare. David uses the words of Dr. Seuss to help actors find and use the rhetorical structures Shakespeare provides. It may seem like a strange pairing, but here David explains to us the impact it has on the way actors understand and take hold of language.

How did you come up with this technique? What made you connect Seuss with Shakespeare? 

I did a lot of reading to my own kids and since I’m interested in pattern identification I think I began hearing it; I have a mind that naturally compares and contrasts. All teaching looks for deep structure – what are we trying to get at underneath it – and so I think that’s where it all began.

I take my students to go and read to Junior Kindergarten classes and I do that because the thing that is going to hold our interest when we’re 4 is the same as when we’re 40 or 80. The ‘I Can Read’ series by Dr. Seuss should be called the ‘I Can Communicate’ series. I’ve always been interested in rhetoric and Seuss & Shakespeare each highlight different rhetorical structures. Dr. Seuss invites a playfulness that’s often missing in Shakespeare, as well as the willingness to engage in playfulness.

I think both are brilliant and people often say that in 400 years we’ll still be reading Dr. Seuss… We have become denotative… For example, the word, “ocean” can be so many different things, from a big wonderful place to a terrifying place. Seuss teaches us how to express these things – big or small, far or near, good or bad, but we often fail to give this information in the support of our communication.

What can Seuss teach us about Shakespeare’s words? Structure? Rhetoric?

I love Sister Miriam Joseph’s books (Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language) and books that list endless numbers of forms of rhetoric. When an actor picks that up, when you embrace it and you invest in it, it actually takes you somewhere bigger. In repetition, for example, what a modern actor will do is make them all different because they’ll go, “I can’t be all the same,” so what they’ll do is take it apart and spread it out on the field instead of stacking it. When you stack and you stack and you stack, you realize the power of repetition… So, there’s the aspect of repetition, there’s the breadth of antithesis; you can pitch tag an argument:

‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ Now as I continue through that speech, I actually now know that when I hit this pitch I’m talking about you and when I hit this pitch, I’m talking about the summer’s day. If I’m talking about apples and oranges it’s different than apples and jumbo jets. Then I would have to have a greater range in my voice to tell you that the things that I’m comparing are much further apart. So, things like that help the audience follow the language.

Articulation is another thing. I’m old fashioned because I always say let’s see what it’s like if we just pronounce all the consonants… We use, in a way, the Dr. Seuss to see how much people are accustomed to investing in sounds, so that the quality of the sound itself has an inherent action in it: “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.” If you don’t do the “v” on “love”, “luffing” is something a sail does when there’s no wind in it. I think if an actor invests in the word, if you look somebody in the eye and say, “I love you,” and you commit to every sound of that word, you’re actually going to feel something. Then the text can actually take you somewhere, you don’t have to make something of it – it can actually take you for a ride.

What has been the response of actors in using this approach? How has it changed their attitude toward or facility with Shakespearean text?

I’ve done this in front of Martha Henry and in front of school teachers and the response is always great. First of all, it’s a great diagnostic to find out what your habits are – what you do, what you don’t do… What’s neat about it is that it’s worked with high school kids, it’s worked with school teachers, with student actors and it’s worked with professionals. And also, it’s fun… people pick up Shakespeare and get all serious about it, we get all academic with it. The point is that we are taking what is ultimately an academic study (of rhetoric) and we’re applying it in a way which is fun. You know, kids’ books are great, all sorts of kids books, because in kid’s books you find books that are meant to be read aloud. Shakespeare was not meant to be read silently. I don’t think Shakespeare wrote Romeo & Juliet for some academic to go sit down in his quiet office while he listens to Chopin and works his way through that structure. Those words were meant to be spoken by somebody to somebody else. And the only words that we find like that now, besides some poetry, are kids’ books.

This stuff only works when you make people sit on the floor and pretend they’re three years old. It’s surprising how much people actually want to do that. So, it becomes a really fun little exchange where people are behaving like they’re three and responding to the reader like they’re three, which actually makes the reader have more fun. And then they take out their Shakespeare and there’s much more life, there’s much more dynamic expression and range in the way they present that text.


Photo credit: http://www.adoremusbooks.com/onefishtwofishredfishbluefish.aspx

One of the great books is One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish – it’s the gold standard, it’s the ‘take the pebble from my hand’ book. What’s interesting is you actually have to coach actors to identify the patterns. So, what do we have to do when we’re reading that book?

Here’s one example: you have to encourage people to finish final consonants. I’m a voice coach and what do I have to do more than anything? Encourage people to finish final consonants, don’t drop the energy at the end of the line. That’s what I say more than anything else. “Say! Look at his fingers! One, two, three… how many fingers do I see?” We get people reading it really flat. But “three” is more than “one” so you have to tell people, “can I hear in your voice that three is more than one?” Then, the fact that he has eleven fingers is a big discovery, because you’ve built up to that. But modern actors, even at a pretty high level, are not going to do that, so they’re not going to get that wonderful discovery that happens, because they haven’t explored what it means for eleven to be more than one.

Then, there’s any number of pieces of Shakespeare that you can find that have that kind of repetition in them. Claudius’s ladder of thought in Hamlet is a classic example.

Do the Dr. Seuss, then do the Claudius one:

“Say! Look at his fingers! One, two, three… how many fingers do I see? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, he has eleven! Eleven! This is something new. I wish I had eleven, too!” (One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish)

“Give me the cups,

And let the kettle to the trumpet speak,

The trumpet to the cannoneer without,

The cannons to the heavens, the heaven to earth,

Now the King drinks for Hamlet.” (Hamlet 5.2.)

Do you have a favourite line from each of these writers?

A favourite line from Seuss… maybe: ‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not’ (The Lorax). Also fond of the book: Oh, The Places You’ll Go! It’s full of wonderful philosophy, which takes me to, ‘To thine own self be true, And then it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.’ (Hamlet). We get the philosophy of both writers giving advice to young men going out into the world. I have sons.

David Ley holds an MFA in performance from York University with a diploma in Voice Teaching. He is a Professor in the Drama Department at the University of Alberta where he teaches Voice and Speech, Dialects, and Acting. David has extensive experience in private practice teaching vocal skills to a wide array of professional voice users from schoolteachers to politicians and has taught many voice workshops both across Canada and abroad. He spent ten seasons as a Voice Coach at Canada’s Stratford Festival and continues to be a regular instructor in Stratford’s Birmingham Conservatory. He has done numerous feature newspaper interviews commenting on dialects and vocal performance and has been featured in two CBC documentaries on Canadian speech. Media outlets around the world have covered his work on the Vibrant Voice Technique including: The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Guardian UK, the Huffington Post, Metro News International, and many others. David has 30 years of experience working as an actor in theatres across Canada and has acted in numerous film and television productions.


Context is King; a first foray into Shakespeare by Larry Smith

By | Education, Shakespeare

As we gear up for the Young Ruffian Apprenticeship Program this summer (applications due June 1st) we continue our Education Month with Ruff’s Chairman of the Board, Larry Smith, sharing the first assignment he would present to Grade 9 students green to Shakespeare and afraid of the language.

One of the reasons I always enjoyed teaching Grade 9 classes was that, for most students, Grade 9 English is often where they are first introduced to Shakespeare.  I am enthusiastically interested in all things Shakespeare – his work, his life, his world – and the opportunity to share that enthusiasm, maybe even instill some of it in others was something that the Grade 9 classes always offered.

Given the barriers that language and poetry present to those new to Shakespeare’s work, I tried to find a way to engage students in Shakespeare before we actually started to read is work.  I wanted students to make a connection to Shakespeare’s world that had relevance to them first, hoping that the shared connection would be a springboard for greater interest; and so, I asked students to “become a Shakespearean expert”. 

The basic idea was for students to determine what really interested them in their world, be it fashion, music, food, sports, war, travel, etc. Having established that interest, they then explored how that same interest existed in the Elizabethan era.  

For some students, the product might be a traditional report on “The Tudor Family” or “Elizabethan Discoveries”, but for most, the product would be models or drawings of the Globe, maps of explorers or war campaigns, paintings of costumes or fashion, or recreations of Elizabethan weapons.  The presentations were just as varied – always one or two musical performances, sometimes a sampling of the food or a presenter dressed in a traditional Elizabethan costume that they had made.

These presentations were delivered with an enthusiasm and authority that I have seldom seen matched in other assignments.  The students knew their stuff. Students watching the presentations were engaged by the presenters and fascinated by the trivia of another world, a world about which they had become an expert.

As we would enter into the works of Shakespeare, the class collectively knew more about Shakespeare’s world than I ever did – and they knew things about that world that interested them, that had connections and relevance to their world today.

I remember the first time I used a variation of this assignment in a Grade 9 class.  It was fairly early in my career; I was enthusiastic about teaching, but not always confident in my abilities as an “ENGLISH” teacher.  The day the assignments came in, I remember entering the English Office and excitedly telling my colleagues about all the great projects I had just collected.  Now, it may be that it was a different time in teaching, and maybe I went on a bit too long, but my enthusiasm was not entirely appreciated and one older teacher finally turned to me and said; “That’s all fine, Larry, but what has it got to do with teaching English”.  

Larry Smith (Chariman of the Board) running the Gala auction

Larry Smith (Chariman of the Board) running the Gala auction

The wind was knocked out of me.  I was one of the younger members of the department and what I had been doing in my class was obviously not acceptable.  The incident was momentarily painful but ultimately useful as it forced me to evaluate what I was doing in the assignment.

Rather than defeat me, that teacher strengthened my belief in the assignment because I realized I was asking the students to research, to read, to write, to create, to talk, present and listen – all things that have everything to do with teaching English, but with a sense of purpose and ownership that few activities ever have. 

Check out the assignment here and please use it!

Larry Smith is an English and Drama teacher in Toronto who has been a Head of English at both adolescent and adult schools in Toronto.  He first became excited by Shakespeare when in Grade 11 he was a member of the University of Windsor Youth Theatre and got to act in “A Comedy of Errors”. That enthusiasm for the bard exists to this day as he is a Founding Company member and Chairman of the Board of  Shakespeare in the Ruff.


“Meant To Be Said; Not Read” by Shawn Rocheleau

By | Education, Shakespeare, Uncategorized | One Comment

Shawn Rocheleau is a remarkable teacher who teachers high school Drama in the Toronto region. We were fortunate enough to meet Shawn a couple of years ago and our paths have continued to cross. We hope you’ll learn as much from Shawn as we have as you explore his philosophy of teaching Shakespeare and sample lesson plan, a beautiful way to introduce students to the rhythm, shape and movement of Shakespeare’s text.

I  fell  in  love  with  Shakespeare  early.  I  can  remember  reading (although  not  understanding)  The Taming  of  the  Shrew  in  late elementary  school,  and  even  though  most  of  it  flew  right  over  my head,  I  loved  the  language.  Even  my  monotonous  Grade  9  and 10 English  teacher’s  readings  of Romeo  and  Juliet  and  The  Merchant of  Venice  couldn’t  kill  my  love  of  the  Bard.  I  played  a dubious Claudius  in  Grade  11.  After  the  privilege  of  participating  in  a student  weekend  at  the Stratford  Festival  in  Grade  13,  and  the disaster  that  was  Introduction  to  Shakespeare,  I  managed to  get myself  through  Teacher’s  College  and  into  my  own  English  and Drama  classrooms.

My  love  of  Shakespeare  became  somewhat  of  a  crusade  when  I realised  that  my  fundamental premise  behind  teaching Shakespeare -­  it’s  meant  to  be  said,  not  read  -­  was  not  a universal  truth. While  lip  service  was  paid  to  “performing” Shakespearean  plays,  most  of  the  lessons  I  was handed  involved  a lot  of  textual  analysis  and  literary  inquiry; very  little  of  it  was  on-­your-­feet exploration.  I  was  even  told  by  a  vice  principal  that  I was  “using  too  much  Drama  in  my Shakespeare  unit.”

The  best  way  to  get  students  -­  any  student,  of  any  level  -­  to “get”  Shakespeare  is  to  get  them  on their  feet.  Get  them  moving. Give  them  the  tools  that  Shakespeare  himself  built  into  the  text and take  the  fear  out  of  the  words.  Because  it  is  those  words  that make  Shakespeare  so  special  and alive  to  audiences.

The  first  thing  I  do,  to  dispel  the  fear  of  the  story,  is  to  tell  it. Not  read  it.  Not  show  it  to  them  in  a video.  Tell  it.  I  use  some snippets  of  text  here  and  there,  where  I  remember  it,  and  I  tell it from beginning  to  end.  I  leave  some  things  out,  and  I  try  not  to editorialise  or  assign  value,  I  just  tell them  what  they  are  going to see,  hear,  and  eventually,  be.

Then  I  give  them  the  tools  of  the  trade.  We  talk  about  the rhythm,  the  meter,  the  rhyme  schemes, the  words  -­  all  of  the structural  pieces  that  Shakespeare  used  to,  well,  to  tell  the  story. We  play with  passages  from  the  script  we’re  working  on,  move around  the  room and  see  what  story  the punctuation  tells.

Shawn RocheleauBy  the  time  we’re  done,  students  have  been  playing  with  the  text and  have  enough  familiarity with  it,  so  we  can  get  down  to  the reading.  I  never  send  students  home  to  read  the  text.  We  do  it in class,  on  our  feet,  with  the  desks  cleared  away,  as  if  we  were  on a  stage.  If  we  can  get  a stage,  or  if  this  is  a  Drama  course,  all the  better.  I  treat  it  like  a  performance  text  (which  of course,  it is)  and  I  talk  to  them  like  they  are  actors.  What  did  you  just say?  Who  did  you  say  it to?  Why  did  you  say  it?  What  does  it mean?  Just  lots  of  questions,  and  everyone  can  answer.

Then  it’s  their  turn.  They  get  to  play  with  the  text  on  their  own, explore  the  meanings  and  the words,  and  eventually  create  their own  interpretation  of  Shakespeare’s  works.  They  must  use the text, and  they  can’t  alter  the  fundamental  storyline,  but  otherwise,  the world  is  their  stage. They adapt, they create and eventually, they perform.

And  then,  if  we  can,  we’ll  go  see  a  play,  be  it  the  one  we  have studied  or  another.  Watching students  react  to  something  they have  worked  on  and  performed  is  more  magical  than  watching the  play  -­  I  always  make  sure  I  sit  behind  them  so  I  can  watch their  reactions.  My  favourite moments  are  when  they  come  to  a new  realisation  or  understanding  of  the  text  -­  the  eureka moment where  you  know  that  their  understanding  of  the  world  just  got  a little  bit  broader.

There  are  a  ton  of  activities  and  exercises  we  can  use  to  get students  to  understand  and appreciate  Shakespeare.  The  Stratford Festival,  Royal  Shakespeare  Company,  Shakespeare’s Globe,  the Folger  Library  -­  all  of  these  places  have  fantastic  resources  for educators  who  want to  do  more  than  just  have  students  read silently  and  answer  questions.  In  my  opinion  -­  and  in  my practice  -­  anything  that  gets  them  off  their  seats,  on  their  feet, with  a  script  in  their  hand  and  an idea  in  their  head is  golden.

Shawn’s lesson plan: The Shape of Shakespeare can downloaded here. Some fabulous ideas, thank for sharing Shawn.


A Thing or Two About Shakespeare

By | Education, Shakespeare, Uncategorized | No Comments

As we gear up for our 2014 Young Ruffian Apprenticeship Program, we’ve dubbed May “Education Month” at Shakespeare in the Ruff. Each week in May, our Youth Development Coordinator, Lois Adamson, brings us a new education-focused blogpost for our audience of teachers, artist educators, students and actors alike.

To kick things off, we bring you a special education edition of A Thing or Two About Shakespeare and share some things the Bard has taught us.


Everything I need to know, I learned from Shakespeare. Or so says Blake McCarty of the New Victory Theater in New York, who lists the 50 best life lessons he learned from Shakespeare. Two lessons that particularly resonated with us.

11. “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” (Hamlet, 4.5)

13. “Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.” (Romeo and Juliet, 2.3)

The full list can be found here.


English poet and spoken words artist, Kate Tempest, reminds us in this poem, My Shakespeare, of all we owe to him and how often without knowing we find his words coming out of our own mouths each and every day.

[youtube_video] i_auc2Z67OM [/youtube_video]

Next up: on May 8th, teacher Shawn Rocheleau shares some insights (and an awesome lesson plan) about igniting a love of Shakespeare in his high school students.