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When the Classroom Became a Stage

November 22 , 2016

“A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
    Whose misadventures piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, naught could remove, 
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage.”
If you came and saw the young actors and actresses speaking Shakespeare’s original lines, you would be surprised as you were not in a theater but in 603 in HFI.

In addition, if you saw insightful costumes or expressive tones along with beautiful music, you wouldn’t have time for photography as you were busy enjoying.

You would have smiled for the sweetness of Romeo and Juliet’s love, sighed for the sadness of their death, and finally, applauded when the music died.This was just one of our Pre-AP assignments. After studying Romeo and Juliet, we were asked to choose a part of the play that we liked best and then act it out with our with group members. We were required to memorize our lines, design the characters’ costumes, decide the tone, movement, and characters’ positions on the stage and all while keeping Shakespeare’s original language. We could use flashlights and music as we liked. In addition to memorizing and staging the lines, we needed to write a detailed promptbook that included the lines from the scene with tone and movement, reports about characters and the overall purpose, and then justifications of our costumes.

“Shakespeare’s language should be spoken and be heard. The performance project is a chance for you to experience the play, and there is a difference between reading a play and experiencing it. When you are forced to be some of the characters, you can realize more and have a deeper understanding. When you experience the play, you are engaging in it, and you will remember Romeo and Juliet for a longer time,” explained Ms. North, our Pre-AP teacher who organized the project, about her motivation to arrange the assignment during my interview with her about the performances. So far, she has already led us to learn through several books, including The Outsiders, Into the Wild, Romeo and Juliet and now Lord of the Flies.

“And what do you think of our performance?” I asked.

“The performance is really great!” she said. “The way you get involved, the costumes, the use of space… Many groups performed beyond my expectations! You all have talents! Next year maybe I will make it a school performance!”

I asked her to tell me more about her plan for the school performance next year and she replied with, “Next year we will learn another Shakespeare play, and I want to make it a school-wide performance. We will prepare for 2 months maybe, and then make the performance available to the public. I am thinking we could sell tickets then donate the money to charity. I will first ask for the school’s permission, of course.” She answered.

“You also let us watch two versions of Romeo and Juliet movies. Then why do you add the assignment of performance? Maybe we can also learn a lot from the movies?”
“Well, there is a difference between watching a movie and being forced to engage in it. Watching is a passive way of learning, and acting is an active way. How to design the costumes? What’s the interactions and movements between characters? What’s the music? Students can engage in the play and perform it from their perspective. You need to remember the lines. You also need to think of characters’ motivations, their feelings, their movements and so on. And the music you use is really cool! Music and emotions work altogether. In Shakespeare’s time, there were also people playing musical instruments during plays. Next year I will put music as a requirement.”

“And why do you put ‘remembering the lines’ as part of the requirements? What do you think is the significance of it?
“The lines tell the story, and remembering lines helps you think about the perspectives. Remembering lines instead of reading from small pieces of paper gives you chances to interact with other characters, and you can focus more on tone, emotions and movements when you say the lines out loud.”

“Our group spent much time struggling for Romeo’s costumes. :) In your opinion, why do we need to put so much effort in costumes?”

“The costume is a way of being creative and showing insight or deeper understanding. For example, a group from Douglass did an awesome job in costumes. They made Romeo wear a shirt with the word “lonely” on it! The Capulets wore black shirts with lions and tigers on it to show their aggression. And Howard’s group from Morrison also did very well. They related the play to Star Wars, which is very cool. It is interesting to make connections between Shakespeare’s characters in the play and modern characters by the interpretation of costumes. Gloria’s group used animals’ costumes and turned the setting into an animal-dressing party. Kinds of animals show the personalities or features of characters. I loved that idea.”

Though the requirements seemed complicated, the assignment was actually quite fun. During the two weeks that we were given for preparation, my group started from inspirations, thought everything over to make the performance better, and rehearsed for the play with frustrations and laughter.

“We really love this assignment because we not only had a lot of fun creating our own play of Romeo and Juliet but also gained a valuable friendship with other classmates through our cooperation,” said Ally, another member of my group.

My group rearranged Act 5 Scene 3, which we chose to act out, by focusing on Romeo’s illusions after he drank the poison. In our design, Romeo reviewed his stories with Juliet in his mind, saying the exact same words as when they first met at the party or talked about their love on the balcony. Their lines were almost in reverse sequence in our performance, and their dialogues strongly foreshadowed their death. The rearrangement is quite difficult, but we succeeded and made it natural.

What’s more, our group explored many ways to maximize the tragic but beautiful effects. Five different pieces of music were used, including a piece played by guitar and a piece of operatic singing. We hung fluorescent stars to show “some consequences yet hanging in the stars,” and LED was twined on Juliet’s hair because she was just the illusions of Romeo. When the music died, the circle of light shrank and finally focused on the black sketch of Romeo and Juliet on the wall. We enjoyed the acting and were really proud of our performance when we finished it!

I would like to conclude with my classmate Rainy’s words, “I enjoyed it a lot as I had fun with my friends preparing for the performance while practicing English. What’s more, since every group has its own ideas and themes, it’s a very colorful and individualized project! I am so looking forward to the next assignment like this one!”