1. GENERAL HEADING: Performance Exercises
2. TITLE OF EXERCISE: "What Does a Stage Property Do? The Interplay of Text and Prop in 1.1 of A Midsummer Night's Dream."
3. GOALS: There are a number of interlocking objectives in this activity. (1) To offer a vivid demonstration of the fact that while the medium of literature is on the page, the medium of drama is the actor's body and the physical deployed on stagethat when a play is performed the actors do things which often use physical objects to realize the potentials of the words on the page. (2) To demonstrate how the playtext may suggest props. (3) To demonstrate employing a suggested prop may not only stimulate actors to invent new performance but also how those invented actions, in turn, may transform the words of the text. (4) To initiate rich and diverse performances of the opening of A Midsummer Night's Dreamwhich is to say to help students experience the delight that can come from playing with the play. (5) To examine how those performances illuminate contrasting ways the play can frame what follows. (6) To stimulate reflection on another element of reading play texts.
4. NUMBER OF STUDENTS: MND 1.1, including Helena, has eight roles: you can divide the class into three groups of eight but it is easy to double Philostrate and Helena, or, if you need to have several doublings or a tripling. I divide the class into the three groups of eight students.
5. EQUIPMENT AND SUPPLIES: I usually buy a rose the day of this activityit intrigues the class when I walk in with itand the advantage is that this rose can be shredded, as several Hippolytas have discovered, to good effect. I also have used the computer to generate a sheet of paper which says THE LAWS OF ATHENS, and which becomes the cover of an appropriately large book from my office.
6. CLASS TIME NEEDED: This is a time intensive activity: the students need 15 to 30 minutes to rehearse, the performances take about 10 minutes each, the discussion should not be less than 15 minutes and can run longer. In short, it can take a full class periodbut it not only opens the play effectively but also introduces the basic physicality of acting in a vivid way and spotlights the complex recursive cycles of reading, invention, re-reading, and re-invention that is at the core of performance models of reading.
7. STEP-BY-STEP DESCRIPTION: There is a tactical decision you must make before starting this activity: do you want to precede this work with props by having students focus on the relation of Theseus and Hippolyta? and in particular to explore how Hippolyta's unspoken responses may cue Theseus's "what cheer, my love?" The advantage of starting with this activity first is that if students are aware of the key choice hereare Theseus and Hippolyta in harmony or disharmony when the play opens? and does the treatment of Hermia alienate Hippolyta to some degree?this will inform their exploration of the scene. Conversely, however, you may want to let them discover this issue through their own explorations, and then use that discovery to cue introduction of McGuire's concept of open silences.
(1) Explain briefly that you want the class to explore the diverse ways the opening of A Midsummer Night's Dream can be performed while at the same time adding another key element, stage properties, to their conceptual and practical vocabulary for reading playtexts.
(2) Divide the class into three groups of eight students. Each group will read, cast, rehearse, and perform the opening scene of the play. Give the first group the rose, the second group the book with the cover reading THE LAWS OF ATHENS, and inform the third group that they get to produce the scene without a prop.
(3) As the students read and rehearse, I circulate from group to group. Mostly, I just listen. When it seems appropriate, I may ask an open question or a question that refocuses discussion and action if the group seems stalled. Otherwise, I simply let them get on with itand store away bits of the process that may be useful to bring up in discussion later.
(4) Each group performs the scene. After the applause dies down for each performance, we write notes on what struck us about that performance. Those who have just performed write about what they discovered only in the act of performance.
(5) We move into the discussion, starting with observations of what struck them about each scene.
(6) I ask students to write in response to three further questions: (1) What did you discover by going through this process? (2) What was most striking about each group's performance and use of its propor the most striking feature of the performance without a prop? (3) What does a prop do?
8. POINTS FOR OBSERVATION, DISCUSSION: A number of points emerge in the discussion. Students are, first of all, surprised and intrigued by the prop, and by the variety of things they can do with the prop. They note how differently the props function and also begin to invent further alternate performances. In some cases, they discuss the variety of ways they experimented with the prop before making their performance choices. They note the to-them-surprising ways in which a prop can not only shape a scene but even change the meaning of the words of the text, or else highlight meanings or patterns they had ignored. The rose, for example, drew attention to or underlined (or as Alan Dessen would say, italicize) other moments when flowers were mentioned. They are struck by the potential for non-verbal action to pervade and shape a scene or to transform character relations. They discover how the prop makes interesting forms of non-verbal communication possible, so that, for example, the rose can function to connect Hippolyta and Helena even though they are not onstage together. And the scenes will have highlighted the variety of ways that Hippolyta and Theseus can maintain their relation or have it altered as the scene unfolds. The rose, for example, can be used by Hippolyta to express or communicate a wide variety of responses: as he turns to exit, for example, Theseus sometimes finds a pile of rose petals at his feet, and must respond as best he can to this public statement. Or using the book, it can seem as if Theseus either finds or invents the third alternative he offers Hermiaand thus raises other questions about his motivation, and, in some performances, whom he is addressing: when he says "by no means extenuate," he may be appealing to Hippolyta, aware of her rising anger and trying to explain to her that he has no choice in the matter. Finally, we return to the question "What does a prop do?" Here, students discuss the way in which the two props, which at first seem merely to literalize a cue in the text, nonetheless begin to transform the actors' relation to the text and transform the meaning created through the text. Props, that is, can stimulate invention, which in turn can open the text to new readings, which can in turn stimulate further invention. I also point out that a prop may serve as a catalyst and then be discarded in the actual performance, so that spectators never see the propand yet the prop will have nonetheless helped the actors compose or invent the performance.
9. SOURCE/REFERENCE: Edward Rocklin .This activity is described in greater detail in my essay "'An Incarnational Art': Teaching Shakespeare," from Shakespeare Quarterly, 41:2 (Summer 1990): 147-159. As I note in the article, the two props were suggested by performances described by Philip McGuire in Speechless Dialect.
10. ADDITIONAL READING: Philip McGuire, Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare's Open Silences (University of California Press, 1985).
11. VARIATIONS: As noted above, this activity can be paired with an activity
introducing Philip McGuire's concept of "open silences" in connection
with Hippolyta's silence in this scene.