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The Shakesperience of a Lifetime: Bishop’s University’s Experiential Theatre Course Takes the Stage

Attempting to teach theatre in an English Literature course must be a daunting prospect. A far cry from the highly individual experience of reading a novel or poem, theatre is both a visual and communal spectacle; this medium is a challenge to capture in a traditional lecture-based classroom and harder still to convey this three dimensionality to undergraduate students. Putting on a theatrical performance takes an enormous number of people, all with different roles and contributions. A theatrical production requires actors, directors, stage hands, lighting technicians, costume, prop, and set designers, voice coaches, choreographers, stage managers… and the list goes on. Encapsulating an experience of this magnitude through classroom lectures and close reading play texts is nearly impossible.

Theatre is designed to be lived, seen, and experienced. Reading play texts allows for more textual intimacy for the reader, but fully immersing yourself in the experience of theatre provides multiple interpretations and experiences. Combining play-going with play-reading allows for additional opportunities for critical thinking, and a deeper understanding of the text at hand. Providing both the textual intimacy and communal enjoyment of theatre, Shakesperience, a course created by Bishop’s University’s Dr. Jessica Riddell, is paving the way for experiential learning in a university environment.

“Experiential learning has inherent benefits that are unsurpassed and rarely equaled. Shakespearience is a classic example of experiential learning at its best. This course combines the study of Shakespeare and the theatre with the exploration of how culture, characters and connections affect our learning, our experiences and ultimately our society at large. The relevance of this course and the uniqueness of each participant’s experience cannot be underestimated nor can the impact such studies have on our communities.”

Lauren Boultbee, Marketing and Entrepreneurship Major, Bishop’s University.

Over the course of one week in June, Shakesperience (a 3-credit course) immerses students in the full experience of theatre, combining the best parts of the page and the stage. Featuring an eclectic group of students, alumni, and faculty from Bishop’s University and other Maple League Schools (Mount Allison, St. Francis Xavier, and Acadia University), Shakesperience participants spend time studying and analyzing several plays before traveling from Bishop’s University to the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario – a nearly ten-hour drive.

In Stratford, the world becomes the classroom. Students will eat, breathe, sleep, and dream theatre! They are engaged in many aspects of theatre that they may never have been a part of before. Students watch six plays featured at the Stratford Festival, in different genres. Last year, students were treated to classic English theatre like Romeo and Juliet to hit musical Guys and Dolls.

“Some of my favourite moments were dancing the final Guys and Dolls dance sequence at impromptu times during the week, for example dancing in the wings of the festival theatre after a performance and during our final Shakesperience Banquet. Watching the actors/actresses dance on the stage to choreography that we knew was a real treat. It’s rare that you get such a unique behind-the-scenes glimpse into what it takes to put on such a high-quality production of musical theatre and then get to see that dance sequence performed on stage in all the glitz and glamour.”

Asha-Maria Bost, Neuroscience Major, Bishop’s University

Prof. Jessica Riddell

One of the benefits of attending a theatrical performance in addition to reading the text itself is the opportunity for personal interpretation and perspective. Each performance represents the collective interpretation of the director, actors, stage designers, costumiers, dramaturges, lighting designers, and many other producers of meaning. However, especially for Shakespeare’s plays, the audience members are spectators but also participants, complicit in the act of making meaning too. Therefore, each performance is unique and unlike any other because the audience is also different: a cough in the audience, a dropped prop, a wardrobe malfunction, an improvised line, a child laughing in the audience can all have dramatic effects on the performance every single night. This is also true of every good classroom: when you produce meaning together and in collaboration, every learning experience is different, diverse, special.

“Shakespeare’s plays urge us to explore the complexities of truth and the troublesome nature of knowledge in a world that unfolds with us in it – both as spectators and as active participants. In Henry V, the Chorus exhorts the spectators to harness their imaginations: “Can this cock-pit hold / The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?” (Prologue, 11-14). Begging the audience to compensate for the actors’ “imperfections” by employing their own “imaginary forces,” the Chorus emphasizes the need for the spectators to take an active part in fulfilling the illusion. We ask the same thing of our students: the richness of the classroom experience depends upon their willingness to explore intersections between knowledge, experience, and imagination. Just as no performance is ever the same, the classroom experience is always dynamic if we take as our starting point that students are collaborators and partners in the making of meaning. ENG225 Shakesperience embodies this philosophy of students as partners because we watch the plays unfold together in both their textual and theatrical forms and then navigate the dynamic interplay between context and evidence and theory to develop a more nuanced and deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s plays and – by extension – ourselves and our place in the world. ”

Dr. Jessica Riddell, Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence

While we have opportunities to view film versions of plays – and even recorded versions of performance – the act of spectatorship in live theatre is very different. Even two people in the same theatre—whether they are seated right next to one another or across the audience—will have very different experiences of the performance because of where they choose to direct their attention.

“In the bar fight scene in Guys and Dolls, there was so much going on at one time that it was impossible to watch everything; the audience has to choose where to focus their perspective. Some watch the main couple, some watch background characters, and some still watch a single person—in one case, a bartender who, throughout the entire debacle is cleaning glasses behind the counter. While perhaps not the main focus, background characters still manage to provide entertainment and meaning to a performance where so much is happening.”

Brianna Henshaw, English Major, Bishop’s University

Theatre allows for the audience member to create their own experience and form their own interpretations of a performance, separate from every other experience in the house. The study of live theatre makes room for the individual experience of the audience member, in a way that a text or film cannot do alone.

The Stratford Festival has four distinct theatres, each with their own layouts and, by extension, diverse audience experiences. The Tom Patterson Theatre is a space that showcases the varied views of a single audience. It is a theatre-in-the-round where audience members sit on all four sides of the stage. Rising up and away from the small, raised, rectangular stage, audience members can see each other while they watch the performance in front of them.

“During the performance of The Changeling, our class was divided into three viewing areas—two on the long sides, facing each other, and one on the shorter end of the stage. When we re-convened at intermission, we found that the people seated on the long sides of the stage had had vastly different viewing experiences than those at the end. Those of us on the short end had been more surprised by the murder of one character versus the others who had seen the knife in the actor’s hand. Though the actors tried as hard as they could, there is no way for them to not have their backs facing the audience at any given moment. This effect makes the performance not feel like a performance at all but rather like you are privy to the dramatic lives of the characters onstage.”

Brianna Henshaw, English Major, Bishop’s University

When they’re not immersed in the theatre experience – with all the drama, music, tragedy, betrayal, romance, and redemption of theatre – Shakesperience students are living the backstage life too. They participate in dance and combat workshops, touring behind-the-scenes stages (including the Festival theatre during a set change), dress up in vintage costumes in the enormous costume warehouse, and attend meet-and-greets with cast members from various shows.

The post-show chats with actors allow student the unique opportunity to learn from the actors themselves. What was your interpretation of your character? What was the process like? How did you become your character? These are questions that the typical theatre-goer may not be able to ask. Some students, like Asha-Maria Bost, may even get inspiration from them:

“I got to have a conversation with Mikaela Davies, the lead actress in The Changeling. She spoke to me about acting, and how having confidence in your abilities and striving for what you love is extremely important. […] I think I shied away from the theatre as I grew older, as I was intimidated by the talent and drive of those in the acting profession. This lack of confidence really is holding me back from striving for the things I love. Shakesperience, and Mikaela reminded me that I need to follow my passions, and to not let my self-confidence hold me back.”

Asha-Maria Bost, Neuroscience Major, Bishop’s University

Having the opportunity to experience an all-access backstage pass allows Shakesperience students to view theatre through multiple lenses, and helps them to form a deeper understanding of everything involved with theatre with the countless hours of thought and deep engagement that go into planning and executing a theatrical production.

Some may argue that Shakespeare is no longer relevant in our 21st century society. Well, Shakesperience members are out to prove that Shakespeare is perhaps more relevant than ever!

“There was much discussion – both amongst ourselves and with cast members – about how to keep five-hundred-year-old plays fresh and relevant, and I think that it was especially valuable in today’s uncertain political climate. Shakespeare’s works have always been political and social commentaries, and in my opinion, it is important that this facet of them is explored and used to look at our modern society through different lenses.”

Jami Michalik, French Major, Acadia University

Theatre is more than a singular reading or interpretation of a text. Theatre exists to create communities. Communities that laugh, cry, sing, dance, and learn together. Shakesperience exemplifies the liberal arts model upon which Bishop’s University prides itself.

“As a recent graduate of Bishop’s in the neuroscience program I can honestly say that Shakesperience was my favourite class I’ve taken at Bishop’s. I have never felt so energized and excited about what I was learning. Dr. Riddell is an outstanding teacher, who takes the time to get to know each of her students. This class is an example of first rate undergraduate teaching that I hope many more students get to experience in the years to come.”

Asha-Maria Bost, Neuroscience Major, Bishop’s University

Combining all the best aspects of English Literature and Drama, critical thinking and historical knowledge, community experiences and individual assessment, Shakesperience extends learning beyond the classroom and into the world.

“I learned to expect the unexpected in life and the immense importance of respecting other opinions, especially those that don’t line up with my own. I have learned more here than in any other classroom in my entire life, because it combines the voices and experiences of so many professionals with the spoken words of Shakespeare, Middleton and other marvelous playwrights that we lived and breathed religiously for one week. I have learned more about myself, about the world, about Shakespeare and humankind.”

Darcie Talbott, 2nd Year English Major, Bishop’s University

Shakesperience 2018 is shaping up to be a remarkable – even historic! – week next June. As part of a scholars-in-residence Program at Bishop’s University, Dr. Riddell will team teach ENG225 with two of her colleagues, Dr. Lisa Dickson (UNBC) and Dr. Shannon Murray (UPEI). These three professors are the only Shakespeareans in Canada who are also 3M National Teaching Fellows. They affectionately refer to themselves as the Wyrd Sisters (a wry wink to Macbeth’s three witches), and they will no doubt bring their own brand of alchemy to the Stratford Festival this year.

Just as Jaques declares in Act II of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage”, Shakesperience proves that all the world can be your classroom.

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