Teaching Shakespeare to the Young: An Interview with Megan Lindsay

I enjoy attending conferences, especially when I have no responsibilities, and am just free to attend talks of interest, reconnect with old friends, and make new ones. At last year’s National Classical Education Symposium in Phoenix, I was free to feed my passion for Shakespearian drama by attending 3 workshops by Globe director/actor/teacher, Nicholas Hutchison. They were wonderful, but I came away more excited to have made the acquaintance of Megan Lindsay, a drama instructor and director at Cicero Preparatory Academy, who introduced all three sessions. I discovered that we shared not only a common love of Shakespeare but also a conviction of the formative effects that performing his works can have on the young.

Like many involved in the liberal arts renewal, Megan stumbled into involvement because of her kids.  She visited her child’s third grade classroom at a classical Christian school, where they were being taught Shakespeare as a grammar stage activity in connection with Renaissance history. Megan had loved acting when she was young so much that she wanted to study acting in college. (“My parents said, ‘No. That has no future.’ So I studied philosophy and history to spite them!”)

Megan was deeply disturbed by what she saw. The teacher seemed to have no idea how to teach Shakespeare to the young. It was obvious that the kids had no idea what Shakespeare was saying. They had no idea the drama was about real people. “I am the kind who raises their hand to solve a problem before I think it out. I asked the school whether I could stage Shakespeare scenes to show parents? ‘Ok, on your own time.’ As I left I gasped to myself, ‘What did I just do?!”

File:Macbeth consults the three witches; an apparition appears of Wellcome V0025890.jpgMegan didn’t really know what kids that young could do. But she thought, ‘I’ll throw spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks.” She  started with some scenes that she thought could be really fun for the kids – the  witches’ cauldron scene from Macbeth, and the scene featuring the drunken sailors and the monster, Caliban, from The Tempest. It was daring – imagine third graders at a Christian school playing as witches and drunkards. But the kids had a great time!

She decided to begin by having them just experience Shakespeare’s language. She had them say the words in different ways, playing with their sounds. “‘Double, double’ is full of assonance and big vowels. They enjoyed saying the words though they didn’t know what a lot of them meant. As I watched them, I realized how natural this approach is for kids – they are used to learning from listening to adults although much of the vocabulary is beyond them.”

Then she had them act out the scene according to the way the words sounded to them and what they could get of the words. She supplied meanings for a few of the words, but for the most part she let them develop the story without direction from her. “They discovered the story! This was so freeing for me as a teacher. I discovered that my role was less to tell them the meaning than to help them discover that meaning through acting it out.”

Megan also saw how they began to learn about themselves through the process of discovering the story through Shakespeare’s words. “Caliban the monster was played by a lovely little boy. He struggled to understand Caliban’s anger, he couldn’t feel it himself. I asked him, ‘Do you ever feel your parents are unfair? Like some time when your mom said no to you?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘when I really wanted the gum in her purse.” ‘Did you take it?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘How did you feel?’ ‘Guilty, but I was still mad at her for being unfair!’ ‘That’s how Caliban felt,” I said. Mowing the lawn when he thought his brother should have done it helped him connect with Caliban who had to carry logs. I never told him, but I was teaching him the acting technique of substitution.”

She has applied this technique to learning Shakespeare and to many other kinds of literature. Sound it out, act it out, then add meaning. This works, she believes because it is so natural. “Kids come to language in a pre-rational way. Language lies in the human heart. It is our way of making meaning.”

Megan also has found that acting contributes to forming what Vigen Guroian has called the moral imagination, and so influences how they live their lives. Through acting, students discover that thoughts (The True) carry emotions (The Beautiful), which make us want to act (The Good). Likewise with the false, the ugly, and the bad. She once heard a Junior who had played Macbeth trying to help his little sister, who was struggling with playing a giddy girl in another play. “‘We struggle,’ he said, ‘with characters because we are judging them; we are not seeing things as they would see them. I had to understand Macbeth’s pride. And I realized that I am like him.’”

It takes time for an actor to experience his character as real.  “New actors have to begin with external representation, until the performance starts to come from within and feel more authentic.”  As a director, Megan conveys to her actors that they have a responsibility to the characters they are creating. “You must be true to your character, who is just words until you incarnate him. If you portray him truthfully, he will become real. And this might affect your life.”

Megan experienced this herself recently while playing a narcissistic controlling mom. “Classical education allowed me to enter into her while still maintaining separation. I made her so real that audience members said afterwards, ‘I hate you.’ Then I went backstage, and took the whole mask off. Yet this woman has influenced me. I was humbled, I could see the beginnings of her character in myself. I became more sensitive to conflicts with my daughters as they went off to college, less willing to sweep things under the carpet, even with my husband.”

Megan fosters this experience with her students by having them, after a performance, articulate what they learned. “They will go into life knowing many kinds of people. And they will have been trained in the art of moral imagination.”

A giant spider

Megan has adapted this technique for Shakespeare works for all literature. She tried it with the chapter, “Shelob’s Lair,” from The Lord of the Rings.” She read it herself, and put together a list of great quotations. She then noticed patterns. “In this chapter, Tolkien focuses on the sensible. He highlights the loss of all the  senses except smell, which is heightened. He chooses gross words like ‘foul’ and ‘reek’. Darkness becomes a thing destroying all senses, and even the memory of sensations. This is a great description: ‘a shadow that being cast by no light, no light could dissipate.’” She wrote out the best quotations and put them up around the room. As with Shakespeare, she had her students read them, say them, and act them out, even if they didn’t yet understand. Then they talked about them, starting generally with, “What did you notice?” eventually moving to “What is darkness? Is it fitting to portray darkness as evil? Why is it Sam who remembers the light, not Frodo?”

Megan was extraordinarily generous with her time and her resources. Her advice helped me have one of the most delightful experiences of my professional career – a two-day Shakespeare workshop with elementary students. The success of today’s  classical education movement comes from having aroused thoughtful, passionate, generous teachers like Megan.