Schoolboys performing colloquies —drawing by John Lithgow

I know, I know—the “whining school-boy…creeping like snail unwillingly to school” and all that—but I actually think Shakespeare had a lot of fun at Stratford’s Latin Grammar school. Not only that, he shared that fun with his classmates.

For one thing, I am absolutely convinced that the first draft of his The Taming of the Shrew was based on a riotously funny collaboration written and performed by Stratford schoolboys, but I’ll save that for a another post when I can show a reading of Erasmus’s hilarious colloquy “Uxor” (Marriage), starring Xanthippe, the Shrew. (My gut tells me that young Will played that part and relished it!)

But I also think that learning dozens and dozens of rhetorical figures and devices was fun too. Why? Well, when you think about it, they ARE fun in themselves—like intricate word puzzles—and wordplay was a major source of entertainment back then. Either by good pedagogy or by necessity, collaboration was a constant factor in the Elizabethan classroom, and figuring out those devices together must have been totally engaging.

Just to demonstrate: I’ve attached here the full video of a presentation I did recently at the studio of Susan Cambique Tracey in which the participants, many of them colleagues and Music Center teaching artists, engaged in a collaborative activity creating examples of four figures. (I’ve posted segments of the video featuring readings from two colloquies—and hope to have one soon of “Uxor”— but the rhetoric portion of the video is in the first half.)

(Video filmed by Scott Powell at the studio of Paul Susan Cambique Tracey)

I’ve been told that some of my blog posts are “erudite.” I hate hearing that. Honestly, I am no scholar. All the years of research I’ve done on this project have been fueled by pleasure and passion: the same qualities that the performing arts bring to the education of children. I hope the laughter and delight experienced by the participants in this video bolsters my theory that arts education, in addition to developing cognition, is a solution to the doldrums our children are experiencing in the contemporary classroom.

 

“To Play” vs “The Play”

Pirates Playing

Pirates Playing

In 1582, in his book Positions, Richard Mulcaster, citing Plato, listed five essential studies for the young student: reading, writing, singing, drawing, and playing. When I first read that I thought that he meant “playing” as in “player,” or “actor,” and was kind of disappointed when I realized that he was referring not to drama but to playing a musical instrument (which, with singing, doubles the number for music!) Still, I was delighted that music and visual arts were up there with the essentials, and if you include rhetoric and the artistry of writing, the arts get four of the five!

But the more I learned about Mulcaster and his daily use of drama in his classroom, the more I realized that theatre was not, at the time, considered an arts discipline in itself, but the product of music, dance, visual arts, and “actio” (physical rhetoric), all of which Mulcaster included in his daily instruction. Through rhetoric, drama is directly connected to writing. (I am personally convinced by my research that the first draft of The Taming of the Shrew was a riotous and “play”ful collaboration of schoolboys at Stratford Grammar School, but I’ll save that for another post).

Playing Around

Playing Around Photo by Mi-Pham via unsplash

Today, outside of the field of child development, “‘play” is too often perceived as a distraction from learning—something in conflict with instruction. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, play is the first—and the most vital—foundational step in literacy; and the more that play can be folded into instruction, the the deeper and more enduring the learning. This is true all through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age (as I am here to testify!)

The following is an excerpt from the final chapter of my book:

“When my four-year-old granddaughter walks in the door, inevitably the first thing she says to me is ‘play with me.’ That primal need for social connection and play will be dominant for at least the next twenty years and, in fact, it will never go away completely. Our minds develop in a social context. Children learn from playing with each other far more than they learn from schooling, which, for better or for worse, opens a wealth of opportunity. Is it any wonder that the most ancient and authentic form of communicating a story is called a ‘play’?”

At any age and IN any age, drama, whether as the verb “play” (e.g. improvisation) or as the noun “play” (e.g. finished performance) engages and entertains as it educates. The education one receives through drama/theatre goes way beyond literacy. It teaches empathy, social skills, time management, collaboration, cooperation, listening, thinking-on-feet, and on and on. Most important, once again, it “frames the mind for learning.” Cognition!