Bringing words to life

Professional actors help teachers see literature in new ways

Posted: Sunday, August 06, 2000

Three teachers stand on chairs, arms up and fingers stretched apart, as another teacher lies on the floor.

The teachers, graduate students at the Bread Loaf School of English, are bringing to life Sandra Cisneros' short story ``Four Skinny Trees,'' minus one tree.

``They are the only ones who understand me. I am the only one who understands them,'' says the little girl lying under the trees.

The Bread Loaf School of English is a master's degree program held each summer by Middlebury College. Most of the students are high school teachers. The school offers courses near Middlebury's home campus in Vermont, as well as in Juneau, near Santa Fe, N.M., and in Oxford, England.

At a workshop last month by actors Anne Scurria and Barry Press, the teachers learned to find the different ``voices'' in a story, not just for a character or narrator, but the voices of varied ideas even within one sentence.

The actors, on staff at Bread Loaf, are training teachers how to take words from the page to the stage so their own students can do the same.

A lot of kids learn by doing, said Colleen Ruggieri, who teaches English in suburban Boardman, Ohio.

``Rather than sitting around talking about it, it allows them to become the story,'' she said.

Likewise, it forces teachers to be involved, demonstrating how to do it rather than sitting behind a desk, said Maria Roberts, the only English teacher in her high school in the ranching and farming community of Peetz, Colo.

Teachers who use the technique can't expect a particular outcome, Press tells them. They have to give up some control.

``It gets the focus off of me and onto them and their thinking processes,'' said Alison Hackley, a high school teacher in rural Leitchfield, Ky.

``It makes them more independent. They're less passive.... They have fun. They love to watch each other. They love to be seen,'' she said.

The learning comes from students figuring out how to read the piece aloud and give it a physical form. The technique forces students to be specific about their interpretations, Scurria said.

``It creates a much more immediate relationship with the story or poem they're working with,'' she said in an interview. ``It kind of fools (students) in a benign way. Getting them to focus on who will say what, you're getting them to analyze.''

Press and Scurria, of Providence, R.I., comprise the Bread Loaf Acting Ensemble at the school's program on the University of Alaska Southeast campus. They've been holding workshops during the summer program in Juneau for two years and in Vermont for about 12 years.

It's unusual for graduate schools of English to use actors. At the Vermont campus, the acting ensemble also teaches theater classes and puts on plays, including some written by students.

But it seemed silly to only stage plays, said Jim Maddox, who directs the school. Years ago, the folks at Bread Loaf thought: Why not try to make acting an engine of what goes on in the classroom?

``We've experimented with that more than almost anyone around,'' Maddox said.

Whose self is evident?

At a Juneau workshop last month, graduate students enacted part of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, in which certain truths are said to be self-evident. Press, an actor and instructor, primed students by asking for their first impressions.

Seems long-winded, one student said of Jefferson's classical 18th century prose. Lots of abstractions, someone observed. Capitalized abstractions, a woman added, looking at words such as Life and Liberty.

``It's like `Winnie the Pooh,''' she said, which might be the first time ever for that thought.

The capitalized nouns made it feel loud, a student said. ``Self-important,'' ``dictatorial'' and ``oppressive,'' students said. They noticed the declaration refers to man and capitalizes the word Men, but doesn't mention women.

One group performed the piece sitting around a table and holding hands, like a family saying grace at a holiday dinner.

A woman lifted an imaginary glass to drink as she spoke of ``the pursuit of happiness.'' Another worked her pretend knife and fork as she said ``destructive.'' When it was time to say ``man'' or ``Men,'' it was a woman who leaned forward and emphasized the words.

Walk the walk

Scurria and Press also teach a workshop on using improvisational acting exercises to generate personal writing in students.

``If you can talk, you can write. We are here to get some of those stories out,'' Press tells eight graduate students as they stand in a circle holding hands.

The actors ask the students to step forward, give their name and make a gesture, which the others will mimic. Rosetta Coyne, a middle school teacher in Quitman, Ga., hugs herself. Juneau elementary school teacher Geri McLeod twirls in a pirouette.

``The two biggest fears are stepping in front of your peers and death, not necessarily in that order,'' Press tells them. He reminds them to breathe.

Then the students are asked to write ``the different names that you are,'' as Scurria puts it.

Again and again, the actors ask for improvisations that force the students to be both introspective and outgoing, then follow with writing assignments about the self, such as finishing the phrase ``I am the one who ...''

The improvisations are designed to get the students used to not having control without its being traumatic, Scurria said in an interview.

``It's intended to surprise yourself,'' Press added.

Graduate student Seth Potter, a theater teacher in Princeton, N.J., said ``there's a certain creativity that flows. Some people process it through bodies, some through their hands, some visually. And they're not separate.''

Students are asked to remember a photograph or memory of their family, and position other students to represent it, then tell its story.

Soon three students are crouched to represent boulders and two students are on their knees with their arms aloft as if they're wading in a stream. Potter is remembering a summer as a young child at a family cabin in the mountains.

Eventually, the students are asked to take off their shoes and imagine themselves in the shoes of one of their parents and walk around the room. It is a profound transformation.

One woman walks stiffly in high heels. A man turns grim, slouches and drags a leg. They are asked to write about themselves from a parent's viewpoint and to say where their mother or father lives in them.

You can't get much more personal than that, but the students are asked to perform some of their writings in small groups.

Scurria and Press provide an example.

As Press stands on a chair turned around, with one of his legs looped over the top, Scurria describes herself standing on the rung of a fence, ``as relaxed and alert as a young wild creature.''

She is a small god viewing her creation, Scurria says. ``She is me, and I can't remember feeling that.''

Coyne, in an interview, said the techniques would be valid for her middle school students, especially because they wouldn't have to share more than they wanted to.

``I think children love to imagine and close their eyes and recapture moments. I think they need more of that,'' she said. ``It's a healing experience to brainstorm. By saying that there's no right or wrong to it, that validates your feelings or thoughts. They need that to help their self-esteem,'' she said.

With the improvisations, there is no way to fail and no expectations because the participants don't know where they're going, Press tells the group. So the writing takes on those same attributes.

The less that is anticipated the better, which differs from what teachers usually do, Coyne tells the group. ``Instead, it's `create the steps to get to the unknown.'''

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