I was recently asked why I thought that teaching little kids to tackle the works of William Shakespeare would be a swell idea. And why did I write a book about it? And what was that like?
In King Lear, Shakespeare places his protagonist in the torrents of a colossal storm. The withered King bellows in rage as he is battered by wind and rain, his voice drowned by thunder, his body lit by flashes of lightning. It is here that Lear meets both his inner and outer demons. The scene is one of reckoning and is a most beautiful metaphor for any of us attempting to manage the tricky business being a person.
Here are two things I know:
1. Nothing worth doing is easy.
2. Nobody gets the life they thought they wanted.
Okay, maybe out there some 12-year-old mapped out a life plan and has been ticking off the goals one by one: perfect education, successful career, blissful relationships, loving family, house, car, travel, then a peaceful, pain-free passing.
This would surely be the most boring person on the planet.
No, Shakespeare got it right. We will be stymied by storms and have to rewrite our plans. We will be struck down and have to haul ourselves back up. And with any luck, like Lear after the storm, when he sees that he was always loved by Cordelia and finds grace in the chance to love her back, we too find meaning in our stories.
So why didn’t I adapt Pat the Bunny or Clifford the Big Red Dog for those kids instead?
Because I remember being a child, and my storms were big. Because I’ve observed kids in schoolyards and their storms are also filled with torrential rain and blasting gales. They’re tossed about, physically and emotionally. Shakespeare’s characters are motivated by power, revenge or love. I guarantee you, so are kids.
I had a notion that if I could encourage children to stand up and spill out the big, fat words of Shakespeare’s verse in order to identify with power, revenge or love — all in front of an audience — that they would find empowerment. I had an idea that in climbing the highest mountain (and Shakespeare is pretty much Everest), kids would glimpse their own greatness. And once we experience even a smidgeon of our own greatness, we spend our lives pursuing it.
This is why Shakespeare. In my years of working with children and Shakespeare, I have been thrilled as they consistently surpass not only my expectations, but also their own.
I was in a creative desert when I volunteered to start The Shakespeare Club at a public school. I’d left my acting career when I felt the sting of bitterness on my tongue, and I didn’t want to be like King Lear. I forged ahead and fought my own tempests in search of purpose. As it turned out, the Shakespeare Club was yet another storm. I was a fish out of water, an idealist, a romantic, my body buffeted like a rag doll by the unruly kids around me.
A couple of weeks into my Shakespeare Club experience, I was having dinner with my friend, the writer, Maggie Marshall. Shell-shocked, I recounted my tales of trying to inspire the kids who were running the show that I was supposed to be running. Maggie chuckled with a “you’ll laugh about this later” smile. Shortly afterward, she gave me a beautiful handmade journal with Shakespeare’s portrait on the cover and said, “Promise you’ll write this stuff down.” Although I saw my situation as pure tragedy and not comedy, I kept that promise, ending up with years of copious notes, which enabled me to write my entertaining and, yes, funny memoir about the first year of the Shakespeare Club.
In that first year, I quickly learned that I could empathize with children if I remembered what it was like to be a child. This realization led me to intertwine the story of the Shakespeare Club with my own story of wanting to be an actor as a child, becoming a professional in my teens, and my eventual painful abandonment that career. The book is broken up into two blocks of ten chapters each, which represent the ten beats of an iambic line of verse. I had a first draft in six months, and true to Maggie’s prediction, found a way to laugh as I relived that school year while writing about it. Yet I also found it slightly traumatizing, as the first year for any teacher can be a tough one. But it got better. The kids learned, and I learned. No matter how challenging the text or relationships were, we knew there was a prize: empowerment.
I’m often asked who the audience for this memoir is. The list is pretty vast. First, teachers. There’s great satisfaction in reading about an amateur attempting their vocation. Parents. Theatre professionals. Volunteers. Anyone who’s ever had to give up a dream. Anyone who was ever a child. Do you think that’s a big enough audience?
Happy holidays to you and yours. I wish you calm after your storm, peace as the clouds clear, and joy as you discover your greatness.
Following a distinguished career as a classically trained actor onstage and in film and television, Mel Ryane has found a new artistic home in the written word with her memoir, Teaching Will: What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me That Hollywood Couldn’t.
Mel became a professional actor during her teens in her native Canada, and then followed her career to New York City and to theatres across North America. After applying her skills to coaching actors on major studio and network projects, Mel was accepted into the Directing Workshop for Women at the prestigious American Film Institute. She subsequently wrote a screenplay that advanced to the semifinal round in the Motion Picture Academy’s Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting competition.
Mel travels across the country teaching “From Page to Podium: Reading Your Work Aloud,” a workshop that helps writers find their public speaking voice. She also offers school workshops introducing Shakespeare to students. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, their dog and cat. www.melryane.com