Everyone seems to be afraid of public speaking. But I know a group of nineteen boys that will not hide from a crowd. In the lower and middle school drama club at The Heights- self-dubbed the ‘Tower Fools’- students embrace from an early age this deeply human skill of public performance.
Last week the Tower Fools performed Bottom’s Dream, a play directed by Heights faculty (Myself, Pat Love, Daniel Pluta, and JP Lechner), adapted from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. As with last year’s production of Wolf Story, I continue to be impressed with what these students are able to achieve. From extended soliloquys to quick witticisms, snappy dialogue to downright hilarious outbursts, the boys learned Shakespeare’s language– famous for its beauty, notorious for its difficulty– in such as way as to not simply regurgitate words, but to perform the script with true meaning.
As they receive their parts, the first direction is to memorize all lines as soon as possible. We tell them: only once we’ve memorized the script can we begin creating art. The boys understand this and get to work. Emphasis on memorization is not a ploy for convenience during rehearsal; such learning is crucial for the language to be internalized. When the actor possesses his lines in this way, he can begin to interpret them in a much deeper sense, to become them, to act.
But this sounds way too high-minded for 3rd to 7th graders, I mean come on, these are boys, and this is Shakespeare. Yet the boys crave this seriousness; they love the fact that they can work side by side with teachers they trust, together on creating a real work of art. They memorize their lines and so grow confident in their characters, ever eager to improve.
Confidence is crucial in dispelling the fear of public speaking. For the boys, familiarity with one’s lines, along with the fact of practicing on stage, builds this confidence. Moreover, they begin to recognize that, through much practice, they have developed what is a good and worthwhile product to present to others. This confidence generates a comfort with oneself in front of an audience that simply cannot be learned in any other way.
Only one boy last week out of the whole cast came to me with a question regarding fear. He had taken on an extra role two hours before the performance when a classmate went home sick, and was a bit unclear on his lines. I even asked around whether anyone was scared, talking to boys one on one, looking to help with nerves, but the only nervousness they convey is that which comes from a healthy desire to perform well and not let others down. The deeper dread of standing before a crowd is simply not present.
When the boys become comfortable with their lines and parts, they enjoy acting on a whole new level. They begin to feel they are giving a play to the audience, presenting something they love to their families and friends who come to watch. This is what will remain with them when they grow up, this act of presentation, knowing that they worked hard to perfect their offering, adding new meaning and satisfaction to the audience’s applause. These experiences with drama will help them look forward to speaking in front of crowds in the future.
Bottom’s Dream was a hit; little siblings and older grandparents alike were shaking with laughter, and much of the audience left the show with excitement and pleasant surprise. Not many expected to understand a Shakespeare play from the mouths of young boys, let alone to thoroughly enjoy it. I feel no personal pride in declaring the play a success, because the fact is a tribute to the boys and all their hard work in and out of rehearsal. What I do take pride in is the opportunity to work with a theatre program like the one at The Heights, alongside fellow faculty members I have great respect for, endeavoring to help provide such an experience of dramatic art for our students and school community.
I still remember clear moments from my first Heights play, as a sixth grade student, squinting into blinding lights and yelling something about goblins to a room full of people eating dinner. I acted in plays from six grade until senior year; these experiences have stuck with me, as I know they will stick with my students, to help form them as they grow. I know this is one of the key reasons why I’m not afraid of public speaking, and I love the fact that I am able to help provide similar experiences for my students. At the end of Bottom’s Dream, the best complement I received was the mob of boys that swarmed me, asking when tryouts for the next play would be, and would I please let them join?