Bringing Shakespeare from page to stage
Teacher gives students unique hands-on experience with Bard’s works
He Yue had her first exposure to Shakespeare in the late 1980s, when she stumbled across a complete edition owned by an expatriate teacher.
Curious, she borrowed it. The language was a bit difficult for her to understand, but shemanagedto digest the general plot lines, which she found fascinating.
That little seed has blossomed into a leafy canopy.
For several years now, the Zhejiang GongshangUniversity teacher has directed students in productions of the Bard’s works that are nothing short of astounding for amateur players. And they do it in the original English language to boot.
In 2012, she presented a night of nine Shakespeare selections; the next year saw the school’s King Lear highlight winning the best actor awardandthe audience award in a Hong Kong competition; 2014 brought a lavish production of five Shakespeare selections interspersed with classical musicals. A complete version of Romeo and Juliet was produced early this year and another “best of Shakespeare” night, with six segments, AMidsummerNight’sDream. will grace come October.
Curtis Evans, an American who had been teaching at Gongshang for around seven years and who was one of the jurors for the 2012 and 2014 performances, says the English level of some of the students can match that of professionals.
He Yue teaches English and American Theater as a university-level elective course and Shakespeare as another elective at the university’s Foreign Languages College. The performances are part of the latter course, with every student participating in at least five Shakespeare segments. They are graded on this at the end of the semester. But what are essentially semester-end presentations the stage, have turned into wildly popular galas — tickets are gone within minutes. Very often, additional seats have to be added and even the aisles get occupied.
Speaking of how the stage performances help the students, Qian Xiaoxia, a fellow ESL teacher who has encouraged her students to use He’s class as a means to hone their language skills, says: “Many of the studentshadnot spokenup in class before they took part in this theatrical experience.”
Many of those who participate in the productions have since gone on to professional jobs or further studies overseas. One even got admission into New York University to major in theater direction. Many say they benefited from the unique experience of working onstage — or offstage for that matter, as the students also take on miscellaneous jobs.
He Yue, who majored in English, has been a fan of the theater all her life. While a visiting scholar at New York’s Columbia University, she started to dip her toes into the theatrical waters, so to speak. She happened to be in Edinburgh when the world famous theater festival got into full swing, which exposed her to snippets of Shakespeare put on by college students. So, she believed her students could pull off a similar feat.
The biggest challenge in doing a gala-style show is the rehearsal time, she says. The students all have different schedules and the best she can hope for is one rehearsal day on a weekend. Most of the big shows that become the talk of the town are prepared at either the beginning or the end of a summer vacation, “but even then students have other tasks such as internships that may intrude on rehearsals.”
As amateur productions go, the Gongshang Shakespeare shows are quite professional, and require a substantial investment in costumes, props and makeup. He Yue puts in her own money, usually in five digits for a production, but she says the school has been supportive and usually ends up footing part of the bill.
For the 2012 show, the school paid 10,000 yuan out of the total 14,000 yuan. The 2013 performance was covered by the Hong Kong organizer. The 2014 gala cost 33,000 yuan and the school paid the bulk, 30,000 yuan.
Justifying the financial support, Chai Gaiying, dean of the Foreign Languages College, says: “Our goal is to raise the cultural level of the students, and to promote great culture through the course of interpreting some of these works. We want our students to not only become professionals, but to attain a global vision and cultural sophistication.”
While many of China’s schools of higher learning have theater clubs, only a few consistently present the Bard. And He says that her school could be the only one in the Chinese mainland that devotes a course to both learning Shakespeare’s texts and presenting them on stage.
“You have to have many things lined up for it to happen,” she says. For one thing, it is a full-time job to coach students.
While most teachers of her rank are probably busy working on the Chinese equivalent of tenure, she says she is happy to see her students on stage unleashing their potential.
Student production of William Shakespeare’s play As amateur productions go, the Gongshang Shakespeare shows are quite professional.
He Yue (right) guides students in their rehearsal.