Bring­ing Shake­speare from page to stage

Teacher gives stu­dents unique hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence with Bard’s works

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - By RAYMONDZHOU raymondzhou@ chi­

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.

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