For over a dozen years the LA English Department has collaborated with the Portland Stage Company in a curriculum intended to bring literature to life.
Students read a play that is part of the theater company’s fall season, discuss the play in class, and then watch the fully staged production on a field trip to Portland. Portland Stage Company runs morning “educational matinees” specifically designed to expose young people to professional theater.
This season’s selected play was Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon, and the honors English classes in 10th and 12th grade at Lincoln Academy participated. After the classes read the play but before the field trip Andrew Harris, Production Manager at Portland Stage Company, traveled to LA to do some pre-teaching about what students would see on stage.
Andrew Harris is a burly Brit with an expressive face and the presence of the Shakespearean actor he has been for much of his life. When he spoke to sophomores in honors English, their attention was entirely riveted for more than an hour.
“Language is more than black marks on a page,” said Harris, who quoted poets, including Dylan Thomas and John Greenleaf Whittier, throughout his talk. “Plays are not meant to just be read, as novels are. They are meant to be experienced; to be heard, seen, felt, even smelled and tasted. Shakespeare would roll over in his grave if he knew his work was being “studied.” He wanted it to be performed! You can’t understand Shakespeare unless you see the plays on stage.”
Harris discussed the meaning of the word “memoir” as used in the play’s title, as more than a factual retelling of a personal history; rather it is impressionistic, sensory, concentrated by time and distance. He did an exercise asking students to remember something from when they were four in order to bring to life the idea that memories are based more in senses than they are in facts. To further illustrate the point he recited from Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales: “I can’t remember if it snowed for 12 days when I was six, or for six days when I was 12.”
Finally, Harris encouraged students to think about the complex process that happens between reading a play and producing that play on stage. By the time an audience sees a production, the playwright’s words on the page will have been interpreted by the director, lighting designer, set manager, costume designer, and each actor. “Plays don’t just happen,” he explained, “They are built out of hundreds of hours of planning, deciding, helping words come to life. What you will see is not just the words as written by Neil Simon, but the coming together of thousands of decisions by multiple people.”
When Lincoln Academy students entered the Portland Stage Company theater a week later, they were clearly alert and paying attention to these choices. They immediately noticed the background sound of a radio broadcast of a 1930s baseball game, the openness of the stage, the warm lighting. The impressionistic, completely original set immediately grabbed their attention. One student was overheard commenting: “Wow, it looks like the house is floating!”
The morning audience at Portland Stage Company was entirely made up of middle and high school students from about six schools in Maine. Students were completely absorbed by the performance. They laughed out loud, discussed it during intermission, and even stifled tears during the final scenes. “The play was superb, and the acting exquisite,” commented Lucy Williams ‘17. Jacob Brown, ‘17 reflected, “The minimalist frame of the house and abundance of notebooks made the play feel more like a vibrant memory. The voice-acting felt realistic, especially Eugene’s reading Mrs. Murphy’s letter in a different voice.”
The ensemble of seven actors exited the stage after curtain call, and returned a few minutes later out of costume to answer audience questions. This “talk back program” is a rare opportunity for students to interact with professional actors. Student questions ranged from the personal: “do you have any advice if I want to be a voice-over actor?” to the nuts and bolts of acting on the set: “were you nervous climbing up to the third level on the scaffolding?” The actors were receptive and open, and it was clear that they enjoy acting for a student audience.
Theater teacher Griff Braley describes the benefit of the program this way: “More than anything, theater takes us out of ourselves for a time. Today’s students need experiences that help them ask the questions: who am I? and what am I doing? Live theater helps us confront ourselves, our universe and our constructs in a vital, unique way.”
Seth Anderson teaches English at Lincoln Academy and believes strongly in the live theater component of the curriculum. He budgets carefully to keep this opportunity available each year. He explains its importance this way:
“LA is fortunate to be situated in an area saturated with writers, poets, and theaters. Though reading on one’s own or as a class is important, listening to authors read from their own works or viewing a live production of a play we have read engages students even more. Whenever we have the opportunity, we invite local writers and poets to class, and each year, choose a play to attend at the Portland Stage Company. Words on a page come alive as students become part of the text as members of a live audience.”
Christine Hilton ‘17 summed up her experience this way: “Reading the play gave us the chance to imagine the characters but watching the play brings a new light on the story. The actors brought alive the play’s personalities.”