Dramatic irony

Nothing makes you appreciate the hard work of professional actors and directors like getting through the drama unit in your high school English class, or running through a play written and performed by students, for that matter. All along, we thought those famous people got their roles mainly because they were good-looking and charismatic, not because they were particularly intelligent or hard-working. Then, somewhere around the time you finish Act III of Romeo & Juliet, after you’ve delegated and negotiated endlessly over roles and props, you’re looking at quiz scores and you realize what the drama unit does to people. It takes a toll on us all, and we’re not even putting on a real production.

You’ve heard of actors getting too caught up in their roles, to the point of losing it. You’ve heard of the curse of MacBeth, which is probably a related phenomenon. What’s amazing is how quickly this type of thing takes hold.

I have seen it both ways. I’ve had classes in which NO ONE wants to volunteer for a part in the play and just reading the lines out loud together is torture for everyone. “Can’t we just watch the movie?” they beg. But I have also had classes where there are five girls whose dream is to play Juliet. And don’t think for a second that it doesn’t matter who plays Romeo. It matters immensely.

So what do you do?

Switch roles every two acts, so everyone who wants a chance gets one.

Last week, right before we started reading Romeo & Juliet, I was standing in the kitchen at 5:30 a.m. drinking coffee with my husband. He has been a high school English teacher longer than me, so he’s been through R&J a few more times and has a lot of the lines memorized. Friar Laurence’s famous line, “Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast” is posted in his classroom.

Thinking about what it takes to get through a drama unit, even when it isn’t Shakespeare, I said to my husband:

“I know what I have to do, but can I do it?”

That very quote “wisely, and slow” was on an open-book quiz I gave today. You would think open-book would make things easier, but it doesn’t necessarily. Students with high As in the class came to me and said breathlessly, “I’ve been through Acts II and III and can’t find these quotes anywhere.”

That quote is, in fact, in Act II, Scene III, but this is what I mean about the toll – the price of a drama unit, especially a Shakespearean tragedy. Less serious students would have considered these quotes and their value on the quiz fairly inconsequential.

What I’m saying is that there is a little too much drama that comes with the drama unit.

Maybe if my background were in theater instead of nonfiction writing I would find the plays less taxing. Another teacher who works with me is also a director at a local theater. She seems to keep a sense of humor about it all because, of course, they’re kids, and not professionals.

I know, but.

It’s the same in my creative writing class. Writing plays and acting them out seems infinitely more challenging than, say, poetry or, my favorite, literary nonfiction, because there are no rules in poetry and you can be so figurative that it really doesn’t even have to make total sense. With literary nonfiction, people write their memoirs. I love it if they share with the class, but they don’t have to, so the writing itself is the culminating activity. That’s swell for the introverts, and I get it.

Yesterday, we were acting out a play that a kid wrote which was set in a haunted insane asylum. The stand where I kept my bathroom passes got knocked over and broken. I said, “Guys, we are pretending to be in an insane asylum, but this can not become real,” and they knew exactly what I meant. It’s amazing how thin the line can be between losing yourself in a role and just losing yourself.

My 8-year-old daughter loves scary stories, except when she wakes up in the middle of the night after a bad dream. When she woke up at 3 a.m. this morning, I asked her what her bad dream was about. She said, “Sometimes after a bad dream, I just feel scared, but not scared of the thing in the dream.”

OK, well, I have had dreams where something that happened was terrifying, but if I tried to explain it to someone, they wouldn’t understand why. Still, when you’re reading creepy stories and acting them out, you are setting the mood of your mind, which maybe you can turn on and off like a switch, but maybe not.

That tenuous division between fantasy and reality is one that you have to push for creativity, but you can’t go too far or the next thing you know you’re swilling absinthe and talking to a bird.

At the end of Act III, Juliet says, “If all else fail, myself have the power to die.”

When you say those lines, either something happens or it doesn’t. You either feel it or you don’t.

And ultimately, you want to feel it, which is why it sucks the breath right out of you.

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