What actually happened in that ‘Active Reading’ workshop at the Unlearning Shakespeare Symposium at Oxford Brookes ? James Stredder

Posted July 18th, 2012 by James Stredder and filed in Pedagogy, Teaching approaches and techniques

I began with the claim that ‘active reading’ – reading at least part of the text aloud together in class – is of value for advanced readers studying Shakespeare, as well as for beginners. The argument is that physical experience of the text, through collective reading aloud (sometimes actually speaking together and sometimes reading the same words, but in one’s own time), pulls everyone present into a kind of shared dramatic production, which intensifies readers’ personal experience of the text, and that it is also motivational – its effects carry over into private reading and study. If this is so, I’d call it efficient learning.


Our first piece of text was Claudius’s speech ‘Oh my offence is rank, it smells to heaven…’   (Hamlet 3.3.36-72). All the work on this speech was about intensity, awareness of each other, sharpness of execution, timing, getting together perfectly on the words, feeling the first, visceral outpouring of the lines, their sense and dramatic direction beginning to form from the discipline of ‘first encounter’ reading exercises. I asked the class to make a tightly-packed circle with their toes and they shuffled in together, perhaps  amused by the sight of feet, appearing disembodied, adjusting to the position of  other feet. Then we were away, reading the first 12 lines of the speech, no leading from me or anyone else, but all together, intensely, under our breath, then ‘chewing the words’, louder, then whispered again, then stopping on a ‘cut’ hand-signal from me, memorising the cue word from which we would re-commence reading, then all looking up, away from the text, while marking the place we’d got to in the speech, making eye contact in the circle, poised to restart on my next hand-signal, hitting the return word together.


For the next section of Claudius’s speech (17 lines), we broke into three smaller circles of 10 or 11 readers, and  took a line or two each (each circle working independently of the other 2 circles),  ‘chiming’ cue words to keep pace and involvement (Speaker B comes in, speaking aloud  in unison with Speaker A, on the last couple of words in Speaker A’s line; Speaker C then comes in, in just the same way, on the last few words of Speaker B’s line, and so on). Throughout, the whole group also accompanied all the speakers, by whispering or quietly muttering all the lines as they were spoken. Then, keeping in our groups, performing the lines, we moved freely around the room, holding onto our own group performance of the lines while the other groups moved amongst us, holding on to theirs.


In the final 9 lines of the speech, Claudius confronts his fear of despair and damnation, ‘What then? What rests?/ Try what repentance can…’ For this intense introspection (‘…oh limèd soul…’) we used Cicely Berry’s famous exercise Punctuation turns, which offers a kinaesthetic way of tracing the processes of thought, a physicalistion, through movement, of language patterns, which allows comprehension to be actually felt and internalised. We all spoke the lines aloud, but in our own time, reading ‘on the move’ amongst the others in the class, as we changed direction on the punctuation marks. We finished with an impromptu performance, repeating the section with ‘staggered starts’ (readers setting off, in turn,  a word or two behind the person ahead of them), so there was an echoing  diminuendo effect as each reader finished on the final line ‘All may be well.’


For our second set of exercises, all variations of Reading on the move in pairs, we took the delicious play of wit between Jaques and Orlando in Act 3, Scene iii of As You Like It  (l.213, ‘I thank you for your company, but, good faith, I had as lief have been myself alone…’ to the end of the scene, ‘I am glad of your departure. Adieu, good Monsieur Melancholy.’). We used different techniques for different sections of the dialogue. First we  maintained  close contact with our partners as we experimented with sound levels, with one reader  ‘rooted’ and the other moving, and with extending and varying the distance  between us – this is a particularly interesting exercise when, as here, the room is crowded with participants. Then we took  Keith Johnstone’s revelatory status work to explore the dramatic effects on dialogue of low, high, ‘balanced’ and ‘reversed’ status.


To finish, we went outside into the sunshine (it was actually a beautiful day, in this 1594 of a summer !) to work ‘environmentally’ on performance of the dialogue,  in groups of six, using lawns, steps, seats and paths – the  (invitingly different) levels and spaces  near our workshop room. In their sixes, pairs first rehearsed, in any way they liked, and then performed their sections of dialogue, with each pair taking it in turns to perform for the other two pairs, or to be ‘audience’. Albeit on a small-group scale, this provided, for everyone – not just the ‘stars’-   the incentive, and the fun, of performance.


Please comment. What do you think? Are such methods useful in your working situation? What are your favourite ways of using  ‘active reading’? It would be good to hear what you think.


Note: the workshop  was based on techniques I’ve written about in The North Face of Shakespeare (CUP, 2009).