Sunday, November 15, 2009

Shakes Invaders

We were about 45 minutes into our three-hour Shakespeare class the other night when the classroom door opened.

I was perched atop the instructor desk in front of the blackboard, my 25 students arranged before me in a semi-circle. We were working through a scene in Troilus and Cressida, and when I heard the door open, slightly behind me, I didn't look over. I was mid-sentence, and figured it was a student slipping in late.

Instead, a young man and young woman walked right into the center of the room and started performing part of the banquet scene from Romeo and Juliet.

We stopped abruptly. Fucking theatre kids, I thought. They must be advertising a production. Assholes. But since I knew the scene, and they'd already started, I figured I'd let them finish--surely they were just going to do the shared sonnet, and would be done in another dozen lines.

But they got to the end, kissed, and kept going.

The door opened again, and a third person came in: the Nurse. She got out a few lines, but when it became clear they weren't going to stop, I stood up.

"Thanks so much," I said sharply. "But you have the wrong semester: we do tragedies in the spring."

For the first second or two, even after I'd stood up, they didn't break character, but showed every sign of wanting to continue.

"You can leave NOW."

They slunk, grinning and only slightly abashed, to the door. As they got there, the woman playing Juliet announced something about this being a senior project--guerrilla Shakespeare, or some such shit.

After they left, my students and I stared at each other, rattled. We confirmed that none of us knew what the hell that had been, and that it hadn't been planned by any of us. One volunteered that she'd seen them doing this around campus--in the student union, and the bookstore.

There was a bit more nervous venting, but finally it seemed time to regroup.

"Okay," I said. "Let's return to the play we're actually reading, which is not Romeo and Juliet." I paused, thinking fast. "But the language you just heard Romeo and Juliet using--that overblown, self-consciously romantic language? That's really the same language Troilus is using in the scene we were just looking at. . . "

From the back of the room one of my students called out, "NICE segue!"

"Yeah," I shot back. "Most important thing I learned in graduate school."

* * * * *

We recovered, more or less, but what strikes me most about the episode is how different my reaction was from that of my students. I was pissed from the moment the actors entered, and although I didn't know what they were doing--and thought one of my own students might have engineered it for some misguided but well-intentioned purpose--I knew they weren't supposed to be there, and that I could get them out. My students, though, were much more shaken; some seemed genuinely upset.

It occurs to me that this is about the power dynamic in the classroom: I'm in charge and I know I'm in charge. My students, in a way that I don't often think about, are not in charge--even in a boisterous class where it can take me a while to get them to quiet down or to hush those having side conversations. Yes, they can tune in or tune out, and get up to go to the bathroom without asking my permission, but they don't feel they have the power to change what happens in that confined space; when something does happen, all they're able to do is watch.

The interruption also made me think about how vulnerable the classroom is. We think we're in a separate and semi-charmed space for those 60 or 90 minutes, but the world can come inside without our permission--whether it's jerky drama students or a medical emergency or a kid with a gun.

I'm still pissed at the actors (I spent almost 24 hours walking around muttering "fucking theatre people" under my breath), but I'm not sorry to have had the chance to think, in a concrete way, about my obligations to those in my charge for a few hours every week.


What Now? said...

What a bizarre senior project; are they invading all sorts of classrooms, I wonder, and is it always Romeo and Juliet, and what are they supposed to be arguing or analyzing in said project? Very, very strange.

It's certainly true, as you say, that the classroom is vulnerable, but what seems amazing to me is how often it works -- how we do manage to create this little world on a regular basis, a world that operates by its own rules and ethos that don't necessarily hold Out There (such as "Literature is important" and "Talking about ideas is cool"). And when one thinks about all the forces ranged against those little created worlds, it's sort of amazing that we pull it off, week after week.

phd me said...

Ditto on being pissed. I'm not sure how I would have reacted but it wouldn't have been as classy as your reaction.

And what an excellent point about being in charge. I've had a few moments where that responsibility has really weighed on me (after Virginia Tech, for instance). I get very protective of my students and, sometimes, the world is too much with them.

Fretful Porpentine said...

... Is it wrong of me to be a bit saddened that the campus climate has changed so much that people's first reaction is fear? I mean, I can picture that sort of thing happening at my alma mater in the mid-90's, and as a student, I would have thought it was kind of awesome (although I can certainly understand why a professor would be rightfully pissed at having their class invaded!)

Sisyphus said...

You _really_ wouldn't have liked the streaker group who sprinted through all the big lecture halls during finals the first year I was here. :)

I thought it was hilarious. My students were surprisingly undismayed.

Prof. de Breeze said...

This certainly isn't meant as a criticism, but I think I would have reacted differently if this happened in one of my classes. I mean, I'm usually annoyed by interruptions to the class, but the idea of students--students!!!--caring enough about Shakespeare to burst into a classroom to perform a scene just fills me with joy.

Probably the difference has to do with our different environments. I'm at a CC, teaching only non-majors, so I'm always looking for something, anything to get them engaged in the material. True, I prefer to be the one who decides what methods to employ to engage them, but I really think that in this case, I would have viewed the interruption as a very welcome deus ex machina.

Flavia said...

Sisyphus: actually, I think a lecture hall is different. We're in a fairly small room for a class of our size, and it's intimate and discussion-based, which made this feel like more of an invasion. Also: streakers don't speak, and it's strikes me as oddly less in one's face--more of a passing spectacle, rather than something you're being forced to watch.

And Fretful (and Prof deBreeze): I think it's not un-awesome to do guerrilla Shakespeare in a public place (like the student union). Again, people can watch or not.

And I'd have been thrilled if the students had contacted me in advance--if I could have worked it into my lesson plan (and I surely could have), it would have been neat to have the actors come in. I mean, if they could look up the time and location of my class, they could look up my email address.

As it was, this struck me as an actively hostile act, something that I'm sure the actors thought made them cool and brazen and subversive in some way--just waltzing into a classroom! to do SHAKESPEARE! Who could object!--but that was actually profoundly anti-social and disrespectful.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Let's be honest, Flavia: you're always muttering that about theater people.

I think your Shakes invaders are jerks twice over. First for messing with your classroom (coming in mid-class and going on until made to stop, trying to impose is hostile). Second for disrespecting theater. And what they did absolutely disrespects the nature of theater.

I love guerrilla theater, street theater, al fresco performance art. But the truth at the heart of guerrilla is that Every place can be a theater, because a theater is not a place. It is a relationship. Any place where actors and audience form that willing relationship, theater happens.

What they did is not theater, even if it involved "acting" and reciting lines from Shakespeare, because it coerces the audience. It's the audience's consent, their willing attention, that makes the art possible.

Bardiac said...


I'm thinking hard about Doctor Clevelend's very smart analysis. S/he seems to get at the issue well.

the rebel lettriste said...

This reminds me of the first few weeks of the semester, when I have students who simply have not yet learned how to be students. They walk in late, in the middle of a lecture, and march right up to me at the front of the room and try to talk to me (about their being late, about their registration, about having gone to the wrong classroom, &c!) They don't understand that there is classroom etiquette that doesn't revolve exclusively around THEM.

Also, I have now realized that apparently I have a very malleable face. "Scorn" shows up quite well, as does "what the hell are you doing, sweetheart?" A well-placed look goes a long damn way.

And I agree with Dr. C.--this was not guerilla theatre. This was coercive bullying.

medieval woman said...

Hear hear, Dr. C! I would have been pissed, too, Flave.

Fucking theatre people....

Flavia said...

Dr. C:

It's true. Long have I loved and long have I hated theatre people.

(They're just so . . . theatrical.)

Peter C. Herman said...

I admit I had a different reaction. The concept of students invading classrooms to perform a scene or two from Shakespeare seems kind of marvelous to me. Granted, having someone barge in and take over one's classroom constitutes a serious affront, but there's a difference between someone engaging in a political harangue (think Abbie Hoffman at Woodstock and how Pete Townshed dealt with him), and a performance of a scene. Life throws so many unexpected, rotten things at you. For once, the surprise seems to be something delightful.

Scott said...

The other day, in the middle of a lecture/discussion of Swinburne, some lunatic person stood in my classroom doorway, RAISED HER HAND, and demanded that I open up the door next to my classroom.

If the theater requires consent, so does the classroom, and once we're in there, we all know our parts, cues, and blocking. Any disruption of that scene, whether it be roving bands of actors or misguided lunatics, does violence to the whole relationship.