We’re Ready for Shakespeare: Theater and the Fall Play

With the Fall Play approaching, The Bay School Blog sat down with Theater and World Languages Instructor Mary Ann Rodgers for an inside look at our theater program in-class and out.

Mary Ann earned her bachelor’s in dramatic arts from UC Santa Barbara and a secondary school teaching credential in English and Spanish from SFSU. Mary Ann has been a member of The Bay School faculty since 2008. “Learning to teach is a never-ending process, but there are a few truths upon which I lean,” Mary Ann wrote in her statement of teaching philosophy. “People, like dolphins, learn more from encouragement and positive reinforcement than they do from criticism and negative input.” A talented director, Mary Ann typically directs and produces one of The Bay School’s three annual theater productions. She is also a working actress who performs in theater productions throughout the Bay Area.

What’s special about Bay’s theater program?

First, we are a really inclusive program. We want everybody to feel that creative expression is part of your everyday life and that it’s something you will do for the rest of your life.

Also, most schools have one drama teacher; they get one school of thought and that’s it. At Bay we have two teachers – Katherine Riley and myself. I love Katherine; we have great mutual respect, but we’re very different teachers, and our strengths are really different. Whether kids continue acting or not, that’s a gift.

What classes are offered, and what is the purpose of each?

  • Drama 1A: Students focus a good deal on improvisation to get the mind working quickly, to develop responses, to improve listening skills, to understand instinctive reactions without judgment or censoring.
  • Drama 1B: Students are introduced to technique and craft. We start working with them on what it is to communicate the human experience, which is the purpose of theater arts.
  • Drama 2: Students do more scene work and look at different schools of theater instruction – Stanislavsky, David Mamet, Laban, Grotowski – theories of how you act and how theater is presented.
  • Advanced Performance Workshop: Those who love it can go deeper. That’s always been a Bay idea – depth over breadth.

What kinds of performances does Bay put on each year?

We do three plays a year – two straight plays and one musical, which usually takes place in the winter.

I’m directing a classical piece right now, and I’ve directed Neil Simon comedy. Katherine directed “Anatomy of Gray,” which was a drama, and “A Cripple of Inishmaan,” which is a genre in itself. We try to do a real variety of things.

How did you decide on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for this year’s Fall Play?

The program had developed enough to take on Shakespeare; we had a theater [through our partnership with Fort Mason Center’s Southside Theater]; and I wanted to do something timeless and fun.

I also thought about some of the seniors and if they auditioned where I might put them. Some of them are going to apply to art schools, so I wanted them to go in with a resume and a portfolio. I wanted something very playful to start this year. Next year I might want a tragedy; it just has to do with what have we done, where are we, what do we need.

What about Shakespeare makes it challenging?

Theater is supposed to be dynamic. If the difference between going to see theater and going to see a movie has to do with the audience participating in the process, then you can think about a movie as something you sit back and watch and think of theater as something where you lean forward. It’s harder because it asks you to intellectually and emotionally engage more than most movies.

The kids are learning to use the language to communicate their emotions. They’re getting more precise and starting to listen with more care; that’s the process with Shakespeare. That’s going to come across in their word choice when they communicate with people, in their writing when they look at how they’re expressing themselves. It’s going to make them more critical and more meticulous thinkers.

Will the show be good? I hope so. Should it be fun? It really should be – it’s a bunch of goofy teenagers playing. But will they come out of the process as more critical thinkers and more creative artists? I think they will. Shakespeare yanks you up; it just demands that you come up to it.

I know that your version of the play is set in the present at The Bay School. How does that work?

The decision to set “Midsummer” at The Bay School serves to ground the kids in modern reality, so that they won’t start acting Shakespeare [overdramatically]. No, you sound like you; you talk like you. You just use these words.

I took them up to the Presidio Eco Trail – part of it is really woodsy. I said to them, “Picture this. You’ve run away from school, and you’ve headed for the woods. It’s night time, it gets dark and you can easily become disoriented. That’s what happens to these characters.”

The adults in the play are the administrators, parents, trustees – authority. The kids in it are the kids. Every mechanical in the play – Snug the Joiner, Bottom the Weaver – they all fix things, so they’re the MARMOTS [The Bay School’s student volunteer IT team]. Katherine had the brilliant idea that the fairies are the spirits of the Presidio, and her costume pieces will combine Native American, military, nature and fairy elements.

What do students get out of the experience of being in a play at Bay?

They should come in knowing that they’re going to have some fun and some silliness. I think they leave with a greater understanding of who they are, the role the arts play in society, how they express in the world. I think it’s also the best definition I’ve seen – and I’m biased – of project-based learning.

With “Midsummer,” they’re learning about Renaissance theater, Renaissance times, how Shakespeare wrote about ancient Athens and put it in Renaissance times, and scansion. They all know what I mean when I say “blank verse” or “it’s breaking the meter, let’s look at that line again.” They’re understanding the imagery and how to work with extended imagery. Because we set it now at The Bay School, they’re seeing the parallels between the two worlds and how they match up really well – that people don’t change. And they’re solving problems constantly, whether it’s acting or technical.

My class, my play is a conversation. I do sometimes say, “I can’t see you; you need to move over there,” but a lot of it is, “What’s he trying to say there? Did you think about this possibility?” It’s a debate because I’m trying to get their characters out of them, not mine.

What can an audience member expect to see when they come to the play?

I think they would see a bunch of kids invested in a project and having a wonderful time.

Please join us for our uniquely Bay production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Nov. 7 – 10 at Fort Mason Center’s Southside Theater