The play’s the thing, even for boys in Grade 6
The play’s the thing, even for boys in Grade 6.
Jeffrey had astonished me the first day of school when he looked at the science fiction display I had put up, nodded with satisfaction and blurted, “Missus B, you’re my kind of woman!” I wasn’t surprised to learn his favourite T-shirt read So Many Women . . . So Little Time! Jeffrey’s best friend was Colin, one of the biggest Grade 6 students I had ever met. His chest bore the vaguely intimidating message Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Been.
This comedic pair was responsible for bringing the upcoming music and drama festival to my attention. Moreover, they laid in wait to ambush me at the slightest opportunity. “It would be wonderful if we could do a play in the festival, could we, could we Missus B? We’ll be so good for you, honest we will,” they said.
With the boys’ prodding, I gave the idea of a play some thought, for it would nicely flesh out the shabby little bits that made up my drama education repertoire. It could also enrich the social studies unit about the ancient world that we had been examining. The Roman Empire provided interesting possibilities.
I knew that with this Grade 6 class we would have more success with comedy than serious drama. Now, the Romans were a serious lot, not much given to laughter as they bashed about conquering and enslaving the known world. Then I remembered a readers’ theatre script for a Wayne and Shuster skit called Rinse the Blood Off My Toga. It dealt with the assassination of Julius Caesar and it always made me laugh, with its clever puns and Latin references.
Here was the answer! It should be easy to convert reader’s theatre, in which the participants perched on stools and literally read their scripts, into a real skit. The students would plan and execute most of the play. I would facilitate and coach my students as they moved through the process. I could see it all in my mind’s eye. As if all this was meant to happen, I found a video of Wayne and Shuster’s greatest hits in the public library, and showed Rinse the Blood Off My Toga to my students.
Everyone was excited, and we had no end of volunteers who wanted to paint scenery or play trumpet volleys to accompany the Roman notables. Quite a number wanted speaking parts, with the rest content to mingle as members of the crowd scenes.
Jeffrey was a natural to play Brutus, and what a wonderful villain he made as he swaggered and bullied his way through the script. Colin, for all his size and bravura, proved to be shy about appearing onstage, although he desperately wanted to be in the play. He cheered up considerably when he was chosen to be the dead body of Caesar. All he had to do was lay on the stage with rubber daggers sticking out of him. He kept forgetting he was supposed to be dead, however, and spent much rehearsal time propped on one elbow, watching the action. The other main speaking parts went to Flavius, the private eye investigating the death of Big Julie, and Calpurnia, Big Julie’s wife. Calpurnia told me her mother was making a real toga for her. The rest of the cast was appearing in old sheets held together with safety pins.
For the next several weeks we immersed ourselves in studying the religion, clothing, diet, music, art and government of ancient Rome, all the while practising for Rinse the Blood Off My Toga. I had long ago stopped worrying over what had started out as a social studies unit straying into other subject areas. What mattered was the enthusiasm displayed by my students.
The date for the annual music and drama festival neared. It is that time in the school year when district teachers enter individuals or groups of students in musical productions, recitations of poetry and prose, as well as dramatic efforts. Adjudicators are experts in their fields and their evaluations were widely respected.
Finally the day came when my students were to appear onstage. So as not to disrupt the efforts of other groups, we were asked to arrive early and sit in the audience until our turn to appear.
The adjudicator took her work seriously. She was a stern looking and imposing person, dressed in a severe black suit. She looked out at the world through heavy black glasses, and her grey hair was pulled into a tight bun. She had not the slightest inclination to spare feelings. Her pitiless remarks were addressed to the teachers rather than their charges. One was soundly criticized for under-rehearsing his students, another for other-rehearsing them. Clearly she was a fan of the Bard; for she praised an overly dramatic scene from Romeo and Juliet (at least I thought it was overly dramatic). Finally it was our turn.
Madam adjudicator was seated in front of the audience. She looked at her watch once or twice, and then rang the little bell to indicate the start of the production, and the play began.
To my unbiased eyes, my students performed flawlessly. Big Julie remembered to stay dead. The bartender who “got it in the portico” was delightfully sneaky as he sold information to Flavius. Cassius, though a little chubby in real life, looked amazingly lean and hungry as he plotted with Brutus. Jeffrey, as Brutus, swaggered his way through his role, dramatically avoiding the Roman centurions who came to arrest him when Caesar’s murder was discovered. And Calpurnia was just lovely in her handmade toga. Every time she sobbed in a fake soprano voice, “I told him . . . Julie, don’t go . . . it’s the Ides of March already, Julie, but who would listen?” the audience roared with laughter.
Calpurnia blew it though. In the final scene, as she threw herself on the hero’s chest in gratitude, she ripped his toga right down the front. As Flavius, gallant to the end, led Calpurnia off with one hand, we could see him holding his toga together with the other. Once offstage he let loose. The whole audience heard him shout at Calpurnia: “You jerk! That was my mother’s best sheet—she’s going to kill me!”
The adjudicator was decidedly not amused.
“Where is the teacher responsible for this farce?” she demanded. Knees trembling, I stepped forward. I had to listen to a stern lecture on the inadvisability of bringing such a production to a serious drama event. “Obviously you are not an experienced drama specialist,” she concluded. “I can only conclude you have no idea what drama education is about. You really don’t have any idea, do you?”
Stung, I answered, “Ma’am. I’m just a simple classroom teacher ...” (with two degrees behind my name, I wanted to add, but wisely held my tongue. This gal was after my neck). The look she gave me over her black horn-rimmed glasses suggested that I was an insouciant classroom teacher.
She awarded first prize to a serious but charming little version of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. My students, pleased to be awarded second prize, neither knew or cared that they had come second (in a field of two).
Mary Brackenbury taught for 10 years with the Parkland School Division. She lives in Victoria, B.C. The spring 2010 issue of the ATA Magazine featured a short story by Brackenbury. Brackenbury’s book of stories Old Teachers Never Die is available through her website www.marybrackenbury.com.