The Bard Off-Broadway

This article appeared in the :
-11/26/09 issue of The Queens Courier

-3/18/10 issue of New York Teacher

“Miss Ehrlich, I can’t wait to go on the trip to the city. I’m not even thinking of it as a day off from school. It’s more like a Shakespearean day and we could really learn off it.” This was tall, skinny, punky Claudia making her case. Then came the postscript: “But if Chris doesn’t go, I’m not going.” So much for Claudia’s “Shakespearean” learning experience! But the fact she was even afforded the option of going on a school trip to the theater is the point, since such opportunities for enrichment are routinely snatched from our school children in these troubling times for the arts.

One spring weekend, my husband Kenny and I had gone to see “The Compleat Works of  Wllm Shkspr (Abridged),” the Off-Broadway parody of Shakespeare’s plays. This send-up, performed by three zany actors, immediately brought to mind my 11th graders who were studying Shakespeare in my class that term. I knew they would just love it. The only problem I would have  to address was the occasional bawdy gesture or off-color remark in the production. I gave it some thought and on the following Monday presented my trip proposal to the class. Any teacher who takes kids on a trip is a hero to begin with, but I thought this one would be a particularly meaningful and fun-filled outing for a deserving bunch of kids.

Naturally, it was met with great excitement. Caveat: My experience taught me never to overestimate initial enthusiasm. Promises, promises, but they must agree to pay for the trip by a certain deadline and herein was often the problem. I carefully prepped the students on the contents of the play and stressed that it was a parody. No problem – most of my students found Shakespearean tragedies to be hilarious anyway. In addition to the required parental consent forms, I composed the following note on the school letterhead:

Dear Parents,

Our junior English class is planning a trip to see an off-Broadway production of “The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)”at the Westside Theatre on Wednesday, May 3. Tickets are $20.

The play is a comedy. In two hours, three actors will attempt to perform all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays. Please be aware that during the performance, there may be an occasional risqué remark made on stage. This should not, however, overshadow the purpose or the educational value of the production. With your permission, your child may attend.

After distributing the letter to the class and reviewing its contents, star student Angie raised her hand. “I might as well sign this letter myself. My parents won’t even know what ‘risque remark’ means.” Others concurred as they had a grand old time poking fun at their folks. We all had a good laugh and I said, “Just get it signed anyway.”

Most of them complied, but when I glanced at the signature on Dwayne’s letter, it was obvious that he forged his mother’s name. In high school, forgery is as common as dogs eating homework, but Dwayne’s response killed me.

“Wait a second. How can you and your mother have the same exact handwriting?” I was confident I had him here. Gotcha.

Wide-eyed, Dwayne answered, “What are you talkin’ about? Duh! She’s my mother.”

Just like that he sought to “get over” on me. The sad part is that he believed handwriting is an inherited trait – just like his brown eyes. This is the same kid who referred to Mt. Rushmore as “that mountain with the three guys’ heads on it.” Three?

Tickets were purchased, money was collected, the red tape at school was handled, the principal signed off on the trip, the district approved, we procured free transit passes for the subway and all was right with the world. Dwayne, incidentally, never came up with the money – not even counterfeit money.

The twenty-nine kids who did attend loved the play and as it turned out, were the best behaved school group in the theater that day, not even flinching when the house manager urged them to unwrap their candy before the play began. When the curtain fell, several exclaimed, “This was the best show I’ve ever seen!” It may have been the only show some of them had ever seen, but as the song goes in High School Musical,  “This could be the start of something new.”

Thanks to the accessibility of group sales tickets, many of my students were no strangers to Broadway. They were neither privileged nor entitled – just appreciative and somehow they managed to come up with the $20. One semester we read “Fiddler on the Roof” followed by a trip to see the revival, with Golde and Tevye played by Rosie O’ Donnell and Harvey Fierstein respectively. Following the performance, Rosie was generous enough to conduct a Q & A  and my kids fired away. Without such field trips, when would students from the outer boroughs have the opportunity to interact with professional entertainers?

My students had always risen to the occasion on trips and I was proud of them. It was interesting to see how these same wacky girls and immature boys in my classes morphed into normal New Yorkers once they hit the streets in school-sponsored activities. It was very sweet how they assumed the role of  my “protector” on the trains, though I could have lived without knowing that “the biggest rats run under tracks of the ‘J’ train,” as some of the boys were fond of pointing out.

These priceless  moments were not publicly funded, but we purchased tickets at the more affordable group rates, giving us entrée to the performing arts in the greatest city in the world. In the wake of 9/11, most field trips and extra-curricular activities had been curtailed for security reasons and now, with severe budget cuts for the arts, teachers have once again been forced to find creative means (other than the proceeds from banned bake sales) to sponsor trips. In certain schools, at the principal’s discretion, there have been staff layoffs to save on per pupil spending. Not a great tradeoff for the newly unemployed, but hats off to those surviving teachers who manage to take advantage of the world-class resources in our city.

While there are talented and indefatigable drama instructors throughout the city schools, our kids will be short-changed if their only exposure to a play is the school play. If school outings to Broadway become a thing of the past – and they very well may, given the additional $223 million in mid-year budget cuts, beautifully written plays will no longer come to life for the Claudias and Chrises  of the world.

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One Response to The Bard Off-Broadway

  1. Stanley says:

    “How can you and your mother have the same exact handwriting?” I was confident I had him here. Gotcha.

    Wide-eyed, Dwayne answered, “What are you talkin’ about? Duh! She’s my mother.”

    love it..reminds me Welcome Back Kotter..
    signed…Epstein’s Mother

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