As a Los Angeles Unified School District theater teacher, David Levine knows well just how difficult Shakespeare’s plays can be for many students, especially those who don’t speak English as a first language.
This past summer, for the first time, Levine had a revelation while on a weeklong fellowship to the internationally renowned Royal Shakespeare Company in the bard’s birthplace of Stratford Upon Avon in England: Because Shakespeare wrote his plays primarily to be seen, not read, students ought to explore the bard just as actors do—on their feet in rehearsals, working as an ensemble to discover things about themselves.
Starting today, Thursday, Dec. 5, Levine will bring to life the RSC's revolutionary theater techniques in a production of one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream, which will be performed through Saturday at the School of History and Dramatic Arts at the Sonia Sotomayor Learning Complex.
The play is the result of weeks of rehearsals in which students performed Shakespeare actively on their feet, by using theater games and “supporting each other,” says Levine. "Instead of reading Shakespeare in a book, “a door opens to something amazing,” adds Levine, who taught for seven years at Franklin High School before helping launch the School of History and Dramatic Arts, where he is a lead teacher. “The language is archaic, so it’s important to find a way in, and using your body to do it is a powerful way.”
The crux of the RSC method of theater is ensemble, and it fundamentally means that “every person is equally important in a play and everyone commits the same amount of intensity to what’s going on,” says Levine, explaining that this creates an atmosphere of teamwork that dramatically increases students’ involvement in the play.
And the idea extends not just to the actors in a play but to the entire crew. “Even the designers come in and participate,” says Levine.
During his fellowship, Levine was struck by an ensemble-based performance that he saw of Hamlet. At the end of the performance, the actor who played Hamlet took a bow along with the rest of the cast.
“If there’s any play about one guy in any of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s Halmet,” says Levine. “And he did not take a single bow—now, I had never seen the star not taking his own bow.”
For Levine, it all began when he went to a Royal Shakespeare Company workshop in Los Angeles. “It really opened my eyes to the potential of bringing Shakespeare to students who don’t always get exposed to certain kinds of artistic experiences."
Because Levine has a wide variety of students in his class—English learners and special needs students mixed in with gifted ones—he has to find a way to reach all of them.
“This RSC ensemble technique, where everyone works together in the same way that actors rehearse a play—that’s how you learn about Shakespeare,” Levine says. “You don’t learn Shakespeare by sitting down and highlighting the text, with the teacher telling you, This word means this."
His fellowship in England was "a great opportunity for me because it allowed me to bring Shakespeare and other dramatic literature, which is our focus here, to our students who would otherwise either be bored by such work or would struggle with it,” Levine explained.
“Doing an audition process that was collaborative rather than competitive was the beginning of the process,” Levine explains. “It was amazing how much more enjoyable it was to take out that competition.”
Levine did eventually “evaluate” students to determine who would match up against who in the play, “but that was only on the third day of the auditions,” he says.
After A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Levine’s next challenge is to extend the ensemble techniques to all historical theatre.
"Success with complex texts is all about making them relevant and accessible," says Levine. "They are the keys that open a door to Shakespeare for my students."
Performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be held in the multipurpose room of the School of History and Dramatic Arts, 2050 North San Fernando Rd., at 4 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 5, and at 5 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 6. There will be two performances at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 7. Tickets cost $4 for students and $8 for adults. Call (323) 276-5500 for further details.