Into the Storm

by Mel Ryane

Teaching Will by Mel Ryane_email“Why Shakespeare?”

I was recently asked why I thought little kids tackling the works of William Shakespeare would be a swell idea. And, why did I write a book about it and what was that like?

In King Lear, Shakespeare places his protagonist into the torrents of a colossal storm. The withered King bellows in rage while battered by wind and rain. His voice is drowned by thunder and his body lit by flashes of lightening. It is here that Lear meets his inner and outer demons. The scene is one of reckoning and the most beautiful metaphor for any of us attempting to effectively manage the tricky business being a person.

Here are two things I know to be true:

  1. Nothing worth doing is easy
  2. Nobody gets the life they thought they wanted

Okay, maybe out there, some twelve-year-old mapped a life plan and ticked off the goals one by one. The perfect education, the successful career, the blissful relationships, the family, house, car, travel and then a peaceful, pain-free passing. If such a person exists I wouldn’t wish to know them. This would surely be the most boring person on the planet.

No, I’m pretty sure Shakespeare got it right. We will be stymied by storms, we will be challenged and have to rewrite our plans. We will be struck down and have to haul ourselves back up. And with any luck, like Lear after the storm when he finds clarity and sees that he was always loved by Cordelia and finds grace when he has the chance to love her back, we too will find meaning in our stories.

So, back to the question: Why didn’t I adapt Pat The Bunny for little kids or Clifford the Big Red Dog?

Because I remember being a child and my storms were big. Because I’ve observed kids in school yards and their storms, too, are filled with torrential rain and blasting gales. They are tossed to the gravel, sometimes physically and often emotionally. Shakespeare’s characters are motivated by power, revenge, or love. So are we adults and, I guarantee you, so are kids.

I had a notion that if I could encourage a child to stand up, spill the big, fat words of Shakespeare’s verse, identify with power, revenge, or love and do this in front of an audience, empowerment would be achieved. I had an idea that in climbing the highest mountain, and Shakespeare is pretty much the Kilimanjaro of play writing, kids would glimpse their own greatness. It is my belief that once we experience even a smidgeon of our greatness we’ll spend our lives in search of that sensation again.

This is why Shakespeare. His climb is the highest and most difficult. And, guess what? I was right about kids and the Bard. They get it.

In my years of working with children and the works of William Shakespeare I have been thrilled as they, over and over, surpassed my expectations and, more significantly, their own.

I was in a creative desert when I landed on the idea of starting The Shakespeare Club in a public school. I’d left my acting career at the point, like King Lear, when I first tasted bitterness on my tongue. I didn’t want to be a bitter person. I forged ahead and fought my tempests in search of purpose and point. I wandered a Hollywood landscape learning, changing, exploring and when I found myself, flat on my back in a kind of California wasteland, the idea of kids and Shakespeare floated into my head and I pursued. As it turned out, it was another storm. I was a fish out of water. I was an idealist, a romantic and the kids buffeted me like a rag doll. This is the nature of story. This is plot. We were all characters and we all wanted power, revenge, and certainly love.

A couple of weeks into The Shakespeare Club I was having dinner with my friend, Maggie. I’m pretty sure I looked shell-shocked as I recounted my tales of trying to inspire these kids and how they were running the show that I, as the adult, was supposed to be running. Maggie found my stories funny, with a “you’ll laugh about this later” kind of chuckle. I didn’t see any comic potential in my anecdotes. From my perspective I was center stage in a tragedy of my own doing. Shortly after our dinner, Maggie gifted me with a beautiful journal she’d made with Shakespeare’s portrait on the cover. She handed me the notebook and said, “Write this stuff down. I will only give you this if you promise to keep notes.” This was how, after my first year of The Shakespeare Club, I was able to write a memoir. I kept the promise and wrote copious notes for the entire six years of my running the club.

I learned pretty quickly in working with children that I could only empathize if I remembered what it was like to be a child. This thinking led me into the structure for the book which is my experience with The Shakespeare Club entwined with my own story of being a child, wanting to be an actor, becoming a professional and then the difficult career leave-taking that had me bereft until I found joy in marrying Shakespeare and children. The book is set up in two block of ten chapters with an intermission and encore. Those ten chapters represent the ten beats of an iambic line of verse. I don’t expect anyone to notice this, but is my little secret that gave me a structure for the book. I had the first draft down in six months and took another four to revise. I guess it’s true that I found a way to laugh in looking back at that first year but I was also slightly re-traumatized every time I went in to tweak the writing. The first year for any teacher can be a tough one. And then it gets better. The kids learned and I learned. An appetite for greatness had been set in all our hearts. No matter how challenging the text or the relationships we knew there was a prize. Empowerment.

I’m often asked who the audience for this memoir is and, though I risk sounding grandiose, the list is pretty vast. First, I would say, teachers. There has to be some satisfaction for a teacher reading of an amateur attempting their vocation. Then parents, theatre professionals, volunteers, and anyone who ever had to give up a dream. Finally, I like to say, anyone who was ever a child.

Mel Ryane is the author of “Teaching Will: What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me That Hollywood Couldn’t” (Familius). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, dog and cat.

She will be presenting at the Power of Words conference in September 2015.