Thursday, January 28, 2010

Noboy Writes Love Letters Anymore

I suppose if you’re an English teacher you eventually get around to romance. Heathcliff on the moor. Darcy out in the Pemberley rain. Tristan laying wounded under a tree. Literature is thick with these hapless saps, and the poets… “Hail to thee, skylark…” are you kidding me? A dude in an unlaced bodice penned that?
But nothing is worse that love letters. Once in college, a buddy was agonizing over this girl, sitting and weeping beneath piles of crumpled up failed attempts to communicate his feelings to her. I took pity. “Okay dude, read what you got.”
He cleared his throat, his eyes red and sore like the lit ends of cigarettes, voice shaky and trembling, “I called to the stars… have you seen her?” He broke out into tears.
Now, I must admit, I’m a pretty good friend, or I might have passed that letter around to every guy on the floor, or maybe I did, so what? She was a ruthless, ice princess that toyed with his emotions like a cat with string. Who needs that? I was saving him heart ache. Nobody knows what women want. They don’t even know. Half their body is made of water. They are consistently screwy as the moon and tides. So be it. Invest in a home entertainment system. Cable guys never let you down.
Now letter writing is different. That’s an art.
Not too many people practice Art for Art’s Sake anymore, but letter writers, those people are keepers. If one can go to college and study Art History, and have it be reputable, then a Person of Letters should have their own library wing.
Seriously, when was the last time you actually took the time to write a letter? And I’m not talking to Aunt Jenny who knitted you the sweater and who slips a sawbuck in your pocket when she sees you at family picnics. You know, the one you scribbled, “Sweater still keeping me toasty” inside a Christmas card that sings “Grandma got run over by a Reindeer” when you open it. No, I’m talking about an actual letter.
First, you get stationary. This can be anything, but paper is key. Now me, I’ll write long diatribes on diner napkins, overtures on movie ticket stubs, sonatas on popped balloons, as well as the nice parchment paper with watermarks or autumn leaves pressed into them. But that’s just me. I’m thoughtful. Then, after you have that, you have to write the body of your letter. It could be a funny moment you experienced that day, like the red faced man screaming into his cell phone that trips over the poodle and falls into an ice cream cart, or the goofy guy at work you prank by hiding his cell phone around the room, or something just achingly beautiful, like folding a perfect paper airplane and climbing to the top of your building, the highest in the whole city, and just letting it fly and describing what it would feel like if you were Stuart Little and able to be that small and Spartan. Anything really. But it has to be real and it has to be honest and it has to lay your feelings bare. You can’t short change a letter. You open up your soul to another. You take no prisoners that way and you have no regrets.
After this, of course, you must choose a nice envelope. You got to do something tricky with the name too: Jeremy “Bubbalicious” Hendrickson. You know, something to make the post man giggle. Those guys have tough gigs. But I tell you, it's a great feeling of satisfaction when you have written someone so many letters that you actually have their address memorized. Like, you can just recall it out of thin air. This is especially true if they have moved two or three times and you can still remember one from years back. That may not be, sitting and holding their hand through cancer treatments, but it is certainly a key to someone's heart. If they are open to the possibility that collective memory is what makes someone sacred to you.
Anyway, then you get stamps. America has cool stamps. You can have anything: Sponge Bob, Jackie Robinson, you can even put your own face on a stamp. How cool is that? And you don’t even have to lick them anymore, but they kind of taste good too, like, the world is full of yummy tasty stuff you can put in your mouth and everybody has their favorites, like butterscotch or peanut brittle, but a stamp, well, you might as well stick your tongue on it, cleans the palate.
Then, as you wash that taste out of your mouth, you’ve got to get to the post office.
Now for me, living here in Taiwan, that means walking. The nearest post office is a mile from my school. Down Wenshin Road, past the pot bellied pig store next to the SAAB Dealership, left at the big intersection through the market, past the fish hatchery, past the clothing boutique, up the little embankment by the huge O-REN Elementary School, and there it is. Then you’ve got to stand in line. There is always a thirty minute wait in line as the Taiwanese businesses send their advertisement fliers, which are individually metered at local branches. These office workers pull out a thousand letters at a time, bundled with rubber bands. It’s insane. You stand behind that guy for an eternity while he just keeps dropping kilo after kilo of letters to be stamped and you have just three international Air-Mail envelopes in your hand, and you will begin to question Art for Art’s Sake, believe me. It makes you want to take up knitting with Aunt Jenny, seriously.
Finally though it is your turn at the counter, and then there is the adventure of explaining what is inside the envelope.
“Uhhh… it’s a box of Japanese condoms I saw at 7-11. I’m sending them because they have a Samurai on the box and my friend will think that’s hilarious…” OR “It’s a bunch of Four Leaf clovers in a Ziploc bag. It took me two months to collect them all. I’m sending them to my friend because… this is going to sound weird but… we both like sitting in the grass. It’s kind of our thing.”
Yeah, you get some strange looks, but that’s okay. Mission accomplished. You leave feeling good. You’ve done something thoughtful for another person. A person you love is going to receive something real in their hands that you created especially for them. The world is full of these things to touch and feel. Yet most of the time, so much of our daily existence is impersonal. We tweet. We text. Big Deal. We go through our lives with remote controls in our hand. We stop when it’s no fun anymore. We play at other’s expense. We fast forward away from people who become boring or trite or laborsome. We “unfriend.” We are transitory and what does it matter, the feelings one person has? They’ll get over it. That’s life right? Pick yourself up. Suck it up. Nobody likes a bellyacher. Move on. Toss your hardships away like junk mail. Nothing stays forever. Nothing is permanent. Those that believe in cultivating long term loving relationships through the little acts of thoughtfulness, and especially in writing the little intricacies of life in letters full of funny stickers and chewed up crayons and locks of hair.
All of ‘em.
Get with the times, you old fossil.

Friday, January 22, 2010

MacBackstreet: A Tragic Tale of Murder, Corporate Witches, and Asian Boy Bands

(The following is the script of Macbeth / MacBackstreet adapted by Brian Hartenstein for his Taiwanese students)

Beat Box Banquo: Jerry Line
King Duncan Doughnuts: Dave Lee
Malcolm Z: Jason Lee
Mac Daddy: Aimee Chen
Lady Mac Marilyn Gaga: Michael Yang
The Corporate Witches: Sandy Chang, Anne Liu, and Tiffany Wang
Narrator: Katie Huang
Music: Quintin Wang
Director: SarahHsiao
Soliloquies & Commercial Actors: YoYo Guo, Shantell Lin, Mary Chiang, and Sunny Lin

Our play begins in a small, dark office in the basement of Inverness Castle’s Global Studios. Three Corporate Witches representing the World’s Biggest Companies meet to discuss the most popular TV show on the planet: Global Idol.
Enter the Three Corporate Witches who stand over a bubbling TV set.
Witch #1:
When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Witch #2:
When the hurly-burly’s done, when the next Global Idol has been won.
Witch #3:
But don’t you know? We pick the winner, not the people who choose.
Witch #1:
And the corporations that prosper and the fans who lose.
All Three:
(Sinister and hideous laughing… Ha! Ha! Ha!)
And what can the Global Idol win?
Witch #3:
(Holds up a McDonalds Bag)
A contract to eat McDonalds…. (Speaking in a creepy pitchman’s
“Da Da Da Da Da… I’m loving it.”
Witch #1:
(Holds up a Yahoo icon)
A contract to use Yahoo. (Speaking in similar creepy voice)
Witch #2:
(Holds up a 7-11 cup) And a contract to drink 7-11. (Sings slogan) “Always open, 7-11.”
All Three:
(More sinister laughing as they huddle together and exit stage.)

Our scene shifts to a practice room at Global Studios. The Super Hot Boy Band MacBackstreet Junior is practicing for their upcoming appearance on the next Global Idol.

Enter Backstreet Junior Members: MacBackstreet, Beat Box Banquo, King Duncan Doughnuts, Malcolm Z, and Mac Daddy to Super Junior’s Sorry Sorry. They perform the dance briefly until music is cut. Then each member steps forward to introduce themselves.

King Duncan:
That’s right, I’m King Duncan Doughnuts. I’m King because I have the sweet corporate
sponsorship. (He points at his clothes labels) Exxon, Chevron, Ford, K-Swiss. (He pulls a Duncan Doughnut bag from behind his back) I even eat the doughnuts, man. (He angrily eats a doughnut and throws the bag away.) That’s why I’m the King!
(Pretending very badly to make a beat box by spitting in his hands) Yo! Yo! Yo! I’m Beat Box Banquo. (More beat box sound) Crack is Wack! Don’t take drugs!
Yo, check it! I’m MacDaddy and I’ve got more Shortys than white on rice… what?
Malcolm Z:
I’m Malcolm Z. I’m into politics and defeat of the white man. But what I really want is the
white man’s dollar. The greatest corporate sponsorship of them all… (Long pause…) Wal-Mart!
(All members repeat slowly as if in a dream) Wal-Mart!
I’m MacBackstreet. I’m the best singer and dancer in the group, but I don’t care about that. I
don’t even care if I win Global Idol. What I really want to do… is tell jokes. (He walks away sadly.)

Exit: All members of Backstreet Junior exit the stage except for Banquo and Macbeth.

(Beat boxing)
Hey MacBackstreet, you look sad. Tell me one of your jokes.
Okay. (He coughs) Why did the man freeze his money? (Pause) He wanted cold hard cash.
(Blows a raspberry into his beat box hands)

Okay. What kind of bee makes milk? (Pause) A boobie!
(Shakes head and blows another raspberry)
(Totally determined)
What do you call a man who was born in Italy, went to America, and
died in San Francisco? (Pause) Dead!
(Falls to the ground)

What happened?
Your jokes killed me.
Suddenly, the Corporate Witches appear and address MacBackstreet.
Witch #1:
Hail to thee, MacBackstreet. You are the star of MacBackstreet Junior.
(Looks unimpressed)
Uh… I knew that. Duh!
Witch #2:
Hail to thee, MacBackstreet. You will become the next face of Nike… (Shows him a Nike
“Nike… Just Do It!”
What? (Looks shocked) I didn’t know that. Tell me more.
Witch 3:
Hail to thee, MacBackstreet. You will become the next Global Idol…
(Shows him a Wal-Mart sign) “Wal-Mart.”
(Looks hypnotized)
Then suddenly, the Corporate Witches disappear.
Wow, what was that?
Uh… nothing. (Looks paranoid) Come on Beat Box Banquo, I’ve got to get word to my Shorty, Lady Mac Marilyn Gaga.

Across town at Great Birnam hair and body wax, “Your woods is our business,” Lady Mac
Marilyn Gaga receives a text message about the possibility of all the corporate sponsorship her future husband could make.
Lady Mac:
Just imagine, my boyfriend, the next Global Idol winner? Oh, think what that could mean for
my career? TV News Anchor? “Fox News… Fair and Balanced!” Or maybe the picture perfect wife? Would you like some Maxwell House coffee? “It’s good to the last drop!”
Suddenly, Lady Mac Marilyn Gaga has a hideous and terrible idea.
Lady Mac:
I do?
Yes, you do. (Looks impatient)
Lady Mac:
Unsure at first, then gets it) Oh yeah. I must convince MacBackstreet to kill all the other
members in Backstreet Junior. Then he can be the star all alone. (She laughs like a monster) Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
Okay, okay, that’s enough.
Lady Mac:
(Puts head down)

Later, MacBackstreet arrives and Lady Mac Marilyn Gaga tells him her evil plan. At first,
MacBackstreet wants nothing to do with it, but then a messenger arrives carrying a package.

“UPS. What can Brown do for you?”
(Macbackstreet opens it to see a Nike shoe)
It’s Nike! They want me to be their spokesman. The second prophecy has come true.
Lady Mac:
Don’t you see? You must kill them now. And you must start with the King Duncan.
But how? (They both look around. Lady Mac shows a gun? Macbeth shakes his head. Lady Mac picks up a knife? Macbeth really shakes his head. Lady Mac picks up a baseball bat? Macbeth really, really shakes his head. They both looked confused.)

Psst! Give him the stinky tofu! (Whispers. And both Macbeths sneak in and put the stinky tofu in King Duncan’s bag of doughnuts and hide. Then King Duncan comes in. He eats a doughnut, and dies terribly.)

A little while later… (The members of Backstreet Junior enter and see King Duncan dead)
Malcolm Z:
Oh no, we have a performance tonight.
Mac Daddy:
What do we do?
(Enters wearing King Duncan’s crown.)
It’s okay… MacBackstreet is here. The show will go on. (They all exit)

That night, on Global Idol… (Soliloquy number one enters and stands in the middle of the stage)

Soliloquy #1: (Please note, this is actual text adapted for ESL learners)
If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence…then this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here…But in these cases
I still have judgment; I teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: Tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which over leaps itself
And falls on the other, destroying me.

Okay… that was great! Now, we have Backstreet Junior. (Backstreet Junior enters to the song ‘Nobody But You’ and dances. It is very wild and crazy.) Okay, now people at home, it’s time for you to vote. (Pause) And tonight’s Global Idol winner is….After this commercial message.

(Two Women enter the stage in house dresses and rubber gloves looking very tired. They have been cleaning the house all day and are sad.
Then suddenly a magical brush appears before them.)
Woman #1:
Is this an all purpose cleaning brush I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch you.
Woman #2:
We have so many things to clean, the kitchen, the bathroom,
The icky black gunk that grows in the shower,
Woman #1:
The fuzzy green mold that lives in the fridge.
I have you not, and yet I see you still.
Got tough stains…? Try the All Purpose Cleaning Brush and wipe them away!
Woman #2:
(Totally Happy)
Out! Out! Damned Spot! Thank you Cleaning Brush! Sold exclusively
at Wall-Mart. (The two women exit)

And we’re back… (Pause) And tonight’s Global Idol Winner is… Backstreet Junior! (The boys all run onto the stage and celebrate.)
(While they are jumping around MacBackstreet walks to the front of the stage)
Tonight was fun, but for me to become the real Idol Winner, I must kill Beat Box Banquo now. (He puts some stinky tofu in a surgical mask and puts it around Beat Box Banquo’s face. Banquo coughs and dies.)
Tune in next week for the final championship of Global Idol. Goodnight.

That night, the remaining members of Backstreet Junior get together and discuss their

Lady Mac Marilyn Gaga and I want to thank you for coming, with just one more win, we can
become the next Global Idol.
Lady Mac:
Yes, you’re like the Energizer Bunny, “You keep Going… and Going... and Going.”
Just then Beat Box Banquo’s Ghost arrives. (Banquo arrives, takes off his surgical mask, and points at MacBackstreet.) Only MacBackstreet can see him.
YOU! But You’re dead!
Lady Mac:
(Not paying attention) Next stop Disneyland, “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
Beat Box Banqou, I had to do it. (Banquo crosses stage like a Zombie)
Lady Mac:
(Really not paying attention, holds up a beer can)
“Fosters… Australian for beer.”
Somebody help me!
Malcom Z:

Yo! I think we need to break up the band.
Mac Daddy:
True dat! MacBackstreet is trippin’
And with that, Malcom Z and Mac Daddy quit Backstreet Junior and form a new band Color Me Timberlake.
(They exit.)
Lady Mac:
(Looking at MacBackstreet)
Southwest Airlines… “Want to get away?” (Exit)


The next morning, MacBackstreet visits the three Corporate Witches to see if their prediction
is still true
. (He finds the three Witches standing over a black TV set)
Double, Double, Toil and Trouble, Fire Burn, and Cauldron Bubble.
Witch #1:
Add a slice of Dominoes Pizza and Little Caesar’s too.
A dash of Shell Oil and a LEGO colored blue.
Witch #2:
A Coca-Cola can and a Sonic HedgeHog.
A McDonald’s French Fry and Apple iPod
Witch #3:
The Colonel’s Secret Recipe and cool Playboy Bunny
A Starbucks Macchiato in my tummy.
Double, Double, Toil and Trouble, Fire Burn, and Cauldron Bubble.
(Enter MacBackstreet)

Hey Witches, how goes your Global Domination?
(They nod their heads, “Not bad,” “Yeah,” “Not as good as last year…”)
What’s happening? Am I going crazy?
Witch #1:
(Pulls out McDonald’s Bag and looks inside)
You must beware of Mac Daddy!
Witch #2:
(Pulls out Benz hood ornament and takes bite) No man born of a woman can hurt you!
Witch #3:
(Pulls out 7-11 cup and takes drink) You will not be destroyed until the corporate logos walk.
“Yep, that’s pretty much it…”
Hey do you know why witches use brooms?”
(Shake their heads. Don’t know)

Because vacuum cleaners are too heavy.
(No response. Total stone face.)
“Beat it, Backstreet.”

MacBackstreet arrives back at Inverness Castle Studios just in time for the taping of the Final
Round Championship of Global Idol. He has stiff competition. In an unprecedented move, the judges have allowed the remaining members of Backstreet Junior’s new band, Color me Timberlake, to compete in a “Winner Take All” format. But first, a word from our sponsors.

(Same two women in house dresses appear looking bored and unhappy.)
Ever feel like Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to
day until the last syllable of recorded time?
Woman #1:
Oh yes! You said it. (Both women nod their head and agree.)
Ever feel like all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death?
Woman #2:
You know it. (Both women continue to nod heads and agree.)

Then try “Out, Out, Brief Candle” the aromatherapy candle set that is sure to take your
problems away. Just light these candles, slip into a warm bath, and let the soothing smells take you away to pleasure land.
(Two women come in and begin rubbing the shoulders of the housewives who suddenly begin smiling.) There you have it. Try “Out, Out, Brief Candle,” and wish your problems away.
Woman #1:
I used to think life was but a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour
upon the stage and is heard no more.
Woman #2:
Me too. I used to think life was a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying
nothing, but then I got “Out, Out, Brief Candle.”
It will change your life!
Out, Out, Brief Candle is sold exclusively at Wall-Mart. (Pause while stage is cleared and dancers return. Enter MacBackstreet and Lady Mac Gaga, and
Malcolm Z and Mac Daddy. The two sides square off and go face to face.)

Lady Mac:
It’s time for you to show the world that you are the next Global Idol.
But all I ever wanted to be was a comedian. That reminds me, why didn’t the skeleton go to
the party? (Pause) He didn’t have any-body to go with him.
Lady Mac:
Stick to dancing Backstreet. Okay, start the music!
(Music begins and MacBackstreet and Mac Daddy square off in classic dancing duel. The narrator begins calling out the different dances.)

Oh look, MacBackstreet is doing the Robot… Not to be outdone, Mac Daddy shows the
Running Man… Oh, no, not the Moonwalk…. Is that the Cabbage Patch? Oh wait, MacBackstreet looks tired. Mac Daddy is going in for the kill
. (Mac Daddy performs a serious of incredible dance movies including: The Ping-Pong, Milking the Cow, and the Lambada. MacBackstreet falls to the floor as Mac Daddy closes in on the final dance- the Worm.)
Not the Worm!
Mac Daddy:
Say your prayers, MacBackstreet.
(Jumps to his feet.) It is you that should be worried. I should fear no man unnaturally born to woman.
Mac Daddy:
But… (Looks worried) That’s my Daddy’s Baby’s Mama right there. (A Baby’s Mama stands up in the audience. Proudly played by Hartenstein. MacBackstreet serves up the stinky tofu and makes Mac Daddy eat it.)
You’ve been served! (Mac Daddy dies) Ha! Now I am the King! And it’s mine! Wall-Mart is
Not so fast MacBackstreet.
That’s right. I see a new future for you, fading into obscurity with the Sanjayas and Ruben
Studdards of the world.
Wait, you can’t defeat me. I can only be killed by someone not of woman born.
(Pause) Idiot! I’m a voice. Get him Logos!
Oh, (Looking worried) That’s right. But still, I am the next Global Idol. I am King of the
World! (Suddenly all the Logos on stage come to life and begin walking toward MacBackstreet, making a circle around him and killing him.) But I am King of the World! Ahhhhh! (Last to jump on his is Wall-Mart.) Wall-Mart, nooooo! (He dies.)
Malcolm Z, please come forward. (Malcolm Z comes to the stage.) The people have voted, and you are the next Global Idol Winner.
Malcolm Z:
And with that, peace was restored to Inverness Castle Studio. Evil was defeated. And the
music lived on. The End.
Lady Mac:
(Enters the stage) Wait, I am still here. I will be back and better than ever. Maybe next time
as a blond. Yes, that’s it. I’ll be famous. Famous, I tell you. You’ll never get rid of me. I’m here forever, like a Barbie...(She laughs crazily as the Corporate Witches run on stage and begin singing)
"I'm a Barbie Girl, in a Barbie World, wrapped in plastic, it's fantastic. You can comb my hair, undress me eveywhere, life is plastic, it's fantastic."
(Suddenly jumping to his feet and pumping his fist) Come on Barbie, let's go party.
Ha. Ha. Ha. Yeah.

(Cue End Music. All students return to stage for final bows)

The End

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Fair is Foul, and Foul is Fair

Our Macbeth Adaptation, "MacBackstreet: The Tragic Tale of Murder, Corporate Witches, and Asian Boy Bands" went off without a hitch yesterday on the last day of the semester. After a month of rehearsals, script edits, line memorizations, dance routine practices, and overall prodding, we pulled it off to a rousing school ovation.
I would dare say, this was a once in a lifetime chance for my Taiwanese students to get on stage and learn through active involvment. So much of the education here is rote memory and boring, impersonal teacher lecture. I hope my students never forget this chance to see what it really means to study not just English, but to passionatly throw yourself into an academic pursuit, to be inspired by language and personal ideas, to live a life less ordinary.
Macbeth provided an interesting backdrop for my students as well. The main character's blind and aggressive ambition clouds his morality and decision making and serves as a paradoxical metaphor for their own lives full National Exams, strict academic rules, and an often hopeless education system based on ruthless competition without any kind of intrinsic, humane reward.
Of course, we poked fun at stuff too... here "Beat Box Banquo's" Ghost comes back to life and avenges his murder in an old school dance off.
Our performance was after final semester exams, and the whole school filled into the auditorium to watch, almost 200 peopole. It was a wonderful send off before Chinese New Year Holiday. My students and I would like to thank all the school's staff, administration, parent volunteers, and students for all their help and wonderful participation as audience members. It was an upsidedown performance, a Shakespeare "Adaption" that's for sure, but Macbeth is a play where "Fair is Foul, and Foul is Fair," and that seemed right to me. I hope you all enjoyed. Thank you again. - Hartenstein

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Thane of Cawdor

(Sandy, Tiffany, and Anne practice their corporate witches routine)

“All Hail Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Cawdor.” -Act I, scene 3

“If it were done when ‘tis done, there t’were well
It were done quickly.” - Act I, scene 7

"Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee;
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.” Act II, scene 1

All my life I have chased it, that dangling, glistening, carrot of… what? I don’t know what it is or what I am supposed to do with it. It is not so much that I had to have it or that I was afraid of failing to get it, but more the terror that at the moment of grasping I wouldn’t be up for the challenge. If another beat me, fine. If another cheated me, okay. But let me beat or cheat myself and I’d rather die.
I used to try and explain it to people. I’d tell them that story of the Scorpion and the Frog. You know the one. Frog doesn’t want to carry Scorpion across the lake. Said Scorpion promises no funny business. Gullible Frog relents. Evil Scorpion stings them mid way and they both drown. Parting words…”Glug. Glug. It is my nature. Glug. Glug.”
I know. It’s stupid, right? But I believed it nevertheless.
The question plagues me still. Why do I grasp at the things that hurt me? Why do I always choose the path of self-destruction?
I light my body on fire. I spend years abusing myself with substances. I marry the wrong woman. I alienate people. I push those that love me unconditionally away. I used to tell myself that happiness was like greed, an evil thought. That this wasn’t actually misery I was feeling, that I was somehow above it. That I could grasp onto to work or self-interest or something that would sustain me. And it did, for a while. Maybe I just didn’t want to let anyone down. I guess I still feel that way too.
I tell this to my students.
“Teacher, but Macbeth knew this too,” Kevin said. “He was given a chance to grab that dagger and he took it. He stabbed the King and took the crown for himself.”
“Yeah, but it cost him everything. “Kitty argued. “His family died. He lost his reputation. The people hated him.”
“No way!” Kevin shook her off. “Macbeth is a Baller. Don’t hate the playa, hate the game…”
Kevin’s voice trailed off into a series of high fives and raucous laughter. What have I been teaching these kids? I’ve created monsters.
“But Shakespeare knew it too,” Sonya added. “His characters are racked with guilt, conflicted by the choices they make or don’t make.”
I step toward the front of the class. “Yes, they call those soliloquies, or inner thoughts. Carl Jung called them the ‘Collective Unconscious,’ but I like to refer to them as ‘B-Sides of the Alpha Male.”
“Huh?” My students quickly pick up their pencils and scribble notes curiously as I explain. How B-Sides are those lesser known gems of feeling residing on the LP backs of records, the ones the real music lovers crave, where a band’s true sound is not destroyed by constant radio play and over exposure. It is the humanity we never get to see in real life. I guess that is one of the reasons I chose to poke fun at American Idol in our play. I just reject anything that’s sole purpose is to make me want to purchase and consume it, to work even harder to obtain more of it, to let that be my nature, to let that be my collective soul.
The class nodded. I think they understood.
Then Michael, who is playing Lady Mac Gaga, said it best. We had been talking before about why we were putting so much effort into our performance despite their being no grade mark or placement test incentive. Even the Chinese homeroom teacher they call ‘Octopus Lips’ belittles it, saying not to get too caught up in this acting business. “Shakespeare won’t get you a job. Shakespeare won’t put clothes on your back or rice in your belly. Shakespeare won’t take care of your parents when they are old.”
So the actor playing Lady Macbeth sighed.
“All they want is for us to study seven days a week so that we can get into a prestigious high school, so that we can attend a private college, so that we can get a better job, so that we can buy a car and house and get a handsome spouse and then let our parents move in so that we can take care of them.”
He sank deep down in his chair.
Then Tiffany, who is playing one of the Corporate Witches, piped in. “All our school cares about is if we do well on tests, so that they can publish our results, so that they can have more students and charge more money, and then the owners can become richer and buy more schools.”
The room was actually getting darker as they spoke. Eerie clouds rolled in and a heavy mist formed out the window. “I know. I know.” I whisper. “We’re all chasing something.
“Teacher Brian,” Michael asks, “What are you chasing?”
I look out the window and cross my arms. I don’t want to answer. I don’t want to have to tell. But then in these thoughts, I completely forget. How is that possible? “Oh yeah.” It suddenly comes back to me. “I’m chasing my dreams.”
I don’t think they believed me either.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow creeps...

“Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time.
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” - Macbeth, Act V, scene 5, lines 19-28

I got a lot of strange looks as a kid. This could have been due to a series of depressing bowl cuts my Mom gave me throughout the Ford/Carter eras or the terrible checkered polyester slacks and red Winnie-the-Pooh turtle neck sets she insisted I wear every day of elementary school. Mom said she purchased them out of the Sears Back-to-School catalogue, but basically they just got my life threatened on a daily basis. Let’s face it, playground kids are hard pressed to forgive the village dork for dressing funny, and so for a time I was lumped in with the social rejects. At least I wasn’t Shelley “Booger Eater” McKee or Todd “Smells his own Farts” Jenson.”
Those guys were real hosers.
But to keep the bullies off my back, I developed the one extra special talent that the farm boys would never be able to touch me with: Performance Art. Of course, this talked me into more fights than out of them, but it was better than standing there and taking abuse any day.
Mostly though, it just made people crinkle up their faces and shake their heads. Unsuspecting teachers. Bewildered neighbors. Snooty church ladies. Glossy-eyed store clerks. No one became immune to my special ability to quote entire comedy scenes from Happy Days or M.A.S.H. and do goofy impressions I felt an overwhelming burning desire to unburden myself with.
My shamelessness knew no boundaries.
W.C. Fields, Jimmy Stewart, Yogi Berra, Mussolini, Steve Martin. I could do them all. Yet instead of laughing most just turned and hurried away.
I remember once in the cafeteria as a third grader I approached a stern face Lunch Lady and, speaking with a pathetic Oliver Twist British accent, asked, “Please sir, I want some more?” To which she pointed angrily at a stack of neatly piled steaming corndogs on the trolley cart and from behind a white mesh hair net scowled, “Every kid gets but one wiener. No more. No less.”
Church was another place I earned public disdain. I remember once approaching famously mutton-chopped offering usher John Bingham with my impersonation of Chewbacca meeting Groucho Marx, “This morning I shot a Wookie in my pajamas.” I tapped an invisible cigar in front of him and howled. “How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”
“Huh?” He groaned, the gray tips of whiskers tickling my nose.
To this I simply made slow motion light saber moves and cut him to shreds. Later I heard him exclaim to a group of choir members, “That Hartenstein boy just ain’t right.”
Undaunted, I took it as a sign my act was getting better.
Yet nowhere did my efforts to achieve performance brilliance fall so flat than in the classroom. Sour faced teachers carrying paddles hissed when I tried giving my history speech on Charlemagne in a French accent, and glaring spectacles hung on the edge of witchlike noses as I attempted to do an interpretive dance to recorders playing Hot Cross Buns.
School just sucked.
Yep, I’d say for kids like me, where everything funny was based on absolute fear, the only thing that could suck the joy out of life faster than going to school was my mom getting the bowl out of the pantry shelf, setting two yellow phone books atop the high stool, and saying, “Hairs getting pretty long, Mister, time for a cut.”
So what did I go and do? I became a teacher. Smart huh?
Now it is almost thirty years later and I have spent half this time trying my hardest to make studying fun. It hasn’t always been easy. You’d be surprised how reluctant students are to just having a blast: Mandatory Secret Santas? Mock Trials in-character? Impromptu games of underleg freeze tag? I’ve thrown the kitchen sink at kids with mixed results.
“Do we really have to dress up as the character in the book?”
“I won’t be able to participate in the tea party, I’m getting a new ant farm this week and…”
“Yeah, sure. Gotcha!”
It’s always the same.
Today was no different.
I am standing on stage of the school’s theater pleading with my students to give me more feeling in their performance and they are looking at me like I am crazy. Michael doesn’t want to wear his Lady MacGaga costume, and Aimee and Aden don’t have a dance off routine yet, and somebody needs to make the “Stinky Tofu” box and all the Logo Posters, and my daughter’s are sick and I will have to stay home tomorrow and miss a valuable day of rehearsal, and wouldn’t you know it, Bloodthirsty Mary, the one who wrote the essay about how humans are naturally damned because they only have evil in the hearts, walked into the theater this morning and began screaming, “Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!” This at the top of her lungs, and now it is just swelling, just piling up around me. Then the bell rings and the students saunter off and here I am scribbling on my script and somebody yells, “Last one out, turn off the lights.” And then in a blink I am in the dark, sitting on the lip of the stage in pitch black knowing I will have to baby step toward the exit, wishing I remembered to bring my flashlight but now will have to just feel my way out in the dark. Only art can save me now.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ballet Recital

Took a little break from Macbeth to watch both Xi'an and Rebekah get their ballet on. The girls have been working very hard on the different positions and practicing each night at home by leaping off furniture and playing Swan Lake with their Dad.
Rebekah is the youngest member of her ballet class and all the other girls take her under their wing. She was really excited to show me her dance moves where she runs on the tips of her toes.
Xi'an also did a great job leaping and dancing. They did the whole class in Chinese, joking even in the middle that it looked like her Dad was about to fall asleep. I wasn't. I swear. Good job, girls. You're awesome.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Iambic Pentameter

“False face must hide what the false heart doth know.” - Macbeth

The students are assembled in a line of ten, shoulder to shoulder, facing the chalkboard and stretching across the room in a human chain. They know an “Iamb” is the joining of two syllables: one unstressed, one stressed. They are to collectively read the passage before them and bow down for unstressed and stand up on tippy-toes for stressed. We begin.

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
- / - / - / - / - /
It is the east, and Juliet’s the sun.
- / - / - / - / - /

The students look like bleacher bums doing the wave. Somebody makes a joke about Rick Rolling, and we continue through the passage. All the while my students are getting deeper and deeper into the language of physical poetry. I am dragging them forward, kicking and screaming, pulling and prodding, whether they like it or not.
The day had started with a reciting of Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, (Iambic Tetrameter), and then a whispered version of Ode to a Grecian Urn (Iambic Pentameter). These are my favorite moments as an educator. There’s no money value set to this. I would do it for free. Reading poetry aloud, the rhythm of the words, the beat of sounds, and nothing sounds so good in the English language as Iambic Pentameter.
Jefferson knew this. I like to joke with classes that he penned in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” as a personal slap in the face to King George. As if to say, we are not only a new and thriving country who doesn’t need you anymore, we have already mastered the best you have to offer.
I like how it also shows secret motives. Lear naked and wailing in bestial moans atop the heath in the pouring rain, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! You cataracts and hurricanes…” How if he were truly insane, why was he still able to speak in perfect poetic form? No, instead the old man is atoning. This is Shakespeare’s way of showing us the fallen king is not deranged but depressed. His symptoms show a logic, an order, he is crying out to his daughter to forgive him, to see his sorrow. Thus, his disorder is treatable because it is based in a pathology that can be healed.
Romeo lines are similar. How we know his love is pure because, although he varies from convention and falls for the daughter of his enemy, he does not stray from the basic truth of love, that no one can control who they are destined for, that soul mate who stirs in them passions they otherwise would never have known. I mean, just listen to the Iambs, they are the sounds of the beating cardiovascular as if the very marrow of our veins: daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM. Romeo’s words to Juliet are the echo of his very heart.
But what I love most about Iambic Pentameter is the shape of the stresses, the in and out, the stressed and unstressed syllables, the – and the /. It is an ebb and flow, like literary tides that wash over us, a soothing ocean call, and since our bodies our mostly made of water, Shakespeare’s lines so easily sync with our own natural rhythms. It becomes our psyche. We breathe in and out, in and out, in and out, and this is how we know we are alive.
We practice this today before we turn to Macbeth. Five days to curtain. We are no where near ready, and some days are better than others. I remind the students, everything is okay, we are moving forward, we are getting closer. Day by day. daDUM. daDUM.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The "Scottish Play"

(Hartenstein's Students begin rehearsal)

“Call me superstitious or cowardly or weak
But I’ll never play a character whose name I shall not speak.
I’ll play Hamlet in doublet and hose
And even one of the Dromeos
But sorry, I won’t play Mackers.
I’ll play Richard the Third with a hump and a wig
Or Henry the Eighth, that selfish pig,
But sorry, I don’t do Mackers.
Every soul who plays this role risks injury or death,
I’d rather sweep the bloody stage
Than ever do Mac-you-know-who.
So… give me King Lear, Cleopatra,
Romeo or Juliet, it doesn’t mat-ra
I’ll play them all for free.
But I’d be crackers,
To take on Mackers.
You see I’m skittish about the Scottish Tragedy.”

As we approach our Macbeth performance, the students are shocked to find out Shakespeare’s bloodiest play is cursed. Here are some of the odd occurrences over the years.

1. 1606, London. During the first performance of Macbeth, William Shakespeare was forced to play Lady Mac when actor Hal Berridge suddenly became unexplainably ill and died of a fever. Afterward, King James was so displeased he banned its production for five years.

2. 1672, Amsterdam. The actor playing Macbeth substituted the blunt stage dagger with a real one and killed the actor playing Duncan in front of a live audience.

3. 1721. The actors, responding to hecklers, attacked them with swords.

4. 1775. Sarah Siddons, playing Lady Macbeth, was almost ravaged by a disapproving audience.
5. 1849, New York’s Astor Place. Thirty-one people are trampled to death in a riot during Macbeth.

6. 1926. Sybil Thorndike, playing Lady Macbeth, is almost strangled during performance.
7. 1937, Old Vic Theater in London. Laurence Olivier, who was playing Macbeth, is almost killed when 25 pound weight crashes inches from his head. Later during a performance, his sword broke and flew into the audience hitting a man who later suffered a heart attack. Then later, both director and actress playing Lady Macbeth were involved in car accident on way to theater, and proprietor of theater died of heart attack during dress rehearsal.

8. 1942, London. During a John Gielgud performance, the actor playing Duncan died of angina and one Witch actress died of a heart attack. Then another Witch actress died on stage while dancing around the cauldron, unable to keep up, and the costume designer committed suicide amidst his creations on stage.

9. 1947. Actor Harold Norman was stabbed during the final sword fight in Act V and later died of his wounds a month later. On his deathbed he confessed he had been repeating Macbeth’s name over and over in his dressing room that night before going on stage.

10. 1948. Diana Wynyard sleepwalked off the rostrum and falls 15 feet. She finished the night’s performance.

11. 1953, Fort St. Catherine, Bermuda. “From his Cold, Dead Hands” Charlton Heston suffered severe burns in his groin and leg from tights accidently soaked in kerosene.
12. 1865, April 9, River Queen on the Potomac River. Abraham Lincoln reads passages from Macbeth, those following Duncan’s assassination aloud to friends, within a week he is killed.

Of course, more detailed lists are available if you wish to do the research, but suffice to say, for these ghost-fearing Taiwanese students whose families burn offerings to ancestors twice a month, they believed every word of it.

And so do I.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Will's Father was a Glove Maker

(Hartenstein's 9th graders practicing their Macbeth script)

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! It is an ever fixed mark
that looks on tempests, and is never shaken -Sonnet 116

At the onset of every Shakespeare Unit, I cover my basis: What is Blank Verse, and what it means to write in Iambs? What was the Renaissance, the Globe, and Elizabeth’s Golden Age? We touch briefly on Comedy and pause mournfully on Tragedy. I give them Aristotle for Poetics and Hollywood for adaptations: Ten Things I hate About You (Shrew) and She’s the Man (Twelfth Night). It’s more than a good start. It’s a life. My goal is to have students find, like Duke Senior from As You Like It, “Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
Of course, it’s a tall order.
First comes Shakespeare’s Biography.
Students are amazed to find out William died on his birthday. Total bummer! Or that he was married to the American actress from the Princess Diaries and Get Smart. Score! They like that his hometown sounds like a perfume you buy on Mother’s Day and that people in London awoke and pissed in pots by their beds they most likely tossed out windows onto the street, “Look out below!” “Oh Drat! The Plague. Yuck!” I have facts just for boys: Will’s best pal Chris Marlowe was killed in a knife fight after being stabbed in the eye with a dagger in a tavern brawl. Cool! And facts just for girls: All the acting parts were played by dudes, so Romeo and Juliet were actually just two really cute boys kissing. Nice! There are numbers for math geeks: 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and sonnets of 14 lines. Fun and Games: The Insult Kit and caricature cartoons. Soliloquies. Bawdy jokes. Famous lines. And new words that the Bard created out of necessity. “Hang Thee, Young Baggage!”
And who doesn’t have just a little bit o’ baggage?
It is during these class mini-lectures that I lose myself a little, and it is always at the same spot. I dare say this thought has probably not crossed most people’s mind before, but who was Shakespeare’s father? Did Shakespeare even need one? If he is, as Harold Bloom has suggested, the creator of the Human Being, than wouldn’t Shakespeare have just made himself? Sprang from his own head like Zeus’s spawn?
This is what we know. Will’s father was a glove maker, which might have ordinarily led the eldest son to apprentice in his father’s shop where he would have learned to tan leather and the importance of a strong stitch, but John Shakespeare, a man of much honor and respect in Stratford, was a man of many talents. These included farmer, money lender, and borough ale-tester. He also rose to prominence as a court bailiff (Town Mayor) acting as Justice of the Peace, issuing warrants, and hearing cases. I wonder all that Will learned about the law and life and love sitting next to his father. Certainly he learned to look in the eye of tempests and not be shaken.
Eventually, before losing everything, John Shakespeare even became an Alderman in the church.
I like to think, sitting there next to his father in the front row of the parish, is where Will first learned the Old Testament stories. Those ancient tales full of treachery, debauchery, murder, betrayal, and bloodshed. Students are always surprised when they find out the Bible has more bad people than good, a perfect literary apprenticeship for a budding writer. Absalom. Lot. Cain. Samson. But they are also the mythic strands of dreaming boys, full of adventure and intrigue, loyalty, love, and faith. I like knowing that Will understood this, and that his plays are loaded with allusions and deep fantastical images associated with the narrative of God’s word, as well as the lively street language he was sure to encounter from his father’s constable days.
It is here I begin to think who my literary fathers were:
Milton in his blindness composing Paradise Lost. Wordsworth dreaming of clouds. Byron’s Starry Skies. Homer’s Heroes sleeping in lionskins in the dust, their spears stuck ready beside them in the sand. Longfellow’s legends. David’s lyrical cries to God. But I hold no greater debt that that to William Shakespeare . How his poetry has always moved and saved me. How he gave me Hamlet when my real father and I couldn’t be in the same room together. Prince Hal when I decided to turn from bad to good. Jacques during my backpack years when I did nothing but watch the world. Then Lear, as I stare into the temporary unconditional love found in my three daughter’s eyes. Mad lover Orsino. Prospero with his book. Iago for when I needed to decide who to trust and who was going to rat me out for their own good.
Who were your real fathers? What did they pass down to you?
I ask the kids and we journal and they read aloud. I am ever so fascinated by their responses.
We discuss this on the first day. It is a lot, I know. Mostly they only look back at me confused and scared to death that we have started Shakespeare and they have heard from their older brothers and sisters that it is impossibly hard and as boring as root canals or spinal surgery. They cast their eyes to the floor praying I won’t call on them to read aloud. So I back away and let it sit in their minds where they can muse like Romeo in the sycamores or Orlando in the forests of Arden. I’ll try again tomorrow. Another day, anon. It will make sense then. I’ll make them see. I‘ll make them love it or perish trying. My will is that strong.