Shakespeare the teacher
For the next six weeks, Oberlin College in Ohio will be taken over by outside agitators.
And the students and faculty can't wait.
These outsiders are actually invited guests - actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) - and they are coming, as they have twice before, to agitate students to start thinking about dramatic literature in a revolutionary new way.
The actors are part of Actors in Residence (AIR), a joint effort between Ian Richardson, an actor with the RSC, and Dr. Homer Swander, associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
''Plays are not written, they're wrought,'' says Dr. Swander. They cannot be studied like novels or poems, to be read and analyzed from the text alone. They are scripts, he says, a set of signals for actors. Reading them is only part of the whole process - ''it is the doingm of them that matters.''
The two collaborators decided this was best illustrated by bringing to the classroom experts on scripts, ''talented, experienced actors, the persons for whom the words were designed.'' During the past eight years, AIR has stirred up classrooms on 44 campuses. This year, in addition to Oberlin, 10 colleges will host residencies, most of them for one week.
The troupe of four actors and one musician swoop into Oberlin, armed with enough material for six weeks' worth of daytime classes and demonstrations, evening-recital performances, lectures, and one-person shows. They will participate in a conference of 45 Ohio high school teachers on the teaching of Shakespeare through performance.
The casually and colorfully dressed actors get the students on their feet and thrust scripts into their hands. Together they explore how the size and dimensions of the space, the physical closeness to another person, and the weight of a costume affect the words being spoken.
''We try to communicate some of the excitement that we as actors get when we put Shakespeare on its feet. We talk about what we know - the enormous problems , challenges, and excitement in rehearsal of discovering language, making it fresh and new,'' says Paul Whitworth, an actor with AIR.
''Is it hot or cold, dawn or late at night? What are the human conflicts? All of these elements affect the choices an actor makes,'' adds Sheila Allen, a RSC actress working with AIR.
''The goals of the residency are to make students aware of the power of literature as communication and to create appreciative audiences for drama. They see what kind of choices go into a drama,'' says Phyllis Gorfain, associate professor of English at Oberlin.
The actors perform, they teach, they direct students in scenes and plays, confer with them after class, join them for dinner, mesh with their lives. One professor commented that college students often feel their academic studies and personal interests are fragmented; seeing the actors both on-stage and off helps provide a model for recombining these areas of experience.
Dawn Hammond, an Oberlin graduate, says of a previous AIR visit while she was a student, ''I still draw on the memory of their compassion and vision for endurance, humor, and hope.''
The actors, when not contracted by the RSC for specific shows, sign up in England to take part in AIR. More than 50 present and former RSC actors have agreed to work with AIR, including current member Charles Keating of TV's ''Brideshead Revisited'' fame, and past members John Wood, Janet Suzman, and Francesca Annis.
At night they perform pieces of their own devising for the university and general public. The evening performances help universities defray the cost of AIR.
A sampling of some of these performances includes:
* ''The Loving Voyage: Shakespeare and Marriage,'' an anthology of scenes from Shakespeare which weaves a story of wooing, wedding, and repenting.
* ''The Tarnished Phoenix,'' a work based on the poetry and letters of D. H. Lawrence and the memoirs of Frieda Lawrence.
* ''The Hollow Crown,'' 800 years of English sovereignty with characterizations of Albert and Victoria, Henry VIII, William IV, with gossip by their contemporaries.
Oberlin is structuring an interdisciplinary class around the actors' presentation of ''The Tempest,'' Dr. Gorfain says. An art historian will talk about architecture and costume styles of the period. ''The actors stimulate the students' interest in everything surrounding the play, then we have experts on those areas come in and explain them. It makes students want to learn more, and has also sparked new dialogue among the teachers.''
Actors in Residence is one of several projects of ACTER, The Association for Creative Theatre, Education & Research, based in Santa Barbara. According to Dr. Swander, the director, ACTER seeks to create a new discipline in the arts, one that will provide links between theater and the academy and create aware, informed audiences. ACTER has worked with the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the Oregon Shakespearean Festival, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It has received two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Future plans include an AIR program using American actors.