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COLUMBUS, Miss. – Mississippi University for Women students enrolled in this fall’s Shakespeare course have found themselves having to make a case for their play before a commission with hopes of it being performed before The Queen.

Reacting to the Past, a role-immersion game in which students role-play key players in a historical debate, was played out in Nora Corrigan’s EN 303, Early Shakespeare course, with students performing scenes from Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” and Christopher Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus.”

Six students were cast in the roles of the Privy Council (Queen Elizabeth’s closest advisers) and the remaining students were divided into two teams, representing two actors from different acting companies, Lord Strange’s Men and the Lord Admiral’s Men.

The first few days were mostly prep work, with actors rehearsing scenes from the plays and Privy Council members drawing up questions to ask the actors about their work. A formal debate between the two companies followed about the merits of their play with the Privy Council free to raise questions and objections.

Corrigan, associate professor of English, said the reacting game was produced by Eric Mallin and Paul Sullivan at the University of Texas. The exercise runs for about three weeks, and the scene performances are just one component, she explained.

“There's a whole series of games of this type, produced by the Reacting to the Past consortium; you can find more information about the program at reacting.barnard.edu,” she said. “I read about the program in the Chronicle of Higher Education and decided it sounded like a great way to increase student engagement and also teach students about the social, religious and political context in which the texts we're reading were written.”

Corrigan added, “Shakespeare didn't write his plays in a vacuum, after all--he had to think about actors, audiences, rival playwrights, government censorship, current events, and so on, and this game tries to simulate those conditions.”

Over the summer Corrigan attended the Reacting Summer Institute at Barnard thanks to one of the APIL (active learning, problem-based learning or inquiry-based learning) teaching methodologies grants administered through the Center for Teaching and Learning.

She said, “I learned how the games worked in practice and how to run one of my own. I played a couple of games unrelated to my own field at the Reacting Institute, one about suffrage and labor movements in the early 20th century and one about New York in the Revolutionary War, and I found that it really forced me to learn a lot about those periods very quickly, and to think on my feet.”

Corrigan noted that reacting games are mostly student-run, so the students decided which scenes they were going to perform.

Candice Monteith, a senior theater major from Southaven, played Richard Burbage, an actor in Shakespeare's company, Lord Strange's Men.

“This is giving us an experience. Instead of just writing it out on paper, it gave me an opportunity to do what I love to do. It is more on a personal level, and it is a better learning tool.”

Graham Young, also a senior theater major from Columbus, played Ned Alleyn, the lead actor and part-owner of a rival theater company, the Lord Admiral's Men.

Young added, “This gave us a better understanding of how it was during that time, and how hard it was to get a play produced and have it performed before the queen. This also gave us an opportunity to work with English majors and get their take on how they look at Shakespeare.”

Corrigan said, “One of the things I hope students learn from this is a sense of how early modern acting companies actually worked, and also a sense that the text we have on the page is not a fixed or static thing -- you can make changes to it, and we have plenty of evidence that plays did get cut and edited all the time in performance, and that government officials often demanded changes of their own.

She also pointed out that the immersion game tied well into The W’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) because it is an active learning approach, and also problem-based (each character played by a student has certain objectives they're trying to achieve, but how they achieve those objectives is up to them). The goal of the QEP is to increase student engagement and development by encouraging faculty to engage students with APIL methodologies.

Students were given a game manual with a set of primary sources from the period, which is like a toolbox; they can use any of those sources to support their argument, and put them together in any ways they choose. Students also were required to go out and do additional research on their own.

Corrigan said, “Since it involves immersing yourself in a different time period and writing/ speaking from the perspective of someone who lived in that society, I think it also sparks curiosity about the period in ways that simply reading and discussing the text does not, and cultivating curiosity is the QEP's main goal.”

On Wednesday, the Privy Council cast its vote with Lord Strange's Men (the ‘Comedy of Errors’ troupe) winning with a final vote of 19 to 12. Members of the Privy Council were given multiple votes, which they can split any way they like.

Corrigan said, “I think, though, that the Lord Admiral's Men turned in an impressive performance--much of the discussion really came down to the plays' political/religious messages rather than the actual quality of each troupe.

“I was very impressed with the level of student involvement; one of the challenging things for me, as an instructor, was learning to step back and essentially hand several class sessions entirely over to the students, and I thought they stepped up to the challenge remarkably well,” she said.

Oct. 1, 2015
Contact: Anika Mitchell Perkins
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