Act 1: Scene 3 lines: 458 words

Nancy Gordon’s lines, Act I: Scene 3: 458 words

How do actors learn their lines? It’s not the same act of memorizing that we perform as students when we commit to memory the steps of photosynthesis for a biology midterm. Actors learn lines to repeat them over and over in performance after performance, and yet must do so as if they have never spoken them before, to create “the illusion of the first time” (Stanislavsky qtd. in Strasberg 35). Earlier this semester, I managed to learn lines for a play and repeat them in six performances, but I still don’t know how I did it. In fact, it was only after the play closed that I could bring myself to count the words. I was curious to know how many I’d memorized, but if I had counted them before I’d learned them, the process of memorizing would have been too daunting. And counting them during the run of the play could have undermined my performance; dwelling on how many words I was keeping in my head might have made me more prone to forget.

So how did I learn those 1,567 words and remember them?

My fascination with learning lines—and admittedly, my anxiety about the possibility of forgetting—led me to research the process. I found that teachers of acting tend to downplay memorizing lines. In fact, the most influential acting teachers of the twentieth century spoke rarely on the subject in their lectures. Though it’s essential to the craft—actors can’t read from their scripts or call “line, please” in performance, after all—it isn’t a focus of instruction. Still, it’s a process worthy of our attention because of what it may reveal about memory and how line-learning may benefit our cognitive health.

Acting teacher Stella Adler instructed her students (among them, Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro) not to memorize their lines, but instead to build a relationship with the words. In her first lecture to her students in The Art of Acting (“First Steps on Stage”), she tells them to read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, and select one idea from it to paraphrase and perform on stage (25). Later, when she returns to that exercise in her fourteenth lecture (“Understanding the Text”), she refers to the process as something “we must do with every text” (162). According to Adler:

Paraphrasing allows the ideas to become part of you. By putting the text into your own words you build a relationship. It becomes part of your heart as well as your head, which is essential before you can communicate the words to an audience. If the ideas are clear to you, they will be clear to them. (162)

Notably, the texts that Adler asked her students to paraphrase aren’t scenes. Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet isn’t a play but a collection of prose-poem essays. By choosing lines that her students would never perform in a play, Adler emphasized to them the importance of understanding the words on the page rather than the act of rote memorization.

Like Adler, Lee Strasberg instructed his students (including James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Paul Newman) to study texts that they wouldn’t perform. But rather than assigning them the prose-poems of The Prophet, as Adler did, Strasberg required his students to read short stories, among them Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Strasberg chose short stories over scenes because the conversations are often more realistic than the dialogue of plays, which, as Strasberg remarked, include “elements that characters would never say but convey necessary information to the audience” (161). Strasberg also found short stories useful teaching tools because “the short-story material forces the actor to really find out what he is talking about, not just what he is saying, and to find out how that relates to what the scene is all about” (161).

The same emphasis Adler and Strasberg placed on understanding rather than memorizing is apparent in the teaching of their contemporary Sanford Meisner (whose students include Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and Sydney Pollack). In the documentary Sanford Meisner: The American Theater’s Best Kept Secret, Pollack discusses how Meisner downplayed the role of dialogue:

What Sandy did is begin to examine the fact that dialogue is the last thing that happens, at any time, between two people. It’s all supported by behavior and attitudes. You say something. You mean a certain thing to me when I see you because of whatever relationship we may have. You say something. I hear it. Depending on the state I’m in when I came into the room, it means something to me. It produces a reaction in me emotionally, and the last thing that happens is that I respond with dialogue.

Similar to Meisner’s notion of dialogue as the “last thing that happens [. . .] between to people,” is the belief of Uta Hagen’s (teacher of Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino) that learning lines is a “by-product of the work” (117). Instead of coaching her students to focus on memorization, she instructed them to make every element of the play real to them, “every person, thing, event, and landscape, even the weather” (117). Hagen asserted that creating those particulars will lead the actor to the lines:

As you make your particularizations, much of what you have to say will become inevitable, and, when followed up in rehearsals by the discovery of your verbal intents and expectations, the words will be further validated until ‘learning the lines’ has become a by-product of the work, replacing the outmoded method of mechanical memorization. (117)

February 20, 2014: seventh-eighths of my hair gone for "Third"

February 20, 2014: seven-eighths of my hair gone for “Third”

I didn’t know that I was following Hagen’s instruction when I asked a hair stylist to cut off seven-eighths of my hair or when I asked a seamstress if she could help me solve a head-scarf problem. My instinct simply told me that I needed to make my character, Nancy Gordon, as real as possible.  That meant figuring out how to keep scarves on my head in the fall and winter of Act One, when she’s hiding her hair loss from chemotherapy, and cutting my hair for her appearance in the spring of Act Two, when her hair has started to grow back.

In the first weeks of rehearsal, I simply tied my Act-One scarves over my hair, which I was then wearing in a ponytail (I hadn’t cut it yet), and they repeatedly came undone and fell off on stage. Can you sew these so they appear to be simply tied? I asked a seamstress. They keep falling off on stage, and I need to make sure that doesn’t happen. More importantly, I realized that I needed not to worry about the scarves. Doing so would take me out of the scene. On stage, I had to be Nancy, not myself, wondering if my scarf was about to slip and fall.

The seamstress said yes. She could sew the scarves’ knots for me. But if I do it now, she added, the scarves will be too loose after you cut your hair. So I went back to see her after I cut my hair. I tied on each scarf as tightly as possible, and she sewed the knots. Wearing them with their knots sewn and with double-sided tape securing them at my temples solved the problem.

That head-scarf problem and the seamstress’ solution are details I offer not as digression but as an example of the “particularizations” that Hagen instructs her students to make. With a scarf secured tightly—fused to my head, it seemed—I was Nancy Gordon in a way that I hadn’t been before. She was more real. But I still don’t understand how a particular such as a scarf or a haircut makes “much of what you have to say [. . .] inevitable” (Hagen 117). Still, I know that it was part of the process that transformed me into the character who spoke the words I spoke.

But why should anyone who isn’t an actor care about this? you may ask. Simply put, the answer is cognitive health. Though we aren’t all actors, we all experience diminished memory as we grow older, and cognitive research that explores the memorization process specific to acting indicates that it may improve our memory and other cognitive functions. The research team of Helga and Tony Noice—she a cognitive psychologist and he a director and actor—have studied acting and its cognitive effects for more than twenty years. In “What Studies of Actors and Acting Can Tell Us about Memory and Cognitive Functioning,” the Noices address the process of learning lines—specifically memorizing large amounts of dialogue in a short period of time—and how actors reproduce those lines verbatim with spontaneity. Applying that process to other activities, including learning techniques for undergraduates and memory improvement in older adults, they conclude that the essence of acting—what the Noices term active experiencing or AE—may enhance memory (17).

The Noices’ recent studies of older adults who took part in four-week acting classes found marked improvements not only in memory but also “comprehension, creativity and other cognitive skills”:

Subjects showed a 19 percent increase in immediate word recall (a test of memory), a 37 percent increase in delayed story recall (a comprehension test) and a 12 percent increase in word fluency (a measure of creativity). (Noice and Noice ctd. in Hanc)

So should we enroll in acting classes to improve our cognitive skills? The Noices findings certainly make a case for it, especially when you consider that the acting classroom may be one of the last places where students are required to commit words to memory. In the information age, it’s far more important to develop our critical thinking skills. We don’t need to memorize what’s available at our fingertips, but we need to be able to distinguish the credible information from the dreck. And if the act of memorizing really does improve our cognitive health, perhaps we should look to the stage as a place to do it. I hope to return there, myself. But if I do, don’t ask me how many lines I have to learn. I won’t count them until the play closes.

Works Cited

Adler, Stella. The Art of Acting. Ed. Howard Kissel. New York: Applause, 2000. Print.

Hagen, Uta. A Challenge for the Actor. New York: Scribner’s, 1991. Print.

Hanc, John. “Elderly Acting Might Just Improve . . . Line, Please!NYTimes.com. The New York Times, 9 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.

Noice, Helga, and Tony Noice. “What Studies of Actors and Acting Can Tell Us about Memory and Cognitive Functioning.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 15.1 (2006):14-18. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.

Sanford Meisner: The American Theater’s Best Kept Secret. Dir. Nick Doob. Perf. Robert Duvall, Joanne Woodward. YouTube.com. YouTube, 18 Nov. 2006. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

Strasberg, Lee. A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method. Ed. Evangeline Morphos. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987. Print.

When I began work on the paper that I’m writing as a model for my students’ Unit III essay, I didn’t plan to compile an annotated bibliography of potential sources. I did, however, write one bibliographic entry as part of the preliminary work that I shared with them. When we looked at the sample entry in class, I told them that I wrote it because all of its elements would appear in some form in my paper. In other words, I told them, if you know you will need to write a works cited entry for your source, why not go ahead and write it? If you know you will need to summarize your source, why not go ahead and write a summary? And so on.

Still, I wrote the one bibliographic entry, thinking I would move on to more general note-taking afterward. But I found myself returning to the process of summarizing each source. I realized that what I recommended to my students as a useful but optional step was essential to my own process, at least in the case of this paper.

A couple of the summaries are the welcome result of a problem I encountered with two of the books, namely no index. Without an index, I couldn’t simply turn to the pages where the authors, both acting teachers, specifically address the subject of learning lines. Instead I was forced to engage in a form of concentrated skimming, reading portions of every paragraph for mentions of line-learning or memorization. My careful study of those two books—and of a third that did include an index—enabled me to produce general summaries as well as notes specific to my subject: learning lines.

The bibliography that follows brings together the insights of four of the most influential acting teachers of the twentieth century, in books by Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, and Lee Strasberg; and in a documentary film on the life and career of Sanford Meisner. It also includes an academic article chronicling research on line-learning and cognitive function.

Adler, Stella. The Art of Acting. Ed. Howard Kissel. New York: Applause, 2000. Print.

The Art of Acting (2000)

The Art of Acting (2000)

From audiotapes and notes on Stella Adler’s lectures, Howard Kissel produced The Art of Acting, a book whose twenty-two chapters, or classes, emphasize a technique informed by the work of Adler’s father, stage actor Jacob P. Adler; Harold Clurman, a co-founder of the Group Theatre (and one of Adler’s husbands); and Constantin Stanislavski, the Russian actor and director who developed the Stanislavski method, or “method acting.” Rather than instructing her students to memorize their lines, Adler taught them to build a relationship with the words. In her first lecture to her students (“First Steps on Stage”), she tells them to read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, and select one idea from it to paraphrase and perform on stage (25). Later, when she returns to that exercise in her fourteenth lecture (“Understanding the Text’), she refers to the process as something “we must do with every text” (162). According to Adler:

Paraphrasing allows the ideas to become part of you. By putting the text into your own words you build a relationship. It becomes part of your heart as well as your head, which is essential before you can communicate the words to an audience. If the ideas are clear to you, they will be clear to them. (162)

Founder of the Stella Adler Studios in New York City and Los Angeles, Adler—considered one of the most influential teachers of acting—taught both Marlon Brando and Robert Deniro. Her writing on the craft includes The Technique of Acting (1988) and Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov (2001).

Hagen, Uta. A Challenge for the Actor. New York: Scribner’s, 1991. Print.

A Challenge for the Actor (1991)

A Challenge for the Actor (1991)

In A Challenge for the Actor, Uta Hagen expands on the ideas she presented in Respect for Acting (1973), addressing both the goals of the actor and the particulars of technique. When Hagen discusses learning lines, she refers to it as a “by-product of the work” (117). Instead of coaching her students to focus on memorization, she instructs them to make every element of the play real to them, “every person, thing, event, and landscape, even the weather” (117). Hagen asserts that creating those particulars will the lead the actor to the lines:

As you make your particularizations, much of what you have to say will become inevitable, and, when followed up in rehearsals by the discovery of your verbal intents and expectations, the words will be further validated until ‘learning the lines’ has become a by-product of the work, replacing the outmoded method of mechanical memorization. (117)

Uta Hagen originated the role of Martha in the Broadway production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and later became of the most distinguished acting teachers of the twentieth century. At the Herbert Berghof Studio, she taught, among others, Al Pacino, Jason Robards, and Jack Lemon. Her books on acting include Respect for Acting (1973) and A Challenge for the Actor (1991).

Noice, Helga, and Tony Noice. “What Studies of Actors and Acting Can Tell Us about Memory and Cognitive Functioning.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 15.1 (2006):14-18. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.

In “What Studies of Actors and Acting Can Tell Us about Memory and Cognitive Functioning,” Helga and Tony Noice address the process of learning lines—specifically memorizing large amounts of dialogue in a short period of time—and how actors reproduce those lines verbatim with spontaneity. Applying that process to other activities, including learning techniques for undergraduates and memory improvement in older adults, they conclude that the essence of acting—what the Noices term active experiencing or AE—may enhance memory.

Helga Noice, a Professor of Psychology at Elmhurst College, researches acting and memory. Her current study of memory training in older adults receives funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Tony Noice, an adjunct member of the theater faculty at Elmhurst College, co-authored with his wife, Helga Noice, The Nature of Expertise in Professional Acting: A Cognitive View (1997).

Sanford Meisner (left) teaching at the Neighborhood Playhouse, 1957 / risabg.com

Sanford Meisner (left) teaching at the Neighborhood Playhouse, 1957 / risabg.com

Sanford Meisner: The American Theater’s Best Kept Secret. Dir. Nick Doob. Perf. Robert Duvall, Joanne Woodward. YouTube.com. YouTube, 18 Nov. 2006. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

An episode from the fifth season of PBS’s American Masters Series, Sanford Meisner: The American Theater’s Best Kept Secret (1990) documents the life and career of actor and teacher Sanford Meisner, founding member of the Group Theatre and master teacher of acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where he developed the Meisner technique, based on Constantin Stanislavski’s method system. In his interview, director Sydney Pollack—one of many students of Meisner’s featured in the film—discusses how Meisner downplayed the role of dialogue:

What Sandy did is begin to examine the fact that dialogue is the last thing that happens, at any time, between two people. It’s all supported by behavior and attitudes. You say something. You mean a certain thing to me when I see you because of whatever relationship we may have. You say something. I hear it. Depending on the state I’m in when I came into the room, it means something to me. It produces a reaction in me emotionally, and the last thing that happens is that I respond with dialogue.

Hailed as one of the American theatre’s most influential teachers (along with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg), Sanford Meisner joined the faculty of the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in 1935 and later served as the Director of its Acting Department. His students at the Neighborhood school include actors Robert Duvall, Tony Randall, and Joanne Woodward, as well as director Sydney Pollack and playwright David Mamet.

Strasberg, Lee. A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method. Ed. Evangeline Morphos. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987. Print.

A Dream of Passion (1987)

A Dream of Passion (1987)

A Dream of Passion chronicles Lee Strasberg’s training with Richard Boleslavsky, a student of Constantin Stanislavsky’s, and details Strasberg’s application of Stanislavski’s system to his work in both the Group Theatre (which Strasberg co-founded) and in the Actor’s Studio (for which he served as Artistic Director). Strasberg observes that the actor’s central problem lies in the fact that he knows what his character does not and cannot know: “Regardless of the skills with which the actor may pretend not to know what will occur next on stage, his normal scenic activity is actuated by his memory—by his carefully prepared and memorized words and motions” (107). The challenge for the actor then, Strasberg notes, is to recreate that experience believably not once but over and over for every performance, and “yet include what Stanislavski called ‘the illusion of the first time’” (35).

To help his students understand the meaning of scenes—rather than simply memorizing their words—Strasberg required them to read short stories. He chose short stories over scenes from plays because the conversations are often more realistic than the dialogue of plays, which, as Strasberg remarks, include “elements that characters would never say but convey necessary information to the audience” (161). Strasberg also found short stories useful teaching tools because “the short-story material forces the actor to really find out what he is talking about, not just what he is saying, and to find out how that relates to what the scene is all about” (161).

Considered the father of method acting in the United States—a system that revolutionized acting on the stage and screen—Lee Strasberg co-founded the Group Theatre (with Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford), served as Artistic Director for the Actors Studio, and founded the Lee Strasberg Film and Theatre Institute in New York City and Hollywood. His students include actors James Dean, Robert DeNiro, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, and director Elia Kazan.

My last blog post, Friday, March 21, featured a sample paper draft that I composed as a model for my students. The draft included lines for a script selected from an academic essay on Sherman Alexie’s short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and its film adaptation Smoke Signals.

As a model for their collaborative revisions, I revised my script to include lines from an interview with Alexie and lines spoken by his characters Victor Arnold and Thomas Builds-the Fire. And to tie the parts together, I added myself as a moderator. Similarly—but collaboratively, in groups of four and five—my students will fashion their individual drafts into one-act plays, placing their sources in conversation.

The setting for my sample revision, which follows, is the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho, where Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph, Gordon E. Slethaug, and I sit atop the KREZ weather van.

From “This is What it Means . . .” to Smoke Signals, or Sherman Alexie’s Road Trip from Page to Screen: A One-Act Source Play

Character Guide

Sherman Alexie: A poet and fiction writer who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Northeastern Washington State. His books include the short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), which he adapted for the screen. Smoke Signals, the film adaptation, received both the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998. More recently, his semi-autobiographical novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (2007) received the National Book Award for Young Adult Literature.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire: One of the characters in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Smoke Signals

Victor Joseph: The central character in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Smoke Signals.

Jane Lucas: An Adjunct Assistant Professor at Lenoir-Rhyne University, who along with her students is studying Sherman Alexie’s short story “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” (from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven) and Smoke Signals in conjunction with Alexie’s appearance as part of the University’s Visiting Writers Series.

Gordon E. Slethaug: An American-Canadian Professor of English at the University of Southern Denmark and author of Teaching Abroad: International Education and the Cross-cultural Classroom (2007), Beautiful Chaos: Chaos Theory and Metachaotics in Recent American Fiction (2000), and The Play of the Double in Postmodern American Fiction (1993). He also co-authored Understanding John Barth (1990) with Stan Fogel.

Lester Fallsapart (Leonard George) delivers the KREZ weather report in "Smoke Signals"/Movie still from ejumpcut.org

Lester Fallsapart (Leonard George) delivers the KREZ weather report in “Smoke Signals” / ejumpcut.org

At the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph, Jane Lucas, and Gordon E. Slethaug sit atop the KREZ weather van, which has been stationed at the crossroads since it broke down there in 1972. Oddly, tribal meteorologist Lester Fallsapart is nowhere in sight. Jane Lucas picks up his red- and white-striped umbrella and looks it over a moment before she speaks.

Jane Lucas: First, I’d like to thank Randy Peone, the voice of Coeur d’Alene’s KREZ, for letting me meet with you atop the weather van. I was hoping Lester Fallsaparts would be here—isn’t he always here, like the weather?—and Sherman Alexie should be here, too. Alexie’s running late, it seems, but we should get started. As someone who’s studying “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and Smoke Signals, I’m interested in the differences between the two. Gordon, you’ve written of the “different perception” (131) of the film.

Gordon E. Slethaug: Yes, it “presents a different perception from the short story collection [. . .] the short fiction gives a comprehensive representation of the entire Spokane reservation community and includes a typically Alexie critical and cynical view of the systemic problems of unemployment, poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, violence, drugs, alcoholism, and premature death in a culture removed from its traditional moorings” (131).

JL: Aren’t many of those problems that you mentioned apparent in the film as well?

GS: Yes, but “the film presents a warm-hearted, compassionate view of Victor and Thomas through the medium of the road narrative and engages the audience on the level of humor and sentiment even while it gently critiques white society and racist treatments of Native Americans” (131).

JL: It’s an engaging road-trip story, alright, but I’m not so sure about what you call the gentle critique. Some of the characters’ exchanges on screen are less gentle than their counterparts on the page. For example, Victor, there’s what you say on the bus to Cathy, the gymnast, who was an alternate for the 1980 US Olympic Team.

Victor Joseph: Yeah, I was just thinking about that. In the short story, our conversation with Cathy ends with that line of yours, Thomas. What is it you say?

Thomas Builds-the-Fire: (Opening his eyes) “Sounds like you all got a lot in common with Indians” (67).

VJ: Yeah, but in the movie, I keep talking. I say, “you said you were an alternate for the team, right?” And she answers, “yeah.” And I say, “well, if you were an alternate you’d only compete if someone on the team was hurt or something, right? And she answers, “yeah.” And I ask, “was anybody hurt?” And she says, “no.” And I say, “Then you weren’t really on the team, were you? I mean, it didn’t matter if there was a boycott or not. You were staying home anyways. You got nothing to complain about, so why don’t you just be quiet?”

JL: That isn’t what I’d call gentle.

(Sherman Alexie climbs the ladder attached to the back of the van.)

Sherman Alexie: Sorry I’m late—flight delay from Seattle. So it goes.

JL: Sherman, you said in an interview that you “didn’t have any problems with mutating [your] own book” (qtd. in West and West).

SA: (Nodding in agreement) “Right from the get-go, I said, ‘OK, Sherman you’re going to do composite characters, compress time, take bits and pieces from stories you need for this screenplay, and you’re not going to care.’ The narrative integrity of any one story was never the point, it was all about taking situations from the twenty-two short stories—it actually ended up being adapted from four short stories—taking the best you can find in this book to make it a screenplay” (qtd. in West and West).

JL: So the changes you made were your answer to the question, how can this story work best on the screen?

SA: Yes, “I’ve always separated them [books and movies] as two very distinct art forms” (qtd. in West and West).

JL: I wish we had more time, Sherman, but I know you’re heading to Albuquerque for a reading at the University of New Mexico, and I need to get back to Lenoir-Rhyne. I’ll leave a tape of our conversation for Randy Peone. Whether it airs on KREZ or not, I have a feeling that our words here today will become one of those stories told by you-know-who.

TB: Sometimes it’s a good day to die, and sometimes it’s a good day to write a one-act play.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. 1993. New York: HarperPerrenial, 1994. 59-75. Print.

Slethaug, Gordon E. “Hurricanes and Fires: Chaotics in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Literature and Film Quarterly 31.2 (2003): 130-40. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.

Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Perf. Adam Beach and Evan Adams. Miramax, 1998. DVD.

West, Dennis, and Joan M. West. “Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” Cineaste 23.4 (1998). Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

 

Since writing academic papers requires placing sources in conversation, why not begin the writing process with an actual conversation on the page in the form of a play? That’s the idea behind the assignment developed by some of my former colleagues at VCU and one that I adapted for my own UNIV 111 classes.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993)

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993)

Rather than requiring each student to produce a play individually, I altered the project to focus on collaboration, assigning students the responsibility of producing individual preliminary drafts consisting of one character’s lines (quotations and/or paraphrases from one source), which they collaboratively place in conversation with their group members’ characters in a one-act play that they perform in class. The final product consists of quotations and paraphrases from three-to-five sources, a character guide with a biographical note on each source’s author, and a works cited list. I encourage (but don’t require) students to include a description of the setting and stage directions as well.

It’s an assignment that many of my former students at VCU viewed in hindsight as a particularly helpful exercise in synthesizing a variety of materials (articles, essays, books, etc.). Though it involves more compiling than composing—at least in the initial stages—it’s a critical step in the process of writing an academic essay.

Returning to this assignment with my ENG 131 students at Lenoir-Rhyne, I composed the following sample as a model for their preliminary drafts. I chose as my subject Sherman Alexie’s short story “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and its film adaptation Smoke Signals—adapted for the screen by Alexie, himself—because my students are studying the story and the film in conjunction with Alexie’s appearance on campus March 27 as part of the Lenoir-Rhyne Visiting Writers Series.

Working Title: From “This is What it Means . . .” to Smoke Signals, or Sherman Alexie’s Road Trip from the Page to the Screen

Character Guide

Gordon E. Slethaug: An American-Canadian Professor of English at the University of Southern Denmark and author of  Teaching Abroad: International Education and the Cross-cultural Classroom (2007), Beautiful Chaos: Chaos Theory and Metachaotics in Recent American Fiction (2000), and The Play of the Double in Postmodern American Fiction (1993). He also co-authored Understanding John Barth (1990) with Stan Fogel.

Slethaug’s lines for the play follow.

Gordon E. Slethaug: “Although there has been some interest in depicting a more historically authentic view of Native Americans than that presented in the typical post-World War II Western, the reality of their lives and perspectives still seems sadly underrepresented and diminished in mainstream Hollywood film” (131).

GS: “Smoke Signals provides an important step in remedying this problem [of stereotypes]. It’s “based upon the first third of his collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” (131).

Smoke Signals (1998)

Smoke Signals (1998)

GS: “The film, however, presents a different perception from the short story collection [. . .] the short fiction gives a comprehensive representation of the entire Spokane reservation community and includes a typically Alexie critical and cynical view of the systemic problems of unemployment, poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, violence, drugs, alcoholism, and premature death in a culture removed from its traditional moorings; the film presents a warm-hearted, compassionate view of Victor and Thomas through the medium of the road narrative and engages the audience on the level of humor and sentiment even while it gently critiques white society and racist treatments of Native Americans” (131).

 Works Cited

Slethaug, Gordon E. “Hurricanes and Fires: Chaotics in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Literature and Film Quarterly 31.2 (2003): 130-40. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.

To develop this individual draft into a one-act play, I will place Slethaug in conversation with Alexie, using these sources:

Alexie, Sherman. “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. 1993. New York: HarperPerrenial, 1994. 59-75. Print.

Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Perf. Adam Beach and Evan Adams. Miramax, 1998. DVD.

West, Dennis, and Joan M. West. “Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” Cineaste 23.4 (1998). Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

Wendy Wasserstein's "Third," the acting edition (2008)

Wendy Wasserstein’s “Third,” the acting edition (2008)

For their first paper of the semester, an annotated bibliography, my students have the option of choosing as their subject something they’re studying formally (for a class) or informally (on their own). As a model for them, I’ve composed a bibliography on Wendy Wasserstein’s Third, a play I’m studying—both formally and informally, in a sense—as I rehearse for the upcoming production at the Foothills Performing Arts Theatre.

The bibliography that follows includes the play itself, as well as two secondary sources: a review of the original Off Broadway production at the Lincoln Center Theater, and an academic essay by a professor of theater and literature, a harsh critic of Wasserstein’s who reexamined and reevaluated the playwright’s work after her death.

For me, as I rehearse for Third, Wasserstein’s words are far more important than what any drama critic or theatre scholar has written about the play, but I value what I’ve learned from Ben Brantley’s review and Jill Dolan’s essay, regarding both the critical reception of Wasserstein’s final play and the differences among the productions at the Lincoln Center, the Geffen Playhouse, and the Philadelphia Theatre Company.

Annotated Bibliography

Brantley, Ben. “As Feminism Ages, Uncertainty Still Wins.” Nytimes.com. New York Times, 25 Oct. 2005. Web. 25 Jan. 2014.

Ben Brantley’s “As Feminism Ages, Uncertainty Still Wins” reviews the original production of Wendy Wasserstein’s Third, which opened Off Broadway at the Lincoln Center Theater on October 24, 2005. Observing the similarities between the play’s main character, Laurie Jameson (Dianne Weist), and title character of Wasserstein’s Heidi Chronicles, Brantley asserts that Third shares the shortcomings of her other plays: “an overly schematic structure, a sometimes artificial-feeling topicality and a reliance on famous names and titles as a shorthand for establishing character.” Brantley also notes that the supporting characters are more convincing than Laurie Jameson, both as written and performed. Nevertheless, Brantley commends the play as an affecting portrait of a woman confronting the “certainty of the uncertainty in life.”

Brantley, chief theatre critic for The New York Times, is the editor of The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century (2001).

Dolan, Jill. “Feminist Performance Criticism and the Popular: Reviewing Wendy Wasserstein.” Theatre Journal 60.3 (2008): 433-457. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Jan. 2014.

In “Feminist Performance Criticism and the Popular: Reviewing Wendy Wasserstein,” Jill Dolan cites the death of Wendy Wasserstein as the impetus for rethinking her harsh criticism of the playwright’s work and the mainstream feminist playwriting that it represents. Dolan asserts that a close examination of Wasserstein’s last play, Third, demonstrates the impact of her work as well as its importance in raising public awareness of the debates within and about American feminism. Along with her analysis of the play’s text, Dolan presents a study of two divergent productions: one at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles (2007), and a second at the Philadelphia Theatre Company (2008).

Jill Dolan is the Annan Professor in English, Professor of Theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts, and Director of the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of The Feminist Spectator in Action: Feminist Criticism on Stage and Screen (2013).

Wasserstein, Wendy. Third. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2008. Print.

Wendy Wasserstein’s Third spans one academic year at a prestigious liberal arts college in New England. The play focuses on Professor Laurie Jameson, an acclaimed feminist literary scholar, coping in midlife with her father’s advancing Alzheimer’s, her daughter’s departure for college, her husband’s detachment, and her best friend’s recurring cancer—all amid the onset of her own menopause, replete with hot flashes. On the first day of class, when Laurie encourages her students to contradict her, she has no idea what challenges she’ll face when one of them—the title character, Woodson Bull, III—takes her up on the offer. Angered by what she perceives as the Bush administration’s rush to war, she sees Third as a “walking red state” (27). When she accuses him of plagiarizing a paper she believes he’s incapable of writing, Third claims he’s a victim of “socio-economic profiling” (22).

Wendy Wasserstein’s other plays include An American Daughter (1997), The Sisters Rosensweig (1992), and Uncommon Women and Others (1977). Her most critically-acclaimed play, The Heidi Chronicles, won both the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1989. Third opened Off Broadway in late September 2005, four months before Wasserstein’s death from lymphoma.

Envelope

Even if I’d lived at my current address longer than five months, it would’ve been unusual to open my mailbox to find what was there on Saturday: a handwritten letter from a former student. I often hear from former students online, but handwritten snail mail: that’s a rarity. I cradled the envelope with the care I’d give any other endangered species.

Though I know that most of my students won’t compose handwritten letters after they leave my classroom, it’s an assignment I still require to supplement their writing practice. I don’t read the letters I ask them to write; I simply require them to submit letters mail-ready, in addressed stamped envelopes. I credit the students with the act of composing–not with what they write or to whom. Some students think it’s a pointless exercise; others ask if it’s okay to submit more than one letter. (It’s okay–no, it’s more than okay.)

I started the practice nearly fifteen years ago when I was teaching at Salem College. At the end of that school year, I received a note from a student’s mother, thanking me for the written account of her daughter’s freshman year–something she wouldn’t have had, she said, if not for all that required letter-writing.

Not all students write to their families, but many do. One of my students at VCU reported that the letters he’d written home were all posted on the door of the refrigerator. Earlier this month when my students at Lenoir-Rhyne submitted their last letters of the semester, one student handed me a stack of envelopes, each addressed to one of the teachers at her high school. At the end of her first semester of college, she was writing to say thank you.

Envelope November 2011I don’t write much snail mail, myself, though I do write a letter once a month along with my Envelope April 2013students.  And Monday I wrote back to my former student–the one whose letter arrived on Saturday.  I should write more letters, considering how much some of the ones I’ve received have meant to me. A note from one of my teachers five months before her death and one from another teacher–still very much alive and well–encouraging me to continue my writing, are ones I keep in my briefcase. Having them there makes me feel as if the women who wrote them are walking with me into the classroom. And in a sense they are–their words invigorate my teaching.

Sometimes at the end of a difficult day, I pull one from my briefcase and reread it.

The letter that I received from my student on Saturday is one I’ll carry with me as well. In it, she writes (I quote with her permission):

This semester, I took UNIV 200 in which I wrote a 15-page research paper on the importance of handwritten letters when compared to email messages. I had a great experience researching articles and now have the confidence to write a lengthy paper.

I hope your first semester at your new teaching institution has been great. Have a very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Thanks, Esther. Your handwritten words have made the season brighter.

Essays on Writing (2009)

Essays on Writing (2009)

When my students and I read Wendy Leibowitz’s article “Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing,” I found myself drawn less to the details about blogs, word processing, and email that dominate the article and more to a single observation about composing longhand: “I encourage students not to write their first drafts on a computer, so they might actually think before putting words on the page” (Bernard qtd. in Leibowitz). That sentence led me to reflect on the continuing role of old-school writing in my own classes. Although my students use new technology (posting blog entries and submitting papers to the university’s Learning Management System, or LMS), they frequently put pen to paper as well. I have persisted in requiring them to write longhand as a way of cultivating focus and depth in their prose. But is writing by hand still relevant in the digital age? That question—one that’s frequently raised now in response to the new Common Core Standards—prompted me to explore the science of handwriting and to consider what new technologies teachers are using with, or in place of, the old.

The bibliography that follows consists of Leibowitz’s article, which spearheaded my research, and two additional articles: one that examines the role of handwriting in cognitive development and a second that investigates how blogs have become a fixture in many college courses, in some cases replacing the traditional term paper. Together, the three articles create a strong case for preserving the tactile custom of putting pen to paper while embracing the new technologies that will inspire the best writing.

Whether these annotations (all drafted by hand) will serve as preliminary writing for an essay of my own, I cannot say. Either way, the insights I have gained through this research will inform the choices I make as my teaching—itself, a work in progress—continues to evolve.

Annotated Bibliography

Leibowitz, Wendy. “Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing.” Essays on Writing. Ed. Lizbeth A. Bryant and Heather M. Clark. Boston: Longman, 2009. 137-142. Print.

In “Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing,” Wendy Leibowitz reports that writing in the digital age presents both “perils and possibilities” for students (138). Her conversations with professors reveal that their attitudes and approaches vary considerably. While some require students to use digital technology throughout the writing process, others advocate limiting screen time, correlating online reading and writing with diminished critical thinking and writing skills. Whether they adhere to April Bernard’s view of Web writing as “adjunct to traditional forms” (140), or to  Robert Coover’s belief that it’s a “fundamental element of literacy” (141), professors find themselves rethinking the tactile experience of putting pen to paper and seeking effective strategies for using the newest technologies to improve writing instruction.

Leibowitz’s interviews with eleven professors do not constitute comprehensive research, but her article presents an informative overview of the variety of ways professors teach writing in the digital age. Though she writes for academics—specifically readers of The Chronicle of Higher Education—her straightforward prose speaks to a general audience as well. Readers who encounter her article now, more than a decade after its initial publication, may wonder how the professors she interviewed have since adapted their teaching to address the prevalence of social media and texting in students’ lives.

In addition to publishing articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Leibowitz, an attorney turned journalist, has written on technology and the law for The National Law Review and The American Lawyer.

Keim, Brandon. “The Science of Handwriting.” Scientific American Mind 24.4 (2013): 54-59. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

In “The Science of Handwriting,” Keim Brandon explores how his belief in the benefits of writing longhand finds scientific support in recent studies. Keim recounts a five-year research project conducted by Virginia Beringer, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington, that demonstrated second, third, and fourth graders’ ability to write more rapidly and express more ideas when they composed by hand. Along with Beringer’s study, Keim outlines brain-imaging research conducted by Karin James, a cognitive neuroscientist of the University of Indiana, Bloomington, revealing that learning cursive activates multiple areas of the brain that remain dormant when we type.

Writing for readers of Scientific American Mind, Keim addresses a general audience of readers interested in psychology and neuroscience. His reporting of Beringer’s and James’ studies points to the critical role of handwriting in cognitive development, a subject of particular concern to many parents and educators as the Common Core Standards Initiative—which deemphasizes handwriting in favor of keyboarding—has prompted a national conversation about the future of cursive in the classroom.

Brandon Keim, a freelance science journalist, has written articles for Wired and Psychology Today, as well as Scientific American Mind, and has been featured on broadcasts of National Public Radio’s Science Friday and Talk of the Nation.

Richtel, Matt. “Blogs vs. Term Papers.” Newyorktimes.com. The New York Times Co., 20 Jan. 2012. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.

In “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” Mat Richtel reports on the debate in higher education on how best to teach writing in the digital age. While some professors have followed the lead of Duke University’s Cathy Davidson, replacing the traditional term paper with shorter, more frequent blog assignments, their detractors—including Douglas B. Reeves, columnist for The American School Board Journal and William H. Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review—argue that blog writing lacks the academic rigor that fosters critical thinking. For Andrea Lunsford, professor of writing at Stanford University, pitting blogs against term papers creates a false opposition. Rather than replacing term papers with blog posts, Lunsford requires students to produce multi-modal assignments: term papers that evolve into blogs, websites, and video presentations.

Richtel’s article offers New York Times readers a glimpse of the contrasting teaching approaches adopted by writing professors who find themselves at a critical juncture, illustrating for a general audience how, as Andrea Lunsford says, professors are “trying to figure out how to preserve sustained, logical, carefully articulated arguments while engaging with the most exciting and promising new literacies.”

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Matt Richtel writes for The New York Times about technology and its impact of society and culture. His series of articles “Our Brain on Computers” (2010) explores how our constant use of digital devices affects not only our behavior but also our thought processes. His 2009 series about the dangers of distracted driving won the Pulitzer for national reporting.