Niki: Hi Nadia, thanks for doing this interview! First, your article presents us with results from an experiment in the classroom with a Tudor play. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
Nadia: The Teens and Tudors project came forth from my PhD on spectator risk management in early English drama, which I have completed at the University of Southampton in 2014. I was very keen to make part of a chapter of my thesis accessible to a wider audience through outreach, and decided on Heywood’s Play of the Weather as the project’s main focus, especially due to the fascinating socio-political context in which it was originally performed: the court of Henry VIII. Of course I’m not the first one to offer a staged reading of Heywood’s play; the Teens and Tudors project has been influenced by Staging the Henrician Court, an interdisciplinary project led by Professor Thomas Betteridge and Professor Greg Walker between 2008 and 2010. I was really excited about their project and website, which contains some very excellent teaching aids, such as video clips, articles and a discussion forum. With Teens and Tudors I wanted to contribute to existing studies by investigting how we can use staged readings or research performances as an exciting outreach tool for secondary schools, and of course as a teaching method at university level. The age of the actors in my project is relevant in that where staged readings tend to be performed by adult actors, I wanted to see whether the play, which was originally performed by schoolboys in 1533, would be better understood if the reconstruction were performed by teenagers in the same age category.
Linking Heywood’s play to the performance context of the Tudor court, meant that I could offer students a close reading tool that relied on getting to know the politics, gossip and lay-out of the Henrician court. I would project a lay-out plan of the Henrician great hall, and would use the actual space of the classroom (rid of tables and chairs) to help students decide where in the space lines from the play would be best uttered, and if the positioning in the room would have had any political implications in 1533. Furthermore, this set-up enabled us to discuss issues around gender, satire, and the dangers of performing drama that actors would have faced.
I have worked with 3 fifth form groups at a grammar school in The Hague, of which all students were non-native speakers of English. I was really impresed with how quickly they picked up on Heywood’s language, and especially the puns. I am very grateful for the school’s cooperation, and of course of the support and advice given by ICLON, the University of Leiden Graduate School of Teaching, and the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Culture at the University of Southampton.
Niki: Great! Now, you’re bridging the gap between gymnasium and university with this project – where is your focus? Is it more about bringing new pedagogy to the classroom? or about doing research on classroom dynamics for the university?
Nadia: That’s a good question! In fact, I find that addressing the bridge between school and university is very necessary and rewarding. I am a lecturer at the University of Leiden, so I usually teach university students. However, I do find that fifth and sixth form pupils are very capable of engaging with literature that it slightly more ‘out of the box’, in terms of the ‘standard’ curriculum for literature. I also found that certain prescribed authors tend to intimidate teenagers, for example, Shakespeare. The last thing I want to do is ‘freeze’ the students’ creativity of mind by offering them a text that that intimidates them before they have even started reading. The beauty of using Heywood of course, is that he is obscure enough for students not to have heard of his work, so that they enter the workshops more openmindedly.
In terms of method, my project has been two-fold. On the one hand I wanted to unite a theory used in language teaching called Total Physical Response Theory (TPR) in which the movement of the body is used to remember information, and Cognitive Theory linked to the late medieval and early modern ways of using drama as a teaching tool. At the same time I was very interested in testing how classroom dynamics could be changed and history and literature could be made more accessible to students who do not find it easy to use older sources, because they find themselves lost in the works, or easily distracted.
Niki: That sounds great. Could you recommend anything for teachers – be it at the university or the gymnasium for recreating this experience?
Nadia: Last month, I have given a workshop for teachers at secondary school and sixth form level at the national Good Practice Day hosted by the University of Leiden Graduate School for Teaching (ICLON). We discussed how TPR can be used in the classroom, not just for teaching playtexts, but also as an approach to novels and historical sources. For the latter it is good to keep in mind that although we historians are left with the written records of events, most aspects of medieval and early modern life were ‘played out’ in public. I am thinking of judicical matters, such as trials and executions; religious ritual or ceremony; educational, traditional, commercial, political, and festive activity. As such, situations such as these can be easily visualised for the classroom context, both at the university and at sixth form college level. For the latter group it is even more important to be made aware that historical records are not dull and difficult exercises of solitary reading, but rather a record of highly exciting public events that happened in past communities. Students need to be made more aware than ever, that persuing a degree in the Humanities is worth their while, and can open up new worlds.
Niki: Thanks so much for your time! and good luck with your research.