Love the Words

Spring 2016

By Ann Klotz

On the floor of the Fire Hall, students in our summer theater program lie, breathing, on their backs, eyes closed, waiting. We are in sonnet class, the acting class I teach each summer. Each student arrives allegedly having memorized a Shakespearean sonnet. We use them as tiny monologues — each takes roughly a minute to deliver. Though I have banned #130, “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun…” because I grew tired of hearing it after the first few years of the program. I often tell the kids that while they believe they choose their own sonnets, often the sonnets have a way of choosing them. I do a little English teacher riff about unrequited love, the freedom that comes in form, the possibly apocryphal inspiration for the sonnets, a quick skim over figurative language, being certain that those kids who have attended independ­ent schools don’t overwhelm those kids who have never read Shakespeare. And then we dive in deep.

Each student speaks her sonnet to the group. I coach them to look for authenticity, to learn how to surf the verse, to pay attention to turning the corner if there is no punctuation at the end of the line, to note repetitive sounds, to define unfamiliar vocabulary, to love rhyme and, ultimately, to find the heart of the sonnet.

Sometimes I ask them to say their sonnets while blowing bubbles or jumping rope or whispering. I might blindfold them or ask them to say their sonnets into an old telephone receiver. It’s amazing what happens when we play, or are tricked into making new choices, finding new truths. Voices deepen; pretensions drop away; instead of acting with a capital “A,” they speak real feelings. It’s a scary glorious business.

Today I invite them to roll, like pigs in mud, luxuriating in the sounds and tastes of their sonnets.

“Taste the words,” I tell them. “Give each word a flavor.”

“That’s crazy,” Malcolm protests. He is from the Bronx; the whole program feels crazy to him — doing theater in a tiny all-white town on top of a mountain, having actual classes out in nature, keys left in cars, doors unlocked, bees and bugs and birds and moths, teachers asking you to learn Shakespeare and then put flavors with the word. Ridiculous.

“Try it,” I repeat. “Just imagine. There’s no right or wrong. Say your sonnets out loud, but stop and say the flavor for each word.”

They begin to mumble, mostly because the ones who return each summer have told the new students — behind closed doors, I suspect, after lights out — that I may be loony, but I know how to teach acting. I am bizarre but harmless and they know I love them. They all know that.

“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,” I model aloud. “Hmm. ‘When’ is vanilla extract. ‘To’ is flour, spilled on the table when I’m baking. ‘The’ is tap water, tepid.”

“Sessions,” says Tom. “Definitely lemon. Fresh lemon, just cut, not squeezed.”

“Of?” I ask.

“Scrambled eggs,” he answers without thinking. Definite.

“Sweet,” mutters Kristina, “ice cream.”

“What flavor?” I demand.

“Chocolate,” she murmurs.

“What brand?” I inquire.

“Häagen-Dazs® double chocolate chip,” she says with confidence.

“Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere. Keep going.”

With flavors, sounds feel different in a young actress’s mouth. She begins to experiment, to explore. It takes a long time to cajole them into doing the exercise, but once done, their spoken text is no longer bland, but spiced, full of surprises and contradictions, hints and layers — crème brulee, bologna, mashed potatoes, grilled cheese, caviar, melted butter on corn on the cob, shredded carrots, warm chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven, asparagus, macaroni and cheese with fish sticks, bug juice (the name they give to the powdered juice mix we stir up by the vat for lunch and dinner), mint chocolate chip ice cream — only the green kind, from the Sweet Shop, next door to the Players’ Lodge. Variety and texture infuse their language. Kids are making choices: first a food, then discovery. Acting is about making big choices.

Like a soufflé rising — I have to resist the temptation to open the oven door. I have to allow them to discover this on their own. Magic.

Once I gave them lollipops to lick while they were working on sonnets, but that took us in a whole different direction. Sticky, yes. Sensual? It goes without saying. Effective as an acting technique? Not so much. Not every idea is a good idea. “Dare to fail gloriously” is my mantra. And that day, I did.
Ann Klotz

Ann V. Klotz is head of school at Laurel School (Ohio). She writes most often about being a mother, a teacher, and a school leader. Her family — one patient husband, one young son, two college-age daughters, three rescue dogs, and two cats — inspire her daily.