Check this out, from Flavia at Ferule and Fescue: Our intrepid young Shakespearean was teaching Trolius and Cressida one day last week, when
I heard the door open, slightly behind me, I didn’t look over. I was mid-sentence, and figured it was a student slipping in late.
Instead, a young man and young woman walked right into the center of the room and started performing part of the banquet scene from Romeo and Juliet.
We stopped abruptly. F()cking theatre kids, I thought. They must be advertising a production. A$$holes. But since I knew the scene, and they’d already started, I figured I’d let them finish–surely they were just going to do the shared sonnet, and would be done in another dozen lines.
But they got to the end, kissed, and kept going.
The door opened again, and a third person came in: the Nurse. She got out a few lines, but when it became clear they weren’t going to stop, I stood up.
“Thanks so much,” I said sharply. “But you have the wrong semester: we do tragedies in the spring.”
For the first second or two, even after I’d stood up, they didn’t break character, but showed every sign of wanting to continue.
“You can leave NOW.”
They slunk, grinning and only slightly abashed, to the door. As they got there, the woman playing Juliet announced something about this being a senior project–guerrilla Shakespeare, or some such $hit.
Flavia had two reactions, which I think I would share too, were I treated to the same kind of “performance” as this. First of all, it relates to the typical power dynamic in the classroom, which was definitely shaken up by the guerrilla performance. She was angry, but her students were rattled:
[I]n the classroom. . . I’m in charge and I know I’m in charge. My students, in a way that I don’t often think about, are not in charge–even in a boisterous class where it can take me a while to get them to quiet down or to hush those having side conversations. Yes, they can tune in or tune out, and get up to go to the bathroom without asking my permission, but they don’t feel they have the power to change what happens in that confined space; when something does happen, all they’re able to do is watch.
Upon reflection, she was a little rattled too by the incident:
The interruption also made me think about how vulnerable the classroom is. We think we’re in a separate and semi-charmed space for those 60 or 90 minutes, but the world can come inside without our permission–whether it’s jerky drama students or a medical emergency or a kid with a gun.
It’s funny that she wrote this post this week–I’ve been thinking about how professors (at least most of us humanities types) are just bad actors who like having captive audiences. That is, we like to tell stories and to be the center of attention, but we’re not good-looking enough or daring enough to risk performing for audiences who can walk out without fear of punishment in our grade books. (This is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but maybe not too much of one.)
As faculty, our “performances” are privileged: we have classrooms assigned for our use on particular days and times, and our “performances” are compensated. This is not the case for a lot of people who lay claim to air time on college campuses: I don’t know about your campuses, but mine seems to feature an awful lot of religious nuts who stand on milk crates to rant and scream about their ideas about Jesus and salvation most afternoons. (Some of them deserve the title of “itinerant preacher,” and some are advertising for their local congregations, but a lot of them seem like random self-appointed God-bags.) Recently, an observant Catholic colleague and I were walking on the plaza near our little “speakers’ corner,” when one of the really creepy ranters turned to look at us square in the face and screamed, “YOUR PROFESSORS ARE TEACHING YOU LIES! LIES THAT WILL LEAD YOU TO HELL!”
Man, I really wanted to paste that guy, but he’s part of a rogue sect of Christianists that apparently does’t believe in shaving or common hygiene, so the thought of physical contact with that guy was too, too revolting. (Delivering a baroque volley of profanity also crossed my mind, but I thought that would have mortified my colleague further.) There are worse things, too: twice a year, a big anti-abortion poster show pulls up and installs 10-foot high pictures of aborted fetuses, and the pro-choice campus group organizes a counterdemonstration. My point here is that there are all kinds of “performances” going on on college campuses most days and nights, and that’s OK, so long as audiences are free to walk away. In that sense, then, the encounter Flavia describes doesn’t seem like a “guerrilla theater experiment” so much as a gross imposition on her and her students without their consent in the semi-privacy of their classroom, or even an abusive one in light of all of the murderous office and classroom massacres that characterize life in these United States.
I’d like to know more about the “f^cking theater kids” and how they chose Flavia’s class or any other classes or spaces they “hit” with their performances. It seems like it must have been premeditated, chosing a Shakespeare seminar (insetad of a large Chem 101 lecture or an upper-division Economics course, for example.) In the end, what makes theater different from class is that the audience members can vote with their feet–and Flavia’s students were unable to do that. In my opinion, it’s a performance FAIL if you just creep out your “audience” without their consent.