K. A. Wisniewski

Ian McKellen, Teacher: A Note on Teaching Gesture

In the last few years, I’ve noticed a major shift in my research and in my methods of teaching: a focus on performance.  Part of my thinking is a turn from the theoretical to the application, the practical.  How can students actually use the content and objectives of the course in real world situations, future employment?  What skills or activities can they use in other settings, and how do I create a situation in which students may be able bridge together, to find connections between, these two (often detached) domains?

Designing websites and posters, writing proposals and revising marketing schemes, editing videos and audio files, making paper and binding books . . . these are just a few of the “workshops” worked into class this semester alone.  A large part of this work–high tech, low tech, or no tech–centers on artistic production and performance (although the exercises clearly work in fields of business, bureaucratic and administrative careers).  In this work, students often confront questions on how they, we, interact with digital technologies and how gestures that are central to those interactions take on new forms in the digital.  Our interactions with smartphones, tablets, and laptops are mediated by a new set of gestures that are becoming fundamental to contemporary existence.  To understand these changes and to prepare them to be effective in future positions, the traditional classroom needs to be flipped into a laboratory in which students feel comfortable to play with ideas and technologies and discover their own style and place within aesthetics traditions.

Since many students in recent semester have opted to produce their own videos, I have also begun to experiment with how I my best serve their needs.  For whatever reason, this semester students have been especially interested in delivering and recording scripts.  My challenge was to create a series of short exercises to have students think about language, gesture, imagery, and time (pacing).

I’m not sure how successful some of these exercises were for everyone in class, but in the process of doing my own homework for these weeks, I discovered a tutorial on Shakespeare’s Macbeth conducted by Sir Ian McKellen.  Students knew him as Magneto in the X-Men series and as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, but not much else.  But as my model, I used his Da Vinci Code character of Sir Leigh Teabing, historian/scholar and a Holy Grail expert, and his alter ego “Teacher”.  Here, we are not only presented with the classic archetype of teacher, professor or intellectual, but also as a figure representing Knowledge/Science/School via Print Cultures working to replace Faith/Religion/Church of Oral Cultures.  Taking this one step further, I then transitioned to how this figure might be replaced in the digital age.  My answer, too, came from the actor himself.

McKellen was one of the actors hosting a “in-studio master class” that aired on British television in 1978.  In this clip, the actor offers a close reading of Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy which appears in Act 5, Scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

At the end of his talk McKellen also reveals that such close reading might in fact be most valuable for the actor.

“I must have all that in my mind as I’m going through it. Not so that you the audience can understand those complexities, because i’m not giving a lecture. I think the poetry, and the rhythm and all those devices that Shakespeare uses are not for the audience’s benefit, they are for the actor’s. So that having absorbed them into his heart and his mind, he can then express them with all the other things at his command.”

While we’re not producing Shakespeare in any of my classes (yet), the workshop makes students carefully think through the writing, editing, and performing / filming of their projects.  Every line counts.  Every movement, every shot embedded with meaning.

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