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Innovative Approach to Shakespeare

Innovative Approach to Shakespeare

Are Shakespeare’s plays still relatable? More than ever—thanks to an innovative approach.

Jay Pawlyk

At St. John’s Prep, imagination goes a long way when immersing modern teenagers in a play about a Danish prince that’s written in 400-year-old alliterative verse. Just ask Jay Pawlyk ’91 P’23, who’s tasked with inveigling his Advanced Placement seniors with “Hamlet” as well as piquing the interest of his freshman in “Julius Caesar.”

“We can think of modern books being fun and classics being something we consume like medicine—good for you, but unpalatable,” he says. “Not true. What’s really good is to see yourself in the familiar. If you’re a teenager who has adults telling you what you should do with your life and you’re not thrilled with much of what they’re saying, you’re basically Hamlet.”

It’s one thing to identify what’s relatable in prose from the Elizabethan Era. It’s quite another to bring that classroom experience to life with dynamic, self-guided learning. But Pawlyk relies on a secret weapon: He asks the students to act the plays. Not just a static, table-read, mind you. Genuine dramatis personae. 

In a cross-curricular partnership with the Fine Arts Department, the Shakespeare units take place inside the Prep’s DiVincenzo Black Box Theatre. Pawlyk has students do character work before they get up on their feet. They read and discuss the plays before casting their scenes and diving into the context, exploring questions like ‘What does my character want the most? What’s blocking my character from getting that? How do I manage that obstacle?’ 

Pedagogically speaking, Pawlyk says the skills students use aren’t merely acting their parts, but the critical thinking it takes to put themselves in someone else’s shoes mentally and develop the character. Pawlyk also invites in Prep alumni who were active in the School’s Drama Guild, some of whom are pursuing acting careers, to coach students through their scenes. 

“This technique of getting the text on its feet and having the students be tactile and kinesthetic is incomparable in terms of internalizing the plot and the characters—depth that you miss if you’re just passively plowing through the words on the page,” says Pawlyk. “From day one, I find that students are totally committed. Totally diving in and making big choices. Acting is this weird piece of yourself—a vulnerability—that you don’t generally show in public. Suddenly, they’re being asked to do that. I think it’s challenging for students in a different way, and I can’t think of anyone in four years of using this approach who hasn’t risen to that challenge.”