By: Rhonda Knight

Part 1: Background

Today when students think about a Shakespeare play, they might conjure up the movie they watched instead of reading the play or an actor in a ruff (probably holding a skull) on a proscenium arch stage. If they do think about the play as a text at all, they probably recall a paperback book, one that has been heavily edited so that all the characters’ names have been normalized and all entrances and exits clearly recorded. A look at any play in its folio or quarto version will show that the “most authentic” copy from the seventeenth century still offers puzzles for readers and performers. But even those less-than-perfect folios and quartos present much more information than any of Shakespeare’s actors would have received when he got his role.

His role often came to him on a roll—a roll of paper that contained only the words he must learn preceded by a one to three-word cue spoken by another character (unnamed on the roll) that he must also learn.

Roll Replica /2018/12/18/beggars-bush-with-cue-scripts/
Cue Script from Robert Greene’s Orlando Furioso (c. 1590)

The economies of the theatre prompted the use of cue scripts: (1) paper was expensive and actors did not need copy of the whole play; (2) scribes were expensive, so paying a scribe to write out the complete play for every character was cost prohibitive; (3) plays were considered a company’s collateral—there should not be complete copies available for actors to lose or other companies to steal.

As Shakespearean scholars have turned their attention to the material conditions of play production, work that demonstrates “how” often leads to clearer considerations of “why.” In their book Shakespeare in Parts, Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern show the ways that Shakespeare could manipulate cues in order to direct actors toward particular emotions or actions. They also explain that “the cue does not necessarily retain a fixed meaning for the cued actor: the cue can suggest one thing in private rehearsal, but reveal something quite different in public performance” (94).

 Working with cue scripts provided Shakespeare’s actors a puzzle to solve, a puzzle that had to be enacted in three-dimensional space. Shakespeare’s company was a team, and with each play they honed their skills in translating partial, incomplete words into something alive on a stage that people would pay to see.

However, students do not have to be actors to benefit from using cue scripts. They face the same problems that Shakespeare’s actors did when they encountered their parts for the first time: “When do I enter?” “Who am I talking to?” “Who is talking to me?” “Wait, was that my cue?” “Should I still be on stage?”  As they work through these questions, they learn to be members of a team, leading and following as their parts (and their roles) dictate. 

Part 2: Practical Matters

Using a cue script activity requires both physical set up and planning, but it does not require the teacher (you, from here on) to be a Shakespeare expert. You are not looking for a “correct” interpretation of the scene (whatever that means); you are looking for the students to solve a problem with the most reliable information that they can gain. 

One crucial piece of information is that Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed in a particular type of space. The problem solving becomes easier once the students understand that the configurations of that space. As I noted in Part 1, students probably think about plays always being performed on proscenium arch stages with moveable scenery, staging that developed after Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare’s Globe theatre provided a permanent backdrop, with multiple levels and entrances. Also, theatregoers were on at least three sides of the stage, adding to the spatial dimensions that students must consider. Students will learn to look for language that helps them discern action that takes place “above,” “below” or “within.” Therefore, reconfiguring the classroom to designate these Shakespearean playing conditions helps them translate the words into actions.

The diagrams below will give you some idea how to work in typical classroom spaces: the first shows an easy reconfiguration with moveable seating; the second shows a typical lecture hall with immoveable seating. The key in transforming this type classroom is to move the audience away from their seats to sit around the edges of the playing space. Any desk or podium can represent “above,” “below” or “within” as needed, and the left and right of the desk may provide points of entrance and exit. Once the students understand how the space works, their imaginations and desire to play will overcome any institutional obstacles such as permanent fixtures. 

Now that the students understand their playing space, they need their cue scripts. Lucky for us the Folger Shakespeare Library provides a cue script generator. Here’s a quick primer:

First, you should decide which play and which scene you want to use. You should generally start out with a small scene of about 200 lines with about three characters. (Note: students learn the same skills whether there’s any leadership content in the scene or not. However, scenes with leadership content create the opportunity for later discussions.) Once you have decided on your play and scene, go to the Folger website:

  1. Choose play title
  2. Choose “Parts” from the pull-down menu 
  3. Choose Character Name
  4. Cut and Paste the section that you need for each character into a document 
  5. Make Page Breaks between each character’s section  

To help the students understand what they are seeing in their individual cue scripts, I change the fonts, using the following key:

  • Cues = regular text
  • Stage directions = bold italics
  • Speeches = regular bold

You can see a sample here. Give each group a packet with all their cue scripts and a cover sheet. You can see a sample cover sheet here.

For a small scene of three characters, give the students between 15 and 20 minutes to read through the scene and practice it. Longer scenes and/or more characters require more work time.

After the students perform their scenes, you may ask for audience feedback and questions or you may ask the students themselves to debrief.

Obviously, the after-performance portion will depend on the course’s learning objectives. For example, a literature course using leadership and a leadership course using literature will have different outcomes or objectives for this activity.

Part 3: Informal Case Study

My co-teacher, Eric Litton, and I led this activity at an Undergraduate Consortium run by the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program. Most of the nineteen participants were business professors who are interested incorporating more Liberal Arts content in their curriculum. We divided them in playing groups of various sizes. A group of nine worked with King Lear (1.1.1-190), A group of four examined Romeo and Juliet (3.1.1-135). There were two groups of three; one used The Taming of the Shrew (2.1.1-130) and the other group A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1.1.134-262). I did not pick these particular scenes for their leadership content but for accessibility and variety.

The Lear Group preparing to perform

The participants reported the following as their main “take-aways” in relation to business pedagogy:

  • Students can see that learning skills requires immersion and that they learn more as they practice.
  • Students should realize that people often work with limited information in business, so this is great practice for situations they will encounter.
  • Students will learn that permission to experiment is key in business.
  • Students can experience the satisfaction of shared problem solving.
  • Student’s participation in this activity reinforces the importance of knowing an individual’s role in the “whole.”

The participants  also reported that one of their reservations about using this exercise in their classes is that the students would not appreciate the “why.” For example, many students will enjoy the activity but will see it as just playing around. There are many ways to contextualize the exercise so that the students can understand the benefits that playing provides.

From the outset, students need to understand the importance of soft skills. The Internet provides numerous lists of soft skills that employers “look for.” Any student can look them up, see such vague generalities, such as Communication Skills, Creativity, and Leadership Skills, and think that they already have sufficient practice in these skills. (News Flash: Most of the time, they do not.) Instead of lists, students need to know the following points from Collabera:

  • Research (conducted by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation the Stanford Research Center and dating back to 1918!) says that 85% of job success comes from soft skills and people skills. (The other 15% from hard skills).
  • And soft skills are portable or transferable and will go with them to any job they have.
  • Even though soft skills can’t be taught in the same way that hard skills can, they can be cultivated through awareness and practice.

Thus, you can help students understand more specifically what soft skills are by asking them what skills they think they practiced as they did the cue script activity. They will probably say things like that “we had to listen to each other,” “we had to pay attention,” and “we had to work together.” These, of course, translate into business lingo as effective communication, attention to detail, and teamwork, which are included on most soft skills lists, including those outlined in an article from Inside Higher Ed titled “Survey:Employers Want ‘Soft Skills’ From Graduates” (the percentages indicate respondents that found the skill valuable):

  • Active Listening (79%)
  • Attention to detail (70%)
  • Effective Communication (69%)

Other important soft skills employers look for which this cue script activity fosters are:

  • Time Management
  • Problem Solving
  • Creativity and Critical Thinking
  • Teamwork and Collaboration
  • Negotiation and Conflict Resolution
  • Learning from Others
  • Leadership Skills

This will be continued in an exploration of how the pedagogy of play fosters and reinforces these skills.


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