Shall I Compare Thee to a Saxophone?

An abbreviated version of this article appears in the December issue of the Cal Shakes e-newsletter. Click here to subscribe to the newsletter.

Back in August of this year, New Works/New Communities program director Jessica Richards sat down with Cal Shakes Associate Artist Andy Murray to chat about his Write 2 Read Community Residency, part of the Alameda County Youth Literacy program at the Juvenile Justice Center. The resulting article ran in our Uncle Vanya program, and since then, Murray has continued to visit the kids in the center’s classrooms.

When the actor and teacher began his latest visits in late November, he was about to open The Seafarer at Marin Theatre Company, a play wherein Murray’s character ends up playing a card game with the devil for his soul (and which has been extended through December 14). Though he says it’s really hard to find a parallel in your life for something like that, “in all great works of dramatic literature, you find parallels. Like in Macbeth, there’s very few people who are going to end up killing the King of Scotland. But there’s plenty of people who have been faced with a moral choice because they wanted something, whether it’s a candy bar in the store or their best friend’s girlfriend, they’ve said, ‘I know this is wrong, but I’m gonna do it anyway.’”

Getting the kids in the three Write 2 Read units to relate to literature is one of Murray’s primary challenges, along with the changeable nature of the classroom population—kids being late or absent, leaving or entering the center—and getting the students to just settle down. “But you do what you can, introducing them to a few famous speeches and getting them to speak the language out loud and talk a little bit about what it means and how it might relate in some way to their experience, everyone’s experience.” So he brings in speeches from the four major tragedies—Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, and Hamlet—and also some sonnets. Some units want him to read the text aloud before they take a crack at it, because it helps them understand. “I always say, ‘well, you read it. You read it.’ And I’ve always said ‘no.’ I know how to read it. But it actually really helps them to understand it if I read it first, and then we can go through it. I hadn’t figured that out. I’d always been about throwing the attention off me and putting it on them, but it’s actually really helpful to do it this way. So that’s something that I learned this time, and it’s always about learning what works better.”

In a coed unit, Murray brought in Sonnet 18, the one that famously begins “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” Then, he asked them to rewrite the opening lines.

“I tell them that a summer’s day in England is no small thing, since it’s always raining. It’s like, ‘shall I compare you to one of the greatest days of the year?’ So I say to them, ‘what do you like, what do you find beautiful?’ And it’s a push to get them doing it, but one girl said, ‘Shall I compare you to a saxophone? You’re better because you can’t get any dents and I don’t need WD-40.’ I said to them, ‘I read a lot of poetry, and in the thousands, hundreds of thousands of poems written since Shakespeare first wrote a poem, that may be the first one with the reference to WD-40.’ So that’s a great thing. It’s hard to get them to push their imaginations a little further. Most of them want to talk about money, drugs, sex, you know? Some teachers are OK with that, but I always want to get them out of that place. They spend their whole lives talking about money, drugs, and sex, which is partially a function of being a teenager. But with these guys, it’s really hard to get them away from those stock references they have in their lives. But I want to get them to use their imaginations, and see alternative ways of expressing themselves. So that’s the challenge.”

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