Guerrilla theater: talk to the hand, Romeo

gorillatheaterCheck this out, from Flavia at Ferule and FescueOur 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.

0 thoughts on “Guerrilla theater: talk to the hand, Romeo

  1. Man, I didn’t realize how much profanity was in that post until you bleeped it out. Ahem. Apologies.

    I’ve been asking around, and none of my colleagues’ classes seem to have been invaded, including the other Shakespeare class. One of my own students is involved in the theatre program, and she did tell us, right after the interruption happened, that “Juliet” (whom she knows casually) had asked her earlier that day whether she wasn’t taking Shakespeare this semester — and when the class met. My student hadn’t known why she was asking, and was really embarrassed that she might have been, as it seems she probably was, responsible for their targeting out class.

    It also occurs to me to wonder whether the other Shakespeare class got spared because my colleague, although equally as young as I, is a man. I have absolutely no reason to think that. . . but I do wonder.


  2. Flavia–I wondered the same damn thing, but that’s the problem with being right all of the time, isn’t it?

    Thanks for the update on the Guerrilla Theater experiment. (And don’t worry about the profanity. It’s exactly what I would have thought and said myself.)


  3. You reminded me of a gross imposition last year during the DNC. There were abortion protesters blocking the door to a hair salon downtown. When the owner came out and asked the men to move, they told her to get back in the kitchen….

    I rather wish I’d been there for that with a video camera. That whole week was surreal. I’ve just never seen Hari Krisnas and the anti-abortionists together in one place before, for example. I took a few pictures. Part of me wished I had taken the week off, and left the state. The other part of me wanted to document the whole thing with photos and video. In the end I had to navigate my way through the crowds while walking to work, and preparing for possible riots that might impact operations.

    Also I saw one of the abortion vans last year parked at an expired parking meter (unattended). I really considered calling the city and asking them to send a reader around to ticket it.


  4. Weird classroom interruptions I have witnessed:

    I was a TA for a big lecture course at Grad School U; early in the class, two students in the back stood up and shouted “Penis!” “Vagina!” in alternation and then ran off, leaving the professor (amusingly) flabbergasted. This interruption didn’t last more than a minute or two, and seemed to be some sort of secret-society-initiation prank.

    A year or two ago, I was teaching a seminar when a group of students burst in singing an invitation to some sort of banquet. I let them go on for a couple of minutes, but when they seemed inclined to continue singing indefinitely, I said firmly, “We are in the middle of class here. Please leave and convey your invitation after class.” They seemed a little bewildered at this response, but left as requested. One of my students, mortified, confessed that a group planning to invite her to the event had asked her class schedule, but she hadn’t realized that they intended to interrupt class in that way. I suggested she tell the organizers that contacting the professor in advance might be advisable.

    In the first case, disrupting class was obviously the intent, but was also intended to be brief. The second case just seemed poorly thought out all around.


  5. So, this singing and performing for a captive audience appears to be a widespread phenomenon? Don’t those little jerks know that captive audiences are a privilege of faculty members only?

    (Seriously, though: what kind of a$$hats SING an invitation? I mean, if that’s not an invitation to join the Dork Club, I don’t know what that is…)


  6. I was regularly inundated with requests by student groups, nonprofit internship groups, and others to make presentations of 5-10 minutes in my classes. I always declined, because I felt the students in my courses registered for those courses, and not for any commercials in the program. Nor did I want to appear as if I were endorsing any sort of organization. I was saddened to find that the good folks in Student Life encouraged these activities.

    Some years ago I was teaching a large lecture when a man came through and walked up and down the aisles. The Athletic Director, it seems, had decided to check the attendance of student-athletes by having members of his staff just appear in classes, without informing the professor. When I protested, I got a calming pat on the head (“Now, now, little lady”) and was told the person had a University ID. When I stated that to ask for his ID would be to disrupt my class twice (his entrance was the initial disruption), the AD didn’t understand at all. Nevertheless, the practice was discontinued. D’oh!

    What do you do about students who think the classroom is just an extension of public space? Just yesterday one of my students walked in late with a friend in tow. Several weeks ago a student brought in a child unrelated to her. It’s one thing to treat the classroom as an extension of one’s pursuits, quite another to assume that you’re the only one who matters, to disregard other students’ expectations and needs, or to reject the idea that the professor has any say in the matter in her role as a university employee caring about the welfare of her students.


  7. In response to Flavia’s observation that “the world can come inside without our permission,” the classroom interruption I remember most was exactly that.

    I was teaching in a high school for at-risk students. Most of them had either dropped out of or been expelled from other schools, and disruptions were a regular part of the day. So, when a kid who was known even in this population as a troublemaker threw open my door, shouted “We’re under attack,” slammed the door, and ran down the hall to do the same thing to neighboring classrooms, my students and I just looked at each other, shrugged, and went back to work.

    It was September 11, 2001. The school was in the DC area, and two students in that class had parents who worked at the Pentagon.


  8. “We’re under attack” is an extremely vague thing to say. (By a crazed gunman? Plagues of frogs?) Unless there were specific instructions you should have followed, I don’t understand the value of the warning. Presumably the school administrators were monitoring the news and informed you all about what you needed to do?

    HistoryMaven: I used to say yes to in-class advertising (so long as it wasn’t advertising “job opportunities” for a for-profit company, just for study abroad programs and the like university-related business), but the presentations were never all that interesting. As you say, who’s got the time?


  9. Oh yes, “We’re under attack” was an extremely vague thing to say, especially coming from this particular student, which was why we ignored him at first. We assumed the security guards, who were supposed to be monitoring the halls, would take care of him eventually (which they did). It wasn’t until someone from the principal’s office came by some fifteen minutes later and told us to stay in our room until further notice that we knew something was really wrong. The classrooms lacked a PA system, telephone, or internet to make communication happen more quickly.


  10. I’m with History Maven on the requests for class time from student groups. For better or worse, students (or their parents) are paying to hear me natter on, not to hear advertising. Around here the requests are mostly in the context of student government.

    I wonder if the rogue thespians chose a literature class because it seemed friendlier territory than, say, microeconomics.


  11. Well, the idea of guerrilla theater is to challenge and rattle the status quo. That’s a good thing to do when the status quo needs challenging–say, in a repressive society. And–unfortunately–guerilla art in the form of big horrible pictures put up by anti-abortion activists, in an approved space, merits the same protection (ugh).
    But analogizing a literature classroom to a totalitarian dictatorship (or a f**cked up initiative by the US government, or a policy people find it important to protest)doesn’t fly with me. My q: why did these students’theater teacher approve this wack project? Seems like a chat with this teacher might be a good idea.


  12. Man, there are some uptight professors out there.

    If guerrilla Shakespeare showed up in my class — I’d let them go to it. I was teaching Melville today, and, well, there are connections. I read a piece arguing that Battle-Pieces (M’s civil war poems) is arranged like a tragedy, and although I didn’t follow that line in my discussion, a performance such as the one described might have inspired something in that direction. Glad that after being in the classroom 15 years I still manage to think of it as a space where craziness can take place. Today I told them they should take over a building to protest the 32 percent tuition hike.

    But those poor guerrilla Shakespearers, what do they get, “I am in charge.” Freaking Alexander Haig.


  13. I was a TA for a US history survey one April 14, when a couple of students in full period costume stood up and reenacted Lincoln’s assassination complete with cap gun. It totally freaked me out — but I had experienced a real act of gun violence at a previous school … The professor was briefly taken aback, then continued the lecture.


  14. Ok, so the thing that this made me think of was when in high school latin my teacher made our class parade around in other people’s classes on the ides of March reciting something or other. It was awesome, from what I recall, and we felt like it was amazing at the time. But did my teacher’s colleagues not know we’d be intruding on their classes? I doubt it. WE felt like it was a radical thing, but I don’t think we actually distracted anything that was supposed to be happening in any class.

    I don’t think that the upset-ness that resulted from this incident was about professor’s uptightness, or even students’ uptightness. I think it’s about the fact that the reality of the university is that the classroom is constructed as a safe space. If one is in charge of that space, one feels compelled to protect it. If one is in that space, one feels entitled to protection. Had those students doing guerrilla theater consulted with the professor and then this event occurred, then the professor could have explained what the deal was to his/her students after the fact. This wouldn’t have negated the power of that performance, in my mind as a teacher, but rather it would allow me to explain the power of it. It would have allowed me to care for my students.

    Here’s the thing: I think the guerrilla Shakespeare thing is *cool*. But I think the safety and care of my own students is *cooler* than that. Yes, a classroom is a place where craziness can and probably should take place. But craziness shouldn’t make students enrolled in a course feel in jeopardy. And craziness shouldn’t make an instructor feel like she or her students might feel in jeopardy. The point isn’t “people who wouldn’t be upset” are cool and “people who would be upset” are lame. The point is that a good thing about college is that when things that are hard to understand happen, your professor should be in a position to make those things make sense and matter to you. That’s not about people being uptight or f-ed up in some way. That’s about people being caring and responsible.


  15. Why not guerilla shakespeare out on the common walks inbetween classes and such? Going into a classroom just seems really staged. You’ve already got your audience, you’ve determined it’s a shakespeare class, it doesn’t seem as “radical” as I’m sure the performers thought it was. As a student I despise in class interruptions. The one that sticks out the most is when a student in a banana costume came through one of my classes followed by a student in a gorilla costume. They ran through rather quickly and left. I’m sure that our proximity to the center of campus was the only reason our class was one of the ones they visited.

    I prefer my profs to be choosey in who they let speak. Some are brief and informative. Others are a waste of time. For instance, there’s a group that goes around advertising “summer internships” in a lot of classes. They hand out information cards to EVERYONE, as if you are required to fill it out, don’t tell you what the internship is and stress how important it is to work an internship while in college. Turns out it’s something ridiculous like door-to-door selling of knives. It IS one of the few things you could make a lot of money at if you were very good at it, but when this popped up again in one of my higher level engineering courses I was a bit perturbed. The speaker didn’t explain anything about the job, and all I could think of in my head was what a bad idea it would be if any engineering students took this job instead of getting an engineering-related internship.

    But then, I’m irritated if anyone sitting in my line of site is texting, surfing the web on a laptop, or chit-chatting, so I guess I’m easily distracted and/or very irritable.


  16. Thank you, Dr. Crazy. If I am uptight, it’s because I care about my students and their welfare. And I’d like to think that how I show that influences students to think about the welfare of others.

    I worry that my classroom has only one entrance and exit and no windows. I worry that there’s no callbox nearby. I kvetched annually to administrators that universities sponsor first aid courses even as they cut student health services and depend on an overburdened fire department and hospital for emergency service. After years of complaining, I got an administrator to understand that the B & G guys shouldn’t work on elevators during finals week because we’ve students in wheelchairs who cannot get to their classrooms. And that the one dormitory that houses students with disabilities should be the first and not the last to be plowed out in the winter. Only took a decade.

    Each semester I suggest to my students that a book cooperative under the aegis of the student government may help them afford books and fund scholarships. I urge them to undertake thoughts that some among them find objectionable, novel, daring, subversive, and–dare I say?–crazy. I’d like to think I am empowering them, helping them move from being spectators to being active players. And that requires that the classroom be a safe haven, at least for 50 minutes three days a week.

    Off to teach Intro to Women’s Studies, where the topic is poverty and already students are worried about what they say will be construed as sexist, racist, unfeeling, politically incorrect, etc. But at least we’ve worked together to the point that some frank discussion may take place.


  17. Sorry, Rad–I’m with Dr. Crazy and History Maven. It might be a gender thing: my guess is that women professors are much more often importuned by things like this, and other in-class interruptions, than male professors are. (No data here, just a guess based on my 13-1/2 years in the classroom and related observations.) Then there’s the personal safety issue that things like this touch on. (Remember my colleague’s experience with something similar last spring?)

    “Guerrilla theater” is fine, so long as it permits its audiences to walk away. Students in a class don’t feel the same liberty to walk away that they would anywhere else on campus.


  18. From an old post of mine:

    Class went outside one sunny day, and we had to pause while a pro-choice march went by and the chanting made it impossible to hear (incidentally, my usual classroom is such that sometimes a march makes me pause class even when we stay inside). As we stopped and watched, a marcher tried to run over and hand out flyers. I am pro-choice, but my instinctive reaction, as I stopped her, was “oh hell no. You do not just walk up in my classroom like that.” Even if my classroom was currently a circle of students sitting on the grass with invisible walls around, and class was clearly not happening at the moment. But I felt it was about territory, less than a charmed space, and my students just chuckled.

    [Random tangent: decided to C&P rather than re-write the story for this comment—but I would have written it *very* differently]


  19. I agree with the reasons offered by Historiann, Dr. Krazy, & History Maven, Its OK to be uptight about this sort of interruption. But I’ll make the materialist argument instead.

    The students at my school shell out a lot of money to take classes at Woebegone State. (The State of Upper Oblivion also pays a part of the bills.) The students deserve a 50 minute class period with their instructor, uninterrupted by guerrilla theater, corporate shills, and other distractions. That is ostensible reason they choose to attend college. (Although there are a lot of learning agendas out there, this is the one that is advertised… and presumably the one the parents and the state are writing the checks for…)

    Guerrilla theater is silly, and its for upper-middle-class-bourgeois-theater-farts-students, but there are other spaces for it on campus, like the dinning hall, the dorm lounge, the loading dock at the facilities building, etc. It would do immense good for the tender egos and planning skills, of budding theater-farts majors if they actually organized a ‘happening’ and people showed up.


  20. Speaking of the theater of the absurd reminds me of Freshman Monday nights at Deep Woods College (N.H.)in the 1950s. The course was called Great Issues AKA Grey Tissues. The balcony of the auditorium hung right over the stage and lecturn. The speakers were often world class – such as Robert Frost and Adlai Stevenson. Attendence was mandatory and weighed heavily on the final grade. A short paper was due within the week.They were graded by wives of professors yes- there were very very few female profs in this all male school. I always felt that reading 50 papers – all copied from Time Magazine was akin to a root canal without novacaine. All that the student attendance monitor needed to see was something in the seat- for a check mark. That something could be a dog, female student or girlfriend from the junior college just south, or well dressed mannequin.The speakers never commented on the sham items.


  21. Historiann, I did think a gender dynamic might be at play here. And since I can be a scary aging guy at times it is much easier for me to be laid back, open to disruptions, happy to entertain pro-choice flyers, gorilla encounters, etc. If necessary, I can release the “death glare” and restore balance. I don’t think we should all run our classrooms the same way. And I respect (and sometimes have to defend) different pedagogical approaches.

    Matt L, that is not a materialist argument. It’s consumerist logic, and a good reason why universities should continue to be funded in part by sources other than tuition. A lot of what we do at universities is not necessarily defined by a consumer/provider dynamic, and that kind of argument can be easily used to attack academic freedom and intellectual exploration.


  22. Rad–agreed that people have different styles and tolerance for miscellaneous disruptions. I suppose it would defeat part of the purpose of “guerrilla theater” if the actors got permission from faculty to interrupt their classes. But–to me, the “guerrilla theater” experiment isn’t all that daring or new in the first place.


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