Susan Biondo-Hench shared her thoughts on receiving the first Shakespeare Steward Award at a Folger event at the English Speaking Union in New York on November 16, 2007.
I remember sitting with the other teachers in the theater at the Folger, freezing to death, on the first day of the first Teaching Shakespeare Institute in 1984. I remember Peggy O’Brien, her glasses on top of her head, looking out at all of us and saying, “Teachers do the most important work in the world,” magic words that teachers hear all too infrequently. I remember Stephen Booth, asking us to visualize two imaginary blackboards on stage, one saying “He who hesitates is lost” and the other saying “Look before you leap,” before launching into a lecture on ambiguity in Shakespeare. I also remember thinking that I was extraordinarily lucky to be at the Folger that summer and that I had been given a gift.
I was also given a mission: to return to my school district and share what had been given to me about Shakespeare and performance philosophy and teaching. I had been asked to spread the “net,” so I began to experiment with performance and to collaborate with my students and Shakespeare, and as I did so, I began to realize that I had been changed. I began to see individual words, especially Shakespeare’s words, as layered, subversive, transcendent, and alive, and I realized that I wanted and needed to continue to be a student myself. That gift changed me, and the more it continues to change me, the more I want to give that gift to students.
Sharing Shakespeare and the Folger philosophy and materials with my students and with other teachers is a joy. Like the Folger, I put Shakespeare into their hands, step back, and let the collaboration begin. My favorite example is the annual Student-Directed Shakespeare Festival. This fall over 100 students were involved, and on Tuesday afternoons, our rehearsal day, I loved walking down the halls of Carlisle High School between 3:00 and 5:00 and hearing young voices reciting Shakespeare in history, math, science, and English classrooms.
The more these students work with Shakespeare and performance, the more they want to continue to do so. This year the festival had a dozen scenes from eleven different plays, some from our favorite plays—Midsummer and Hamlet—and some from plays we’d never staged before—Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra, and Henry IV. part 2. Even our principal was involved as the ghost in Hamlet. He stopped me in the hall one afternoon on the way to a meeting, and he asked me to relay a meeting to his directors. “Tell them I understand what they mean about the ghost’s voice, and tell them I’m working on it!”
On the first Thursday after Thanksgiving, my students then shared their scenes with the community. As the members of the troupe processed into the packed auditorium to the sound of a trumpet fanfare, I was, as I am every year, overwhelmed by their diversity. It is astonishing to me that so many different kinds of teenagers continue to find themselves in Shakespeare. The students are in grades 9 through 12. They are all academic ability levels, backgrounds, ethnicities, and experiences, yet Shakespeare unifies them all. That evening is the single most powerful night of my school year, and the influence of the Folger community and Shakespeare are palpable.
Knowing that Shakespeare and the Folger programs have been responsible for some of the most meaningful professional and personal experiences of my life, I am touched and honored to receive the Shakespeare Steward Award. I feel as though I have been given a gift in 2007 for a gift that the Folger already gave me in 1984, and I am most grateful.