I split my class into groups of six or seven. I gave each student a piece of paper with this wrriten on it:
Enter a King and a Queen very lovingly; the Queen embracing him, and he her. She kneels, and makes show of protestation unto him. He takes her up, and declines his head upon her neck: lays him down upon a bank of flowers: she, seeing him asleep, leaves him. Anon comes in a fellow, takes off his crown, kisses it, and pours poison in the King's ears, and exit. The Queen returns; finds the King dead, and makes passionate action. The Poisoner, with some two or three Mutes, comes in again, seeming to lament with her. The dead body is carried away. The Poisoner wooes the Queen with gifts: she seems loath and unwilling awhile, but in the end accepts his love. Exeunt.
I had each student underline the words they didn't recognize, then compare with the rest of their group. Each group got dictionaries, and each student was responsible for knowing what all the words meant. Then I led them in a little discussion of the words.
"What does 'protestation' mean? How can one make a 'show of protestation'? What about 'anon'? How does one 'make passionate action'? Who are these 'mutes' in the story?"
After everyone understood the words, I told them to prepare a presentation. One student in each group would narrate the presentation (not a "performance") while the others communicated the language of the story nonverbally (not "acted"). I gave them about fifteen minutes to prepare, then each group presented.
As you can imagine, most made similar choices in the physicality, but all made some choices that made their presentations unique. Sometimes the queen seemed more "lovingly" than the king. Sometimes the poisioner entered stealthily, looking over his shoulder, while sometimes he entered with complete focus and determination on the task at hand. Sometimes the Mutes looked upset, sometimes they looked like they were in on it.
Then I led them through non-judgemental feedback ("What feelings came up for you when..."). I had to put words in their mouths sometimes and make it seem like some of their wishy-washy physicality was actually a series of strong, purposeful choices. I think the students probably didn't realize how different their presentations were until I pointed out the differences.
After that, I started to ask questions dealing with character motivations. I asked if the same scene, with the same words, could be played so that the poisoner killed the king because he wanted the crown? What if he just wanted the queen? What if the queen was in on it? The class discussed different ways they could show the different motivations for the same story.
Finally, I ended the class by telling them this: "This story was written just over 400 years ago, and it's probably been presented nonverbally millions of times. Each time has always been just a little different. Today, you used the same words, and you even used the same dictionaries to define those words, but the words still have different meaning for different people. That's why it's important to understand your own message. If you don't know what you're trying to say or why you're saying it, you'll never really communicate with anyone." And I think they got it.
Tomorrow, cross your fingers. I think I'm doing air broadswords.