How Creating Imagery Can Help Dyslexic Students Who Struggle with Shakespeare

 (Flickr/vic xia)

One of Rebecca Carey’s favorite exercises to do with the actors she coaches at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is called “Cameraman.” Carey, who is the voice and text director of the renowned company, said “Cameraman” at first can make even actors feel a little silly, because in order to pretend they are filming the action of a Shakespearean scene, they have to hold an imaginary movie camera up to their eye.

“Then as you read the text of the scene, or someone reads it to you, the Cameraman moves around the room and pretends that they are filming the thing that’s being talked about,” she said, “which is particularly useful for descriptive passages of text.” She used the example of the Prologue to Troilus and Cressida:

In Troy there lies the scene.  From isles of Greece
The princes orgulous, their high blood chaf’d,
Have to the port of Athens sent their ships,
Fraught with the ministers and instruments
Of cruel war: sixty and nine, that wore
Their crownets regal, from the Athenian bay
Put forth toward Phrygia; and their vow is made
To ransack Troy, within whose strong immured
The ravish’d Helen, Menelaus’ queen,
With wanton Paris sleeps; and that’s the quarrel.

The “cameraman” would first imagine that she was filming Troy: she pans across the massive walls of Troy in front of her. Then, for the isles of Greece, maybe she moves the camera up in the air and pretends to get a helicopter shot, panning over the islands. For the prince’s orgulous, she zooms in for a close-up of the angry face of the prince.

Carey said this kind of visualization of the complex 400-year-old text is a great exercise for all actors, but seems to work especially well for the dyslexic ones, which, when she was teaching in the United Kingdom, she estimates to be about 10-20 percent of all the actors she worked with. Here in the United States, she said, the percentages seem to be about the same, though it seems that a lot of younger actors have an official diagnosis, while some older actors never received anything official, though they have trouble reading and memorizing.

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Another exercise Carey uses in workshops is called “Sandbox.” She places some random objects -- a water bottle, a pencil -- in front of a student. Then they take a piece of text -- in this example, Proteus’s funny speech in Act II, Scene 6 from Two Gentleman of Verona: “In this particular speech, Proteus has a problem,” Carey said. “He has a girlfriend and made a promise to her, but now he’s in love with his best friend’s girlfriend. Now in the Sandbox game, if you are playing Proteus, every time you talk about your girlfriend, pick up the water bottle. And every time you talk about your friend, pick up the pencil.”

Carey said that the name "Sandbox" comes from kids' imaginary sandbox games. “It’s like a little kid in a sandbox, like ‘First, Superman did this!’ And you pick up Superman and make him fly around in the air. ‘And then Batman came along and did this!’ So it’s a way to use your toys to act out Shakespeare.” These childlike games are far from pointless; visual and physical explorations can help an actor who has difficulty with Shakespearean text make it more concrete by grounding it in their reality, an idea Carey adapted while teaching in Great Britain from Petronilla Whitfield, associate professor and senior lecturer of voice and acting at the Arts University Bournemouth.

After 20 years as a professional actress with prestigious companies like the Royal Shakespeare Company, Whitfield went back to earn a Ph.D. in voice and acting, the focus of her work centering on how to help dyslexic actors read, understand and perform Shakespearean text with less difficulty -- not to mention the fear and anxiety she said often accompanies dyslexics' expectations that they will be forced to read aloud in front of their peers.

Shakespeare story board
Storyboard by a student of Psychological Gesture, courtesy of Petronilla Whitfield.

Whitfield said that imagery is often the key that unlocks the door of understanding and memory, and her research supports the idea. People with dyslexia often feel disassociated from the words and their meanings, and attaching imagery to the words makes them more concrete and three-dimensional, as well as easier to remember. Using a technique Whitfield calls “visual storyboarding,” she often asks her students to draw or find images that help prop up their understanding. Often, the images aren’t literal -- they can be colors to suggest an emotion, for example -- but sometimes they are.

Carey said she has seen some of these strategies help people with dyslexia over the hump. “Petronilla really helped me become more aware of dyslexia, of the different ways that it manifests, that it’s kind of an umbrella term. Not every dyslexic reads or learns in the same way, which is not something I really had any awareness of at all." But Carey saw how specialized coaches who worked with the acting and voice and speech teachers helped to raise awareness of dyslexia among the teaching staff, and helped students learn strategies that made a huge difference both in comprehension and memorization.*

“I have invented the term Interpretive Mnemonics to encapsulate the devising of images (both physical and visual) which capture a subjective representation of meaning and expression,” Whitfield writes in the journal Voice and Speech Review. “Interpretive Mnemonics can aid the individual’s comprehension, utterances, memory and performance of Shakespeare.”

Whitfield said that creating image-based PowerPoint storyboards is a way to help both dyslexic and nondyslexic students better understand the words and the underlying emotional meaning of Shakespearean texts. She described the work of one student, Sophia, who took Adrianna’s speech from Act II, Scene II from The Comedy of Errors, and carefully created her own image slides that represented what each line, or in some cases each word, meant to her.

Though it took a while to find the right images and make all the slides, Sophia said that making the PowerPoint helped a lot. “I was absorbing and teaching myself and making discoveries, thinking about the different meanings and looking up words I wasn’t sure of,” she told Whitfield. The PowerPoint “hooked the text into my brain as I had sectioned it out in manageable chunks and could play the slideshow while I was reciting the text.”

Whitfield said that in classrooms, students might even be able to turn the slideshow into a kind of performance, playing the slides and reciting the text simultaneously.

Carey was sure to emphasize that dyslexia in no way should prohibit a professional actor or student from understanding Shakespeare, and said that there are many successful dyslexic actors to prove her point. She recalled a particular dyslexic drama student she taught who had, up to a point, avoided doing anything with literature, and was scared of it. With the help of a coach with expertise in dyslexia, the student learned how to use visual cues for certain words or phrases by drawing them out on a piece of paper. After the coach showed him how to use visualization and physical techniques to understand the words in a Wordsworth poem, the student not only was able to make his way through poetry and Shakespeare — he eventually became a passionate poetry devotee.**

“It was just really exciting how she helped the students break through that barrier,” Carey said.

Section of a storyboard of Sonnet 147 illustrating "My love is as a fever longing still for that which longer nurseth the disease." Courtesy of Petronilla Whitfield.
Section of a storyboard of Sonnet 147 illustrating "My love is as a fever longing still for that which longer nurseth the disease." Courtesy of Petronilla Whitfield.

Whitfield, who said all her experience and expertise was in helping university drama school students, said that visual methods may also work well with high school students studying Shakespeare, with the understanding that each teacher must adapt the methods to her teaching style and her individual students. She found that dyslexic students were already often using their own version of visual aids without even realizing it -- intuitively using symbols, pictures or even doodles drawn onto the text, but that even students who don’t struggle with reading might find visual storyboarding helpful.

“Shakespeare’s text is full of images, which is one of the techniques he uses to make his brilliant use of language so rich,” Whitfield said. “It’s what Caroline Spurgeon, in her book Shakespeare’s Imagery, refers to as his ‘little word pictures.’ There is a paradox here in that those with dyslexia can be locked out of his text, but once they’ve found their way into the vivid images in the metaphors, double meanings and similes through recognizing and creating images, in my experience they begin to really love Shakespeare and respond to the writing and inherent images very strongly, originally and cleverly.”

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*A previous version of this article misstated that Petronilla Whitfield worked with staff and students directly.
**An earlier version misidentified the coach as Petronilla Whitfield. We regret these errors.

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