Performance-based learning has long been a popular strategy for teaching dramatic works in the literature classroom, and it is especially useful for topics that students may not find “relatable.” Instructors of medieval literature often have the gratifying experience of introducing unfamiliar concepts, and then circling back to elements that ring true to the students’ own lives. My teaching experience at BMCC—and previously, at Fordham University—has proven that performance-based assignments help students connect with material that might on first blush seem difficult, foreign, and strange.
For the midterm assessment in my British Literature I class, I gave students the option of producing a modern adaptation of the medieval morality play Everyman. Everyman is a Christian spiritual allegory of a soul who must take a reckoning after being visited by Death. He consults a series of personified values such as Fellowship, material goods, Beauty, and Knowledge, but ultimately—in accordance with Catholic doctrine—finds that only Good Deeds will accompany him to the grave.
Students could either perform a short play or present a written script to the class, though the prompt reassured them that they would be graded on their spirit, not acting abilities. The adaptations could be loose, but the students’ written reflections were to explain how the source text inspired the adaptation.
I was very pleased with the results. Two groups opted for the script presentation. One group featured a gender-neutral main character discovering that “Instagram Followers” and “Da Club” won’t help pay rent, and the other group presented a football star who discovers his true friends after an injury forces him to reassess his dreams.
The third group produced a remarkable allegory about mental health. In this version, the character “Everyone” accepts a text invitation to go out with friends but later withdraws due to a parade of insecurities regarding outfit, makeup, and all-around popularity. While these anxieties eroded Everyone’s confidence, group members projected affirming text messages onto the screen, showcasing the disconnect between outward and inner realities. The play ended as a friend shows up at Everyone’s door, urging the character to open up and seek help (see photo).
Translating the medieval allegory into a story of “going out” encapsulated many concerns of modern society, including digital communication, the ubiquity of mental health problems, and the challenge of maintaining healthy friendships. Many of us can relate to the difficulty of communicating authentically over text. In discussion afterwards, my students were also forthright about their own struggles with mental illness, and I was moved by their vulnerability and sensitivity.
All three adaptations, in asking audience members to consider the enduring nature of their everyday preoccupations, captured the spirit of the original. And the engagement overall would certainly qualify for Hollis Glaser’s meaningful assignments. Moreover, in written reflections, the students expressed gratitude for the opportunity to create something new out of such material that initially seemed to offer very little common ground. Students also appreciated getting to know their classmates better, practicing their acting skills, and locating some personal meaning within historical texts. Everyman might seem challenging to read, thematically irrelevant, and (to some) almost aggressively Christian, but my students were able to adapt it to pressing modern contexts that ‘everyone’ faces on a day-to-day basis.
Learning to cultivate a recognition of sameness in old texts in a way that yet remains sensitive to differences is not only a gratifying practice in the early period classroom, but also helps students build empathy towards otherness in the present. That is, spotting the sameness in cultures that are different is not a skill relegated to the study of the Middle Ages. Assignments such as this one that ask students to enliven old texts through creative adaptation assist in the project of building bridges across time.
Finally, I think it is possible to build in more interactive assignments to other classrooms as well, such as having composition students act out the narrative of an essay, or history students offer a dramatic historical tableau. Even biology projects might offer opportunities for enlivening the material. If other professors have further ideas for the application of performance-based approaches in other fields and classrooms, I would welcome any thoughts in the comment section below.