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SLE profs collaborate to shoot Shakespeare films

Greg Watkins and Jeremy Sabol, Structured Liberal Education (SLE) professors, one-upped SparkNotes with the Aug. 14 release of their latest collaboration, “This is Hamlet.”

The instructional DVD follows “This is Macbeth,” released in October 2008, in their series of humorous feature-length films introducing Shakespeare’s plays.

“The goal is really to bring people towards the text,” Sabol said. “Since we teach in SLE, we’re in the business of helping students try to appreciate the classics and feel some ownership over great works of literature and philosophy.”

Directed by Watkins, a filmmaker before his teaching stint at Stanford, both DVDs switch between stagings of key scenes, which are performed by professional Shakespearean actors in a black-box theater, and a talk-show format where the characters discuss their motivations with host Ralph Holinshed, played by Sabol.

“When we’re in the theater, it’s pure Shakespeare,” Sabol said. “We want those clips to serve another pedagogical function<\p>–<\p>that if you just want to see Macbeth 1.7, you can just see it, and it’s not adulterated in any way. But the studio is more a space for exploration of that language, commenting about the language and trying to get what Shakespeare is doing.”

Finding the middle ground between those two venues is as much an art as the theatrical masterpieces.

“It’s a fine line, because we want to make it come alive, but we also want to interpret as little as possible,” Sabol said. “So we push that buck to the students. They have to be the ones to choose.”

Although the casts consisted mostly of professional Bay Area actors, two Stanford students have roles in “This Is Macbeth,” and Austin Zumbro ‘09 wrote and performed all the music for both films.

Sabol, who had little acting experience, was nervous about performing, even though “it was not a very big acting job,” he said with a smile.

“I was kind of acting like an exaggerated version of myself,” he added.

Originally, Watkins and Sabol planned a more straightforward study aid for students.

“But I think the projects are a lot more alive than that,” Watkins said. “There’s a lot of humor. The writing is inspired by a lot of different things, so it didn’t quite become this crystalline thing students would pick up.”

Watkins and Sabol began to target teachers at advanced high schools after the DVDs received rave reviews from instructors at Gunn High School in Palo Alto.

But any interested viewer is bound to find some value, Sabol said, especially because both SLE professors worked hard to ensure the DVDs were companions for the plays, not substitutes.

“One of the problems with a lot of introductory materials is that they’re a replacement for the thing,” Sabol said. “If you read the Cliff notes for ‘Wuthering Heights,’ you kind of don’t need to read the book. And worse, Cliff notes are boring! So they don’t really make you want to read the original…which we feel is really much better than anything we could make.”