Classroom Exercises

1. Historical Portraits

Several of the characters in Red Velvet were real-life figures, who were among the most respected stage actors in the 1800s. Because they were so famous and their profession placed them in the public eye, a number of portraits were created of these actors, often as one of the characters they portrayed on the stage. Examine these portraits made available by the Folger Digital Image Collection:

In small groups of four or five, choose one of the actors above and examine their portraits, and discuss the following:

  • What physical traits do you notice?
  • What types of roles did this actor take on?
  • What personality traits might you infer from the images alone?
  • What further questions do these portraits raise for you?

Choose one person in your group to bring one of the portraits to life. Try to mirror the pose and facial expressions of your chosen image to the best of your ability, while the rest of the group reports out to the class on your group’s discussion.



2. Memories

Our minds work in such a way that we are often reminded of a time in our past by something in the present that triggers the memory. Red Velvet is a “memory play”—it follows the thoughts of Ira Aldridge as he looks back on a defining moment in his life, which took place more than thirty years earlier.

We’ve all had memories revived by current experiences. Think about a time in your own life (that you’re comfortable sharing with someone) when a current experience reminded you of a past one—like seeing the lake evoking the memory of a summer trip you once took with your family. Either working in pairs or writing on your own, describe what was going on—in both times of your life, past and present. What were the connections between the two, seemingly different stories? Does remembering in any way shape or change who you are or what you feel now? As a class, discuss what you think the role of memory plays in our lives.

Looking back at the story of Red Velvet, do you think that Ira Aldridge’s life is altered somehow by Halina’s interrogation? Have his efforts to repress this pivotal life memory have in some way served him well? Apart from Halina landing the story she wants to get, does any good come from Ira being forced to look back?    



3. Historical Context

Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti spent seven years researching the history underlying Red Velvet’s story and characters. Despite the world fame and significant color barriers that Ira Aldridge broke, his life and achievements were relatively unknown before Chakrabarti brought his story to the stage. And because relatively little has been written in English about Aldridge, her research challenge was great—particularly because the reports of his life are so contradictory (including the mythology that he created about his past in order to elevate his reputation). But his life—from straw merchant’s son to the state funeral he was given to honor him in Poland, where he died—is extraordinary because he made it so. Here are some of the remarkable strands of history that you might find compelling to learn more about…

  • The status of the slave trade in the pre-Civil War northern states: When Ira was born in NYC in 1807—a half-century before the Civil War—slavery was still permitted in the state of New York.
  • The concurrent history in England in the 1800s of slavery: Slavery in England—and England’s role in the international trading of slaves—looked quite different from here in the United States. At the time of the events in Red Velvet, England, too, was in the throes of bitter dispute and outbreaks of violence on the subject of the future of slavery.
  • The life and career of Ira Aldridge: a remarkable story of rags to riches—and an artistic ambition that drove him to leave his country at age seventeen and emigrate to England.
  • The life and career of Ellen Tree: A pioneer in her own right, actress Ellen Tree also broke with traditions in her career.



4. “Ich verliere hier meine Stellung”

“I’ll lose my job.” In the play’s opening moments, one of the characters, a stagehand named Casimir, expresses his genuine fear that his actions may lead to his dismissal. He’s not the only character who expresses his or her fears throughout the course of this play. Most, in fact, seem driven by their fears on some level. As you watch the story of Red Velvet, think about the times that this recurrent theme is voiced. How does each character’s fears shape their actions in the play—starting with Casimir and ending, perhaps, with Pierre? Divide into small groups to talk about one character’s choices, driven by their fears. What is he or she afraid of? How does that fear shape their story? Does it help “legitimize”—or at least, help to understand—their actions? As you work to identify the specific fear that drives your group’s character, does his/her story remind you of someone you know about from current events—be it in the world of politics, entertainment, business or even religion?   



5. The Less-than-perfect Interview

Interviews are definitely a skill that has to be learned and practiced—whether someone becomes a reporter, like Halina, or you’re applying to a school or a job. Whether you are reading the play (Scene One) or will only be attending the production, listen—actively—to the interview that Halina, a young journalist from the local paper, conducts with Ira Aldridge. It’s filled with clues about how not to conduct an interview! In the exchange between them, the conversation goes awry at a number of points. In small groups, review pages 9-19 or what you recall from the performance.

  • What information does the actor give to Halina about his performance and acting?
  • What does she do with that information in her questions to him?
  • Where does she lose his cooperation entirely?
  • Listening to what he was telling her, what questions might she have asked him?

Taking the script in hand, see where you might have taken this interview if you were in Halina’s place. In pairs, improvise a more successful interview starting with one of Ira’s lines on pgs. 12-13. What kinds of questions might Halina have followed up with that would have helped her subject (Ira) feel that he was being heard and understood?



6. “You exist because I do.”

In his anger at Halina’s intrusion (page 17), Aldridge hurls this accusation at the young reporter. And in a matter of moments, he similarly puts down Terence, his dresser. What do you think about Ira’s argument? As a class, discuss what analogies you can think of in our current culture when people’s livelihoods revolve around the success of someone else. Does Aldridge have a point here? Where do you imagine statements like this come from in his character?



7. Status

In nineteen brief words in conversation—followed by a three-word stage direction, playwright Lolita Chakrabarti creates an entire world of status relationships between her characters. In Scene Two (page 24), beginning with Betty’s line, “Can I get some tea, Mr. Kean,” through Connie’s line and her stage direction, in groups of five (with one person serving as director who helps with the stage picture), take your script and read through this passage twice. If you can memorize parts (Betty’s, clocking in at ten words, is by far the longest...), do so that you can work on staging the scene. Thinking about what this brief exchange tells you about each character in relationship to one another, work on blocking (that is, your movements on stage). Exaggerate your choices—make them ten times bigger as you rehearse. What are the various ways—including levels, distance or proximity, gesture and facial expression—that status in a group can be communicated? Share your scenes with the class and discuss what you’ve mined from them.



8. Staging Ira’s Entrance

When Edmund Kean, the preeminent actor of his time, collapses and cannot perform in the role of Othello, Pierre LaPorte, the French theater manager, invites Ira Aldridge to take on the role. Pierre announces this news to the company, and each has a very different reaction to the news.

Divide into groups of seven, each taking on one of the following roles: Pierre, Ellen, Charles, Bernard, Betty, Henry, and Ira. Starting at the top of page 30 in your scripts, divide the characters and read through to Ira’s entrance on page 32. As a group, discuss any words or parts of the text that are confusing to you.

Read through the text again. While the student playing Ira jots down notes, all others share out:

  • What does your character know about Ira?
  • What is your character’s opinion of Ira before meeting him?

With your character’s perspective in mind, get up on your feet and create blocking for this scene by considering the following:

  • Where do you imagine this scene takes place?
  • Which characters are most excited? Anxious? Curious? How do those emotions affect their movement?
  • Where is your audience?
  • Where and how does Ira enter? How might his entrance be staged to allow the audience to take in the other characters’ reactions?

Perform your scenes for one another, and compare the different interpretations of the same text. Which choices were most effective, and why? From the perspective of your character, make some predictions about what might happen next.



9. Switching It Up

As Ira Aldridge meets Ellen Tree, he comments upon her recent performance as Romeo (page 34). Here, in an excerpt from Anne Russell’s “’Playing the Men’: Ellen Tree, Fanny Kemble, and Theatrical Constructions of Gender,” published in 2017 in Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare Appropriation, we can read about actress Ellen Tree’s own experimentation onstage with bending norms:

In 1832, Ellen Tree played Romeo in a single performance at Covent Garden Theatre, with Fanny Kemble as Juliet…. Tree was the first English woman to play tragic male roles repeatedly, and influenced a number of later performers, initiating a nineteenth-century Anglo-American convention in which many women performers played a limited number of tragic male roles.1 Tree's decision to play Romeo and Ion can be seen as an effort to expand her range as a performer and to explore, in a tentative way, dramatic representations of masculinity on the nineteenth-century stage. Tree played Romeo only once in England, and at least twice during her tour of the United States from 1836 to 1839. Tree had a greater professional investment in the role of Ion, however, which she played repeatedly, both in England and in the United States, until at least the late 1840s.

Nineteenth-century women's performances of tragic male characters direct our attention to tensions and fissures in the era's understanding and representation of gender in theater. Tree's negotiation of these tensions and her decisions about how, and in what contexts, to play tragic male roles indicate that throughout her career, she was aware of the ways in which shifting social perspectives on gender might be accommodated in her stage representations.

You may be interested in learning more about both Ira Aldridge and about Ellen Tree (or Ellen Kean, as she became in 1842 when she married Charles Kean—nine years after the events depicted in this play). As you watch Red Velvet, look for clues in her character that reveal what is perhaps a more open, less traditional viewpoint of a then-changing world.

How does actress Chaon Cross portray her character’s complexity? Do you observe indicators of Ellen’s own uncertainty and ambivalence and, if so, what are they? In the words she speaks? Her facial expressions and gestures? Her stance or her movements? Be as specific as you can in recalling the details.



10. Acting Styles Colliding

When the acting company begins to rehearse with Ira, it is immediately clear that the presentational acting style embraced by Ellen, Henry, and Bernard—one “full of gesture, pose and scale”—is very different from Ira’s more realistic approach—and on stage in Chicago Shakespeare’s production, directed by Gary Griffin, you’ll see these two opposing styles and how the actors attempt to negotiate them with one another.

In groups of four, examine the part of Scene Two starting on page 35 in your script (beginning with “O, behold, The riches of the ship is come on shore!”), dividing up the characters of Henry, Ellen, Bernard and Ira. On your feet, read to the end of page 35, playing with a more presentational style of acting. (It was sometimes called “teapot acting” because of the way that actors stayed front-facing, one hand on the hip, while the other hand gestured, somewhat resembling a teapot.

Continue reading the scene through the bottom of pg. 39, with the student playing Ira employing a more realistic, modern form of acting. What is the effect of Ira’s style of acting on the other characters?



11. The Purpose of Theater

Among the Covent Garden company members, Charles Kean is the most resistant to Ira’s presence, and he confronts Pierre’s decision to invite Ira into the company head on. Pierre prods Charles in return, asking him why he wanted to be an actor in the first place. When Charles tries to dismiss the question, the company engages in a debate about the purpose of art.

As a class, read through the argument in Scene Two—page 43 in your script (beginning with “What made you act, Charles?”) through page 45 (“Stop it now, Charlie!”). Determine the viewpoint articulated by each character. Now, open up these arguments for the class to weigh in by demarcating one corner of your classroom as the “agree” side, and the opposite corner as the “disagree” side. Respond to each by “voting with your feet,” moving to a place on the agree/disagree scale that reflects your viewpoint. Here are a few to start:

  • I go to see plays or movies to escape reality.
  • I like to see plays or hear stories that challenge my own beliefs.
  • The purpose of art is to challenge the status quo.

After each vote, take time to hear justifications from students at different places along the agree/disagree scale. And for those who make art themselves—as visual artists or performers—how does being an art-maker affect your point of view about the purpose of art?



12. Exploring Characters through Physical Action

In Scene Four, we meet Ira’s wife, Margaret, a steadfast and loyal supporter of her husband and his work. Ira is upset with his performance, and Margaret tries to calm and reassure him. The different strategies they use to express themselves and get what they want are called “tactics” by actors.  Tactics are used to affect change in another character.  

This activity is one used by actors as a way to hone in on their characters’ motivations and relationships to one another. It is an exploration—through the use of exaggerated physical gestures—intended to open doors to multiple interpretations. These gestures are representational only, and wouldn’t be used as gestures in performance. By playing with four possible tactics—pushing, pulling, holding and releasing—an actor can explore other ways to interpret text that might not at first be obvious.  The physical gesture connected to speech can reveal what simply thinking and talking about a specific line might not.

Explore various ways in which Margaret and Ira might try to get what they want in this scene by following the steps below.   

  • As a class, listen as a couple of volunteers read Ira and Margaret’s interchange aloud—pages 53-57, stopping at Ellen Tree’s entrance.
  • Practice the following tactics by physicalizing each exaggerated gesture.  Try to engage your entire body—head to toe—with each tactic.  The suggestions following each one are a couple of the infinite ways the tactic could be made more specific.  Use these suggestions to spark your own ideas! 
    • to PUSH
      • Push as if you were shutting a door in someone’s face.
      • Push as if you trying to close a suitcase that has been over-packed.
    • to PULL
      • Pull as if you were opening a door to a dark and dangerous room.
      • Pull as if you were dragging someone to a roller coaster they are deathly afraid to ride.
    • to HOLD
      • Hold as if you were a volcano trying not to erupt.
      • Hold as if you are soothing a child who had a nightmare.
    • to RELEASE
      • Release as if you were leaping into the great unknown.
      • Release as if you were giving away your favorite book.
  • With a partner, decide who will read each character, and read your assigned scene excerpt aloud.
  • Together, practice pairing the different gestures above with each line of your scene.  After trying multiple possibilities, decide which tactic best matches what your character wants to achieve in each line. If you feel a character changes action within a line, you can choose to make two different gestures. Three things to keep in mind:
    • Don’t be afraid to try a gesture which, at first glance, doesn’t seem like it matches the line. Let yourself be surprised by the range of ways your character may try to affect the other.   
    • There is no one “right” answer here. Ten different groups may choose to interpret these lines ten different ways, since dramatic texts always allow for multiple interpretations.
    • The more specific you can be, the clearer your interpretation of the story will become. (Rather than “I’m pushing a stroller,” try “I’m pushing a stroller that has one broken wheel and a baby screaming inside.”)
  • Read the scene excerpt all the way through, while performing the gestures you’ve chosen.
  • Back with the full class, watch several scenes and discuss:
    • Which actions did each character use most in this scene?
    • What might that tell you about the character or situation he/she is in?
    • Do the actions the characters use change throughout the scene?  Why is that?
    • Did the physical gesture reveal something new and, if so, where specifically? Do you understand the scene or characters differently as a result of this exploration?
    • Were there times when two or more groups chose a different action for the same piece of text? What was the effect of each?



13. The Critics’ Reviews

In playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s foreword to Red Velvet, she explains, “While writing Red Velvet I consciously created a world where the historical dilemmas mirrored the dilemmas of today. I did this because I believe history repeats itself and as we edge forwards we are encumbered by old ideals.”

In Scene Five, on the morning following Ira’s first performance, the acting company sits together reading the performance reviews in the newspapers. It is clear that the critics writing these reviews are deeply prejudiced against a black actor taking on the role of Othello.

In recent years, Hedy Weiss, the theater critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, has also been accused of remarks viewed as racist in several of her theater reviews, the most recent being her June 2017 review of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu, a story about two black men addressing issues of police brutality and institutionalized racism. Read Weiss’ review here, Nwandu’s response to the review here, and an American Theatre piece that details the controversy here.

As a class, discuss your findings and the parallels between Ira Aldridge’s reviews at Covent Garden and the recent debates among Chicago’s theater community. Engage in a classroom debate on the topic, using examples from Red Velvet and the recent controversial reviews—or responses to those reviews—to support your claims.



14. The Papers

Sometimes a prop begins to take on a life of its own onstage. When Connie, a Jamaican servant to the actors, tries to clear the newspapers containing the scathing reviews of Othello, Ira presses her for them.

Study these two characters’ interaction with one another in Scene Five, starting at the bottom of page 71 in your script (“Could I have some tea please.”) through page 74. In pairs and up on your feet, find a newspaper (or a notebook) to use as a prop. What are different choices in staging might allow Connie to hold onto the papers for as long as she does?

Director Gary Griffin has described Connie, a Jamaican servant, as the play’s outside observer. She works in the theater, but is not of the theater. Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti describes her as “the voice of truth.” Discuss with your partner how you see this assertion playing out in this tête-à-tête between the two.



15. Subtext

In a play, as in life, what a character says out loud does not always match up to what they are thinking. These underlying thoughts are called a character’s subtext—the text that’s just below the surface. In scene six (page 75), following the second performance of Othello, Ira and Pierre engage in a tense conversation.

In pairs, choose your roles and read through the scene. After your first read-through, write what your character is thinking in the margins when you feel there is an underlying subtext. Read through your scene again, on your feet and slowly. Allow your written subtext to influence how you are speaking the character’s actual lines. How did considering the subtext affect your reading of the scene?



16. The Tools of Theater

Consider all the different tools of theater that can help bring a story to life, including:

  • Acting (vocal, physical and character choices made by the actors)
  • Blocking (the actors’ movement and positioning on stage)
  • Set design
  • Costume design
  • Lighting Design
  • Music and sound design
  • Props
  • Special effects

In each of these areas, there are countless choices made by the director, designers and actors, contributing to their unique interpretation of the story. Before you see Chicago Shakespeare’s production, choose one of the above tools of theater to focus on. As you watch the performance, note the specific ways that tool is used throughout and how those choices help to support the storytelling. After you see the production, write an analysis of how your chosen tool was utilized to create a unique interpretation of Red Velvet.  Outline the choices made using that tool, and how those choices either supported or didn’t effectively support the storytelling.



17. Writing Your Own Theater Review

A scaffold for this activity: Before you write your review, read three different theater reviews of current plays at Theatre in Chicago’s Critics Review Round-Up:

Analyze the structure of a review, identifying key elements. Based on these key elements, describe the style you found most helpful (or least helpful) in communicating a play’s appeal for potential theater-goers. Now, write your own critical review of CST’s Red Velvet. Briefly recount the plot. Discuss the parts of the production—including the casting, acting, setting, music, costumes—you thought worked particularly well, or did not work well and explain why you thought so. Consider publishing your piece in a school newspaper. Use some of the questions below to generate ideas for your review:

  • What aspect of the play captivated your attention?
  • How did the production’s interpretation compare with your own interpretation of the play?
  • Were there particular performances that you believed were powerful? Why?
  • Would you recommend this play to others? Who would most enjoy it?
  • Based on your answers to the above questions, how many stars (out of a possible five) would you give this production?




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