Giving Teenagers Confidence Through Oratory Training

For the last several years, I’ve worked as a Ford’s Theatre Teaching Artist, teaching Lincoln’s speeches and oratory skills to area middle school students. At the end of the program, the students come to Ford’s to deliver their chosen speech. Inevitably, the students always ask me this question:

“When we go inside will there be, like, Abraham Lincoln’s blood and brains splattered everywhere?”

“They’ve cleaned up the theatre box. It’s not CSI. We know who did it,” I joke.

My students’ jokes are a little off color, but they aren’t meant to be derogatory. They’re nervous about reciting Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in such an historic place. They’re nervous about reciting it anywhere, but more so there. Going to Ford’s is a special experience, and standing on that stage is a big deal.

They’re nervous because their teacher and I, their Ford’s Oratory Teaching Artist, have big expectations. We expect them to make eye contact with their audience—something that took hours of coaching and practice. Getting a teenager with low self-confidence to look into the eyes of an adult and not shirk away is an undertaking. It took me standing there saying, “Nope, those are my feet, not my eyes. Still no, that’s my shoulder, but you’re getting closer. There. Those are my eyes. Look into my eyes, stand straight, and don’t turn away. Stay there. See how it feels.”

These students, like most teenagers, are nervous because their teacher and I expect them to emote, and to speak in a volume that’s not comfortable. They may prefer muffling their words and opinions with their hands, or turning into their long hair to hide. They are used to slouching and trying to be inconspicuous, leaning on chairs or against walls, hoping that if they wore the right color that day they might blend into the bulletin board and their garrulous teaching artist wouldn’t call on them. Today, at Ford’s Theatre, there is nowhere to hide.

These students are nervous because the words of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address are strange and hard to get out of their mouths. “To care for him who shall have borne the battle” is a mouthful. They understand that these are important words. What if they get them wrong? What if their families see them get the words wrong on such hallowed ground as Ford’s Theatre?

So, yeah, right now they’re talking about splattered brains.

But when we go inside, and they ascend the steps to the Ford’s Theatre stage, take a deep breath and set themselves in what I like to call “the power position,” something magical happens: they orate.

Being a teaching artist for the Target Oratory Festival and Residency was a humbling and rewarding experience. Humbling, because I saw students brand new to this country desperately trying to speak and embody Lincoln’s words and message. Rewarding, for all the everyday reasons being a teacher is rewarding, but also for being witness to a major change happening to these young people as they learned to be present, to stand up straight and use their voices.

I’m honored to join Ford’s Theatre’s Education Department as Lead Teaching Artist. I’m hoping to use my skills and experience in playwriting to improve speech writing skills in our oratory programs. I’m looking forward to working with young theatregoers at our student matinees to find connections between our characters’ experiences and their own. I’m excited about working with teachers to lead engaging conversations about our programs and shows.

Jennie Berman Eng joined Ford’s Theatre Education Department in September 2015. She has been a Teaching Artist for several years at Ford’s Theatre, Young Playwrights Theatre and WritopiaLab-DC. Jennie is a playwright, whose play Whenever You’re Near Me I Feel Sick premiered in Washington, D.C., as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.