A Bard-Earned Honor : Bakersfield Professor’s Theatrical Techniques Win Him a Prestigious Carnegie Award
The 17-year-old college freshman sitting in the afternoon Shakespeare class has a beef with Cordelia, the ever-faithful daughter of the aging King Lear.
“Um, Cordelia kind of gets on my nerves. She’s such a goody-goody,” says Elizabeth DeSilva.
In the front of the class, another freshman in jeans and a name card reading “CORDELIA” smiles angelically.
“I have to be,” says Cordelia in a silky homecoming queen voice. “I counterbalance my sisters, they’re so evil.”
“No way,” DeSilva shoots back. “They learned from you.”
The class hoots in admiration.
Professor Michael Flachmann takes the makeshift stage in front of the room and encourages more. “If this were the Ricki Lake show,” he prods, “what would you tell these characters? This is a massive dysfunctional family.”
This is also “King Lear"--one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies--as Flachmann teaches it at Cal State Bakersfield. Hardly a mere lecturer, Flachmann is part teacher, part drama coach and part, well, Ricki Lake, as he assigns selected students the roles of the characters they’re studying and cajoles the others into being their inquisitors.
When he’s not turning the class into a talk show, he transforms it into something of a “psychodrama” where the students embody the characters and confront one another. He’s even been known to mix up casts and get Hamlet talking to Othello.
Students seem to love it. So does the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which proclaimed Flachmann one of its four U.S. Professors of the Year, citing “theatrical teaching techniques” that “capture his students’ imaginations and help them to understand the language, characters, ideas and possible interpretations of Shakespeare.”
Classes devoted to the Bard make up the centerpiece of 53-year-old Flachmann’s life, which also includes teaching judo and self-defense, writing textbooks and articles, periodically playing Captain Math at his daughter’s elementary school, and doing summer stints as dramaturge at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
“He is truly a Renaissance man,” says his wife, Kim, a professor of English at Cal State.
A Renaissance man in Bakersfield may seem like a rare bird. But at a young school, better known for students grappling with English as a Second Language than for prizewinning professors, Flachmann has ambitiously carved out all the territory he wants. “I have what I call a designer career,” he says.
He didn’t start out intending to make a career here in a land of agriculture and oil, where cotton fields stretch to the horizon and the moonlit night makes ghostly silhouettes of oil derricks.
“I think like a lot of people who come to a place like this, my wife and I really wanted to publish [our way] out initially,” says Flachmann, sitting in the den of his ranch-style home. “I thought Harvard would call any day--and they didn’t.”
His university office is a dinky, book-crammed closet of a room. But the home that he shares with his wife, daughter and son is TV-producer spacious. A golden retriever greets a visitor at the door with a bark followed by a quick escape out to the front lawn. “Portia, no!” Kim Flachmann commands, but the dog scampers down to the sidewalk, oblivious to the quality of mercy that her namesake spoke so movingly of in “The Merchant of Venice.”
It’s a popular sport to disparage Bakersfield for lacking any sense of sophistication. And even the scholarly Flachmann, who has thrived in the town, has a favorite story that takes a swipe at it.
When he and his wife first moved to Bakersfield in 1972, they celebrated their new jobs by going out to a fancy restaurant. In the next booth over sat a man dressed in overalls. “This guy ordered chateaubriand,” recalls Flachmann. “The waitress has this wonderful sauce and she’s about to ladle it over the chateaubriand and he says, ‘No! Don’t want none of that gravy [stuff] on my meat.’ ” Flachmann laughs. “I thought, ‘Here we are. We’re in Bakersfield.’ ”
Now, after 23 years of teaching at CSUB, as it is handily known, he’s content to make his life in a place where he can teach Shakespeare from 1 to 3 p.m. then run out and hit tennis balls with the women’s team.
“If I went to another school, a bigger college or university, it would be difficult to get involved in the kinds of things I want to get involved in,” he says.
And he prefers the school’s emphasis on teaching. “I really enjoy being in the classroom. I do think a state university like this is more concerned with the day-to-day, nitty-gritty, in-the-trenches, ‘how-are-the-students-doing’ kind of teaching.”
He has been lavishly honored for his energetic teaching methods. He won the outstanding professor award within his own school in 1992. The next year, the school asked him to run for outstanding professor in the entire Cal State system and unleashed all their graphics prowess on the production of an elaborate binder of his accomplishments. He won that award in a system that includes about 18,000 professors.
The Carnegie prize--which is given in cooperation with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education--was awarded to Flachmann in late October at a ceremony in Washington. The honor carries a $5,000 stipend, which he immediately put to use. He spent $1,500 flying his children out with him to the awards reception. Since he was sightseeing in Washington the day of the Million Man March, he decided to skip the difficult search for a cab and spend an additional $400 hiring a limo to take his family on a long tour of the capital.
Back home, wearing all his outstanding professor crowns, he trundles off to talk to Rotarians and the like, spreading the gospel of Cal State Bakersfield.
“It’s important for people to know we have good teachers at a small school like this. And it’s important for them to know that I’m not the only one,” he says. “I’m just a symbol.”
He no longer thinks about leaving Bakersfield. “I’ve gotten a number of offers,” he says. “I just haven’t really pursued any of them. I’ve gotten some others since the Carnegie.”
Thinking about any of them? “Not seriously,” he says, with a bit of the politician’s brilliance for never saying never. “I like where I am.”
He came to his teaching method by borrowing from his work with actors and directors. As a dramaturge, he helps explain the language, the history, the intent of the plays--but all in the service of staging Shakespeare as a show.
“Once you reduce it to the confines of a classroom and treat it only as literature, it loses so much,” Flachmann says. “I think most high school English teachers look at Shakespeare on the pages and it’s got lines like poetry and it’s got a plot like a novel. So they teach the plays as a hybrid genre somewhere between a novel and a poem. It’s like a povel. Or a noem. “
As a result, Shakespeare becomes boring: “They rob these plays of everything that makes them exciting,” Flachmann says. “They take away the actors. They take away the costumes. They take away the sets. . . . It would be like studying an MTV script. You never see Madonna gyrating, you never see what’s going on on the screen, you just read it.”
On the last day the class will be studying “King Lear,” the session begins with some traditional discussion, then it’s on to the drama.
“Now, is there anybody in here who feels kind of foolish today?” Flachmann asks as he sets about casting the day’s psychodrama.
Kimberly Reedy, 18 and looking about 14 in her baggy black T-shirt and shorts, has her hand up. She likes this play. “Love it,” she whispers before she leaves her seat to assume the role of the Fool. She’s also a fan of the process. “He gets you up, he gets you acting. He makes you understand,” she says.
In this honors freshman English course with many motivated students, Flachmann still finds some to be shy when it comes to improvising in front of the class. At the start of the academic quarter, he tells anyone who is petrified to perform to let him know so he won’t call on them. Everyone else is subject to his occasional prodding.
“Do we have an Oswald in the room?” he inquires. Getting no volunteers for the role, he intones like a psychic, “Wait, there’s somebody here who wants to be Oswald. I know it. It’s . . . it’s Tony. Isn’t that amazing how I can do that?” he says to laughter as the drafted student makes his way to the front of the class.
Flachmann has no problems getting a Lear. Matthew Des Lauriers, a high school actor and the son of two former drama students, volunteers. In observance of Halloween, Des Lauriers’ face is painted in a blue and white design. It makes for an unusual Lear.
Flachmann starts off the exercise asking the characters to defend their actions--to one another.
“I was honest with you, but you banished me,” Cordelia tells her father, King Lear.
“You couldn’t just say that you loved me in front of people?” Lear asks.
Flachmann addresses the Fool. “What kind of a dumbo are you? You’re out in the storm with Lear. You could have a gig in a rich man’s house. . . . Why are you following this guy around in a storm?”
“Because he’s a king,” says the Fool.
“Yeah, but he’s behaving like an ass, he’s mistreated his daughters,” Flachmann counters.
“I’m trying to bring him back to sanity,” the Fool explains. She turns to Lear. “You’ve lost it, man.”
“Why is it worth going back?” Lear cries. “Look where sanity got me.”
It’s still school, though. The next test is Thursday. And Flachmann has a reputation for being a tough grader.
“I try to be fair,” he says. “I don’t try to be mean. But you have to grab them by the lapels and shake them a little bit and say: ‘You’re in college now. You need to think more clearly.’ ”
By his own admission, Flachmann was a terrible high school student growing up in St. Louis. He found academic redemption at University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. He also found that he loved Shakespeare--mostly inspired by a professor who taught him.
Flachmann earned a master’s degree from the University of Virginia and his doctorate from the University of Chicago, where he did his dissertation on Ben Jonson, the English dramatist and poet of the Renaissance era.
It was in 1969, during his graduate studies in Chicago, on the verge of marrying his wife, that he was stricken with testicular cancer. The road to recovery was paved with two surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy.
“I feel like I’ve been given extra time,” Flachmann says now. “I feel like it’s a gift. The downside is I really get angry at people who waste my time. I get angry at incompetent people where I have to take up the slack.”
He thinks of the popular street in Bakersfield where teen-agers cruise aimlessly up and down on Saturday nights. “If my wife and I are ever driving through there, I just want to go borrow time from those people. I want to say, ‘You’re screwing off. Can I have a couple of hours?’ ”