We on NCTE’s staff were working hard that week, managing events, directing lost attendees, ringing up book sales, etc. For organizers charged with keeping the Minneapolis event running smoothly for our 6,000 attendees, it was a stressful time. We’d had more than our share of challenges already when we suddenly received a text from a staff member: a vocal mob had gathered around the escalators. Security was freaking out.
I scrambled to investigate. Down the halls of the Minneapolis Convention Center, I could hear the hundreds yelling:
Double, double toil and trouble!
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble!
What I found was a moment of magic. Hundreds of delighted people were reciting Shakespeare with giddy enthusiasm.
The Folger Shakespeare Library, one of many organizations participating in our 2015 Convention, had quietly distributed a flier encouraging people to assemble here. On the back of the flier were the lines from a scene in Macbeth. The hundreds who had arrived for this flash mob were divided into different teams, each team reading a different part. And everyone was having a ball.
Though NCTE had neither scheduled nor authorized the event, not everyone was caught off guard by it. The Folger Shakespeare Library had pulled similar stunts at the two previous NCTE Conventions. And though these flash mobs were planned with the subversive stealth of a jewel heist, they were such a delight that the last thing NCTE wanted to do was shut them down.
The mind behind this madness was Folger Shakespeare Library Senior Consultant on National Education Michael LoMonico. He told me in an interview that the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, and this positive reception has allowed the flash mobs to succeed even in tricky situations.
The first flash mob happened at our 2013 Convention, held in Boston. LoMonico decided to hold that one outside, but Boston’s November weather was not the only complication participants encountered. Earlier that year, the city had suffered its Boston Marathon bombing, so local police were unusually alert for anything suspicious. Hundreds of people suddenly appearing in public and yelling lines from Romeo and Juliette’s balcony scene drew immediate attention. But when police arrived and saw how much fun the crowd was having, with passersby eagerly joining in, the police allowed it to continue.
As LoMonico shared with me, “Somebody said to one of my colleagues, ‘You got their permission?’ He said, ‘Oh yeah, sure. We got their permission,’ which of course we didn’t. But the police were fine once they realized what we were doing.”
At the following year’s NCTE Convention in Washington, DC, LoMonico decided to hold the flash mob indoors. Drawing from the famous funeral speech in Julius Caesar, someone with a bullhorn read the words of Mark Antony from atop the convention hall escalator, while the mob below read the reactions of the funeral crowd. In our nation’s capital, security is always on high alert, but once again, the surprise delighted hundreds. LoMonico reports, “In all three [of these flash mob] cases, the police . . . thought it was so much fun that they were excited by it themselves.”
Yet LoMonico says he was doing even more than giving English teachers some joy. “One of the things we emphasize to the teachers . . . is that this is something they can do with their own students.” A fun event like this can make Shakespeare more approachable for reluctant readers. “It’s not just some stuffy words on a page. But it’s fun. It can be exciting. [And also] it’s a very safe way of reading because if everybody is reading together . . . it’s a lot easier, for kids particularly – and for anyone – to be part of a group that’s reading it. We refer to that as ‘choral reading.’ And choral reading is really helpful because it’s less intimidating than giving an individual a part.”
After LoMonico invited English teachers to do this activity with their own students, more than two dozen classes sent videos of their own flash mobs. The locations ranged from a middle school cafeteria, where students disrupted lunch, to Ellis Island, mobbed by an international high school.
And will Folger attempt another flash mob at next year’s NCTE Convention? LoMonico says he is already researching the announced Atlanta location to plan logistics.
Enjoy all the videos of students around the country doing Shakespeare flash mobs.
Read Mike LoMonico’s blog post, in which he highlights the most outstanding of these videos.