Northern Stage's Class Act: Shakespeare in the Schools

This is why the arts matter.

You can bring a kid to Shakespeare but you can't make him or her like it. Better that Shakespeare come to the child. Even better still? Have Northern Stage make the introduction. 

Northern Stage, the Upper Valley's best known professional theater, has just ended its 20th season with sold-out performances of Mamma Mia. The ABBA-scored musical capped off the season's earlier productions, including a modern version of Macbeth, a premiere of the tragically comic Trick or Treat, and a one-woman show, Grounded. A grueling schedule, much hard work, and a sea of talent, all of which could be seen in the public performances. 

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The lights are still on at Northern Stage as it wraps up another important and less well-known part of its mission--its Class Act: Shakespeare in the Schools Program. In its second year, it has served more than 180 elementary, middle, and high school students this season with classes at Dothan Brook in Wilder, VT, Newbury Elementary in Newbury VT, Hartland Elementary in Hartland VT, and the Rivendell Academy in Orford NH. 

And Class Act has traveled northward to Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. As part of its arrangement with the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro VT, Northern Stage brought Shakespeare to the students of Hazen Union High School in Hardwick VT. The students performed an abbreviated version of A Midsummer Night's Dream on April 13 at the Highland Center. Theirs was the very first production to grace the stage of this brand-new, still-smelling-of-fresh-paint theater, scheduled to open to the public on the weekend of June 2-4. 

Highland Center for the Arts' new theater, Greensboro VT, modeled on Shakespeare's Globe Theater in London, England

Northern Stage sends experienced teaching artists into school classrooms to introduce students to Shakespeare, to read the play, sound out the language, figure out the modern elements of classic themes. Every student in the class has a role on or off stage in the final productions, the first presented to the entire school, and the second to family and friends on the Barrette Center's professional stage in White River Junction (except for Hazen Union who, as noted above, performed at the Highland Center.) Plays chosen for this year were A Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth.

The Teachers Speak

Shakespeare can be a tough sell, and theater is often a new experience for many area students. What happens when Shakespeare comes to the classroom? One of the participating teachers, Leanne Harple, described the experience at Hazen Union. 

"They put the show together in one month, an extraordinary short amount of time to take on such an endeavor. For some of them, it was their first play ever.  For many of them, their first Shakespeare play. The students did a fantastic job, and really built up their confidence and brought out pools of creativity that they didn't know they had inside of them. One of my students began the program digging in his heels, insisting he didn't want to be in the play, and then . . . was cast in a leading role. At the end of the play, he told me, "Mrs. Harple, I'll never say this again, but I'm glad you made me do this."

Harple continued: "One of the really complimentary pieces of feedback that I have heard from many people is that the students understood the lines of the play and its meaning in a way that is truly unusual for a high school cast . . . Because of this production, our theater class for next year is already full. Students in the audience walked away saying that they weren't sure that they would have liked it, but that it was hilarious. It was the talk of the school for weeks, and students want to know what show we are doing next year." 

Lanni Luce West and her 4th grade students at Dothan Brook in Wilder VT are participating in the program for the second year in a row. She echoes Harple's enthusiasm, saying her students don't just " 'do' Shakespeare. They flourish . . . Shakespeare in the Schools gives my students confidence, an opportunity to shine in a different light. It gives them something to feel proud of . . ." At the final performance, one student found he had the gift of comedic timing, and "a student who is usually crippled with anxiety spoke with confidence on stage. A child who can't read memorized and recited long monologues of Shakespearean language. . . Students took the stage by storm. That is why Shakespeare in the Schools matters." 

Class Act is provided at no cost to the schools and is supported in part by the generosity of local individuals and businesses. Contributions to the program are always appreciated. This year's teaching artists included Ashton Heyl (Yale MFA graduate and Northern Stage actor), Chris Flockton (Theater Director for ArtisTree Community Arts Center and Gallery), Mitch Marois (Musical Theater BFA from the prestigious Carnegie Mellon and Founding Associate Producer for JAG Productions), and Casey Predovic, (North Carolina School of the Arts Graduate, and actor at Northern Stage.) Eric Love is Northern Stage's Assistant Artistic Director and Director of Education. He supervises and participates in Shakespeare in the Schools.

(Featured photo: Eric Love, Northern Stage's Director of Education, works with students on A Midsummer Night's Dream.)

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I write about the arts and other interesting things in the Upper Valley. Please sign up to receive an email each time I post something new by clicking here.  To view my profile page or to read previous posts, please click here.

Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge



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