Digging Deep Into Shakespeare

The greatest obstacle in enjoying Shakespeare, for many students, is the language.

That’s what kept Arts High School sophomore Erick Correa from reading classic works like Much Ado About Nothing — until he took a theater class and earned the lead role in a performance of the play.

“When you act, you have to have an understanding of the text so you can bring the character’s emotions to the stage,” said the 16-year-old Benedick, whose attempts to outwit the equally sarcastic Beatrice fail once they fall for each other. “We had a rough time at first, but by reading and studying the play, you appreciate and become the character.” 

Erick and 19 of his fellow Arts High students were among hundreds of students from middle and high schools from around the state who brought the bard’s plays and sonnets to life at the seventh annual Shakesperience: NJ taking place in May at The Shakespeare Theatre in Madison, Centenary Stage in Hackettstown and Rider University in Lawrence. The Folger Shakespeare Library partners with these three organizations to create the two-day festivals modeled after their annual festival in Washington, D.C. 

“We believe the best way to understand Shakespeare is to perform Shakespeare, to engage it and have fun with it,” said Bob Young, Shakesperience: NJ consultant for the Folger Library. “It’s great to watch the students perform on stage and see the students in the audience really lean in; they are totally engaged in the language.”

During a recent festival at The Shakespeare Theatre, about 20 students from each school took turns performing Shakespeare scenes, from a celebration of his sonnets and abridged versions of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and other plays to updated renditions of the works, like The Bachelor: Shakespeare Edition, featuring Petruchio of The Taming of the Shrew.

Between each performance, Master of Revels Jeffrey Bender entertained the students and invited them on stage to participate in Shakespeare-themed games and activities, including a high-speed reading of a monologue from Hamlet.

Deeper learning

For five of the schools, the festival was the culmination of months of in-depth study of Shakespeare’s language and the meaning and context of the work as part of two Folger Library initiatives funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Folger Teaching Artists in the Schools and Shakespeare Steps Out.

Peter Handy, a third-year Folger teaching artist, worked with students at Arts High School and Maple Avenue School in Newark.

“Understanding Shakespeare’s language unlocks his genius, which is a poignant, entertaining, heartfelt and funny exploration of an incredible range of human nature,” he said. “What’s amazing is that even in such a short time and sometimes in difficult situations, the phoenix always seems to rise at the end. The kids pull it off, and create some beautiful moments in the process.”

Schools can either incorporate the program into their curriculum, such as Arts High School, or set it up as an after-school activity, such as Alexander Hamilton Prep Academy in Elizabeth.

“This is an all-good thing,” said Carl Gonzalez, theater arts teacher at Arts High. “It gets the students out of their phones and into their person, exploring reality and building connections in the arts.”

Maple Avenue School teacher Alycin Slezak said Shakesperience: NJ has been transformative for the 19 sixth and seventh grade students in her accelerated talent and technology class. At the festival, students performed three scenes from The Winter’s Tale, an Elizabethan romantic comedy.

Maple Avenue seventh-grade student Shamar McPherson, 13, said that not only did he gain a “different view of life,” but he also acquired a new language.

“This is some challenging reading,” said Shamar, who played Florizel, a prince who falls in love with a lowly shepherdess. “It will push your comprehension and ultimately make you a better student.”

After the performance, Princess Yeboah, 12, a freshman at the school, said she felt empowered.

“It gives you more confidence, takes you out of your comfort zone,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting it to have a big impact, but now I want to get more Shakespeare books to read.”

In addition to Arts High School and Maple Avenue School, other schools participating in the Folger Shakespeare program this year are Ethical Community Charter School in Jersey City, Alexander Hamilton Prep School in Elizabeth and Hackettstown High School.

To learn more, visit the Folger Shakespeare Library's website

 


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