Students summer Shakespeare performance in Atlanta notable

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[August 24, 2016]   ATLANTA - There is a traditional assignment when students return to high school in the fall after the long lazy summer break. Do you remember what it is? Think back to sitting down in English class and hearing the teacher say “I want a five hundred word paper by tomorrow on what you did on your summer vacation.” Remember your response? Oh no, what am I going to write about, and five hundred words? I might as well be writing a novel.

Well, there is a group of high school students from Olympia High School for which five hundred words won’t even begin to describe what they did this summer.

Professor Jean Kerr, theatre professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, and her husband Paul Dennhardt, theatre professor at Illinois State University, have two daughters attending Olympia. It should come as no surprise that the girls are involved with the school’s theatre program. They also have a group of friends from school who are passionate about theatre and meet regularly at the Kerr-Dennhardt home.

Jean and Paul were listening to a conversation one day during the summer break when their daughters and their friends were wondering what to do over the summer. Someone, no one knows who, suggested they put on a play, and maybe use it as a fundraiser for the Olympia theatre program. All eyes turned to Jean and Paul asking for input.

Since Paul Dennhardt is in demand all over the country during the summer at various theatre venues, Jean and Paul put their heads together to come up with some idea before he left town. “We came up with something by Shakespeare,” said Jean Kerr with a laugh.

Why the humor? Well, several issues came up almost immediately. The kids from Olympia had absolutely no experience with Shakespeare and holding the production at Olympia during the summer was out of the question.

The young actors were all in on their first immersion into Shakespeare, so a performance space had to be secured.

The problem of where to hold a theatre production was the easiest one to solve. Jean contacted Cathy Marciariello at the Atlanta Public Library and asked if she could arrange for the troupe of young Shakespearean actors to use the Palms Up space above the Palms Grill in Atlanta. Since Jean and Cathy work together every summer on the Atlanta Public Library’s summer arts program for grade school students, use of the performance space in Atlanta was not a problem.

The first part of the idea of how to introduce teenage actors who had never done Shakespeare to the often complex and demanding plays of the Bard was the most daunting. Think of the unique and challenging language of the Shakespearean plays, the often intense emotions the characters need to exhibit and the violence that is often common to many of the play. One can see an almost vertical learning curve for an actor who has no experience in these plays. Some of the most skilled professional actors have difficulty with this material. How could a group of thirteen Olympia High students get it?

The first problem to be addressed was which play to select. Since Shakespeare’s plays are in the public domain, getting permission to use one was not an issue. Jean and Paul decided to go with “Romeo and Juliet,” the tragic love story of two teenagers from warring families. The original is a lengthy play, too long, but it just happened that Kevin Rich, artistic director of the famous Illinois Shakespeare Festival, had just crafted an abbreviated version of the play that compressed an over two hour play to forty-five minutes.

The next problem of how to get the young actors heads around Shakespeare’s text could only be resolved by creating a Shakespeare Boot Camp in Atlanta.

The actors started meeting nine hours a week for three hours on rehearsal days and were given a six week time frame to bring it all together. Cathy Marciariello served as producer of the show, while Jean Kerr did most of the directing with Paul Dennhardt filling in when his busy schedule permitted. The students learned to take direction, accept critiques of their interpretation, and get Shakespeare’s language to emerge when they spoke lines.

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This version of “Romeo and Juliet” was unique not just because of its abbreviated version, but for several other reasons. Many of the actors were called upon to perform several roles. The set was minimal amounting to just a few boxes on the stage, and costumes were simple. This minimalist staging focused the audience’s attention on the actors.

The most exceptional aspect of the presentation was the fight scenes, sword fighting during which several of the characters are mortally wounded. The actors were instructed in how to engage in a sword fight so they could move with confidence. But there were no swords on stage when it came to the performance. The actors used hankies to imitate swords while an actor off stage clashed two swords together to mimic the sound of fighting. This type of presentation is referred to as foley in the world of movies and plays.

So this is the back story of the presentation of the abbreviated version of “Romeo and Juliet” by Olympia High School students in Atlanta, on a recent Saturday evening during the summer of 2016.

What actually happened?

The house was standing room only with family and friends of the actors. Jean Kerr, Paul Dennhardt, and Cathy Marciariello made opening remarks about how proud they were of the efforts of these exceptional Olympia High students and their dedication to acting.
The curtain rose and the play began. It was one of those astounding moments in theatre that one does not expect. The words of Shakespeare flowed from the actors, the emotions were intense, the fights realistic even done with cloth swords. It really seemed as if these actors had been playing Shakespearean parts for years. The actors moved among the audience to reposition themselves for their next scene. Actors playing multiple parts flowed from one character to another. It was a spectacular success.

After the bows and applause the audience and actors enjoyed a reception just like an opening night party on Broadway. It was easy to see what this performance meant to the actors. Their excitement was contagious.

The quality of this show has been recognized beyond Atlanta. The actors were invited to perform at Ewing Manor in Bloomington as pre-show entertainment before a staging of one of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival plays.

A five hundred word theme about what some Olympia High School students did this summer? Not a problem! In fact, if a teacher actually does make this assignment, they should be prepared for a lengthy description of a very unique experience that these initiates to Shakespeare had over the summer.

[Curtis Fox]



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