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
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
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
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.