Shakespeare has something of a dodgy reputation -- not as a playwright, of course, but as a master of dense and difficult language, daunting novice actors and audience members alike.
But the Bard has proved to be no threat to Juneau kids at both high schools, who have embraced the challenge of learning parts of his plays over the past few weeks through two productions based on Shakespeare’s texts, one at each high school.
The Thunder Mountain Theater Department opened “Much Ado about Will” last weekend, with shows continuing tonight, Friday and Saturday. The play, written by Robert Johanson, contains famous characters and scenes from more than a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays, presenting them in an ensemble format loosely organized by theme. Hamlet, Cleopatra, and Richard III are among the characters TMHS actors portray; scenes include Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene and Macbeth’s post-murder exchange with his wife, Lady Macbeth.
The Juneau Douglas High School Theatre Department opens “Kiss me Kate” Friday, with another show Saturday, and two more Feb. 24 and 25. “Kate” is a play within a play, wherein the actors are staging a performance of “Taming of the Shrew” amidst all kinds of on- and off-stage personal drama. Like “Much Ado,” “Kiss Me Kate” contains large passages of pure Shakespeare, interspersed with off-stage scenes set in modern times.
Directors Kristin Garot at TMHS and Michaela Moore at JDHS – both of whom are leading kids through staged Shakespeare for the first time -- said that their young actors took up the challenge with gusto.
“I was really impressed with their ability to tackle it,” Garot said. “It went pretty smoothly once we got rolling.”
Garot brought in coaches such as Theatre in the Rough’s Aaron Elmore and Generator Theater Company’s Flordelino Lagundino, who is also trained in Shakespeare, to help the kids work through some scenes, and set up a Shakespeare Boot Camp to deal with the intricacies of the language.
Moore said she followed Irish actor Kenneth Branagh’s approach to the plays and language when presenting it to her actors.
“I’ve always enjoyed his Shakespeare movies a lot, and his philosophy is to look at it like its not Shakespearian language but regular language, to figure out what Shakespeare is trying to say and then act that,” she said. “And when I told the kids that – ‘Go home and look at your lines and figure out what you’re saying ‘– they did really well. I didn’t have to do a whole lot of coaching.”
Both directors have the advantage of being English teachers who’ve taught Shakespeare in the classroom for many years. Garot, in her 13th year of teaching, said she usually has kids act out scenes from the plays when teaching them as literature.
“The best way to teach Shakespeare is through performance, getting kids to act things out,” Garot said, adding that it took her a year or two to figure that out.
From “Shrew” to “Ado”
Garot and her actors had some unexpected obstacles to overcome in pulling off this production that had nothing to do with language. For one, she wasn’t supposed to be the director; for another, “Much Ado About Will” wasn’t supposed to be their play. TMHS actors were working on “Taming of the Shrew” beginning last fall with Perseverance intern Alex Johnson; Garot had chosen the play as a compliment to JDHS’ production of “Kate.” But right before the kids were due to return from Christmas break, Johnson ended up having to leave the project, after he was offered a full-time job out of state. Garot, having never directed a play before, decided to abandon “Shrew” and do “Much Ado” instead.
“I decided to just go ahead and take it on myself, but i didn’t feel comfortable taking on ‘Taming of the Shrew,’ and I had this other script I had already seen, so I said ‘let’s do this.’”
The false start meant that the kids had to learn the play in only a month, but if Saturday’s performance was any indication, they rose to that challenge very nicely. All 19 actors not only mastered their lines, they seemed to be having a ball up on stage, eliciting laughs in the right places and playing off one another’s roles. Standout performances included Carmen Smith’s Cleopatra and Ani Williams’ Joan of Arc.
Garot said watching the kids become comfortable at rehearsals progressed was one of the most satisfying parts of the experience for her.
“Some of those kids are kids who might be really quiet in class and then they get up here and do this thing that’s really amazing. It’s really fun to see that transformation.”
Kids also helped out with lighting (Tesla Cooper), sound design (Isaac Christensen and Steven Ringle) stage managing (Erin Krogstad) stage crew (Brianna Helton and Gabby Lindley) and props (Nick Thompson).
Garot said part of her learning curve was to know how much to let go of as things began to get going.
“I had to learn how to let go of some things and trust that they would happen, and that was really rewarding. because they did.”
Shakespeare was the reason Garot got involved in theater in the first place. After she’d been teaching “Twelfth Night” in class for a few years, Perseverance produced the play and she got involved, helping with props. When the next play came up, they called her back.
“They said, ‘what do you think about being assistant stage manager?’”
She went for it, and has since worked on many productions, frequently as stage manager, including on last year’s production of “The Blue Bear.” This past week she was in Anchorage helping to set up the Anchorage production of that show.
Garot said her work at Perseverance also allowed her to watch top-notch theater artists in action, such as Ryan Connaro and Shona Strauser. But she’s still not sure about her future as a director. Stay tuned.
“Much Ado” ensemble members are Rhyann Ashcroft, Jasmine Blackwell, Veronica Buness, Savana Carroll, Averi Cokeley, Kristen Dutson, Ileta Galau, Marisa Guizio, Miranda Guizio, Ryan Hicks, Yazan Jabr, Merci Marcelino, Christian Murphy, Andrew Raney, Virginia Roldan, Carmen Smith, Mikayla Steiner, Maddie Temple and Ani Williams.
“Kiss me Kate”
Over at JDHS, actors are gearing up for Friday's opening night performance. “Kiss me Kate” is a Tony Award-winning musical comedy, featuring songs by Cole Porter; the production includes dancing choreographed by Ricci Adan. Director Moore’s husband, Richard Moore worked with the kids on music and directs the orchestra, while Rosie Humphery provides piano accompaniment as well as additional instruction for the kids.
“Rosie just fits in so well with Richard and I, we’re a team. We fit together like a puzzle,“ Moore said.
Other crew members include Julie Dyar, who designed costumes (her 10th time in this position) and Bo Anderson, who designed the set.
Mahy of the kids on the cast have worked with Moore in the past -- senior Nathan Webber, for example, who plays a gangster in “Kate,” said he’s participated in every play but two while he’s been a student at JDHS. Seniors Asia Ver, who plays Lois, and Rebekah Badilla, who plays Kate and Lilli, said they’ve both been in plays in the past, but that this is their first chance to take lead roles.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment for awhile,” Ver said.
Both girls also said it’s fun to get to act as women who display unpleasant personality traits very unlike their own.
The cast is 40 kids, including a chorus, who’ve been working since November on the play. Lead roles in addition to Badilla, Ver and Webber include Zac Watt as Fred and Petruchio, Colton Welch as Bill and Lucentio. Other actors inlcude Aria Moore, Aaron Abella, Ellen Dyar, Ariana Orford, Taylor Vidic, Max Blust, Robert Newman, David Mendivil, Zeb Bodine, Ellis Notmeyer, Seth Bodine, Jessica Jones, Bethany Cummins, Megan Wright, Clarie Dyar, Sarah Johnson, Madison Truitt, Chad Boyer, Robert Vancleave and 16 members of the chorus.
If you need further incentive to check out this play, consider this: Funds raised from performances of “Kate” will go to help some students participate in the largest performing arts festival in the world -- in Scotland! Earlier this year, Moore received the exciting news: JDHS theater been invited to participate in Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013, a great honor for the school and the department. The school was selected for participation in the festival by the American High School Theatre Festival, which runs in conjunction with Festival Fringe. Nominated schools received an application, which is reviewed by college theater professors who choose participants based on their most recent work, awards, community involvement, philosophies and recommendations.
Moore said she is thrilled to be planning for this trip,
“If we can have people come see our shows -- that’s all we need to do. Come be entertained for a night and we can raise the money for Scotland.”
To find out more, visit www.jdhsdrama.com.
“Much Ado about Will” runs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Satuday, Feb. 9-11 at TMHS auditorium. “Kiss Me Kate” runs at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Feb. 24 and 25 at JDHS.