Getting hooked on the Bard through acting

80 ninth-graders to perform a scene at Perseverance Theatre

Posted: Thursday, December 09, 2004

When someone admits they're ugly, what do they do, teaching artist Ishmael Hope asked student actor Ami McRae.

They were rehearsing a scene from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on Wednesday on stage at Juneau-Douglas High School.

"Cover their face?" suggested McRae, who plays Helena. She must speak the line, "No, no, I am as ugly as a bear."

McRae, a student in Carol Pratt's freshman English class, is one of about 80 ninth-graders who will perform a scene from the Shakespeare play on stage Saturday at Perseverance Theatre.


What: Two student performances of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

When: 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 11. 90 minutes. Free.

Where: Mainstage, Perseverance Theatre.

Also performing will be three Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School musicians, Franz Felkl, Vicente Alinson and Shaun Neshein, who composed musical themes for the play with the guidance of orchestra teacher Patrick Murphy.

The play is part of a six-week project in which actors worked one day a week with all of the school's 500-some freshmen, some of whom agreed to perform Saturday.

Perseverance plans to make it an annual program called Prologue: Introducing Students to Shakespeare and Other Great Playwrights. This year, Penguin Books donated 500 copies of the play to JDHS.

"Reading it - I don't think you understand a lot of what you're reading," said student Chelsey Brummitt, who plays Hermia. "Once you act it out, you can do movement that explains it."

Hope told Pratt's students to remember the operative word in a line.

"Hitting the operatives - getting the most important word and speaking that with emphasis. 'I love thee not, therefore pursue me not,'" he said as an example.

Amund Rongstad, who plays Puck, said this was the first play he's acted in. He prefers learning Shakespeare by acting on stage rather than by reading it in a classroom.

"If you're in class, you're going to fall asleep sometime," he said. "If you're out here doing it, it makes it more exciting because you're moving around and doing things."

Actually, Perseverance's method of introducing students to Shakespeare isn't so different from what Pratt would have done. Pratt usually teaches "Romeo and Juliet" to freshmen and may do so again this year. She also asks the students to memorize and perform a scene. But Perseverance actors such as Hope add a professional dimension, she said.

"It's nice to have a professional company showing the acting skills that go along with that," Pratt said.

When the students work on "Romeo and Juliet," she said, "I think the quality will be much better because they'll have that perspective. I think Ishmael has provided them with good technique for understanding the dramatic aspect of it, showing it on stage - how to convey that to an audience."

Each year, the student play will coincide with a production at Perseverance and use its set, said Ryan Conarro, of the theater's education department. The teaching artists are actors from the professional play. Along with Hope and Conarro, the teachers are Chip Brookes and Sara Waisanen.

The Perseverance actors gave the students background on Shakespeare and tools to understand his language.

"It doesn't need to be a mystery," Conarro said. "It's English and it's very close to what we speak today."

On stage Wednesday, Hope showed David Peterson, playing Demetrius, how to fall without hurting himself, by falling on the side of his leg. He told students to memorize lines by speaking them aloud, rather than reading them silently.

He suggested to students how to move to make the words come alive. He asked Peterson, when his character was searching for someone, to run to the edge of the stage and look around.

"And go downstage as far as possible. I want to be smelling your shoes, OK?" Hope told Peterson.

Hope suggested that McRae, whose lovelorn character throws herself on her knees before Demetrius and compares herself to a spaniel, try a little bark.

"The more you beat me, I will fawn on you," McRae recited and essayed a mild "ruff." It later occurred to McRae that her character is a little crazy.

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