DramaWatch: Students fall for Shakespeare

Portland Playhouse teams up with area students for the high-energy Fall Festival of Shakespeare; plus your other weekend theater options.

“It’s an English teacher’s remit to analyse language, but pick apart every word of Shakespeare and you’ve dissected the butterfly – pretty in parts but a nonsensical whole and certainly unable to fly.”

— Mark Powell, associate director of Salisbury Playhouse, in The Guardian

The works of William Shakespeare have been a part of Western education for centuries, and when used properly can have a transforming effect.

Consider how Shakespeare education has changed Nikki Weaver, for instance. Since being involved in the Fall Festival of Shakespeare, one of the main educational-outreach programs by Portland Playhouse, she has a different response to most Shakespeare. Give her a professional production that’s serious and exacting, that inspires audiences to sit in quiet concentration, the better to take in the import of the Bard’s immortal words — and she’ll want none of it!

A performance of “As You Like It” from the 2017 Fall Festival of Shakespeare. Photo courtesy of Portland Playhouse.

“It’s unbearable to be in those productions or a part of those audiences,” Weaver says, having experienced “the most exciting audience to be a part of” at the annual Fall Festival.

Her point, of course, isn’t that Shakespeare is boring, but quite the opposite: That if you approach Shakespeare’s plays not as dry, old words on a page but as exciting, emotionally charged and action-driven stories, everyone benefits, whether students or professionals, performers or audiences.

Such an approach is epitomized by the Fall Festival of Shakespeare, which Weaver oversees, and which takes over the Winningstad Theatre on Sunday. And if it can have such an effect on a highly regarded theater professional, one of Portland Playhouse’s co-founders, imagine what a difference it can make for the students.

Weaver and her husband, Portland Playhouse artistic director Brian Weaver, started the program nearly a decade ago, modeled closely on a program at Shakespeare & Company, in Massachusetts, where the couple worked before moving to Portland. (Not only is the original also called the Fall Festival of Shakespeare, but also takes place this weekend.) The program culminates in performances of abridged versions of Shakespeare plays, one by each of the participating schools. But along the way there, it instills a kind of infectious group spirit in everyone involved. The three principles that underlie the method are a spirit of collaboration rather than competition, an aural and experiential method for learning the texts, and active engagement between performers and audience. Alumni from the Portland Playhouse apprentice program serve as guest directors, and students from all the schools are brought together for common classes on clown and fight skills, dance and performance. They learn by doing and by supporting one another, and the enthusiasm of it all seems to take on a momentum of its own.

“It builds camaraderie, not just between the students but between the directors,” Weaver says. “We meet and talk about what everyone’s doing and beg, borrow and steal resources to help everyone do what they’re trying to do.”

The program focuses on high schoolers, but expanded about five years ago to include middle school students. This year, four high schools and one middle school are taking part. And they’re not just all trotting out Romeo and Juliet ad nauseum, either. For instance, Fort Vancouver High School, with guest director LaTevin Alexander (also shining at present in the Street Scenes production of Topdog/Underdog), will present a Fall Festival first: the rousing but thematically complex Henry V. “It’s a play about war,” Weaver reminds us, “and the students have a lot to say about that.”

Also on tap in the one-day fest are Much Ado About Nothing (Arts & Communication Magnet Academy), Twelfth Night (Metropolitan Learning Center), Hamlet (Harriet Tubman Middle School), and The Tempest (Da Vinci Middle School).

“They get the language and the stories in such a visceral way,” Weaver says of the students. And asked which play, over the years, the program’s young artists have responded to most strongly, she says simply, “Maybe all of them.”

Opening

Enso Theatre Ensemble describes E. Hunter Spreen’s Care of Trees as a “love story that takes place on the set of a life-sized tree.” So, kind of like Waiting for Godot.

Kidding!

Actually, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the reference point of choice. The production is directed by Enso artistic director Caitlin Lushington, and stars Megan Gotz and Jon Gennari. I don’t know who those people are, sorry to say, but as assurances of quality go, I take comfort in the involvement of Mary McDonald-Lewis, who contributes voiceovers.

The recombinant nature of the sketch comedy scene, in which top writers, improvisers and performers seem to gather in various and innumerable short-lived ensembles, defies my (admittedly meager) attempts to keep track of who’s who and what’s what. But though Lone Wolves,  isn’t an ensemble name I recall encountering before, the presence of Shelley McLendon (the director of this show and a frequent leader among this whole laughable lot), Jason Rouse, Lori Ferraro and Paul Glazier, along with several other performers, suggests that this weekend at the Siren Theater has a good chance to be, y’know, funny.

Closing

ArtsWatcher Bennett Campbell Ferguson lauded the “vigorously original writing, magnificently transportive imagery and fearlessly realistic performances” of Defunkt’s Slipping and the “freakishly vivid life” of Theatre Vertigo’s A Map of Virtue. But all good (and scary) things must pass — including those shows, as well as Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Ella Enchanted, CoHo Productions’ The Taming and Triangle Productions’ limited-run Pageant.

Best line I read this week

“I felt like I’d sent the hunting dog that was my talent out in search of something (‘Bring me Beauty!’) and it had come back with, like, the lower half of a Barbie doll.”
— George Saunders, in “The Writer’s Chronicle,” about one of his early short stories.

 

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

One Response. Have your say.

  1. James_Laf says:

    Shakespeare’s magnificent late play is a roller-coaster ride from romance to tragedy to comedy and finally to a place of transcendent beauty that few other works of art have ever gone. “A sad tale’s best for winter,” but after unleashing a wintry tempest onto his characters, Shakespeare ultimately conjures spring’s miraculous rebirth.
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