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Putting Shakespeare on its feet


Three Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors came to CCHS to perform and put on a workshop Tuesday

by: RON HALVORSON - Anna Rosenau practices lines with another student during the visit from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors.

The playwright William Shakespeare lived just 52 years, but during this time the 17th-century “Bard of Avon” wrote plays that have been translated into countless languages, and remain popular even today.

Shakespeare is a rite of passage for many young actors, but for some, his works rank near a root canal as far as enjoyment. For others, Shakespeare is right up there with watching paint dry.

Crook County High School (CCHS) drama teacher Anita Hoffman's goal is to change all that.

A step was taken toward that goal on Tuesday, when three actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) came to CCHS to perform, and to put on a workshop for her students.

As Hoffman put it, they put “Shakespeare on its feet.”

“I love when we can bring in groups that are professional actors, who can come in and interact with the kids,” she said. “I think it’s riveting, and it’s exciting. I love the fact that they put Shakespeare on its feet and make it actable, so it’s not dreary, and dusty, and unapproachable.”

It began with a third-period performance of scenes from “The Tempest,” which opened her students’ eyes to the fact that it doesn't take a large theater company to perform Shakespeare — and to perform it well.

“To have them put that together with three people playing a myriad of characters was a lot of fun, too, for the kids to realize, ‘Oh, I don’t need a whole company. It comes alive with just three voices, rather than a cast of 20,’” she said.

The real work for the students came in the sixth period workshop.

“They’re (students) going to explore some of the language in ‘The Tempest’ and the notion of the master-servant relationship that Prospero had with both Ariel and Calaban,” explained OSF’s Outreach Program Manager, Katherine Gosnell, who was also in attendance. “A better understanding of those two characters, a better understanding of William Shakespeare’s language, overall. It’s not about creating future actors. The workshops are really about reading comprehension and helping students who are struggling with Shakespeare’s language.”

OSF actor Jonathan Dyrud agreed — the workshop isn’t so much an acting class as it is to get the young actors to look at Shakespeare in a different way.

“Instead of looking at it in a purely analytical way, they’re starting to look at it in a way where they can actually see themselves in these characters,” he explained. “We’re trying to get it into their bodies so they understand the language, and then to actually interpret the language based on their understanding.”

“This is more about reading it out loud, so they have a different level of understanding,” added OSF actress Mandie Johnson. “It’s fun.”

Beginning with the 38 students sitting together in a large circle and making “rain” sounds, the workshop progressed to each walking around the stage and speaking aloud about a single topic. Soon, the students were paired up. Each read to the other as one of two assigned characters from ‘The Tempest,’ an exercise that soon involved touching the other as one spoke, and later, moving around the stage in both chase and confrontation.

While to the outsider it appeared chaotic, it was closely directed by the OSF actors and produced the hoped-for results.

Drama student Angel Holt, 17, said she mostly does improvisation, and the workshop really helped to expand her horizon.

“Having a set character role was very different, and I loved it. Showing that has made me grow as an actor, and really feed on this character that I had, instead of making up one. It was just wonderful and I really grew from it.”

It was “mission accomplished” for 16-year-old Riley Larimer.

“It used to be something that was kind of boring to read, and every time I had to involve myself with Shakespeare, it was just dry,” he said. “The way they did it was so involved in all the different exercises we did. It really just brought new life. It made it a lot more fun. I’ll take a lot out of this to bring into my own acting style.”

“That’s the beauty of Shakespeare,” said Hoffman. “When you read it, it seems dead. It seems stilted. It’s really hard. But when you hear it, and somebody changes the intonation, it’s ‘Oh, that’s what they mean.’ I know those light bulbs that come on when I’m talking, and kids start putting it into their own language.”

Beyond the peformance and workshop — a definite time of enrichment for the CCHS drama students — OSF’s visit to CCHS was also sort of an exploratory trip to research a possible partnership with CCHS.

OSF began a partnership program with Oregon schools about 12 years ago, she explained. For each school, the three-year program includes teacher training, curriculum, and support, visits to the school by OSF actors “in residence,” a one-week “Shakespeare in the Classroom” workshop each summer for two teachers, and other instructional benefits. The program concludes in the third year with an expense-paid trip (including lodging but not travel) for the teacher and up to 50 students to go to the OSF in Ashland, Ore. to attend plays and participate in educational events.

The program is heavily subsidized, and the cost to each school — according to materials provided by Gosnell — is 10 to15 percent of the actual cost. A three-day residency typically costs about $900, she said, but there are other costs a school must plan for, including travel to Ashland.

Other schools being considered for this cycle include Madras, Redmond, and Lakeview high schools.

The next step, according to Hoffman, is to work with the school district to see if this might be a possibility for the 2014-2015 school year, through outright district support, fundraisers, or a combination of each.

Gosnell said she doesn’t want this cost to be a burden to participating schools.

“We really want this to be a gift to the schools that we’re working with.”