Doug: For the past four years, actors from the Great River Shakespeare Festival Company have come to Winona in the middle of winter to teach at Winona High School.Valerie Williams, who runs the theater program at the high school, inspired the residency with support from Laurie Lucas and the Laird Norton Family Foundation, and the Southeast Minnesota Arts Council.
Over the years, Winona students have had the opportunity to learn acting Shakespeare from GRSF company members Tarah Flanagan, Andrew Carlson, Evan Fuller, Chris Gerson, Kate and Ryan Fonville, and me, right in their own school. Many have gone on to join our Shakespeare for Young Actors and Shakespeare for Young Designers programs in the summer. This year, the program expands to Cotter High School and is a week longer than in the past.
We’re here with our current teachers, GRSF company members Brian White and Stephanie Lambourn, to talk about teaching Shakespeare to the next generation. So, what are you doing with the students this month?
Brian: At Winona High, we are telling the story of “Julius Caesar,” and at Cotter High we will be breaking down scenes from “Macbeth.” These students are brilliant and passionate and I can’t wait for them to be able to show off their work.
Doug: It sounds like a real challenge for the students. Have they performed Shakespeare before or is this new for them?
Stephanie: Some of our students have been part of our Shakespeare for Young Actors program at GRSF and some participated in the residency last year. Regardless of how much experience these students have had with Shakespeare, rehearsing and performing “Julius Caesar” in under three weeks is a huge challenge for anyone, and it is exciting to see them embracing this challenge.
Doug: So how do you get teenagers up and speaking Shakespeare’s language passionately?
Brian: They were passionate coming into the classes. I think teenagers get a bad rap from people who forget what it was like to be one. They are all choosing to be there and that’s a great gift to us as teachers. We are starting from the beginning of an actor’s preparation to Shakespeare which is “what am I saying.” There were actors finishing their paraphrasing and ecstatic because they discovered something new about the play or the scene that they didn’t know before. It’s pretty exciting. Shakespeare tells amazing stories and these actors want to tell them.
Doug: That’s a very good point. One of the beautiful things about Shakespeare is that you understand the plays differently at different points in your life. Are you seeing the play differently because of working with the students?
Brian: We are seeing how truly universal these relationships are. A group of friends is a group of friends, whether it’s a group of Roman nobles or a group of actors. We’ve also been discussing what’s going on in Kiev and Venezuela and the similarities between these events and the plays. They’ve noticed how relevant these 400-year-old plays are.
Doug: You must be sparking all kinds of interesting conversations. What kinds of exercises are you doing with the students to get them speaking the language?
Stephanie: This past week we concentrated on table work, just like we do in the professional world. We looked at the difference between prose and verse, how to scan the text, antithesis and rhetoric devices. Half the battle with performing Shakespeare is understanding exactly what you are saying. The students have spent a lot of time researching unfamiliar words and paraphrasing the language into their own words. This coming week we will start to really work on where thoughts begin and end and exploration of character.
Doug: That sounds exactly like the work we’ll be doing on “Hamlet” and “Merry Wives” in a few months. I’m so glad to have the two of you in the school leading such an in-depth program for our students. Next week, we’ll check back in on the residency and see how things are going as Brian and Stephanie begin work on “Macbeth” at Cotter High School.
If you want to see the students perform their version of “Julius Caesar,” it is on Friday, March 7, at 7 p.m. at Winona Senior High School. It’s free and open to the public, so come on out and support these young actors.
That’s it for us. We’ll see you next week.