Homer Alaska - Schools

Story last updated at 10:35 PM on Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Students smile when it comes to Shakespeare

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer


Photo by McKibben Jackinsky

A band of smiling Shakespearean student actors — Brenden Fuson, Vincent Waddell, Seth Classen, Garrett Butcher, Kannen Cabana and Corey Bice — throw themselves into a performance at West Homer Elementary School Thursday afternoon.

Think Shakespeare is hard to understand? If the ear-to-ear smiles, laugh-drawing acting and high level of enthusiasm were any indication during last Thursday's assembly, the third- through sixth-grade students at West Homer Elementary School absolutely do not think so.

In fact, before classmates, family members and school faculty and staff, the youngsters gave the English poet and playwright a rallying "Shakespeare, uuunh!" cheer.

The performance brought to a close a two-week artist-in-the-schools residency with Elizabeth Ware and Paul Schweigert of Edgeware Productions, a theatrical touring company that takes Shakespeare and live theater into classrooms. The residency was made possible by Bunnell Street Arts Center's Artists In Schools program.

Under Schweigert's direction — Ware left Homer before the end of the residency in order to begin a new one in Nondalton — the students brought Shakespeare's writing from the late 1500s to today by pointing to words and phrases the "Bard of Avon" penned. Words such as "monumental," and phrases such as "feel it in your bones" and "Greek to me" and "foregone conclusion" and "no sweat" originated with, you guessed it, Shakespeare.

For the uninitiated, Schweigert and a group of students showed how important reading aloud is when it comes to understanding Shakespeare. Using short excerpts from "Macbeth" and "Romeo and Juliet," the students read and recited lines with emphasis on the nouns, then emphasized the verbs and, finally, combined the two. Simple.

Combining reading and acting, students from Carole Demers' class gave meaning to the seven stages of man taken from "As You Like It."

When it comes to clowns, Shakespeare's plays had plenty. Perhaps the old English stage clown was a bit different than the clowns of today, but still, a clown by any other name is a clown. Oh, wait, that sounds suspiciously like "a rose by any other name," which just happens to be a line written by, of course, Shakespeare, for "Romeo and Juliet."

Witches? Ah, yes, plenty of witches. Fairies? Them, too. And who could wax more eloquent and with such understated humor on the differences between men and women than Shakespeare?

Ware and Schweigert's time at WHES followed a two-week residency at Chapman School in Anchor Point. In both locations, becoming familiar and having fun with Shakespeare may have been the attention-grabber, but other lessons were taught along the way.

"Both of these instructors have extensive Shakespeare experience and were able to bring that into the building and taught our students about performance etiquette and also articulation, clarity, voice tone and how to amplify your voice and express, which falls right into our recently held district forensic competition," said Chapman Principal Sharon Trout. "It was really good."

Melissa Cloud, a WHES teacher, offered a similar observation.

"I think a lot of the students got a little more comfortable with speaking in front of a crowd and they learned how important your voice is as a tool for communication. Paul and Elizabeth stressed using appropriate volume and intonation. They wanted students to know that great performances can happen without props, costumes, sets and all of the other dynamics that are a part of theater. The bottom line is the story," said Cloud.

Still, it was Shakespeare who held it all together, as presented by Ware and Schweigert. Edgeware Productions was founded in 1990. Each residency is tailor-made to fit the schools where they are invited. This year they have visited schools in Yakutat, Palmer and Anchorage. Three three-week residencies already are scheduled for the 2011-2012 school year.

At West Homer, the two weeks were spent meeting three times with each of 12 classes.

"It's great fun. They were falling out of their chairs, laughing," said Schweigert of the positive energy he and Ware brought to the learning experience. It's an energy that goes both ways. "That's why we do so well — we enjoy the students."

As told to Cloud, Ware and Schweigert's "biggest wish was that they were able to demystify Shakespeare and help students understand his great abilities as a playwright."

Judging by the WHES assembly, they did just that.

"Does Shakespeare rock?" Schweigert asked the assembled students before telling them good-bye.

"Yes," came the thunderous response.