SEASIDE — “I would like you to agree to play around,” Jeremy Peter Johnson said, “to be big and bold.”
Johnson, an actor with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, was addressing a wrestling room full of Seaside High School seniors Tuesday afternoon before they began their workshop, “The Physicality of Shakespeare’s Words.”
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival had sent Johnson and actress Christiana Clark, to the high school as part of its School Visit Partnership Program, which in the last 13 years has taught the works of Shakespeare to more than 10,000 Oregon students.
More than 30 members of Susan Wilderman’s honors English class stood atop wrestling mats – their shoes off – listening attentively to the duo, who walked them through a line from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” featuring the characters Ariel and Prospero. Ariel is a spirit compelled to serve Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan.
The actors stressed that a jolt of physicality could enliven Shakespeare’s 400-year-old words.
“Choose a word within each line to gently jab or pat your partner,” Clark said, reminding the pack of Ariels and Prosperos not to take out too much aggression on each other.
The duos milled around the wrestling room, reciting Act 1, Scene 2 from “The Tempest.”
“Thou liest, malignant thing!” the Prosperos yelled, jabbing at the Ariels.
Wilderman’s class got into the act, growing more animated as they ran through the lines for the second and third time, embracing the physicality of Shakespeare’s final play.
“What discoveries were you able to make?” Clark asked as the seniors wrapped up their mini-performance.
“It’s so much easier to understand Shakespeare’s plays when you’re acting in it and immersed in it,” said student David Ward.
Learning by doing
Without knowing it, Ward had stated the purpose of the School Visit Partnership Program in a nutshell.
“It’s really to delve into Shakespeare’s language and understanding the different uses, different poetic devices, different rhetorical devices,” Clark said. “We’re trying to break down these barriers.”
The “barriers” to which Clark was referring are the clichés that often emerge in discussions of high school students tackling the Bard: that modern students can’t keep up, or that the story must be “modernized.”
Wilderman has heard this before, and she thinks that letting students see live performances and act in them can be more meaningful than understanding every one of Shakespeare’s verbal curlicues.
“Getting up and getting to feel the words and getting to feel the characters’ intentions is more important than getting every single word,” she said.
Wilderman spearheaded the effort to get the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to visit the high school after her experience working with the organization as a teacher at McKay High School in Salem.
This fall marks the first year in a three-year partnership between Seaside High School and the School Visit Partnership Program.
Year 1 provides an opportunity for two teachers to attend a week-long teaching program in Ashland, which is paid for by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the two-day program featuring two Shakespearean actors.
Year 2 includes a one-day teacher workshop and another two-day performance by visiting actors, and in Year 3, 50 Seaside High School students will be selected to go to Ashland for 10 percent of the normal cost, according to Wilderman.
The Ashland visit can be transformative. Just ask seniors Jordan “Jojo” Miller and MacKenzie “Maqui” Walgren, who were part of a smaller contingent that visited Ashland for three days last March.
Miller and Walgren participated in several workshops, including one memorable session where students had a playing card affixed to their heads and were tasked with acting like their card – as regal as a king, as lowly as a deuce – based only on cues from their fellow actors.
“You had to get into character based on their reaction,” Miller said.
Walgren and Miller also attended performances of “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Two Trains Running” and “My Fair Lady,” from which they gleaned applicable acting skills.
“We actually got to see legit improv,” Miller said, referring to one scene in particular where an actor who had forgotten his prop phone simply removed his slipper and calmly said, “I’m just going to use my slipper phone.”
Miller mentioned that this knowledge had actually come in handy just days earlier during the high school’s performance of “The Pink Panther Strikes Again.”
“We had an amazing improv for an entire scene,” she said.
The visits to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival can be invigorating for staff as well as students.
Seaside teachers Dorota Haber-Lehigh and Jan Priddy attended this year’s teacher training in September, an opportunity Wilderman had while at McKay.
“It’s really great for the students but it’s also great for the teachers,” Wilderman said of the School Visit Partnership Program.
The program also provides teachers with techniques for teaching Shakespeare in their classrooms, which Wilderman used when teaching “Hamlet” to her honors English class and “Julius Caesar” to her sophomore English class this fall.
Wilderman required her sophomores to memorize a speech from “Julius Caesar,” and she did her best rendition of Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech Tuesday morning to inspire her students.
Unfortunately for her, they had just returned from Johnson and Clark’s morning performance.
“They were not impressed after just seeing the whole balcony scene from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ done so well,” Wilderman said with a laugh. “They definitely know I’m not a professional actor.”
Playing them all
Johnson and Clark congratulated Wilderman’s seniors on an edifying – and physical – workshop as everyone collected their shoes, which were strewn about the wrestling room.
The actors were off to perform an abridged, two-person “Tempest” for nine classes of students, including some eighth-graders from Broadway Middle School, while most of the students, like Aubri Lyons, headed to their next class.
Lyons appreciated the opportunity to experience Shakespeare’s words firsthand.
“It’s confusing, but it’s fun to act out,” she said. “You understand it better when you’re acting.”
As students filed into the gymnasium and took their seats, Clark and Johnson set up the numerous costumes and props for their 45-minute production.
Once the students had arrived, the actors introduced them to Alonso, Prospero, Sebastian, Miranda, Antonio, Ariel, Caliban, Stephano and Prince Ferdinand, all played by Clark and Johnson.
“These are all our characters,” Clark said. “Stay with us.”
Clark and Johnson proceeded to stage an inventive and fast-paced version of “The Tempest,” signaling a change in character with the removal of a cloak or a shift in posture or gait.
The actors embodied their characters, throwing themselves into each line, each step, each glance, transforming the Seaside High School gymnasium into the Globe Theatre, if only for a moment, and affirming another oft-quoted Shakespearean maxim from “As You Like It”: “All the world’s a stage.”
The Daily Astorian, 11.14.13. Link: http://goo.gl/SgqpG5