Friday, August 9, 2013

Teen Arts program produces Shakespeare with style - By Elizabeth Richards

What inspires a group of young people, ages 12-19, to spend a good portion of precious summer moments preparing for a one weekend production of a Shakespeare play?  According to many of the cast members, who have come back year after year, the answer is Eileen Avery. 

Avery has been keeping Shakespeare alive as the director of the Teen Shakespeare Workshop at The Schoolhouse Arts Center for the past ten years.  This intensive workshop introduces students to Shakespeare and culminates in a production that, this year, includes leisure suits and a disco ball.  Avery had a high school theater teacher who opened up the world of Shakespeare for her, and she strives to do that for the students she works with.  “I was so passionate about it after my introduction to it.  I want other high school students to have that same passion for it, and hopefully they’ll have that for the rest of their lives,” she says.  “That makes it all worthwhile for me.”

“Eileen loves Shakespeare, and she really brings that to all of us,” said stage manager Sue Voinche.  “A lot of these kids started when they were 12 and they’re still at it, until they’re too old,” she said. “It’s really cool to come back every year and see some of the same faces.”  In addition to the seasoned veterans, new faces come along each year to keep the workshop going.  “They start doing it and then there’s a whole new group that just stays,” says Voinche. 

The workshop does something quite difficult in engaging teenagers in Shakespeare’s work.  “I think that what Eileen does is incredible,” says Kyah Morrissette.  “We read Shakespeare in English class and it can be the most boring thing ever.  But Shakespeare is incredible and Eileen shows us how amazing it is,” she said. 
Angelica Phipps added, “The thing with Shakespeare is, it’s boring if you just read it out loud.  You’re not going to just read the script of a comedy show.  You’re going to watch your favorite comedy series.  That’s the same thing with Shakespeare.  You can’t get the jokes if you just read it, you have to literally see it,” she said.

The humor they have found in his works attracts many of the teens to Shakespeare.  “I realized when I got into the show how truly witty Shakespeare is and how many jokes he hides that people don’t pick up.  When you do a good job with it, it’s really funny,” said Morrisette. 

Esther Eaton agreed.  “He’s wickedly clever.  He’s so funny.  As an audience it’s harder to catch all of that, so as an actor you really get to get into all of that.  I think it’s really fun to bring out the jokes,” she said. 

The first couple of weeks of the workshop include improvisational work, and an introduction to Shakespeare, particularly his language, says Avery.  “The language can be difficult for a lot of them in the beginning, but what I always tell them is that at the end of the summer you’re going to understand every word you’re acting, and they do. It’s amazing to me how well they do with that, because it is overwhelming at first, but once you dig into it, it’s really kind of fun,” she said. 

Ben Plummer said that part of the actor’s job is to translate the language.  “Most of the time the people in the audience have no idea what you are saying and what you’re doing – through your actions and emotions you have to translate what you’re saying,” he said.  

Stefanie Farrington was drawn to the summer arts program because of the workshop format, which allows the students to explore Shakespeare in more depth. “It’s really getting to understand the language of Shakespeare and the theater, what theatre was like during Shakespeare’s time when he was writing these plays.  For me that really helped personally to understand the language and to get a lot out of it, not just for the audience but for myself as an actor and as a scholar. It really helped me to grow a lot that way,” she said. 

This year, the group is performing The Comedy of Errors, but rather than being in the traditional setting, the show will be set in the 1970s disco era.  When asked why she chose this unique setting, a student piped up “She wanted to do the costumes.”  Avery agreed that costuming is her second passion in theater, and she does enjoy that aspect.  But she also quoted a contemporary of Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, who said about Shakespeare, “He was not of an age, but for all time.”  To her, that is the reason Shakespeare works even in modern productions.  “He can be done any time, any place and it works.  I think setting it in the 70s disco era is going to work.”  The show will be very colorful, she said, with costumes straight out of the 70s, a mirror ball, and a big disco dance number at the end.

The show runs for just one weekend, due to scheduling at the theater.  “Every year we say we should do two weekends, but it never works,” said Avery.  “It is a lot of work for one weekend, but I think the process is part of the whole thing,” she added.  This year, the show will open on Friday, August 16th and run the 16th and 17th at 7:30 and Sunday, August 18 at 2 pm.  Tickets can be reserved by calling Schoolhouse Arts at 642-3743 or visiting the website at

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