May 2, 2014
CUA Drama Takes Shakespeare On The Road
It’s rush hour on a Wednesday morning and amidst the cars full of bleary-eyed commuters lining the streets is a van filled with 10 CUA graduate students. The students — all second-year M.F.A. acting candidates — are surprisingly chipper for the morning ride. With coffee in hand, they casually recite lines from Hamlet, running through the script in character, with pauses as needed to make jokes and observations.
|CUA Drama students perform a 45-minute-long version of Hamlet at Wheaton High School in Wheaton, Md., as part of a five-week tour of local schools.|
The young actors are en route to Wheaton High School in Wheaton, Md. The visit is a part of a five-week tour, in which they have been performing at a different local school every Wednesday. Presenting Shakespeare’s classic works for rooms filled with middle and high school students, the young actors are challenging themselves while serving the community at the same time.
As part of their tour, the graduate students are visiting nine schools around the Washington Metro area, traveling as far as Woodbridge, Va. At each school, the actors give a short performance — either a sampling of monologues and Shakespearean scenes or a 45-minute-long condensed version of Hamlet. The group also leads acting workshops and short breakout sessions for the middle and high school students.
CUA Drama students take questions from high school students during their tour of local schools.
Grad student Teresa McClernon said the touring performances are meant to teach young people about Shakespeare in a fun way.
“It’s a really great way of bringing Shakespeare into the schools and lifting it off of the page,” she said. “Learning it as a piece of literature is not really what Shakespeare had intended. The plays are meant to be seen and heard, so giving the students this opportunity is going to deepen their understanding and maybe make it so they don’t hate Shakespeare.”
By providing free workshops for young students, the University is building connections in local high schools and helping area teachers, said drama professor Gary Sloan, who organized the tour.
“We’ve got to take care of our own backyard,” he said. “We need more relationships with high school teachers as a university. They’re our pipeline, they’re our audience, and they’re really our heroes because they are training our future students.”
Sloan believes participating in a touring performance is beneficial for the graduate students, forcing them to stretch their dramatic skills in new ways. Sloan can still remember how much he learned during his time touring as a young actor with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
“I felt like I became an actor on those tours because I gained confidence performing in libraries and gyms and small classes and evening theatres and I was just acting, acting, acting everywhere,” he said.
McClernon said the touring schedule is a challenge, forcing the actors to rehearse and learn their lines with less time than they’ve ever had.
“It teaches us how to essentialize it and develop better time management, so we’re more focused,” she said.
M.F.A. candidate Amie Cazel said performing in new venues with young audiences keeps the actors from getting too comfortable.
“Something else is required when you get in front of a bunch of kids,” she said. “Our first show was at an elementary school in a gym and we were standing on the floor with all the kids sitting around us. In that situation, you have to really show up and get their attention.”
Sloan said these kinds of challenges are a great learning experience for the students, helping them to understand what they do and trust each other.
“They’re really on the ice with having to teach and perform in a lot of different situations,” he said. “Instead of being on stage protected by a distance, they’re in the middle of a classroom or a library trying to transform it by their own sheer strength of characterization and language and story. That’s a big challenge to transform a gym into Hamlet’s castle, into Denmark.”
It’s a challenge he would like to see continue. He is already planning the touring schedule for the fall semester.
“We’d like to expand this and we’d love to see it evolve into something more,” Sloan said.