Master teaches Shakespeare Workshop: Students eager to learn from Andre Braugher of 'Homicide.'

March 05, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

When Andre Braugher walked in the theater, the 18 high school students in the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's workshop didn't miss a beat. They kept right on with their warm-up exercises -- shaking their bodies like limp spaghetti, and repeating nonsense syllables like "Bitty, bitty, bitty, bitty" -- as the acclaimed actor took a seat in the back.

Most of these students were attracted to last weekend's workshop by the chance to work with Braugher, best known as Detective Frank Pembleton on NBC's "Homicide." But when he arrived, not one of them broke their concentration on speech coach Catherine Fitzmaurice's exercises.

They may have been trying to look cool. They may have been demonstrating their respect for Fitzmaurice. But most of all, these kids, whose intensity rivaled that of Braugher's no-nonsense "Homicide" character, were totally committed to one of Braugher's first loves -- Shakespeare.

The workshop, which took place at Roland Park Country School's Sinex Theater, came about when the three-year-old Baltimore Shakespeare Festival approached Braugher about doing a fund-raiser, and he suggested sharing his knowledge of Shakespeare with high school students instead.

"I wanted to do something that was actually going to be of tangible benefit to the very kids we want to help," Braugher explains.

The suggestion fit in perfectly with the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's educational outreach programs, which this year presented "Romeo and Juliet" to 15,000 students. And, it was a logical choice for the 33-year-old Braugher, who has been a devout convert to the Bard ever since a friend suggested he audition for the role of Claudius in a college production of "Hamlet."

He won that part and went on to play more Shakespearean roles in graduate school at Juilliard. Since then, he says, "I've never done a modern play." Instead, he's done as much Shakespeare as possible. Area au- diences saw his powerful Iago at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre in 1990, and even during his tenure on "Homicide," he has made time to play Angelo in "Measure for Measure" and Bolingbroke in "Richard II" at the New York Shakespeare Festival, where he will star in the Central Park production of "Henry V" this summer.

Yet last weekend, when he went over scenes from "Romeo and Juliet" with the 18 Baltimore area students -- culled from 150 who auditioned -- Braugher repeatedly told them: "This is the most important thing -- stop acting." He said it whenever their voices sounded too high, or too reverent, or whenever their acting seemed stiff or formal.

No more actors

"We don't need any more actors on the American stage. We need people who make people come alive," Braugher said near the end of Sunday's five-and-a-half-hour marathon session. "I don't want to hear the Awesome Shakespeare Man. I want to hear real men."

Warm, witty, constantly thinking on his feet and willing to try almost anything to get his message across, Braugher was his own best example of how to be real -- the opposite of stiff and formal.

Antonio Barnes, a junior at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School, said he was nervous about working with Braugher. But the 16-year-old, whose grandmother used to read him Shakespeare at bedtime, found Braugher "very down-to-earth, not like a star, like a normal person. He's respectful."

"Very personable" was the way Braugher seemed to David McShea, a 17-year-old senior at the Carver Center for Arts and Technology who interned with the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival last summer. "What's so neat is the fact that he turns Shakespeare, which is so complicated, into common knowledge. turns it into the 1990s," McShea says.

Making Shakespeare accessible, and in particular, finding modern analogies, were some of Braugher's chief teaching tools. To explain Mercutio's desire to stop Benvolio from starting brawls, Braugher suggested thinking of Benvolio as a psychotic street fighter whose friend Mercutio keeps having to bail him out of jail.

When McShea and Jennie Ray, a Friends School sophomore, performed the scene in which Juliet must convince her new husband, Romeo, to flee, Braugher stood in back of the theater, cupped his hands and made bird sounds to imitate the lark's wake-up call.

Transformed voice

Then, to convince McShea that Romeo risked death by staying with his new bride, Braugher transformed himself into the Grim Reaper, adopting a low, ominous tone as he taunted him, saying, "Romeo, you gonna stay and die or leave and live?"

"My heart swelled every time somebody nodded their head and said, 'I got it,' " Braugher said after his first two-hour teaching session Saturday. "It makes me really appreciate what teachers have to go through. There's a lot of head-banging."

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