Putting Shakespeare on stage, in classrooms Plays: High school students are getting a rare chance to act in "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream." And the plays have been included in science, art and other classes.

November 06, 1997|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Jason Lilly knows that his friends in the Junior ROTC will be watching tonight when he wears his pink tights in Dundalk High School's production of "Romeo and Juliet." And he doesn't mind.

"I'm their senior chief -- the commander of the unit -- so I'm never going to hear the end of it," says Jason, 16, a senior who will portray Capulet in his Dundalk High acting debut. "But this is Shakespeare, and I love Shakespeare. To get a chance to act in Shakespeare, I don't care what I have to wear."

With the assistance of the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, students at Dundalk and three other area high schools are getting the opportunity to act in "Romeo and Juliet" or "A Midsummer Night's Dream" this fall.

Professional actors from the drama company are directing students through the 13 weeks of tryouts and rehearsals, including the occasional translation of Elizabethan dialogue.

Others are helping with costumes, stage construction and lighting design at the four schools -- the others are Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in Baltimore County, City College in Baltimore and Chesapeake High School in Anne Arundel County.

Much of the $15,000 each school needed for its production was donated by the Baltimore Community Foundation through the Maryland Business Roundtable.

"Putting on Shakespeare is such a difficult task that it's rarely tried in high schools," says Robert Riggs, Dundalk High's drama teacher. "Without the help from the festival, there's no way we could have done this.

"I never would have had the time to work with the students enough on their speech -- getting rid of their Baltimore speech and 'hey hon' and developing their English accents."

Portions of the plays have been cut for time, but "the students are still doing full plays," says Becky Kemper, the festival's director of education, who is directing "Romeo and Juliet" at City College. "Usually, the most you'll see at a high school is a scene or two.

"But we wanted to give the students the complete experience, so we decided they would do the full play or not do it at all."

A frequent problem of many high school Shakespeare productions is a lack of understanding among students, discouraging some from trying out and others from filling the seats. But as rehearsals have progressed, the plays have become part of instruction in almost all departments at the four schools.

Three schools, for example, are holding a "World of the Play" day during which students display projects related to the play, such as a scientific look at the types of poisons and potions that might have been drunk by Romeo and Juliet.

At Dundalk, art classes have made masks similar to those used in Shakespeare's day. Some history classes are studying the period. Students in construction classes helped build the set. The Junior ROTC will take tickets and provide security during the performances.

And all freshmen read "Romeo and Juliet" in their English classes, which means that "just about every student is going to understand what is happening," says Linda Wrenn, Dundalk's librarian and National Honor Society sponsor.

Dundalk's honor society and alumni association helped bring the festival to the school for a student production of "Macbeth" last fall, the first year the festival had gone to area high schools to help students put on Shakespeare.

Even though Dundalk students were familiar with "Romeo and Juliet" from English class, work was needed to ensure that the actors understood the dialogue, says festival actor Christopher Marino, who is directing Dundalk's play.

Marino said he often ran through a scene and asked Riggs, the drama teacher, to take the students aside and review what was happening.

Dundalk's cast of 20 high school actors also has gone through a fair amount of turmoil during the 13 weeks of rehearsals -- the production is on its third Romeo and second Juliet.

In recent days, rehearsals have taken on a new urgency in preparation for performances tonight and tomorrow.

Tuesday, many students were being fitted with costumes lent by the festival and the University of Delaware.

As students rehearsed, Marino and Riggs wove recorded music, sound effects and lighting into each scene. Scenes were repeated as Marino adjusted students' positions and movements.

A sword fight between Tybalt and Mercutio was carefully planned, right down to the final thrust and Mercutio's death.

Yesterday, as students prepared for the dress rehearsal, nerves became even tighter. As students talked loudly and ignored direction in the early going, Marino threatened to replace with the equivalent actor from City College's cast any student who didn't pay attention. The Dundalk students immediately quieted down.

Marino and Kemper say the festival has an ulterior motive in working with the schools: attracting younger audiences to classical theater and Shakespeare.

Dundalk students will perform with students from the three other schools at a free Shakespeare marathon at Patapsco High Nov. 15.

In the spring, the festival will tour area schools with a production of "Hamlet," and each summer the festival works with a small group of students on more advanced theater training.

The success of the festival's work can be found in Dundalk students who have made "Romeo and Juliet" their first play.

"I never really thought about coming out for a play before, but I like Shakespeare so much that I decided to try out," says senior Charles Pijanowski, 17, who portrays Romeo. "It's hard, but it's worth the work."

Pub Date: 11/06/97

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