During the fifth annual Shakesperience at Rider University, more than 130 middle and high school students from nine schools across the state and region proved that the Bard’s 400-year old work still resonates in their lives today.
The two-day festival took place on May 23 and May 24 in the Yvonne Theater on Rider’s Lawrenceville campus. In the morning, the students participated in workshops geared toward Combat Choreography, Shakespeare Aloud and Finding Your Voice in Shakespeare. In the afternoon, the students performed scenes and montages from various William Shakespeare plays.
Dr. Kathleen Pierce, festival coordinator and chair of the Department of Graduate Education, Leadership, and Counseling, said the festival promotes the relevance of understanding Shakespeare and enables students to meet with their peers, and Rider faculty, staff and students, who are inspired by the work of the iconic playwright and poet.
“The workshops are terrific because they bring theater educators together with student participants,” Pierce explained. “There’s something about understanding Shakespeare that makes us all feel smarter and wiser. That’s why the performance session is really powerful. Once the students come, they want to come back.”
In fact, four of the nine schools have participated since the program’s inception at Rider.
“Clearview Regional, Cumberland Regional, Robbinsville, and Willfully Yours have been with us for all five years of the festival. Willfully Yours started out with their eighth-grade teacher at Rosa International School in Cherry Hill,” Pierce said of the South Jersey Shakespearean players group.
Now seniors at Cherry Hill East and West, and Haddonfield High School, the members of Willfully Yours presented their final Shakesperience performance while Lillian Halden, who brought them to each festival, watched.
“I have incredible pride in their commitment, resilience, dedication and sense of responsibility,” said Halden, who also expressed gratitude to her principal, Ed Canzanese, for his support. “In a way, they know at some level, they are keeping Shakespeare alive. They love his words and messages. They amaze me and I adore them.”
During the afternoon performances, some the student groups performed the original plays with traditional garb, while others added a modern twist to the classics.
For example, Danielle Bergmann wrote Shakespeare’s Beautiful Mind: A Psychological Look at the Bard’s Biggest Basket Cases for the Willfully Yours performance. Bergmann played the doctor who gives couples counseling to Hamlet and Ophelia, and Othello and Desdemona.
“If he talked to anyone, it would have ended differently,” said Bergmann, referring to Hamlet. “It’s a short script that is funny yet serious. I thought about the idea while I was reading the play in Advance Placement Literature this year.”
Meanwhile, Clearview Regional High School performed Toxicity, which featured “toxic family relations” in scenes from Macbeth and Hamlet.
“Bullying is a big topic in public schools. Macbeth and Hamlet are sort of bullied in the madness,” explained teacher adviser Susan Barry. “The students arrived at the idea that Hamlet and Macbeth are caught in forces greater than themselves.”
Barry, who teaches Shakesperience I and II at the high school, said she tries to encourage her students to connect Shakespeare’s themes to contemporary issues.
“This is 400-year-old text. It has to be fresh and has to live. If I’m going to sell this to kids of all ability levels, it has to be relevant,” Barry said. “Kids understand truth and despair a lot more than we think.”
Chris Congdon, a junior at Clearview Regional, said he enjoyed how the festival featured workshops and brought together like-minded people who share an interest in performing Shakespeare.
“Shakespeare and Shakesperience have left an impression on me,” Congdon said. “I want to study this in college.”
Participating student groups include Camden High School for the Performing Arts;
Clearview Regional High School of Mullica Hill, N.J.; Cumberland Regional High School of Seabrook, N.J.; Kinnelon High School of Kinnelon, N.J.; The Pennington School of Pennington, N.J.; Robbinsville High School of Robbinsville, N.J.; Teen ShakesPEER of Wayne, Pa.; Willfully Yours of Cherry Hill and Haddonfield, N.J.; and Woodglen Middle School of Califon, N.J.