Serious fun: annual Shakesperience Festival at Rider celebrates the Bard’s work

About 200 middle school and high school students participated
Keith Fernbach

It’s not often that you visit a college campus and see several hundred teens engaging in hand-to-hand combat, playing body percussion and speaking with 16th-century English dialects. Unless it’s the campus of Rider University and you happen to be there during the two days every spring when the annual Shakesperience festival takes place.

This year’s event was held on May 20 and 21. About 200 middle school and high school students from New Jersey gathered in Rider’s Yvonne Theater.

The roots of Shakesperience date back to 2006, when representatives from the Folger Shakespeare Library approached Dr. Kathleen Pierce, a professor in Rider’s College of Education and Human Services, with the idea of creating a statewide event modeled after the weeklong Shakespeare festivals produced by Folger every year in Washington, D.C.

Pierce was up to the challenge, and even added her own fun spin to the concept.

“My vision was that we bring all kinds of kids together to enact interpretations of Shakespeare,” she says. “It’s not a drama competition. The focus is really to bring diverse kids together to think, celebrate, and play. It's serious fun. And our novel turn on it was to use the university environment and talented faculty to create enjoyable educational workshops as a prelude to the festival performances.”

The first Shakesperience took place in 2007, and over the years it has grown from a one-day to two-day event to accommodate the many schools that take part annually. Each day starts with students in small groups cycling through a series of 20-minute workshops highlighting different aspects of Shakespearian culture, including combat choreography, body percussion, English country-dance and theater arts.

Cam Magee, who has been a teaching artist at the Folger Shakespeare Library for 36 seasons and is the host of the Secondary School Shakespeare Festival in Washington, D.C., makes the trip to New Jersey every year to take part in the festivities. She leads a workshop called Shakespeare Aloud, which teaches technical facets of dialogue from that period, such as the proper way to use vowels, and how punctuation is used to direct the speech.

Pierce says that the workshops accomplish a number of objectives. “It breaks the ice, it helps the participants meet and interact with people from across the state, and it gives them an opportunity to work with our teaching artists and university faculty. The different activities also help the kids to physically and intellectually put their ideas together in a dramatic performance.”

Following the morning workshops, the students break for lunch and a session called “Concepts and Choices,” where a representative from each group takes a turn explaining to the audience the idea behind the performance they will be doing in the afternoon. Often the students will get creative with this, and turn it into a mini-performance in the form of a rap or a skit.

The highlight of the day comes in the afternoon, when all the attendees gather in the theater and the students perform their festival pieces, which are based on Shakespeare text. They often spend months creating and practicing for their performances.

The festival’s “rules” allow students to interpret the text any way they choose, as long as they don’t change the words. “Over the years, these kids have interpreted Shakespeare in ways that makes you think about middle school bullying, teenage suicide, infidelity, joy, love…they’ve covered the whole range of human experience from their perspective. It’s been really, really, moving,” Pierce says.

Some of this year’s performances included, “The Merry Wives of Winsdor: The Bachelor and Bachelorette Edition!,” “Marriage in Shakespeare” and “Turning Tables: A series of scenes from Shakespearean tragedies highlighting the turning point that leads to the protagonist’s inevitable downfall.”

In between performances, Magee takes on the role of “Mistress of the Revels,” and she keeps the audience entertained by facilitating games such as a race between students and teachers to see who can say Shakespeare lines the fastest, or challenging attendees to recite dialogue as a character from a popular TV show.

The day culminates with an awards ceremony called “the Commentary,” which Pierce likens to a benediction. During this ceremony, Rider theater faculty discuss highlights of each group’s performance, and commendations are awarded to each group in categories such as Social Relevance, Fresh Re-Imagining of Shakespeare, Spirit of the Festival, Fidelity to Text and Novel Interpretation.

Pierce says this is one of her favorite parts of the festival because, “Our theater faculty are so bright, and caring and smart, and they’re able to capture the essence of what was noteworthy about each of the performances. Our commentators validate participants' efforts, but they also illuminate fine points about choices, craft, and performance for all of us to learn from and appreciate.”

Shakesperience is made possible by support of Sharon Sherman, dean of Rider’s College of Education and Human Services, and the Department of Graduate Education, Leadership, and Counseling , as well as the dedicated faculty and teachers who take the time to work with the students. The 2019 Shakeperience team includes festival manager John Dalesandro ’04; commentators Trent Blanton and Rebecca Simon; combat choreographer and teaching artist Christopher Guild; commentator and teaching artist Christopher Parks; theater and technical manager Melody Marshall; and teaching artists Jeff Applegate, Terry Pertuit and Timothy Urban.