An Education Tour-de-Force
If you ever wondered what life might have been like as an actor in Shakespeare’s time – with the company performing one show while rehearsing another while building sets for yet another – you need look no further than the rigorous morning schedule of Intrepid Shakespeare Company’s Education Tour.
This particular Tuesday tour day begins at 8:30 am on the campus of La Jolla Country Day. This particular company of actors includes Education Director and Intrepid Co-Founder Sean Cox, and Education Artists Scott Farrell, Brian Mackey, Erin Petersen, and Savvy Scopelleti. They assemble quickly, coffee in hand, and begin the well-practiced routine of unloading cars, assembling sets, organizing costumes, and running lines. The first performance on the docket: A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the 5th and 6th grade classes at 9:30 am.
Most may not realize the level of production value that arrives with the Intrepid Education Tour. For each performance, three flats are constructed onsite, which, once overlaid with a canvas backdrop hand-painted by artist George Weinberg Harter, set the stage for the action that will unfold. Each show is fully costumed. In fact, the actors will change three or four times in this production of Midsummer – a daunting feat given the 50-minute runtime.
This first hour of the day is spent in this set construction and costume preparation, accompanied by familiar banter and line rehearsals while the actors each carry out their individual component of this well-oiled machine. This is probably one of the most requested performances, and each company member understands his or her place in the choreographed dance of the school tour load-in.
All too soon, students begin to enter the auditorium. Some are intrigued by the new set on stage, some are doubtful about what they are about to watch. Teachers say that most students are surprised when they discover that they like Shakespeare. “When they see it come to life, they are like ‘Oh, cool!,’” says Kathy Hirsch, who teaches 7th and 8th grade English. Today, Mrs. Hirsch dons a velvet cape and lines her hair with Titania-inspired flowers, greeting the assembled students with “Isn’t it fun to play dress up?” This line receives a wave of cheers and Sean steps forward to introduce the play. The first questions to the students are always the same: “How many have seen a Shakespeare play before?” and “What do you think ‘Intrepid’ means?” To the first, a smattering of hands rise from the crowd. To the second, responses ranging from “fast” to “happy” and finally “daring, bold, fearless.”
Midsummer begins with Sean crowning a student sitting in the front row, thus casting him as Theseus, the character to whom he and the other actors will address their initial woes. Soon, we are in the forest, and Sean, once suited as Aegeus, now dresses in a neon green elf-suit for his role as Puck. Erin Petersen, as Hermia, also doubles as Peter Quince, the head of the Mechanical acting troupe. Brian Mackey, as Lysander, also has more than a few laughs as Bottom, while Scott Farrell steps into the roles of Demetrius, Francis Flute, and Oberon. Lastly, Savvy Scopelleti dons horn-rimmed glasses for Helena, an eccentric feathered mask for Titania, and lion headgear for Snug the joiner.
“It’s important for the students to see live theatre,” whispers Mrs. Hirsch, barely audible over the giggles Sean is getting with his Puckish antics. “We love building it into the school day because we want them all to be exposed.”
The young audience continues to be delighted by the antics of the actors onstage, especially vocal when Brian, bedecked in a donkey-eared newsboy cap, performs a ‘donkified” rendition of One Directon’s “That’s What Makes You Beautiful.” During the post-show Q&A, he explains his choice: “The actor playing Bottom in Shakespeare’s time would have performed whatever the most popular tune of the day was. So, I get to choose each time whatever song I think would work.” The other actors comment that they actually never know what song he is going to be singing in the middle of the show, although Brian admits, “I usually ask Erin.”
Mere minutes and umpteen quick changes later, the play is complete and the questions start flying. “Where did you get the donkey hat?” “How do you memorize all of those lines?” and “What are the links between Shakespeare and classical Greece?” The cast answers them in stride, each responding according to his or her own knowledge and experience. Scott, who also gives classroom presentations on medieval and Renaissance history through his Chivalry Today educational program, explains how artists of the late 1500s were enamored with the Classical culture of Greece and Rome, and used its themes as inspiration for their painting, poetry, and drama. At the end of the session, a pre-show question is repeated: “How many of you have seen a Shakespeare play?” And at this point, of course, everyone gets to raise their hands.
As the students depart, the cast reassembles, quickly draping luxurious red fabric over the canvas flats and revealing a built in “window” center stage which will play as a balcony. Next on the docket: Romeo and Juliet for the 7th and 8th graders at 11:30 am. Costumes are re-organized and Scott takes the cast through the stage combat sequences – everyone seems to be involved in one, as apparently, when you are doubling and tripling roles in Romeo and Juliet, the chances of being involved in a Verona street brawl are very high. Erin takes a moment to whack a prop knife against her palm in an effort to get the “blood” inside to drain properly. Sean checks to make sure his Mercutio tattoo sleeves can’t be seen under his Lord Capulet suit coat. Lines are run again during this transition period and again, almost too soon, students are filing into the auditorium.
This is an eager bunch, and student Arielle Algaze grabs a front row seat. “I saw Hamlet twice,” she says immediately, referencing Intrepid’s most recent mainstage production. While she admits that Romeo and Juliet is not her favorite play (“that’s King Lear”), she also states emphatically that Mercutio is her favorite character in the canon because of his humor. “He is an interesting and uniquely funny character.” When asked if she and her classmates are looking forward to the performance, she thinks for a moment and then responds. “To put something on stage and to evoke something from an audience takes risk,” she says. “So, I think theatre is something everyone should be exposed to.“
This “one-hour traffic” of the lovers’ tragedy begins and Erin and Brian immediately evoke nervous giggles and calls of “woooo” when they share their first kiss on the dance floor. Swordfights ensue – cautiously, due to the proximity of the audience – and before long, Nurse has wept, Friar has waxed philosophical, Mercutio has fallen, and the Capulet tomb is laden with bodies. Applause erupts and the actors quickly gather their thoughts for another round of questions from the crowd.
“Understanding Shakespeare is really empowering for the students, especially when it is relevant to their lives,” says fifth grade teacher Angela Lathem-Ballard, who has studied teaching techniques at the Globe in London and introduces Shakespeare into her classes on a regular basis. “Studying these plays and watching these performances gives kids a safe entrance into the arts – kids who would never take a risk normally.” As if on cue, a group of students who are studying Macbeth in class decide they would like to perform the witches’ scene for the actors. The aspiring thespians show off their skills and the actors respond with enthusiastic cheers as the last “fire burn and cauldron bubble!” echoes through the auditorium.
The future Shakespearean starlets disperse, and the actors begin the breakdown of the set – again, a well-rehearsed dance where everyone has a part. Even though the performances are done for the day, the work is not. As the actors gather their sets and props, they rehearse lines for the newest addition to their school tour lineup, Hamlet, which will be performed in Los Angeles in two weeks’ time. A scene perhaps not so dissimilar from Shakespeare’s original company of King’s Men: curtains are folded, flats dismantled, and costumes boxed while strains of “to be or not to be” flow through the now empty theatre. — T.T.
For information on the Intrepid Education Tour or the upcoming Camp Intrepid this summer, click here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.