Young students embrace classic Shakespeare play

MIDDLEBURY — On Wednesday, April 4, Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater will host its largest production to date. One hundred six cast members will present William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” — and not one of them is more than 12 years old.
The production marks the culmination of “Shakespeare: It’s Elementary,” the Town Hall Theater Education Program’s first project with elementary school students. Led by Education Director Lindsay Pontius, THT staff spent the last two months leading theater workshops at three area elementary schools: Mary Hogan in Middlebury, Shoreham Elementary and Leicester Central.
Weekly lessons featured improvisation exercises, vocal and physical warm-ups, found-art sculpture, sword fighting for the stage, and, finally, rehearsals and preparations for the upcoming performance.
“I’ve seen a tremendous amount of engagement in my students, a real interest in what Shakespeare has to say,” said Linda Horn, the fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Leicester. “The way that Lindsay and the THT instructors broke a play like Hamlet down made it manageable, and very interesting. We really got to dive into the material.”
The THT Education Program is less than a year old, but it has already set its sights high. With “Shakespeare: It’s Elementary,” THT is driving home a message central to the theater’s community-based mission: great art is for everyone.
“We’ve somehow got to a place where Shakespeare is considered ‘high art’ — lofty, impenetrable, only for the few,” said THT Executive Director Doug Anderson. “But we have to remember that Shakespeare wrote for common, everyday people, and when you look at these plays you see they’re chock full of humor and sword fights and amazing stories that hold you on the edge of your seat.”
“It’s a known fact in educational circles that drama is a good learning tool,” added Horn. “Theater gets everybody’s bodies involved. Kids do too much sitting! The more senses one can involve, the better chances you have of students actually learning.”
“Hamlet” is a play considered challenging for even the most experienced actors. It deals with weighty themes of family feuds, insanity, morality, betrayal and love. It contains some of the most famous monologues in the English language. But Pontius thinks that the students are more than up to the challenge.
“Shakespeare writes from passion,” she explained. “We all get him on a visceral level because we have an intuitive, almost physical, understanding of his language. Younger kids crave drama — it’s part of their play, part of their structure. They get excited to have such exalted language to use to express scenarios, stories, emotions.”
And how will they get 106 kids on stage? Each of the classes is rehearsing one of the five acts of the play — three classes of fifth-graders from Mary Hogan and one each from Shoreham and Leicester. Then, the students may appear in only a few scenes in each act, with a new student stepping in to play a single role every couple of scenes. For instance, there are about two dozen students playing the role of Hamlet.
THT hopes that the benefits of having theater classes in Addison County’s elementary schools won’t stop when the curtain falls.
“A kid who enjoys Shakespeare at a young age will grow into a person who’s open to all kinds of new experiences,” Anderson said. “So, as always, a study of good literature isn’t just about literature. It’s about opening up new ways of embracing the world.”

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