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The Bard is in: Atlanta Shakespeare Company wraps up week-long residency at Cherokee High School

By Michael Beadle

Last week, Cherokee students found themselves stretching, swooning, thrusting imaginary swords and spouting 400-year-old Elizabethan English.

All that without textbooks or boring lectures about William Shakespeare being the greatest playwright ever.

In an attempt to make the Bard relevant to modern audiences, the Atlanta Shakespeare Company visited Cherokee High School for a week-long residency and worked with high school, middle school and home-schooled students using acting techniques, reciting lines, and staging scenes from William Shakespeare’s fantastical comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Actors with the ASC did a series of hour-long “playshops” with students to ease them into performing scenes from the play, then set up a mini-Globe Theatre on the Cherokee High School auditorium stage for three ASC performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Before each of the shows, some selected students performed with the troupe in “green” shows acting out abbreviated scenes of the play outside the theatre.

The Atlanta-based company puts together high-energy sessions that turn students on to Shakespeare in a matter of minutes.

“We go from zero to 60 in about 60 minutes,” explained Laura Cole, director of education and training at the ASC. Cole, who has 10 years of experience with ASC, is also a lead actor in the company.

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ASC normally tours and performs around Atlanta schools and north Georgia counties. This was its first venture into North Carolina.

The ASC actors — many of whom started out as apprentices and worked their way into the acting company — begin the playshop with voice and movement exercises to get students out of their comfort zones and more open to acting. At first, the students gather in circles, tap around a Styrofoam cup, and count aloud how many times they hit it with their hands without dropping it to the floor.

Then, after the actors introduce themselves and do some opening stretching exercises with the students, groups form to act out Shakespearean epithets. With zany antics and hammy actors to egg them on, the student groups take turns shouting out Shakespearean insults at each other in dramatic spite, sticking out their tongues, flailing arms, pointing fingers, wiggling legs and one-upping their pretended enemies.

“You canker blossom!”

“You meddling monkey!”

“You thief of love!”

The lines are simple and easy to learn so students get a taste of the Bard in small bites. Then, they’re ready to sink their teeth into juicier scenes.

Josh Ferguson, one of the actors in the group, led one playshop with a kind of pep rally cheer for the play’s characters — Oberon, king of the fairies, versus Titania, queen of the fairies.

Taking that raw energy of adolescent emotion and channeling it into a concentrated roar is no small task, and it takes some coaxing as some students stand awkwardly, hands in their pockets or arms folded. But Ferguson soon gets every student to repeat a Shakespearean line — even if it’s a quick word. Even for the shiest of students, hands eventually come out of pockets and eyes become alert to the actors’ instructions.

“I have a blast with this,” said Kevin Norris, a Cherokee High School English teacher who helped coordinate the residency. For the past several years, Norris has been taking student groups from Cherokee to see ASC performances in Atlanta, so he gleefully jumped at the chance to have ASC come to work with his students.

During the residency, it was hard to tell who was having more fun on stage — Norris or his students. When it came time to play parts, Norris took the role of Puck. Norris’ own son was among the group of students involved in the residency.

“The kids like the comedy better,” Norris said, so “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” seemed like a good fit for the residency.

Norris pooled together grant money from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Cherokee Foundation, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Council. Former Cherokee Principal Chief Joyce Dugan offered the visiting actors hotel rooms.

The idea behind the residency is to help develop the drama program at Cherokee High School so that more students will be willing and able to work in theatre and feed into local programs such as the historic and newly revised outdoor drama “Unto These Hills.”

Who knows? Maybe the next Hamlet or Tsali will be discovered on a Cherokee High School stage.

“This is the ground floor,” Norris said.

Norris opened up the residency to students and teachers in Cherokee and schools in surrounding counties, but with upcoming end-of-course tests and end-of-the-year activities in full swing, it was difficult convincing some teachers to schedule time for the guest residency. About 150 Cherokee students took part in the residency along with a contingent of Cherokee Middle School students and area home-schooled students. Norris said the benefits of learning about Shakespeare and acting out scenes could certainly help students’ test scores.

Most students don’t get much exposure to Shakespeare until high school or college, so the high literature of late 16th-century and early 17th-century England may seem out of touch with today’s screen-ager generation with short attention spans and adolescent egos. But Shakespeare is very much alive and well today with its timeless themes of love, heartbreak, feuds, deception and redemption.

“It’s high drama and their lives are full of drama,” said Kirk Seaman, an actor with ASC and educational programs coordinator with the company.

Seaman started teaching theatre back in high school and toured for 21 months in 46 states with the Missoula Children’s Theatre before landing a job with ASC.

The residency is about giving young people exposure to Shakespeare and allowing them to be as much of an actor as they want to be, Seaman explained.

“We give them the opportunity to participate at their comfort level and then push them a little further,” he said.

Once students get a taste of Shakespeare’s language — and the ASC actors help to “translate” it into modern speech — the students are given an overview of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The actors group students into small ensembles to act out condensed scenes from the play. After a short rehearsal — the playshops occur in hour-long sessions — the students act out the scenes with the guest actors. Each group gets a hearty applause.

By the end of the play, students are given a chance to evaluate themselves and talk about what they’ve learned or what they saw in the acting of others. It becomes a shared experience that makes each student feel like he or she just did a Broadway play. If students still seem shy and don’t offer up comments, they are at least more aware of Shakespearean and have some insights into the physical demands that actors go through to rehearse and put on a play.

“The whole experience was fun,” said an energized Tony Walkingstick, a 10th-grader at Cherokee High School.

If all the world’s a stage, Cherokee’s curtain is surely rising.

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