MOUNT VERNON — Shakespeare for elementary school students? Some folks may not think so, but fifth-graders at Dan Emmett Elementary were enthralled when Kenyon College’s Billy Shakespeare project performed “As You Like It” on Thursday.
The Billy Shakespeare project is the brainchild of Kevin Rich, assistant professor of drama at Kenyon College. Rather than having students in his acting classes merely memorize lines and perform the scene for each other, he asks them to prepare an abridged version of Shakespeare’s plays to present before a live audience.
“If you are going to go to the trouble of memorizing lines and rehearsing a scene, why not rehearse a small play or something that you can go and perform for somebody else?” Rich asked. “That gives the student actors the chance to then actually affect someone or a group of people other than the students in our class. You get an actual audience response and it also gives the students a bit more incentive.”
The project is called Billy Shakespeare because the idea is that the play is being performed by a young Shakespeare and his friends. That means the target audience is a younger audience and Rich hopes seeing the abridged versions will give people a better impression of Shakespeare than what one gets by just reading Shakespeare works in their entirety.
“It’s not meant to be read,” Rich said. “It’s meant to be performed.”
The 18 students in Rich’s advanced acting class were divided into three casts of six actors each and they have been working on productions of “As You Like It,” “Measure for Measure” and “Macbeth” since September.
“When you only have six actors in the play,” Rich said, “they have to change characters really quickly — sometimes just by switching hats on stage. They also use puppets to fill in the cast. I think what that does, it’s not only introducing young people to Shakespeare, it’s also introducing them to the theater and stagecraft.”
During a question and answer period following the play, the Dan Emmett pupils said they had no trouble understanding Shakespeare’s language. They unanimously said they really enjoyed the show and asked for an encore performance later in the school year.
“It was good,” they told Rich. Some of the girls liked “the kiss” the best, some students liked the fight scene, and they all seemed to enjoy the wrestling scene where one of the opponents was a giant puppet.
The Kenyon students explained how the puppet was manipulated and also explained that no one was injured in the fight scene.
“It’s stage combat,” said actor Atticus Koontz. “It’s all choreographed and we practice and practice so no one gets hurt for real.”
Koontz said the trickiest part of doing an abbreviated version of “As You Like It” was somehow including characters important to the plot with a bare minimum cast.
“A lot of the characters we played were composites of characters in the full version,” he said. “It was also real important for us all to at least have read the actual play several times and know all the plots ... being able to know the story so well that we could do it with just six people.”
“We definitely wanted to make sure that the kids were following us, because [Shakespearean language] can be a little overwhelming with so many new words,” said Kenyon actor Verity Allen. “The best way to prepare for that, we felt, was to make sure that we ourselves knew exactly what we were saying at every single moment. Before even going into rehearsals we sat down and went through the script word by word to make sure we understood every color of every word so that when we have it in our bodies, it’s so much easier to communicate it to any audience.”
Allen played Rosalind, a female character who pretends to be a male through much of the play. “To me,” she said, “the challenge in that was more about telling the story of the romance, with the obstacle of me being in a [man’s] costume. I wasn’t trying to play the quality of man. I was trying to just make sure the relationship was being understood and the fact that the costume was there was a big obstacle the two lovers have to overcome.”
Kenyon actors on Thursday also presented an abridged version of “Macbeth” to Mount Vernon Middle School students, and “Measure For Measure” will be performed at Mount Vernon High School in December.