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Performing Shakespeare, Building Community

  • Sophie Wood, a co-director of the two-week Get Thee To The Funnery camp, watches a run-through of the opening scene of Macbeth. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Sophie Wood, a co-director of the two-week Get Thee To The Funnery camp, watches a run-through of the opening scene of Macbeth. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Prompted by a Get Thee To The Funnery director, Maddy Brobst, 12, of Bethel, and her fellow actors bring to life the emotions of Macbeth in an exercise at Chelsea’s Town Hall on Tuesday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Prompted by a Get Thee To The Funnery director, Maddy Brobst, 12, of Bethel, and her fellow actors bring to life the emotions of Macbeth in an exercise at Chelsea’s Town Hall on Tuesday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Austin Sprake, 17, of Plainfield, Vt., studies his lines. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Austin Sprake, 17, of Plainfield, Vt., studies his lines. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Izzi Byrne, 14, left, discusses a scene with Katie Brobst, 16, of Randolph during a two-week drama camp in Chelsea. Byrne is playing Lady Macbeth and Brobst is portraying Macbeth. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Izzi Byrne, 14, left, discusses a scene with Katie Brobst, 16, of Randolph during a two-week drama camp in Chelsea. Byrne is playing Lady Macbeth and Brobst is portraying Macbeth. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sophie Wood, a co-director of the two-week Get Thee To The Funnery camp, watches a run-through of the opening scene of Macbeth. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Prompted by a Get Thee To The Funnery director, Maddy Brobst, 12, of Bethel, and her fellow actors bring to life the emotions of Macbeth in an exercise at Chelsea’s Town Hall on Tuesday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Austin Sprake, 17, of Plainfield, Vt., studies his lines. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Izzi Byrne, 14, left, discusses a scene with Katie Brobst, 16, of Randolph during a two-week drama camp in Chelsea. Byrne is playing Lady Macbeth and Brobst is portraying Macbeth. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

The Macbeth that was unfolding in the Chelsea Town Hall Tuesday didn’t much resemble a Shakespearian tragedy. But then again, this wasn’t your average Shakespeare. This was The Funnery.

As lunchtime neared, 30 teens stood in a circle, stomping and clapping and belting out a “beer” song from the play, breaking into dance around the stumbling “drunkards.” The annual camp was in its second and final week, bringing together local students aged 12 to 18 for seven hours a day of acting, movement work, camaraderie and general exuberance.

As their charges belted out the ditties, camp directors Sophie Wood and Kailie Larkin looked on from the edge of the high-ceilinged room.

“The original intent for (camp founder Peter Gould) was community building and arts,” Larkin said.

The camp, officially called the Get Thee To The Funnery Shakespeare camp, was founded 13 years ago by Gould, a Vermont actor and clown, as a response to the 2001 murders committed by two Chelsea teens. “We needed more positive stuff here,” Wood said. “When you’re in a small town your whole life, you can only be this one type of person. Often teenagers want to try being a different person, and sometimes that means leaving and sometimes that just means using your creativity and imagination as an escape.”

Once students come to the Funnery, they keep coming back. They return year after year, often bringing siblings and friends.

Heather Peterson, 14, of Chelsea, is attending The Funnery for the fourth straight year, and has come to appreciate kids drawn to the arts and the community the program builds. “These guys are like my family,” she said, gesturing for emphasis. “It’s where all the weird people come to be weird together and it’s awesome.’ ”

The Origins

Wood and Larkin took on co-directorship of the camp eight years ago. By now, they finish each other’s sentences, feeding off each other’s ideas and energy. During an interview, they even looked similar, with dark hair pulled back, and wearing green T-shirts.

Hailing from small Vermont towns — Wood is from Thetford and Larkin is a Jericho native — both attended “Get Thee To The Funnery” camps during their teenage years. The pair met at the Governor’s Institute on the Arts where Wood is currently co-director, and since college each has been directing and acting, as well as taking on other part-time jobs to fund their creative ventures.

The opportunities Larkin and Wood were given while growing up brought them back to the camp, hoping to transfer the same sense of fun and belonging to a new generation of thespians.

The program costs $400 per student, though many come on scholarships. Other funds come from grants, outside contributions and audience donations. “It’s a shoestring operation here,” Wood said. “No one is ever turned away because of financial limitations.”

For the 30 making the trip to Chelsea each day, a week and a half passed in a whirlwind of activity. The first few days included intensive and careful reading of Macbeth, discussing the characters’ decisions and motives and improvising the action as they read. Few campers were familiar with the script beforehand; until the first day of The Funnery, campers aren’t told which play they’ll be putting on. On the first Thursday, roles are cast, with several actors combining to bring the major parts to the stage. There are five Macbeths, for instance, and four Lady Macbeths.

Between Friday and Monday, blocking must be fully completed, as well as learning entrances, exits and timing. Taking the middle weekend off to memorize lines, the campers are off book by Tuesday.

Julia Read, one of The Funnery’s three other staff members, conducted a chorus of campers as they launched into the haunting melody of a Georgian song. The singing is incorporated into the play to add anticipation and build emotion, Wood said, filling the role of a movie soundtrack.

Macbeth is a lot about war and what violence does to individuals, but also to the community,” she said. “The music helps to honor the violence and to allow it to steep with the audience, rather than just rushing on with the play.”

“No sets, no props, and very minimal costumes,” Wood continued. “We create the whole feel of the play with our bodies.”

In this way, she said, they can make use of all the abilities and talents that students bring. “That’s part of what we want to honor. We say, can you juggle, can you play an instrument, can you do somersaults? We try to incorporate that into the play and share people’s talents.”

Choosing the Bard

Why Shakespeare? “Shakespeare lights up our cultural synapses,” Wood said. “When you hear that an actor’s doing Shakespeare, people always think, ‘Whoa, you must be smart and skilled.’ And all that’s true, but I don’t think it’s as hard as people say. It’s really empowering for the kids to say, ‘I acted Shakespeare.’ ”

The campers aren’t fazed by the task.

Austin Sprake, 17, of Plainfield, Vt., had never acted before he came to The Funnery for the first time this year. Sprake shares the role of Lennox, one of Duncan’s noblemen, with another camper and together they crafted the nuances of the role. He stands erect and struts forward with a bounce in his step to demonstrate. “He’s not a soldier, he’s really formal,” he said.

“We try to support the choices they make and not impose structures and forms upon them,” Larkin said.

Both Larkin and Wood emphasize the importance of community at The Funnery to stretch boundaries, and allow for growth and experimentation.

They open and close every day with hugging. “It’s very structured,” Wood said. “Everyone hugs every single person. We actually have workshops to make sure everyone knows how to hug. Then, whether or not I like you or am doing a scene with you, I’m hugging you every day.”

The impact of the program, Wood and Larkin agreed, has been far-reaching. One ex-camper started a drama program at Chelsea High School. Others, they said, end up coming back as camp staff, or running productions both at college and in their home communities. Many have discovered a love of the arts, getting more involved in theater at their schools.

In the early afternoon on Tuesday, the cast stages their first run-through of the play. Wood gives instructions, and the giggles and playfulness come to a standstill as the campers take their positions. The three witches rise from among the ravages of the battle scene, their cackles a foreshadowing of the tragedy to come.

The final performance of “Macbeth” will be held today at 4 p.m. outside at the Wellspring school in Tunbridge. The rain location is at Chelsea Town Hall. Tickets are by donation.