Summer Journal: Warm Weather Brings Shakespeare’s Plays to Life
Jaymes Sanchez encourages campers to use more space during warm ups at a meeting of the Youth Shakespeare Project at the Howe Library in Hanover, N.H. on July 14, 2014. The project, which meets four days a week, is a theater camp for students from 11-17 of all backgrounds and is free to attend. Sanchez and Laura Neill founded the camp in 2012 while undergrads at Dartmouth. This is the second year of the camp. (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker) Purchase photo reprints »
Rosa McCann, 13, reads through her script before rehearsing a scene for "As You Like It" during a meeting of the Youth Shakespeare Project at the Howe Library in Hanover, N.H. on July 14, 2014. The project, which meets four days a week, is a theater camp for students from 11-17 of all backgrounds and is free to attend. (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker) Purchase photo reprints »
John He, 15, concentrates on memorizing his lines before rehearsing a scene of "As You Like It" during a meeting of the Youth Shakespeare Project at the Howe Library in Hanover, N.H. on July 14, 2014. The project, which meets four days a week, is a theater camp for students from 11-17 of all backgrounds and is free to attend. (Valley News - Ariana van den Akker) Purchase photo reprints »
Anguished cries of lovers lost to knife and poison filled the air outside the Aidron Duckworth Art Museum on Bean Road in Meriden one warm evening earlier this month.
Under a setting sun, the Cornish-based Momentum Theatre Troupe ran through the scenes of Juliet and Her Romeo , the familiar tale with particular emphasis on its female characters.
The outdoor performance helps to connect the audience and the actors to the emotions on stage, whether lust, love or loss, said actress Taylor Ewing of Keene, N.H., who plays Lady Capulet, in an interview after the rehearsal.
“We all feel that sun on our skin; that warmth,” said Ewing.
Momentum is just one group of several across the region taking advantage of long days, warm weather and school vacations to give William Shakespeare’s words new life. From Chelsea to Hanover and from Woodstock to Meriden, opportunities abound to read, perform and observe the bard’s plays in the summertime. Theater thrives year-round in the Upper Valley, but something about summer seems to bring Shakespeare’s plays to the fore.
Some reasons are logistical. Summer vacation is when school children have time to attend camps and when the weather accommodates outdoor performances.
But other motivations are more particularly Shakespearian. As Ewing remarked, the natural world assists modern audiences in their understanding of the great bard’s often multi-layered meanings.
Momentum’s truck -turned-stage is equipped with lighting equipment, but the outdoor evening productions rely primarily on sunlight — t he light disappearing as the tragedy unfolds.
Actress Arielle Strauss, who plays Juliet, said the summer weather adds to the play’s mystery and excitement, particularly during the balcony scene.
Sunlight, comfortable temperatures and clear skies are important for The Chelsea Funnery camp, which relies on the natural world to act as a backdrop for the camp’s more than two dozen young people between the ages of 13 and 18 as they inhabit Shakespeare’s classic characters, memorize the intricate language and explore complex themes.
The time of year makes it feasible for audiences to take in an outdoor performance, physically and mentally. Like the plants in the Upper Valley’s farm fields, The Chelsea Funnery camp’s co-director Sophie Wood suggested that people have more energy in the longer days of the summer, giving them extra stamina “to digest language.”
The simplicity of an outdoor, grassy stage helps performers and audiences to focus on Shakespeare’s “thick, rich language and imagery,” she said. The Funnery is putting on The Tempest this year, an island-set, dream-like drama which leaves its genre unclear.
“Is it a comedy or a tragedy?” asked Wood. “I’m excited about some discussion about that.”
Over the course of two weeks in July, Wood and the camp’s other teachers help students learn to use their bodies to become their characters, adding or subtracting only a scarf or a hat to clue in the audience.
Shakespeare’s language, laden with description, lends itself to a stripped down aesthetic and setting the plays outside helps the thespians connect to their homeland in a new way, said Wood.
“It’s exciting to connect young Vermonters with their space and geography as a magical landscape worthy of being on stage,” said Wood.
She said she hoped to inspire a love of the region’s environment by connecting nature with the fun of the plays.
“This is their place,” said Wood.
Pragmatism contributes to the reasoning behind the Funnery’s outdoor performances.
“It’s cheap,” said Wood. “Everybody has access to it.”
Shakespeare’s plays appear indoors as well as out during the region’s warmer months.
A crowd sweated inside Woodstock’s Little Theater one humid evening in late June to watch Hamlet’s descent to madness. The heat of the day faded as actors in the new Raw Shakespeare Company transported the audience to a cold winter night in Denmark.
Hamlet begins in the colder months and ends in warmth, Michael Barnhart, who played Hamlet and directed the production, said. But the season had no bearing on the timing of the group’s performance last month.
“Cast members had commitments in July,” said Barnhart.
Barnhart quit the stage “cold turkey” when he moved to Vermont from a theatrical career in San Diego, New York and Pennsylvania and has only recently emerged from his 12-year respite to “turn people on to” Shakespeare, he said.
The new company began as a winter course and evolved from there, he said. The cast for Hamlet included performers with a range of experience levels, from recent high school graduates to those with many years of stage experience behind them.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “People do want life to be deep and rich.”
Shakespeare included references that would appeal to those who were literate and those who were not; the wealthy and the poor, said Barnhart. He needed to entertain the “groundlings” as well as those in the more expensive seats in the theater’s upper tier.
For modern audiences, Shakespeare’s references aren’t always so clear.
Barnhart said today the “biggest prejudice” against Shakespeare is a feeling that the language is difficult to understand. He said he finds joy in providing his audience with contextual clues and emphasis in order to reveal the bard’s layered meanings.
After Raw’s Hamlet production, Barnhart said a nine-year-old girl told him, “I understood every word of that play.”
Hearing the young critic’s response gave Barnhart the “most satisfaction,” he said.
Laura Neill and Jaymes Sanchez, co-directors of a free, six-week theater camp in the basement of the Howe Library in Hanover known as the Youth Shakespeare Project, have also set out to introduce Upper Valley young people to Shakespeare.
Neill and Sanchez founded the project in 2012 as a summer internship for themselves when they were Dartmouth undergraduates.
“I thought Shakespeare was totally lame in high school,” said Sanchez. But two courses with English professor Brett Gamboa allowed Sanchez to explore the language and themes “on a deeper level,” changing his perspective, he said.
In the meantime, Neill explored the bard’s plays from the stage, performing in 10 plays as part of the Dartmouth Rude Mechanicals troupe.
“That was a really formative experience for me,” she said.
With James Goodwin Rice, a senior lecturer in Dartmouth’s theater department, Neill and her classmates worked with Sharon Elementary students to stage a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2010.
She said that experience gave her “confidence that I could succeed” in leading a summer theater camp for the region’s young people.
The two are back for a second year after taking last summer off and graduating from a teaching program at Brown University this spring.
The Youth Shakespeare Project’s approach to the classic plays is “very minimalist,” with most of the focus on the young actors and the text, said Sanchez.
Simplicity is partly to minimize costs.
“All too often theater camps are out of reach for working class families,” said Sanchez.
With support from the Howe Library, the Tucker Foundation and a Kickstarter campaign, the camp is free to attend, helping to advance the founders’ aim of bringing Shakespeare to everyone. Fifteen young actors are participating in the project’s production of As You Like It this summer.
Sanchez and Neill said they chose the play because it affords as “many kids as possible a chance to play meaty roles.”
It’s also fun with a happy ending, which suits the relaxed atmosphere of the summer season, said Neill.
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.