ATG Theatre Students Learn to Love Shakespeare at Elysian Charter School

Twelve Hoboken students befriended the Bard this winter, performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream under the guidance of Teaching Artist Candace Clift. The ten sixth graders and two eighth grade student mentors dove into what Candace calls the “greatest script ever written” in our semester-long theatre arts program at Elysian Charter School.

“I have many years of experience working with students of all ages on Shakespeare’s plays, in the education programs at two different Shakespeare theatre companies. I have found that the younger the students are, the easier it tends to be to do Shakespeare with them,” Candace says. “Younger students are used to being unfamiliar with new words. Their egos don’t tend to be bruised when they don’t understand something (as adults’ egos often are).” She adds that once the children start to grasp Shakespeare’s sense of humor, they’re eager to learn more. “They pick up on the language quickly. And if you start with a comedy, the students generally have a fabulous time.”

Elysian Winter 2015-16

Throughout the program, the students challenged themselves to learn new vocabulary and syntax, taking pride in their ability to understand the play’s poetry and translate it into visuals for an audience. “And they learned the important lesson of being part of an ensemble; realizing you must show up and do your best for the sake of the play and your fellow cast mates,” Candace says, adding that her students showed dedication in attending each rehearsal and performance. “They knew they had to be there for each other.” To combat the challenge of students’ decreased attention spans after a full day of school, Candace designed activities to keep them excited about rehearsals.

As they got closer to the final performance date, the students naturally became more focused. Candace says, “That is what is so compelling about doing theatre with young people: the fear of looking silly in front of an audience inevitably lights a fire under them at a certain point and lots of learning can happen!”

When asked about some of her favorite experiences during this residency, she listed “their delight in learning new words; their pride in mastering what many consider difficult material; the way their eyes would light up when they would get a joke that Shakespeare was making; their realization that even though the play is 400-plus years old, it is still funny; the way they collaborated in bringing Shakespeare’s imagery and scenes to life.” One moment that particularly stands out happened while rehearsing one of Puck’s speeches, adapted for an ensemble. “I had them memorize the text, and then we worked on creating human statues and poses that could illustrate the images,” Candace recalls. “Finally we added movement to those statues. As we blocked this chunk of text, the students’ ideas were tumbling out faster than we could stage them. We played with many ideas of how to present the text, and kept troubleshooting the problems. It was a great exercise in stagecraft, because they learned that there could be many ways of representing an idea physically, but the best option for the play would be the one that let the audience see the best picture.”

All of that hard work paid off on opening day. The show was held at Mile Square Theatre’s black box space, giving our students the experience of performing in a professional theatre. Due to space limitations, the students performed the full show three times to ensure that everyone—peers, parents, and teachers—who wanted to see the play were able to. “A lot of learning takes place in the process of actually performing in front of an audience, so the chance to do the play three times was very valuable,” Candace says. “I was able to give them feedback between the shows, and they were very eager to take time between performances to rehearse what had not gone perfectly, or to try a new idea that they got during the previous performance. It was a very fun morning!”

Congratulations to our students on another fantastic performance, and many thanks to Candace for a wonderful semester!

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